Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The News Cycle

"This is not my beautiful car" (so I'm trading it in for a bike).

Are the media excited about cycling or David Byrne's authorial skills? Whatever the answer, biking has grabbed some headlines recently, thanks in part to the man who famously asked, "Why the big suit?" In his new book, Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads and master of the arts, chronicles his extensive two-wheeled travels. I haven't read the book, but book reviewers Krista Walton of The Washington Post and Geoff Nicholson of The New York Times did, and published reviews in their Sunday editions.

Nicholson examined the book with a more critical eye than Walton, but still with a relatively light touch. Both provided a similar summary: David Byrne rides a folding bike in the United States and through parts of Europe and Asia. The written record of his adventures, as captured in "Bicycle Diaries," extends beyond cycling as he shares humorous anecdotes, cultural observations, his personal philosophies, and expounds on global concerns, like sustainability. I'd read Byrne's diary just to get to a line that resonates with me and was quoted in the Times: "You don't really need the spandex." In fact, if one of the book's aims is to encourage cycling, I think that that simple statement should have been the title. The book's list price is $25.95, but is available from Amazon for $16.52.

When Being Hip Requires a Living Will

On Monday, the Post ran an article about fixed-gear bikes, or fixies ("Look Ma, No Brakes!" Style, 28 September 2009). Long the choice of couriers (those crazy skinny guys that weave through city traffic, putting their life on the line in every possible way, to deliver packages to office buildings), fixies are now the symbol of hip urbanism and a renegade spirit. Frankly, this description intimidates me, and I can't imagine my scooter-skirted self barreling to the library on a bike with no gears and no brakes.
That's right - no gears and no brakes. Scary. But the lack of hardware creates clean, unobstructed lines and a bike that is sleek, simple, and beautiful.

A fixie has only one speed. No downshifting to tackle the big hills. And it lacks a freewheel, which means it doesn't coast. The pedals and chain directly power the rear wheel, so if the bike is moving, the pedals are moving. It lacks brakes, and for people like me who value the ability to stop easily and often, this is a major drawback. Simply pedaling more slowly will ease the bike to a stop. Obviously, perfecting this slowing method takes practice and planning.

A skid stop lets you stop quickly and look death in the eye at the same time. It involves standing on the pedals, leaning forward to relieve the pressure on the rear tire, raising the rear tire ever so slightly, and then using your leg muscles to lock the pedals in a horizontal position.

If neither of these stopping options offers you the security you crave, I'd suggest installing handbrakes, but that, of course, would ruin your reputation as an urban hipster or edgy, brooding punk. I'm going stick to my dowdy comfort bike because I value my reputation as a safe, suburban, risk-averse mom.

On an unrelated note. . . As I typed "how to stop a fixed-gear bike" into the search field, the Google pull-down menu suggested I select "how to stop a fixed cat from spraying." It sounded interesting, but somehow not germane.

Making Cities Bike-Friendly

I am a faithful reader of Walter Scott's Personality Parade because I care about the number of new network shows due out this fall and how many will last, in Mr. Scott's opinion. I also wonder if Jared, Subway spokesman and famous dieter, is still, technically, dieting. And for catching up with my childhood stars, Valerie Bertinelli, David Cassidy, and Eve Plumb, no other publication tops Parade. This past Sunday, however, I ventured beyond page one. I overlooked the piece about Drew Barrymore ("America's Perkiest Star"), skipped the recipe for Confetti Cornbread ("the color comes from diced peppers!") to read an article about bike-friendly cities.

"A Free-Wheeling City" , by Bill Donahue, focuses on Columbia, Missouri's efforts to promote cycling and profiles the city's cycling mayor. It also describes similar pro-cyclist/pro-pedestrian campaigns in Minneapolis, Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, and Marin County, California, all of which, including Columbia, are sharing $90 million in federal funds to make these jurisdictions more friendly to pedalers and walkers. Other cities, such as New York and Louisville, are taking steps to get people out of their cars and cabs.

