Friday, October 30, 2009


Getting to the essence of anything is tricky business. Starbucks, for example, has turned the humble morning cup into something gaudy. Coffee plays second fiddle to whipped cream, caramel sauce, and shots of vanilla. That's not a cup of coffee. It's a dessert, even if you drink it at 7:30 in the morning. It packs the calories to prove it. But somewhere, in Costa Rica or Sumatra or Ethiopia, there is a farmer who tends to the beans, not the Torani syrups.

Bikes have gone upscale too. [See my post "Ditch the Pearls. Wear a Bike."] Designers like Fendi and Gucci have tapped into a market where the clients will shell out nearly $10,000 for two wheels with fur saddlebags, leather accessories, and small suitcases that sit the where the woven basket used to be.

Getting to the essence of bikes, then, is no less complicated than finding your coffee under the whipped cream. If you want to see bikes as thoughtfully constructed machines, don't go to a large discount store like Wal-Mart or Target. To appreciate their perfect Bauhaus-ian marriage of form and function, avoid the big bike chain stores too, where the two-wheelers are forced to hide their personalities and stand obediently in line. To celebrate the essence of "bike," think small. How small? Coffee farmer small. Hand-knit sweater small.

I may have found the place that holds the essence of bikes. It is tucked behind an unassuming brick colonial in a narrow detached garage in Falls Church, Virginia. Within its four cinder block walls is a little-known bike restoration business, owned by Mike (of unknown last name) called Red's Restorides. Where most people see trash, Mike finds treasure. He is a human metal detector, a scourer of yard sales, and a student of Craig'sList.

Mike is an understated guy. Not one for extra words. I first called his cell phone where I heard this recorded message: "I can't come to the phone right now. You know what to do." I panicked. What if I
didn't know what to do? I'm an outsider. If there were a secret code shared only among cycling's inner circle, I'd be the last to know. I listened for the beep, recorded my message, and hoped for the best. He called me back five minutes later. Simple. Within two hours, I am standing in his garage between a folding bike and riding mower. Bikes hang from the ceiling like bats, and where there are no bikes, there are tools. Evidence of dismembered bikes is strewn on the floor - a frame here, a tube there. There is music, but I don't recognize it.

Mike is smoking a cigarette and drinking something out of a coffee mug. His faded t-shirt says "Sublime." From the back porch, his mom smiles and waves to me. He asks how I found him, and when I reply, "Online," he is surprised.

"Online? Really? I Googled my own website - all of it except for the 'dot com' part - and nothing came up." This fact seems a little sad to me, so I don't mention the numerous typos and misspellings on Red's Restorides. I figure that the skull on the home page is coolly subversive enough to compensate for the errors, and once I meet him, those grammatical oversights just add to his shabby-chic charm.

Mike buys bikes at yard sales, restores them, and then sells them on Craig's List. He'll also repair bikes, but he prefers restoration. If he comes across valuable parts, he'll keep them for himself. He showed me a Brooks saddle worth $250 and a pair of tires for $300. He demonstrated how to fold a folding bike that he recently fixed up for a friend. But like any small business owner, he has to think about his bottom line. He and the owner of Bulldog Bikes, a bike restoration outfit in South Arlington, were once business partners, separated, and are now hammering out a business deal that would allow them to join forces.

More than a bike restorer, Mike is a Renaissance man and is skilled in ways that I can only dream about. He is a small business owner. He has taken welding classes at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). He can join pipes using a solder, which is different from welding. He worked with a plumber for a while, though he doesn't want plumbing as a career. "Plumbing is a lot like bike repair," he explains. "You know, lots of metal tubes and pipes that have to fit together, but it's not what I want to do." Right now, he's studying architectural engineering at NOVA. "I'm going to keep working on bikes," he says. "I just need a degree."

A decade ago at age 13, Mike received his first BMX bike. (BMX stands for bike motocross and refers to a style of bike used for extreme tricks and off-road racing.) He immediately took it apart and then reassembled it. I suspect he's one of those people who can't help seeing an object as a collection of discreet parts that are begging to be disassembled and then reunited. "See all these tools?" He points to every square inch of wall that's not covered by a bike. "They're all mine. The house belongs to my parents, but the garage is mine." He is like an artist in his atelier, minus the angst.

I know that BMX bike riders prefer to be airborne. You don't buy a BMX to ride to Safeway. Here's the kind of stunts that BMX bikers do. This isn't Mike, and don't try this at home, or anywhere.
"Can you flip on your bike in the air?" I ask. He can - backwards. "Do you feel yourself going backward, or does it happen too quickly?"

