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LOWVELO is the 'perfect marriage' of work and play for WestEdge CEO

collage of images of Michael Maher and his bike

A lifelong biker, Michael Maher enjoys chances to ride in exotic locales like Italy (left and center) as well as regular rides with friends closer to home on Wadmalaw Island (right).

Michael Maher vividly remembers the day he learned how to ride a bike. It was moving day, and being 5 years old, he was shuttled out of the way as movers frantically loaded heavy boxes of belongings onto the truck.

He picked up a bike and hasn’t put it down since.

“I still have the image in my mind of riding down the sidewalk on 59th Street in Milwaukee,” recalled Maher, as he smiled at the thought of his first ride without training wheels. “I come from a family of five kids, and I was the fourth one to go through the process.”

Over the last 53 years, riding hasn’t just been a hobby for Maher, who is chief executive officer of WestEdge Foundation, a nonprofit leading the development of the 50-acre WestEdge urban mixed-use project in downtown Charleston. Instead, cycling has been a lifestyle. Moving between bustling cities like Chicago and Houston, Maher often lacked the luxury of having a car, so he’d bike and use public transportation to get where he needed to go. Even in Charleston, he still bikes two miles each way to work simply because he enjoys it.

When he first heard about LOWVELO over coffee with former MUSC Hollings Cancer Center Director Gustavo Leone, Ph.D., the community ride was still in its planning stages, but Maher knew he needed to be involved. The event was the perfect intersection of his love for cycling and his company’s mission.

“Gustavo and I shared an interest in biking and research,” said Maher. “With WestEdge, we were trying to create a new place on the west side of the peninsula for biotech research as an expansion of what was going on at MUSC, so it was just a perfect fit.”

Since then, Maher has participated in LOWVELO both as a rider and a volunteer, and WestEdge Foundation has sponsored the event since its inaugural year. Beyond supporting the growth of lifesaving cancer research, Maher appreciates that LOWVELO opens up cycling to a larger audience and encourages Charleston’s residents to consider riding as a regular form of exercise.

“LOWVELO advances the mindset that Charleston is a really great place to ride a bike. We don’t currently have that reputation,” said Maher. “I want people to realize that riding is fun and that it might be nice to ride their bike to a River Dogs game on a Friday night.”

From training wheels to century rides

While riding his bike the short distance to work is practical, Maher is also a century rider who enjoys longer rides for leisure and exercise. Nearly every Saturday for more than a decade, he and a group of five friends have embarked on regular weekend rides averaging between 30 to 35 miles. He enjoys riding with others of a similar age who share his passion for cycling and who ride at a similar pace.

While their routes vary, their favorite Lowcountry riding spot lately has been on Wadmalaw Island, which offers smooth roads with little traffic and plenty of shade in the summertime.

About four times per year, the group embarks on a 100-mile ride to practice their distance riding and to train for events like LOWVELO. Maher plans to register for LOWVELO’s 100-mile route this year.

Aside from LOWVELO, one of his favorite cycling events is L’Eroica in Italy, which is an organized ride of vintage bikes on the gravel roads of Tuscany. A vintage bike enthusiast, Maher has been attending the event since 2008. The 96-mile ride is one of the toughest he has done because the route is “all hills.”

“I’m not saying it’s easy to do a century ride, but in Charleston where your elevation only changes about 3 feet, it makes it a little easier,” laughed Maher. “When I was training for L’Eroica, the Ravenel Bridge was the only hill I could find. I’d just ride back and forth over the bridge.”

His training routine for longer rides is to simply get in as many miles and hills as he can. He finds having a few 100-mile riding days under his belt come event day makes a huge difference.

A small step for a greater cause

Maher realizes that long-distance bike rides might not appeal to everyone, but he still encourages people of all ages and fitness levels to get involved with LOWVELO. For those who are interested but aren’t sure if they’d be comfortable riding, Maher encourages them to spend a year volunteering.

“Support the cause and vision, and you’ll see who’s riding, how much fun people are having and the variety of people this event draws. And you won’t be able to not ride in it next year,” said Maher. “You feel like you’re part of something, and I think that can inspire a lot of people who might otherwise say the event isn’t for them.”

Aside from the fun of event day, Maher knows that the money raised through LOWVELO makes a true difference not only for cancer research at Hollings, but in showcasing the city’s leadership in developing that research into treatments that can improve people’s health and change lives.

“People don’t always think of South Carolina and Charleston as a locus for growth in that kind of knowledge, and LOWVELO helps bring awareness to that expertise,” said Maher. “For me, LOWVELO has been the perfect marriage of all of my passions since this event first came together.”

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