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Pedaling toward Mitchell: Biking and biology go hand-in-hand for WCU professor

Pedaling toward Mitchell: Biking and biology go hand-in-hand for WCU professor

Darby Harris is going on a bike ride Saturday, Oct. 7, but how far he’ll pedal will be a mystery until he wakes up that morning.

Harris’ ride will be fueled by donations to the Western Carolina University Biology Club, with each $10 gift buying 1 mile. And, with the planned route to the top of Mount Mitchell totaling 11,000 feet of climbing, each mile will be a hard-won victory. It’s 110 miles from WCU’s Stillwell Building to the top of the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River, meaning that the Biology Club will have to raise $1,100 to get him all the way there.

And, if they raise more than that, Harris will just turn the bike around and start riding back to Cullowhee.

“It could get really interesting if they really do raise a lot of money,” Harris said. “It could make for a long day, but I’m going to try to do all the riding at one time.”

Harris, an instructor in WCU’s Department of Biology, is no stranger to cycling — or to long rides in support of biology education. This will be his third year in a row to complete a cycling challenge as a fundraiser for the biology club. Last year, he raised just over $1,000 by completing the Mt. Everest Challenge, riding an out-and-back route between WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building and the Jackson County Airport 52 times for a total of 130 miles and 29,120 feet of climbing — slightly more than the elevation of Mt. Everest. And in 2015, he did his first cycling fundraiser by completing a 142-mile ride north on the Blue Ridge Parkway from WCU, raising about $900.

Before returning to school for a master’s degree and later a Ph.D., Harris had spent years racing as a competitive cyclist, a hobby he began as a teenager. He describes himself as one of those who kids who “didn’t take really strong to the traditional high school sports,” but when a friend of his introduced him to road biking, he got “kind of hooked on it” and began riding with a group based out of a bicycle shop near his home in Durham.

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“Even as a high-schooler I would go out with all the older cyclists, these ‘super old’ guys who were 25 and 30,” Harris recalled. “After a while they realized I had a good knack of keeping up with them on the hills.”

This led to Harris entering in progressively more competitive races, spending five years as a Category 1 racer — the highest ability level for amateur road cyclists. The timing of Harris’ season in the sport had him riding alongside what are now some of the most well known names in the sport.

“I actually have been in a race against Lance (Armstrong) when we were younger. That whole generation of cyclists were sort of my peers,” said Harris, now 45. “It was interesting to see how the best of those went on to make a name for themselves one way or another, whether it was a good name or a bad name.”

Harris eventually cycled out of competitive racing. He had a few accidents, including one that resulted in a broken leg and fractured pelvis.

“It set me back for a while and I began to realize that maybe I wouldn’t be a professional cyclist one day,” he said.

It’s been about 10 years since Harris has entered a competitive bike race, and five since he came to work at WCU. But he’s never stopped riding, and three years ago he had the epiphany that he could use his hobby to do good for others.

“I started to think I could actually do something I love to do and have another use for it and have it was a way to raise awareness or money for the biology club,” he said. “I’ve just been sort of astounded that first of all I never thought of this before, but also that it’s so far worked pretty well.”

Proceeds from the fundraisers he’s done so far have brought in enough money to help the club do a trip in the spring and participate in a variety of educational activities to enrich their experience outside the classroom. And he’s convinced that there will be a continued need for those funds, because the biology club is growing.

“The club has been growing because our major has been growing by leaps and bounds the last 10 years,” Harris said. “We’ve gone from about 150 majors to pushing 500 almost at this point. It’s amazing, it really is. The biology club almost died out a few years ago to where there weren’t really any members, and now there’s at least 50 or more.”

While the semester is back in full swing, Harris has been working for months in anticipation of this long ride — he completed the grueling Assault on Mt. Mitchell race in May, riding the 102.7 miles from Spartanburg, South Carolina to the mountaintop, and over the summer he made a point to take advantage of the longer days to get some good rides in during the afternoons, after he’d finished teaching class.

“I try to build up a good base in the middle of the summer so by the time I get back to the fall I have some pretty good fitness in the legs,” he said. “I don’t need to worry about getting into shape at this point. I just need to maintain for a month or so.”

This week, however, has been mainly about rest and nutrition, trying to stave off any potential sickness and gathering his energy for the big day.

Though just how big that day is remains to be seen.

“I’m sort of a self-motivated person to ride anyway, but knowing that every mile is raising $10 for the club is sort of like extra motivation on top of that, which gets me even more excited,” he said. “After 150 miles of riding the mountains I can’t tell you how high my motivation will be, but it’s definitely exciting to have the challenge if that’s what happens.”


Help Harris bike for biology

Donations toward Darby Harris’ bike ride in support of the Western Carolina University Biology Club will be accepted through Friday, Oct. 6, both online and in person.

Every $10 will fund 1 mile of the bike ride, with Harris currently planning a 110-mile route ending at Mt. Mitchell State Park. Donate at or by taking donations to the Biology Department office in room 132 of WCU’s Natural Sciences Building.

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