Mr. Donahue interviews recent biking converts and reports on a new transportation bill in Congress that could designate up to $1 billion annually for cycling and walking projects. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jim Oberstar (D., Minn.) but decried as a pet project by Senator John McCain (R., Ariz). Well, you can decide for yourself.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bike People

I’ve long regarded retail shops as autonomous little worlds, each with its own tiny population, vocabulary, and priorities. The man who sells you a rug says “plush,” “pile,” “knots,” and “looped.” The hairdresser who sells you a better you says “henna,” “bob,” and “crimp.” I walk into their shops, adopt their words for while, and then shed them like an extra layer of clothing as I leave. I never give these encounters much thought. There’s no symbolism in Berbers or highlights. Pleasant though they are, these are places to be polite and do business. Retail experiences don’t stick with me in a serious way. At least that was true until I met the bike people.

The bike people are purists - like tough guys who take their coffee black or baseball fans who believe deep in their core (as I do) that the American League should let their pitchers bat. At Bikes@Vienna, the guys don’t say much. They wear matching bright green t-shirts decorated with the store logo and coordinated bandanas pulled down low on their foreheads. They listen to NPR and they work on bikes. Someone periodically arms himself with a plastic bag and takes Java, the silver lab, for a walk. And I suppose they eat lunch. They don’t try to sell you anything, but will patiently answer questions and to my surprise, while not exactly posing, they allow themselves to be photographed. All in all, it seems like a good life to me.

Bikes@Vienna is not on a street; it’s located in a wide alley that connects Church Street and Maple Avenue in Vienna, Virginia (because everything in Vienna is either on or connected to Maple Avenue). And it’s a bike shop only in the most technical sense. Yes, it sells bikes and parts. But really, it’s a bike garage. Cycling hardware and bike parts coat the place like splattered paint. On the walls, piled on the floor, on work benches and in back rooms, there are cranksets, rims, pedals, and saddles. Bikes hang on the walls.

There is no showroom - that would almost seem pretentious. Against the back wall, the inventory of recumbents leans four-bikes-deep with chains and handlebars intertwined. The more compact foldable bikes are lined up so tightly that pulling out one bike would tug at all of them.
Some online research yielded this description of a bike: “everything is completely exposed. There are no covers or sheet metal hiding ¬any of the working parts that propel you down the road -- on a bicycle, it is all out in the open” ( Bikes@Vienna pays homage to the bike by being the bike.

Nothing in this shop separates the bikes from the bike people. No rows of Lycra® pants, or colorful parades of Nalgene® water bottles, or that bike shop staple – PowerBars®. All of the excess has been stripped away. Even the pressure to sell bikes seems to be missing. If these guys swam, they’d probably skinny dip. If you’re thirsty or hungry during your visit, don’t count on the vending machine for relief. Somebody replaced the soda, chips, and mints with cycling supplies.

The bike people, John (the owner), Tim, and Al spend hours each day in this messy mechanical world of derailleurs, cranks, and front forks. They lube and rotate and tinker and tighten. If they are like my brother-in-law or my husband – both cyclists – they probably dote on each gear, on every inch of cable, perfecting the function of one tiny mechanism, removing the last bit of mud from a dirty chain, or ensuring the smooth shifting from gear to gear. Bike people find joy in getting the small things right.

I am a generalist, and satisfied as long as the big things are almost right. That there is milk in my refrigerator and gas in my tank doesn’t mean I have any idea of how much I paid for a gallon of either one. Cogs and pulleys don’t interest me. I appreciate my computer and cell phone when they function properly, but I have no interest in how or why they work, and I certainly don’t want to be forced to fix them. I’ll spend all day tinkering with 7 words for a paper and lay awake all night reordering them in my head, but other than that, I take a bird’s-eye view. But now I feel like by ignoring something small, I’m missing something big.

The bike guys turn my head. I like the sound of their words: ‘bents (short for recumbent bike) and trikes, which are three-wheeled ‘bents and the rhythmic click-click-clicking of turning pedals as counterpoint to the gurgling voice of Diane Rehm. I like the honest atmosphere of the shop and I find in it a philosophy of openness and joy in small perfections.

Maybe I am imbuing Bikes@Vienna with a spirit that I’ve created for my own purposes. Have I elevated greasy rags and wrenches to undeserved heights? I don’t think so, and the shop’s website backs me up.
The mission statement lists all of the specialty bikes that are for sale, and the last line says, “Our bike shop offers high-quality cycling products and service, but what we really promote are values.” It continues by disclosing that what the shop lacks is “Bad attitude, long service waits, junk, idiocy (or should that be idiotitude?)” ( To me, a bike shop whose website questions its own diction is worth a visit.