"Man, when you ride a BMX bike, it's like everything slows down. You can feel yourself going backward. You can see things upside down. There's nothing like it. You just ride off the jump and throw yourself back." I'm picturing myself in traction, but Mike looks sturdy, though he's happy to list all the body parts he has broken over the past decade. "Let's see. All my fingers. All my toes. My wrist. And I flattened the arch in my right foot." So much for his career in the Army.

Maybe it's his curly red hair or his mountain-man look or the perfect space he has carved out for himself, but there's something other-worldly about Mike. He's not quite a dude, a hippie, or a yippie. He's that rare person who seems to have all he needs. He grows bikes. He grows beautiful hair. He is self-sustaining.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ditch the Pearls. Wear a Bike.

This week, my quest for Total Bike Immersion led me to thoughts of water, torn jeans, steamed mussels, bungalows, iceberg lettuce, VW Beetles, and Seattle. What's the common thread? It's a trajectory, really. From humble to chic. From simple to stylish. From ignored to desired.

To this list, we can add the bicycle. Once merely a combination of simple machines - wheels, axles, levers, and pulleys - the bike has been transformed into a symbol of chic and forced into a game of dress-up. Purveyors of
haute-couture have discovered that bikes sell clothes, not my bike, of course (who besides me would want an outfit that complements a charcoal-gray comfort bike?) but high-end, fashionable bikes designed by Fendi and Gucci. And if the clothes are outrageous enough, a simple bike will do.
Look at these Armani models, covered up like last night's leftovers in their aluminum foil shorts. Have you ever seen these guys on the trail? Maybe some people would find them attractive, but I think they're just a little spooky, some sort of android peloton powered by embedded computer chips and tiny solar panels. No doubt their dark glasses are hiding their yellow eyes.

High fashion is, without a doubt, much more fun on a stylish bike. C'est vrai. Would you cover yourself from head to toe in Ralph Lauren and then hop in your Yugo? Heavens no. You wouldn't be caught dead. Haute couture demands un haute velo. Thank goodness for Fendi, the self-described "Italian luxury fashion house," that has designed the world's most excessive bike. Called the Abici, this beauty offers more luxury than my entire house.
Priced at $5,900, it's expensive but what kind of car could you get for that money? The detachable leather case on the front handlebars goes for $975. The more subtle leather accessories include covers for your keys and bike chain and a holder for your GPS navigation system (in case you become disoriented en route to the spa). And if $5,900 isn't eye-popping enough, consider the $9,500 model, which includes the fur saddlebags shown above.

The totally fun and hipster-blog Copenhagen Cycle Chic covers every aspect of cycling that you can imagine, and some that you can't. It firmly believes that choosing a bike and biking clothes is a matter of style, not function. The first tenet of its manifesto is "I choose to cycle chic and, at every opportunity, I will choose style over speed." It holds that cyclists have a responsibility to "contribute visually to a more aesthetically pleasing urban landscape."
And they contribute they do. Wondering where the "aesthetically pleasing" people are? They're in Copenhagen. All of them (except for the few that strayed into Paris). They seem to have congregated there and they're all on bikes. No helmets, so their hair looks great. No Spandex or Lycra, but plenty of funky coats and scarves, messenger bags, and skinny heels.

Maybe, with our safety-conscious, practical American sensibilities, these Danes seem a little ridiculous. But they're on bikes. They're keeping bikes in the news and on the roads. They're having fun on two wheels without circulation-killing shorts or a bulky padded crotch that feels like a diaper. Really, if you're just an around-town kind of cyclist, can you ever make the case for these?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Auto Pilot

Let's get one inconvenient truth out of the way right now: driving a car is great. We can go just about anywhere we want. In the winter, we have heat, in the summer, A/C. Not to mention music from our play list, cup holders, DVD players, heated seats, global positioning systems, and something I just saw on TV: an insulated storage compartment to keep milkshakes cold, because what we really need as we sit on our duffs is a frosty shake.

Do I drive more than I should? Absolutely. Every day. And why?
Because a gallon of milk weighs 8 1/2 pounds. The container is 10" high and at its widest point, measures nearly 22" around. That's one bulky item. Put the plastic jug in my backpack and suddenly I'm bending over backward to help save the planet. It hurts. But so does driving a mile to pick up some milk and a couple of bananas.

