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Wheel Power

Mary Clark of Greenville, South Carolina, creates her own bike—and destiny

It was fall of 2011, and Mary Clark found herself on her living room floor putting together a single speed 29er she’d ordered off the internet on a whim. The mother of eight children and nine grandchildren, Clark was used to doing things herself. She was also used to seeking relief from stress through exertion and connecting with the outdoors, which made cycling a natural outlet for her … except for one obstacle. Clark was born with a birth defect in her right arm and hand, causing her right arm to be shorter and weaker than the left and, as a result, massive pain and soreness in her shoulders and back after a long ride on the bike. Still, Clark wasn’t willing to give up her favorite pastime.

“I just wanted to be on two wheels and ride something,” she says. “And nothing with gears would work because I couldn’t ride a bike with shifters or drop handlebars.”

So Clark took matters into her own hands, initially fashioning a reachable portion of the handlebar with copper plumbing parts. She then road the 29er while trying to figure out what would enable her to use shifters. She loved speed, so she needed a bike with gears. Eventually she purchased a Bianchi cyclocross bike off Craig’s List and started to experiment, researching the latest bike models and consulting with area experts in numerous bike shops. Several thousand miles later, Clark decided it was time to start working on her own custom, adaptive bike, reaching out to Craig Calfee of Calfee Designs in California. The first handlebar adaptation, however, did not work.

But that’s not the end of Clark’s story. Ond day as she was making one of those visits to a bike shop, Clark came upon a discovery. “I was sitting on a demo bike in front of the mirror, and I noticed when I put my hand on this particular handlebar and positioned my hands in a certain way, my shoulders were even,” she explains. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s it!’ I just need to start with this handlebar and simplify my design.” So it was back to California to visit Craig Calfee. The second time around, everything fit just right.

Clark laughs, “One of my friends said to me, ‘Mary! You have tenacity!’ I guess I do. I just keep going. I just knew there had to be a way to fix this. I told her, ‘I want to be on two wheels. I want to ride my bike. I don’t want to be in pain after every ride. I’ve waited my life for this.’”

Clark’s hard work paid off. Now that she is no longer on the search for the perfect bike, she has time to enjoy cycling. And excel in it. She recently moved to Greenville, South Carolina, to be near her daughter and grandchild, and she credits the many rolling hills and nearby mountains with helping her to gain strength. So much so, that after recently riding in the Georgia Golden Olympics (a statewide event for athletes 50 and older), Clark pulled out gold medals in her age category for the time trial and 5k, 10k, 20k, and 40k road races.

“I had grown so accustomed to being the slow rider—the person who always got dropped—that I never dreamed I would do so well at the Golden Olympics,” says Clark. “I just told myself that I was going to go have fun—that it didn’t matter how I performed. And then I managed to hang with the group in the front!”

The next step for 58-year-old Clark is to compete in the National Senior Olympics in Birmingham, Alabama, in June. But she is quick to say that she is not podium-driven. Instead, riding for Clark is more about the adventure—about doing something new and meeting new people.

“I’m just rolling with the punches,” she says rather incredulously. “I didn’t expect to make it this far. But I like to push myself. I think that comes with having a birth defect; I’m always trying to prove myself, always trying to do better. Always trying to show that this isn’t going to stop me from enjoying my life.”