Columbia's most recognizable cyclist copes with mental illness through positive deeds

For Howard Magazine

For almost two decades, Athar Khan — the “Columbia Bike Guy” — has been cycling Columbia streets every day in all kinds of weather, cleaning trash, clearing drains and helping wildlife.

Motorists honk in greeting, Khan flashes his mile-wide smile and a peace sign; police cars pass and he salutes.

“I use every millisecond of my day, approximately, for something positive,” Khan says. “I am like an institution in Columbia, somebody said.”

Diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe depression as a child, Khan has lived in Section 8 housing in Harpers Choice since 2000.

Khan’s mother, Shahida Khan of Ellicott City, says he has trouble with numbers, that he memorizes and then repeats conversations, and people describe him as a talking computer.

And, she says, her only son is sensitive and empathetic to everyone.

In his early Columbia days, Khan participated in clinical trials at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, was in vocational training at Humanim in Columbia, and took classes at Howard Community College.

But the medications he was prescribed came with severe side effects.

So in 2001, at age 29, Khan discovered his own path to improved mental health and his niche in Columbia when he tossed his medications and took up biking.

“The biking makes him so happy; it’s helped him a lot,” Shahida Khan says.

What started as a hobby helped “save [his] life more than 50 percent; it took off and I did not look back,” Khan says.

Always determined to “give back,” Khan adopted Broken Land Parkway and uses the Stevens Forest Exxon as a waystation.

He is proud of the Columbia Bike Guy Facebook page followed by more than 4,800 fans — where his mother posts links to media stories and videos about him.

Khan hopes someone will name a highway after him.

He dreams big about becoming a suicide counselor or a “clean” standup comedian like David Ferrell and Brian Regan. Sometimes, Khan does pantomimes and walks funny, he says, because “it’s fun” to practice comedy routines.

In 2011 — about the time he traded wearing his signature Mohawk hat for a bike helmet — Khan wrote to Guinness World Records about setting a new record for days cycled in a row and mileage.

In his mid 40s, Khan has missed some days biking due to illness and an injury (his days-in-a-row tally stops in July 2016) and he’s started taking a single medication. But his mileage continues to mount as he sends “alohas” and wishes for “peace” to his friends along Broken Land Parkway and in Columbia.

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