I had two options: Continue to drive to the store or force my family to embrace veganism. Why not just cross milk off the list? Neither one worked for me. I phoned my local bike shop and explained the dilemma to a guy named Christopher. He suggested that I purchase panniers - heavy-duty totes that attach to a rear bike rack and greatly increase hauling capacity. One pannier hangs on the right side of the bike and the other on the left. Even if one pannier is considerably heavier than the other, the weight of the cyclist offsets the imbalance so he remains upright. That means that even I, a person who single-handedly capsized a small sailboat, shouldn't tip over. Panniers aren't expensive and come in water-resistant and waterproof models. I was sold and decided to ask my family for two panniers for my upcoming birthday. My problem was easily solved, but what about the larger, more pernicious issue: America's indifference to (and according to some, disdain for) the bicycle.

I asked Christopher about our lack of appetite for cycling. He blamed it on the car culture and pointed to the prestige of owning a large automobile. Flashback to my grandfather's Buick Electras, where the seats were covered in plastic as if they were cut from raw silk. "People look down on cyclists," Christopher said. "It's our culture. We love our cars." I liked Christopher, not only for his help and insight, but for ending our conversation this way: "You sound like a fun girl. You should come into the store sometime so we can meet." Just a salesy sign-off? Yes, but humor me while I pretend that it was something else.

Why don't I bike more often? Is a lack of storage the only thing stopping me? Why don't Americans in general bike more often? Even a national case of helmet head couldn't be any more unattractive than the fanny pack. One underlying reason is that most American cities lack the infrastructure to accommodate cyclists and the money to create a cycle-friendly community. And motorists aren't too crazy about sharing the roads with their dual-wheeled poorer cousins.

Enter Lance Armstrong, winner of seven consecutive Tours de France, cancer survivor, and founder of LiveStrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. In May 2008, Lance opened Mellow Johnny's, a play on the French
maillot jaune, which means yellow jersey. (During each of the Tour de France's 21 stages, the current leader wears a yellow jersey.) The 18,000 square-foot biking center, located in Armstrong's native Austin, Texas, is designed to encourage commuting by bike. I called and spoke to Vince. He didn't say that I sounded like a fun girl, but I liked him anyway.

Mellow Johnny's is part bike shop, part cafe, part bike garage, and part locker room. Lance thought of everything when designing this facility.
  • Need a bike? Buy one at Mellow Johnny's.
  • Your company doesn't have a bike rack? You can pedal to Mellow Johnny's and leave your bike there all day for free.
  • Worried about stinky, unsightly sweat? Helmet hair? No problem. For a buck, you can shower there and take advantage of the towel service.
  • Want Ashley Olson's phone number? No chance. She and Lance are history.
  • What if your office isn't within walking distance from Lance's place? Take a pedicab or taxi. Sure, a taxi is a car, but a short ride is still better financially and environmentally than driving your own car the entire distance of your commute.
  • No time for breakfast? Mellow Johnny's has a cafe, and on Fridays, cyclists get free coffee.
Vince said that during the summer months, about 10-15 cyclists leave their bikes at Mellow Johnny's each day, and the free coffee boosts that number on Fridays. The heat, apparently, is not a turn-off, but darkness is. So when the hours of daylight drop off, so do the bike commuters.

Although Mellow Johnny’s is good news for Austin, the Texas capital still falls short as being hospitable to cyclists. In many cases, Vince admits, driving is easier, and bad motorists create unsafe conditions for those who choose to pedal.

Then there's Portland, Oregon which seems to be America’s premier urban place to bike. According to, the city has 200 miles of bikeways, including bike lanes, boulevards, and multi-use paths. Portland has found that bike lanes - travel lanes on the road that are delineated by paint - offer many advantages to cyclists. They create a defined space where people can ride confidently and they decrease the number of bicyclers that slalom around traffic. Motorists benefit too. They can see bikes more easily and learn how to share the road with them. Still, some drivers don’t realize that the bike lane isn’t for cars, so the city of Portland has painted the bike lane markings blue, as many European cities do. The result is that thousands of Portlanders commute to work by bike each day.

Cycling, though, like other hallmarks of European society - soccer, universal health care, and kilts - has a ways to go.

