Bike DC

Mother’s Day, 2012, found my wife and I driving through the early morning light to Washington, DC, to participate in Bike DC.  At 24 miles, this was by far the shortest organized ride I have ever signed up for.  I would normally not give this distance a second thought except:

  • We would be riding through downtown DC on streets closed to traffic, which promised to be an interesting experience.
  • My wife was interested and it would be the longest event in her incredibly brief cycling resume.  I was excited to be part of the experience.

A sharp-looking cyclist and myself at the start

We found street side parking near the White House with no problem and made our way 1.5 miles down Constitution Avenue to The Capitol, where the start line was.  The weather was fantastic, though a slight nip in the air at the start caused many to don jackets.  Yours Truly did not, and I hope everyone who saw me concluded that I was a hard man. The fact of the matter was I managed to pack only one of my arm warmers and didn’t want to advertise that fact by wearing it.  Then again, I may have started a new cycling craze.  I encourage others out there to give it a shot and provide feedback in this space.

I’m not very good at estimating crowd sizes, but there were a great many people at this event – hundreds, certainly, and perhaps a thousand or two.  The “long” ride left promptly at 7:00 AM while scores of others were still arriving for the 12 mile “Family Ride” which would start 45 minutes later.  To thin the throng of riders, ride officials put up some small blockades which funneled the riders almost immediately.  This was handy as we needed to make a left turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue almost immediately.  Well done, ride officials.

Pedalling quietly past the White House so as not to wake the tennants.

We cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue and saw all manner of bicycles and cyclists.  Recumbents, mountain bikes, cruisers, folding bikes, tandems, and even a threesome bike were on the route.  We saw roadies decked out in full cycling regalia and others riding in gym shorts and flip-flops.  The pace was casual and the atmosphere was relaxed – exactly what I was hoping for my wife’s first organized ride.

Rock Creek Park

After passing the White House, we zipped along E Street and through a tunnel which required the ringing of bells (we had none) and shouting (which we could help with) to achieve an exciting echo.  All streets were closed and intersections guarded for us by the Metro Police, which helped explain where our $40 registration fee went.  Marshals were present at each turning to keep us on the right path.  We quickly reached Rock Creek Park and pedaled up it for about three miles before turning around and coming back.  The road is nicely shaded with some incredible bridges spanning over it, such as the one pictured above.

Staying focused on the TR Bridge (camera looking south).

Shortly after Mile 8, we crossed over the Potomac River via Interstate 66 at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge.  I enjoyed playing tour guide and pointed out the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Watergate Hotel (now an apartment complex), which we ran by during last year’s Army Ten Miler.  My wife was very polite and feigned interest.  It was quite enjoyable to be riding in the middle of a U.S. interstate highway and the view of the river was nice as well.

The GW Parkway.

Onward we went to the George Washington Parkway, which had a moderate climb for well over a mile.  I heard several residents expressing awe at being on this road, which is normally packed with traffic and closed to cyclists.  I was very pleased to let my wife lead the way, past a great many casual cyclists who acted as if this was Alpe d’Huez.  Ironically, I passed a cyclist at this very point who was actually wearing an Alpe d’Huez jersey.  I asked him if he had climbed that fabled mountain and he looked at me in confusion.  Even though he was wearing the jersey, he had no idea what Alpe d’Huez was.  He probably thought it was some sort of beer.

We hit the turnaround point and zoomed down the GW Parkway.  At Mile 17, we reached the Iwo Jima Memorial, which I was very much looking forward to.  After climbing a short hill, we moved onto N. Meade street, just west of the monument.

It was at this point that everything went wrong.

As we reached the end of North Meade street, a ride marshal instructed us to turn around and head back, which we dutifully did.  Had I been closely following my cue sheet, I would have said, “Now see here, miss, the instructions clearly state to turn left onto Marshall Drive.  Why are you telling us to turn around?”  Sadly, I had not been following my cue sheet closely.  Everything had been going smoothly and the ride officials were everywhere telling us where to turn.  Inexplicably, this one gave us incorrect information.  Possibly, she had us confused with the Family Fun Ride.  I don’t know what their route was, but they were definitely mingled in with us at this point.

This is becoming a bit of a tradition for me – a major navigational error on a ride, usually due to no fault of my own.  I’ve been on four rides this year and three have had this sort of issue.  Thank you, DC Randonneurs, for being the exception to this rule.

As I pedaled back up North Meade Street, I could see the monument and wondered how we were going to reach it.  When we were subsequently directed BACK onto the road leading to the bridge, I knew we were not where we should be.  A confused gaggle of about 50 riders began to build up at a point where oncoming cyclists blocked the path to the bridge.  We compared notes.  Some had already done the full ride and were heading to the finish.  Others were on the Family Ride.  Still others were like us, wanting to do the Full Ride but horribly off course.