The website links to the shop's blog, which dabbles in subjects beyond the scope of bike riding. September entries include a brief snapshot of David Byrne’s new book, “Bicycle Diaries,” including its publisher and price, a fond musing about John’s 82-year old father friending him on Facebook, and an affectionate paragraph about the wedding of friend who worked in the shop as a bike mechanic. I had read the website and blog before my visit and now couldn’t resist asking John who is responsible for writing them (knowing that the nerdy question would expose my false athleticism as the sham that it is). He is the author. “The writing has a nice tone, a warm feel,” I say. “It's part of the reason that I decided to come here.” John sort-of smiles.

John knew that I was on a fact-finding mission, and not in the market for a new bike. “We can probably help you, plus it’s raining anyway,” he said during my introductory phone call. “It’ll be a slow day. What time will you get here?” To thank John for his hospitality, I offer to take Java for a walk. When I met her, she took her leash in her mouth and handed it to me, and I swear she whispered “please” between her clenched teeth. John hands me a poop bag and points me towards some grass. He says that she takes her cues from her walker. I tell him that I’m the alpha, and with that, Java, the bandana-clad dog, and I are off for a mid-day romp. I am careful to stay on the grass and close to the shop. I return her sooner than I’d like, but I don’t want John to worry. “No poop,” I say and hand him the empty bag.

Now that I’ve walked the dog, am I closer to being one of the guys? Can I appreciate the beauty of simple machines working in concert? Will I be able to find large meanings in small things? True, I don’t wear the shop’s official t-shirt or bandana. My fingernails are grease-free. I don’t know a front fork from a freewheel. But the dog and I formed an affectionate bond. I know I felt it, and I’m pretty sure that she did too.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Burke Lake Ride

Yesterday, my forced lethargy was lifted and steroid pack empty. Finally, I got the green light to get back in the saddle - literally. I ride an older model Trek Navigator 100 comfort bike. Although I bought the bike only six years ago, Trek has stopped producing this model. Bikes, like iPods, age rapidly. (My '04 iPod Mini, for example, is as thick as a turkey club sandwich.) My friend and her 12-year old daughter joined me on a 13-mile loop in south central Fairfax County, Virginia. When I mapped out the ride, I was looking for was a moderately easy, but interesting and varied route, and I think the one I pieced together fit the bill. And there were a couple of added bonuses that I hadn't considered. First, we never had to ride on the road, and second, every busy intersection had walk signals. The route offered a variety of riding surfaces, manageable rolling hills, and great scenery.

The first mile and half, heading south on Burke Centre Parkway toward Lee Chapel Road, was tedious. The bike path was in good condition, but we had to cross a couple of busy intersections. The most dangerous point, however, was passing the 7-Eleven. The Slurpee and Big Gulp crowd zooms in and out of the small parking lot with a sugar-induced abandon. But these minor aggravations were worth it. Heading south on Lee Chapel is largely downhill on a fairly new and wide bike path. The trees that separate backyards from the road offer intermittent shade.

At the Fairfax County Parkway we went left and headed to the
South Run Rec Center, which is technically located in Springfield, but is an easy ride from Burke and Fairfax Station. Behind the rec center is one end of a trail that connects the rec center with Burke Lake Park, below.

The connecting trail - wide, smooth, and safely tucked away in sylvan bliss - was the perfect ride. It carved its way through woods and open grassy spaces dotted with wild flowers.

Even the cleared swath that was bisected by a column of power lines vibrated with vivid greens and yellows, which my camera didn't capture, but you can trust me on this.

Photo credit to my friend, Lisa Connors, who took the picture on the left.

Our path had only one steep incline, and as we neared Burke Lake Park, we could see homes - really fancy ones - on our left and right.

We approached the lake at its south side and rode on top of the dam. The ride around the lake is 4.6 miles. We didn't ride the loop because my young companion, Meghan, was uncomfortable on her too-small bike and Lisa's tires were a little thin for the lumpy and sharp terrain of the path. Plus, it was a gorgeous Saturday, and the path was crowded with walkers, dogs, baby strollers, dogs, and even more dogs, and I ran into another friend and talked for too long.

Instead, we headed up the driveway to Ox Road (Route 123). Since the boom of new housing that has sprung up in the Lorton area and the conversion of the Lorton Correctional Facility to an artists' colony, Ox Road has been widened and graced with a generous bike path. We followed Ox Road north, tackled a couple of medium hills, and then headed south on the Fairfax County Parkway and back home to Burke (with a detour to Giant and Starbucks). Both Ox Road and the parkway are noisy, but they are handy and safe connectors for cyclists.

From Ox Road, more ambitious cyclists could easily follow 123 north and go left onto Clifton road to Clifton, or follow 123 south to Lorton or Occoquan. I'm working on building my ambition (and my quadriceps), so watch for future posts when I almost become one of "them."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Just Say No

Steroids and athletes have long been star-crossed lovers. You may recall that in 2006, American cyclist Floyd Landis was stripped of his Tour de France victory because he tested positive for doping. So it is with no small amount of shame that I admit to entering into a similar ill-fated relationship with the steroid, methylpred. I blame it not on my trainer, but on my dentist, who prescribed the drug after I underwent some minor oral surgery.

I had hoped that the steroids would do for my cycling what they did for Alex Rodriguez and Roger Clemens, but I still throw like a girl and I can't hit. To make matters worse, my dentist said that any activity that would accelerate my heart rate was off-limits. Squishing my head into my helmet accelerates my heart rate, so actual pedaling was out of the question.

So much for the benefits of performance-enhancing drugs. I'm pretty sure my steroids were faulty, anyway. I nearly broke down crying in Staples (the selection of 3 X 5 index cards seemed to be wanting) and then I chased two people down the road because they neglected to pick up their dog poop.

In light of my altered state, I decided to play it safe and post some cycling websites. There are many more, but here are some samples. Their links are listed on the left.

The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) promotes bicycling for fun, commuting, and fitness, and focuses on how increased cycling contributes to a more livable environment. WABA is an advocate for cyclists and educates cyclists and motorists of all ages about riding safely.

Bike Arlington (BA) is dedicated to encouraging people to ride their bikes. The website is large and comprehensive, and includes information about commuting by bike (bike-on-bus, bike-on-rail), cycling laws, maps, and much more.

Bike and Brunch (B&B) is a group of Jewish and mainly single cyclists. They ride on Sundays from April through November. B&B's website has membership instructions and describes some of the group's favorite rides.

Babes on Bikes (BOB) is a group of DC-area women who ride together regularly. BOB's website provides information about its Monday, Wednesday, and Friday rides as well as some Babe poetry and useful links, among other things.

Brother to Brother Sister to Sister United is a predominantly African-American non-profit cycling team whose primary mission is to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and to raise money that is used to educate people in the DC metro area about HIV/AIDS and other health-related issues.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I'm Not

I am a scooter skirt cyclist. I don't wear Lycra shorts with padded bottoms. I don't wear candy-colored, tight jerseys made of some rubbery material that clings like a second skin. I wear scooter skirts, sporty skirts with built-in shorts underneath. I wear plain white tops made of wicking material. I ride a modest 21-gear Trek Navigator comfort bike, which means I sit upright, my trunk nearly perpendicular to the road. The handlebars extend sideways; they don't curl downward like ram horns. Because I am uncoordinated, my shoes do not click into the pedals as I consider that too great of a risk. I spend a lot of time squeezing the hand brake to maintain a low safe speed. My helmet makes my head feel too big, but I value my head so I wear it faithfully. I am a scooter skirt cyclist.

I am looking for places in or near Northern Virginia to ride my bike. I like smooth, shady trails with gentle slopes and gentle riders. I have a bike rack, so the biking location does not have to be within biking distance.

I would also like to monitor and share with you my progress as a cyclist, which means that I need a bike computer. My husband, an avid cyclist, told me the features that I should look for: auto stop/start, speedometer, odometer, trip odometer, average speed for the current trip, and elapsed time for the current trip. Wish me luck as I dip my toe into the intersecting worlds of cyclists and quantitative thinkers.