Despite the best efforts of superstars like Lance Armstrong and environmentally-conscious cities like Portland, most people still drive. Why? In addition to asking Christopher, I also spoke to Vince (from Mellow Johnny’s), Larry (from Mt. Airy Bikes, a well-known specialty bike shop in Maryland), my sister (a cyclist and cycling advocate in Pittsburgh), and my husband (a member of the Spandex® crowd). Of course, there’s no single reason for the lack of enthusiasm for biking, and to my surprise, nobody mentioned the embarrassment of helmet head. But here are some informed reasons from informed people:

  • Because most Americans are raised to rely on cars and even strive to purchase their “dream car,” there is an ingrained cultural bias against cycling.
  • Cars remain a symbol of prestige; bikes are the objects of scorn. That leaves cyclists in one of two categories. They are either (1) people who are too poor afford a car, or (2) freaks or members of a fringe group, who choose to bike when they could drive.
  • The infrastructure of most American communities does not support biking; cities and towns are designed for cars.
  • Bikes are for children, and as such, are something you should outgrow.
  • Many motorists are hostile to cyclists and resent having to share the road. They will lean on their horns or give them the finger for no apparent reason.

Although I stick by my helmet head theory, I have another idea that my small pool of experts overlooked. The strip center. I harbor a profound loathing for this staple of the American suburb. Yet, in a show of uncharacteristic self-restraint, I’ll say only this (and I'm using my calm voice): if communities had storefronts that faced the road, (like Portsmouth, NH below) people just might pedal to the center of town, lock up their bikes, take a stroll, and do whatever they need to do. Get a cup of coffee. Buy some pears. Find a good used book.

But the strip center parking lot is a dangerous place, and certainly one of Dante’s rings of hell (probably #5 , where you run into the wrathful, sullen or slothful). With cars driving into and backing out of parking spaces, people loading groceries into their trunks, prohibitions on cycling on the sidewalk, and delivery trucks parked in the fire lane, there is no safe place for a cyclist to go.

The strip center is also a place of hasty exits and no wonder. How many Nail Palaces does one city need? Who really wants to window shop at My Eye Doctor anyhow or inspect the bags of mulch stacked in front of Giant? Not me. Don’t have time. I have to drive my 7-passenger minivan 2 miles to the local bike shop to dispel the myth that I’m a fun a girl.

Monday, October 12, 2009

W&OD Trail

On Sunday, I was almost scientific. I test-drove a new bike and hoped to evaluate its comfort and handling. But in addition to hopping on a new set of wheels, I also rode a new route, rode farther than usual, and tried to ride faster than usual. Instead of changing just one variable - the bike - I changed a bunch of variables. A classic mistake and a big no-no in science. If Gregor Mendel had been half as careless with his pea plants, we might believe that eye color is transferred from mother to child by fairies.

For my weekend ride, I rented the orange bike from Bikes@Vienna. It's called a crank forward, which is something of a mutt - not quite a traditional bike but not completely recumbent. I photographed my rented wheels near my own bike so you can see how it is proportioned differently. Its saddle is wider and sits a little lower. It is positioned farther from the handlebars and behind the pedals so that the pedal crank is forward of the seat. This is the bike I rode for 18 miles (from Fairfax through Falls Church and into Arlington and then back again) on the easternmost 9 miles of the the Washington & Old Dominion trail (W&OD).

Even on the short stretch I covered, the ride offered variety. I saw Hispanic men playing soccer on a velvety green field, a couple kissing on an untended patch of grass, a stony brook, and a red caboose. I crossed over Interstate 66 and the Capitol Beltway where I learned not to look down. I cycled under power lines that looked like enormous naked scarecrows. At a distance was WETA's headquarters.
A metrorail train entered and exited my peripheral vision as if my sideways glance were a tunnel. High-rise apartment buildings, green and purple wild grapes, pricey homes, daisies, bridges, children on bikes and in strollers, and playground equipment formed a patchwork of the urban and suburban.

Here is what I could have bought on my ride: halal meat, used wheels (llantas usados) a half-smoke sausage sandwich, a Big Gulp, unleaded gas, prepared Asian food, or anything for a dollar. In theory, I could have cashed a check, but I'm unemployed and have no government benefits.

I liked seeing other people on their bikes. I admired the shrubbery in strangers' backyards. Even the cars whizzing below me on the Beltway seemed new. Still, I felt sort of like a Shriner in a mini-car on my low-riding crank forward bike and a little frumpy in my capri pants, especially when the sleek, narrow-hipped, thin-faced, aerodynamic, Spandex® crowd sped past me as if each one had a jet-pack strapped to his back.

Finding a comfortable gear required some effort, but the shifting was smooth and fortunately the trail was mostly flat. If I were pedaling hard, I sat forward on the saddle. When coasting, I wriggled back.

I stopped at every stop sign. I waited for the little white man to illuminate before crossing Lee Highway and Columbia Pike. I said "on your left" as I passed pedestrians, the only people I was fast enough to pass. I wore my awkward helmet and slowed down to read signs. All in all, I was, without a doubt, the biggest dweeb on the trail.

