Mary McGowan is known on Instagram as @RebelWithoutACar; she is a school-based Speech-Language Pathologist living in Greenville, South Carolina. Back in 2015, she sold her car and started commuting by bike everywhere she possibly could, a simple act of rebellion that would redefine the rest of her life.
More recently, her love for bikes and travel has gotten her into bike touring during her summer breaks, visiting all the places she can pedal to, connecting with the outdoors. She is also a community cycling advocate, volunteering with local organizations like Bike Walk Greenville and Momentum Bike Clubs.
In today’s blog, we will share with you more of Mary’s story and how she went from recreational rider to dedicated commuter and bike-packer. We hope Mary’s journey to car-free living can be an inspiration to you. Let’s discover how she made that journey!
How She Got Started
Mary became interested in commuting by bike during her time in Vienna, where she studied Political Science. She was intrigued by the many bike commuters she saw zipping by as she awaited public transit. In the spring, she bought a bike from a pawn shop and quickly fell in love with this speedy and fun way of exploring the city. Commuting in Vienna was terrifying at first, getting yelled at in German for riding on the sidewalk. But she was determined! Copying other cyclists, she picked up a few things - learned to signal using her hands, embracing the lane, and navigated the city all by trial and error. Thanks to their thoughtful design and city planning, she gained enough confidence to continue riding at home within her first week of riding in Vienna. Upon returning to her former home in Charleston, she tried out a couple of bikes and chose a beach cruiser. A comfortable ride for quick errands and roads with little to no elevation.
South Carolina, in general, is not known for being bicycle-friendly; at first, Mary could spend several weeks without using her car, a 2010 Chevrolet Malibu, but she ultimately had to cave in for longer trips and commute to work in downtown Charleston. To solve this, she decided to move to Greenville, another city northwest of where she lived, so that she could commute by bike more. In Charleston, a city formed by a cluster of peninsulas connected by an interstate, you basically need a car to get around. With the move to Greenville though, all that quickly changed; there, she didn’t have physical barriers like a river or an interstate, and she could navigate these new roads with more ease.
Today, her daily commute to school entails 3 to 4 miles of riding through neighborhoods, shoulders of roads, and “taking the lane” along with traffic. Once she arrives to work, she takes her bike right into her classroom, making for a fun conversation topic with her students. For longer trips or a rainy day, she could even combine her bike commute with public transportation since the Greenville Bus System allows bikes to be loaded on the front of buses (with special bike racks). Before selling her car, she was using her bike so much that she had to make a point to run the engine every once in a while to avoid issues.
Stepping Up Her Game
Once she sold her car, she needed to step up her bike commute ensemble. For example, adding a rear rack so she could attach panniers when doing grocery shopping, a small bike trailer for carrying more oversized items, alongside appropriate clothing like rain gear, and bike accessories like fenders and lights.
“Bags and panniers definitely made me into a ‘real’ commuter. My first commuter bike in Greenville had a wooden box attached to the rear rack, which was cute, but anything I put in it would rattle really loudly! I could also hold a lot more when I started using bags and take them inside with me.”
Commuting by bike can take some planning if you are just getting started. For example, Mary keeps a spare change of clothes and an additional at work, just in case she gets caught in unexpected rain or forgets something at home. As part of her evening routine, she preps as much as she can for the next morning’s commute (also because she is not a morning person!).
Here is her checklist:
- Check the weather
- Layout outfit and gear accordingly
- Pack pannier bag (like one of these)
- Quick mechanical check of the bike
Every Sunday evening, she will pump her tires, oil her chain, and charge her bike lights, setting herself up for a great commute the next day. In the beginning, she would set up reminders to do these things, but by now, they have become a habit.
New Bike Day!
Today Mary is excited about a custom bike build she has been working on for months. It will be a steel frame in a bright and lovely teal blue color; she prefers steel (as opposed to aluminum or carbon) because the material helps absorb the vibrations caused by the road conditions, making her ride more pleasant. Now that she is more comfortable commuting by bike, this new build will resemble a road bike’s geometry, allowing her to move faster.
“Having a comfortable and reliable bike, tailored to my commuting habits, has made commuting even more enjoyable than when I rode a clunky, heavy bike that didn’t have enough gears. And I even got to pick the color for my new custom build - a bright turquoise-teal that will make me smile every time I see it! ”
Mary’s advice to new commuters is to start small and continue trying new things. When she began commuting, she approached each step as an experiment. Could she bike to the store just a few blocks from her apartment? Could she ride to her friend’s house? And continued pushing the comfort zone bit by bit. She also got a part-time job at a bike shop, where she learned how to take care of and fix her own ride. Finally, meeting people and making friends within the cycling community sealed the deal for her. These new friends introduced her to road and gravel biking and taught her many skills for riding in a group and doing long-distance rides. She found that the community aspect of these new ways of moving around made a huge difference in her life.
“Many bike shops have free or low-cost classes for maintenance and basic repairs that can help you gain confidence.”
Road rage and uncourteous drivers are not just an annoyance that other drivers have to deal with. Cyclists and bike commuters have it too, and often. To counterbalance this, Mary likes to take constructive and positive action by advocating for local infrastructure improvements to make the roads safer for everyone. But when her patience gets tested on the road, she likes to think to herself:
“I’d be mad too if I still had to drive everywhere.”
On the topic of safety, bright bike lights and reflective clothing are a must for Mary. She also likes to record her drives on the Strava app to keep track of her mileage, and the app includes a “beacon” feature that allows her to share her commute “live” with her emergency contacts. The Find My Friends app and Google Location Sharing feature are great for this as well. So far, her rides have all been completed safely, and no emergency contacts have been dialed.
To close off, we asked Mary what she thinks are the three most important things anyone taking up biking this Spring should consider, and she listed:
Mary also highly recommends listening to the Bike Here and Dynamo Jenny podcasts and following the Instagram accounts of Arleigh Greenwald, @Cyclopolitan, Hayley Diep, author of ‘If You Give A Girl A Bike,’ for tips and inspiration.
When asked if she would ever own a car again, Mary replied:
“Since I enjoy long bike rides and tours and very much enjoy not traveling on highways and interstates, there's nothing I miss about having a car. Some people probably assume I will drive again when I get older, but I think getting an e-bike when I get to that point would be an enjoyable compromise!”
Here are other online resources for getting started: