Darby Harris: A cycler’s journey

Darby Harris focusing on nothing but the road while cycling. Photo from???

Darby Harris focusing on nothing but the road while cycling. Photo from Darby Harris.

“Mountains, little traffic, WCU is perfect!”
This was the reaction that Darby Harris had the first time he visited Western Carolina University his senior year in high school. He knew that choosing the right college for him meant choosing the right place to cycle. It was in this moment during our interview that I realized just how much cycling had impacted his life and major life decisions.

When you are young and you find a passion for something, you hold on to that and focus your world around it. This can be said for Darby Harris, Assistant Professor in Biology at Western Carolina University, North Carolina local, and avid cyclist. He discovered cycling at 17, after his younger brother went on a 50-mile cycling/camping trip one summer. Harris decided that he wanted to join his brother for a 100-mile trip from Durham, NC to Kerr Lake, VA.

After training for the ride and completing the trip,

Harris had developed a powerful love for the sport. This led him to train for races and put in hours of hard work. For someone to become so disciplined, especially at such a young age, says a lot about his work ethic and character.

He is proud of himself and the opportunities he has had during his racing career.

“In 1989, during my first year of racing, I placed 3rd in the N.C. State Junior Road Race Championships. This qualified me for the U.S. Junior National Championships that were held in Colorado Springs that year,” he said.

All of the junior racers that qualified were invited to stay at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train for the week leading up to the big race. While staying in the dorms on site, Harris was able to meet Olympic athletes that were training like 1984 Summer Olympics’ women’s gold medalist in road race for cycling, Connie Carpenter-Phinney. Seeing these athletes inspired Harris to push himself even further. He was able to finish the race 70th out of 150.

“It was my first time racing against a national class field, so it was definitely eye-opening,” he said with pride in his voice.

Harris competed in this race against some of the biggest up and coming cyclist of the time, one of them being Lance Armstrong.

Harris before the 142 mile ride from Western Carolina to App State in September, 2015. Photo from ???

Harris before the 142 mile ride from Western Carolina to App State in September, 2015. Photo from Darby Harris.

“You could be watching the Tour de France on TV and then a couple weeks later be racing next to the same guys,” explained Harris and remembered the race in 1992. The race in Vero Beach, Florida, sticks out in his mind because he was racing beside people who had raced in Tour de France and had much more experience than he did. “Sometimes the other racers who are in the race are what makes the race hard.”

The race was for professionals and elite amateurs, a category Harris had just made it too. In order to keep up with the other racers, Harris pushed himself to complete 100 miles in 3 hours and 30 minutes! This was Harris’ toughest race. One of the most exciting parts of this race was that the winner was Davis Phinney, the first American to actually win a stage in the Tour de France in 1986.

As motivating as Harris found these racers, none were as inspiring as his father. For his entire life he would see his father get up at the crack of dawn and go out for a run. This could be why Harris took so well to cycling when his father was a marathon runner himself. Growing up watching his father push himself in such a way was a huge benefactor with how Harris developed determination and drive. This even led to Harris picking up running as well, although he later took to cycling instead. This did not faze his father though. He took this opportunity to be there with his son and support Harris in all of his races. Harris’ father to this day continues to get up and go for a run at the beginning of each day.

“He would be at every race cheering on from the sidelines,” Harris said while reflecting on his father’s support. He refuses to give up his sport no matter his age. Obviously, Harris was able to inherit this trait from his father and continues to partake in his passion despite injury, or tiredness. “I hope to be 76 and still cycling like I do now.”

When Harris came to WCU in 1990 for his undergraduate studies he knew that Cullowhee was his home. He cherished the fact that Western is so far away from city life and is based on its outdoor lifestyle and the ability to “get out pretty quickly from campus and be in the middle of no where with no cars.” No cars meant a safer ride, and a safer ride meant more relaxation during stressful college life. He ventured out for his master and doctoral studies but eventually made his way back to Western, now as a Biology professor.

Scott Baker, Vice President for Information Technology at nearby Southwestern Community College and longtime friend of Harris’ claims that there is nothing like cycling in Western NC.

“From my perspective, and from other cyclists that used to live here and moved away or cyclists that visit, we all agree that WNC is probably the best cycling terrain in the world.”
Baker was born and raised in Western NC and has cycled all around the Southeast and France, but still says that there is no place like home. He and Harris are part of a non-formal group that meet every Tuesday evening to ride through Sylva and Cullowhee via back-roads.

Harris is now in his 40’s and is not racing as often any more but is more then willing to take on challenges. In 2015 he cycled 142 miles to help raise money for the University’s Biology Club in the event Biking for Biology.  He continues to pursue his passion in cycling and is always glad when he can use his talents to benefit those around him.