What we needed to do was turn around, go back up a short but steep hill, and get to the monument.  When I explained this to my wife, I could see the figurative wind leave her figurative sails.  We agreed to simply head back with the others.  Even this was a challenge as there was no ride marshal to direct us on the DC side of the bridge.  We followed the riders in front of us, who chose poorly and we ended up in the middle of DC traffic on very open roads.  Fortunately, it was still early on a Sunday and the danger was minimal.  I could easily handle these streets but it was not the sort of experience I wanted for my wife, who chooses to ride on sidewalks in our suburban neighborhood in order to avoid traffic.

The Finish

After a few blocks, we found our way to the finish line, where there were ample amounts of food and drink.  We picked up our ride T-Shirts and tried to decide if we were happy.  We ended up riding 19.6 miles, which was still a personal best for my wife.  We got to see much of DC on closed roads, which was all we hoped it would be.  But we didn’t complete the course and that was very deflating.  I think my wife’s expression in the above photo captures the mood quite well.

And that concludes the Bike DC trip report.  This event was sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA).  It is the third WABA event I have attended and all three have featured route confusion.  UPDATE:  Alert reader Liz P. points out that WABA does not run nor sponsor the event and merely is a beneficiary of a portion of the proceeds earned by it.  Riding in a major city is difficult and full of split-second navigational decisions.  I can see how it is easy to make an error, although having a ride marshal specifically take you off course is a level of difficulty I was not prepared for.  I think I will give WABA and downtown DC a rest and strike out for other places in the coming months/years.


29 thoughts on “Bike DC

  1. I was somewhere in that turn around pack with you. The person turning us around told me that there had been a nasty accident at the bottom of the hill near the Iwo Jima Memorial and that they were closing that part of the course. This turned out not to be true as plenty of people were allowed to ride the full course. I was given a Family Ride map even though I told the volunteer at the start that I was riding the full course. I, too, missed the final mile through the E Street tunnel thanks to the lack of course marshals at a turning point or two.

    This was just not well run. I much prefer the anarchy (and challenge) of the 50 States Ride. Truth be told, I’ve done several BikeDCs and not a one has gone off without a hitch.

    • I’m glad to see I wasn’t the only one with a problem. Porta-John posts a similar issue in his report (although he managed to get through to the finish) and Liz reports a dearth of food at the end. Lucky for us, there was still food and drink available for us.

  2. lol you should have worn the arm warmer & get a wicked tan in memory of the start of this new trend. Too bad about the confused marshal. It’s always frustrating not to ride the whole route. But I hope this experience doesn’t change your wife’s view on organized rides.

  3. Food and drink at the finish? I found tables with chips and Jolly Ranchers. I’d heard there were fizzy fruit drinks, but didn’t see them anywhere.

    I’m sorry to hear that y’all didn’t get to ride the full route due to miscommunication by ride marshals.

    • I suppose one of the benefits of cutting the ride short is that we were one of the early returners. I can report there were apples and bananas in large quantities when we were there, along with the chips. I didn’t see the fruit drinks but there was plenty of water.

  4. We were in DC last October, hired a tandem and did the iconic short journey from the White House, up the middle of Pennsylvania Ave, to Capitol Hill. A magical little stretch, followed by a couple of hours cruising around the sights and monuments.

  5. Wow Steve, having driven into DC from Maryland on the GW Parkway so may times over the years (must have hundreds of times since the mid 1960’s) the sight of you guys riding down it is stunning. If it weren’t for the cock-up with the directions, I’d think that alone was worth the price of admission. Great pictures!

    • It took me two hours and twenty minutes to drive 35 miles Friday afternoon/evening. I didn’t use the GW Parkway, but I still relished the empty asphalt!

  6. It is important to note that WABA did NOT sponsor or organize this ride in any way. They were the BENEFICIARY of the ride. Please don’t blame WABA for the experience you had!

    • Thank you for the clarification, Liz. If you consider that WABA heavily promotes the ride (and just today posted a lengthy article about it on their blog), and the speaker at the beginning of the ride talked at length about WABA, the benefits of membership, and the fact that 10% of the riders either obtained new WABA memberships or renewed existing ones as part of their registration for this ride, and the fact that WABA’s logo features prominently on the ride’s T-Shirt, you may appreciate why I was confused as to their role in this event. WABA is a fine organization that does many great things for the cycling community of DC. I link to their site in my blogroll.

      It appears the ride is run by a private corporation, DC Community Cycling, Inc. A portion of the proceeds benefits WABA, and the ride’s registration site goes into greater length explaining WABA than it does to explain itself. The actual company which runs the ride is so well hidden that after 20 minutes of searching, I still can’t be certain I’ve got it right. I’m guessing based on the copyright statement on the bottom of the page. It certainly gives the impression that it would like everyone to think WABA is running the event. It had me fooled, at least.

    • You should tell them it is and that it is an outstanding beer. Then you can chuckle to yourself everytime they tell you they’re having trouble finding it in the store!

  7. I was in that unfortunate pack too, Steve, and heard the rumor about the crash. It really wasn’t handled well at all. You at least got some great pictures. I was afraid to stop (haven’t mastered the photo-while-riding thing) and get caught in the mass of confusion. My pictures are of all the stoppages!

    It is a ride with so much potential. Getting to ride the entrance ramp to I-66 and over the bridge, a place I’ve spent many hours bogged in traffic, was absolutely great. Unless they make some big changes, I won’t be going back.

    Frank, all the cyclists spread out across the full width of Pennsylvania Avenue was really something to see!

    • I appreciate the challenges. Getting DC to close streets is a major issue so the ride tries to make the most of a few closures by having cyclists repeatedly doubleback on themselves. This creates several potential areas for mixups and these seemed to occur in more than one spot. I was really looking forward to Pennsylvania Ave, the White House, Iwo Jima, and the Air Force Monument. I did the first two and saw #3 from a short distance. I guess that will have to do until June when I will circle the USAF Monument six times in the USAF Cycling Classic. I’m pretty sure I won’t get lost in that one!

      • I agree completely that closing off these major streets must be extraordinarily complicated. It makes me wonder if they are not trying to be too many things to too many people. They may be a victim of success and too many people participate or they allow too much time for each group. A more staggered start and maybe having a shorter family ride would be better. I saw a lot of little kids struggling at just 5 miles. I don’t know. It could really be a fantastic event.

  8. Interesting, I didn’t know that WABA was only a beneficiary. Clearly there are a lot of problems with the people who run the event not staffing that well, or having clear directions (near iwo Jima you are directed into a glass filled median for a bit- somebody just buy a push room and sweep it the morning of the event)

    I’ve found that events like baltimores tour du port and especially Boston’s hub on wheels are a much better “ride our city” evenT on all levels. 5 boor bike tour was as well, but that is so big that I won’t count it in the same class. Last year I said I wouldn’t ride the Bike DC event again, and I’m saying it again this year…. But well see what next may brings. (also, let’s change the name to “bike dc and Arlington” since most of the route is outside of DC

    • I’m with you – I intend to be looking for other adventures next May. Perhaps, like you, I’ll reconsider and give it another shot.

  9. Two of the things I learned from this post:
    (1) What the Alpe d’Huez is (I am disappointed that it isn’t a beer. I am going to change that).
    (2) There are benefits to being my being a mostly solitary cyclist.

    • If you’re going to be a cool cylist, you need to be able to refer to important moments in professional cycling history, 99% of which pertain to the Tour de France. My mental catalog card for Alpe d’Huez reads: “Mountain in France where important things happened in the Tour de France. If you climb it, you gain large amounts of cool points.” You need to build up ten or so similar references into your repertoire.

      I ride about 95% of my miles alone and there is much to be said for that. Still, the group events tend to be the highlites of my year.

    • I live in a wild and backward place where the indigenous peoples believe the world’s greatest athletes play baseball, basketball, and American tackle football. A person who can tell you the last player to bat .400 (Ted Williams, 1941) or the year Joe Namath guaranteed a Super Victory (1969, Super Bowl III) probably would have difficulty naming a cyclist not named Armstrong. Amazing, isn’t it?

  10. I did Bike DC last year, and experienced much of the chaos you and others have described. I think it’s a ride everyone (especially those new to DC) should do once– it’s great to take over the highways. However, I don’t feel the need to do it again.

    • The chaos seems to be an annual tradition, yet people continue to flock to the event. I think my attitude next year will be much like yours. It certainly is right now!

  11. Hi Steve,

    What a drag that poor organization caused the ride to fall apart like that. I can’t even imagine having those roads closed — cycling on GW Parkway alone totally amazes me. Riding those roads closed would be a hoot! The amount of coordination and lobbying it must have taken deserved better directions and a totally smooth ride on ride day… not to mention that all the riders who gave their Sunday to it should not have had that major snafu!

    • It was pretty cool to ride on those roads. Almost as cool will be the USAF Cycling Classic ride in June. The route for that event takes you through the streets of Crystal City, past the Pentagon to Arlington, and back to the USAF Memorial. The roads aren’t quite as iconic as Bike DC’s, but they’re still pretty good and the USAF ride has the added benefit of being a sportif in a criterium setting. I did it last year and it was a hoot.

  12. Pingback: It Was A Good Year « There And Back Again

  13. Pingback: It Was A Good Year | There And Back Again

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