In Arlington, I passed through Bluemont Junction, and that's where I stopped at this red caboose.
It's also where I met the caboose docent, the gentleman pictured below. When I first saw him, I was convinced that his name must be Ernie. Turns out his name is Bernie, which left me feeling smug (for getting the rhyme correct) yet disappointed (for being basically wrong).

Bluemont Junction is part of the park of the same name, a 14-acre parcel land maintained by Arlington County Parks and Recreation. I declined an invitation to tour the caboose. I don't like small, potentially smelly spaces and I was too lazy to lock up my rented wheels.

At about mile 15 of my 18-mile trek, my legs became heavy and I was ready to stop riding. Of course, because I let my scientific variables run amok, I don't know if the source of my discomfort was the bike, the increased distance, the faster speed (I averaged almost 12 mph for the first 9 miles), or my empty stomach.

I returned the bike later that afternoon to the bike people at Bikes@Vienna. The owner, John, asked me in a quiet voice if I had enjoyed my day. "What was your favorite part?" he wanted to know. I can't remember how I answered, but I do know that seeing my van at mile 18 was definitely among the highlights.

P.S. Please note that ScooterSkirtCyclist now includes a Blog Roll. Check it out for some clever blogging.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mason Neck

Last Thursday, with my cabin fever approaching its pinnacle, the little voice inside my head said, "Just go." I gave Adam and Eve, my guinea pigs, a pile of romaine lettuce. I left the puffs of breakfast cereal adrift, floating like little corks in their bowls of milk, and jammed my bike into the back of my Honda Odyssey (for those of you without progeny: an Odyssey is a minivan, but a really cool one). And go I did.

Maybe in the true spirit of adventure and human endurance, I should have biked to Mason Neck. But that trip would have clocked about 40 miles on my bike computer, which could handle the strain, and 4o miles on my leg muscles, which could not. So in the true spirit of self-preservation and pain avoidance, I drove. I didn't know the best route for two-wheeling anyway. One way = 18 miles.

Mason Neck State Park, located in Lorton,Virginia, is simply a beautiful spot. It's surrounded on three sides by three different bodies of water: Pohick Bay, Belmont Bay (shown below), and the Potomac River. It is fairly flat and comprises a little over 1,800 acres. The park offers all sorts of amenities - a boat launch, hiking trails, restrooms, a playground - but I went to bike.

The bike path is not very long, but has many advantages for novice cyclists like me. It is wide and paved with a white center line and stop signs posted at intersections with other trails and access roads. It snakes its way through the forest, but never so far from the entrance road that I felt isolated. Mileage markers dot one side of the path and there are conveniently located benches, bike racks, and a ranger station. The majority of the path is flat, but a few hills and sharp bends let me practice my shifting and handling skills. On the flat stretches, I focused on increasing my average speed, and thanks to my bike computer, I know exactly how slow I am.

The path winds for about 3 miles inside the park. The trees and their foliage were still dense and green, and except for the cool temperature, it could have been spring. As much as I appreciate green, I didn't think the monochromatic scenery would make an interesting picture, but on the side of a bridge, some wild blueberries caught my eye.
I also spotted two deer, standing almost unnaturally still on the side of the bike path. I got off my bike and tiptoed closer, but they ran off into the woods. Getting a picture was impossible.

Outside the park, the bike path continues on Gunston Road, where a quick ride (not quite 3/4 of a mile) lands you at Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason. The road that leads to the Mason mansion is flanked by open grass and a line of trees on both sides. I didn't ride its entire length because I noticed there is an entrance fee and I had absolutely no money with me. (I had already fleeced the Commonweatlh of Virginia by not paying the $3 to get into Mason Neck, which is requested based on the honor system. I've since mailed Mason Neck the money to restore my honor.) Because of my poor financial planning, I have no photographs of the mansion, but here are a couple from the access road.

The bike path ends shortly after the entrance to Gunston Hall, but Gunston Road is wide with good visibility and little traffic, so I think that a relatively inexperienced rider like me could confidently tackle it. At its southeast end, it empties into the Potomac; at the more populated northwest end, it crosses Route 1. I saw only one cyclist during my visit. He wore a tie-dyed-look Spandex shirt and something equally clingy on the bottom. I was wearing a t-shirt and hoodie and exercise pants from Target that had a superfluous flare on the bottom of each pant leg, which flapped around until I restrained each one by wrapping it close to my calf in packing tape, which is this fall's "must-have" accessory for the Scooter Skirt Cyclist and all other pedaling fashionistas.