Monday, May 28, 2012

Share the Road...or, Path

May 28, 2012 – Share the Road…or, Path

Even though I knew it would be roasting hot this Memorial Day, I didn’t leave for my daily ride until almost 11, taking the Four Mile Run Trail to Shirlington – enjoying its shady and modestly hilly alternative to the W&OD path. On my way home, while waiting to cross Columbia Pike, an ambulance turned onto the path, heading my westerly direction. Inching along behind it, I got a bad feeling as I saw a cluster of people gathered at the edges of the path. Walking my bike around the vehicle, I saw a dazed-looking young man, clad in black lycra bike gear, with bright red splotches of blood glistening on his face. Worse, on the other side of the path, a young woman lay on the ground, a large ace bandage wrapped around her leg like a tourniquet, and a copious amount of blood smeared over large swaths of her body. Bikes lay abandoned on the grass. As there was obviously medical attention at hand, and more than enough concerned onlookers, I continued – ever so carefully – on my way.

I remembered what my friend Gayle said a year and a half ago when I crashed on Labor Day, after a man pushing a stroller on the Custis Trail swerved suddenly in front of me, causing me to slam on my brakes and go flying – at high speed – and skidding down the hill toward Rosslyn. “Holidays are the most dangerous times to ride your bike,” she said, “because they bring out people who don’t regularly use the paths and understand trail etiquette.” So here it was – another holiday – another crash. I don’t know how this one happened, but I do know what I regularly encounter on the area’s heavily used bike baths.

A certain proportion of cyclists – mostly, but not entirely, of the male variety – like to ride fast, very fast. Many walkers and runners seem to feel entitled to array themselves two, three, even four abreast – frequently unwilling to yield an inch to bikers, even when passing is politely requested. Dog walkers tend to be more considerate, consistently reining in their pooches when a cyclist gives a passing warning, but children are, understandably, erratic in their movement and must be navigated past with caution. Parents pushing strollers (my personal bĂȘte noir, given my traumatic crash) are prone to stopping right on the path to tend to their little ones’ needs or lumbering forward in a state of sleep-deprived oblivion. Given this potent brew of disaster waiting to happen, I’m surprised I don’t see more accidents on the bike trails.

I can understand why non-bikers might feel antipathy toward cyclists – because those who ride aggressively pose a dangerous hazard. But many of us bike carefully and courteously – yet encounter outright and undeserved hostility from pedestrians. To them I offer a line from the outrageously campy and hysterically funny musical Xanadu, that I saw at Signature Theater yesterday: “Don’t harsh my mellow.” That’s what happens when I’m out for a happy hour of bike riding and have my mood soured by other path users who haven’t learned the basic lesson of social cohesion captured by the simple concept, share the road, or, in this case, the path.

I’ve tried to bring my yoga practice to the bike path, not taking it personally when a runner refuses to move over to let me pass safely and instead sneers at me, “you’re supposed to yield.” Sure, I know that, but is it really so inconvenient to move a few inches toward the right so that a bike doesn’t have to cross into what may be oncoming bike or pedestrian traffic? I try to cultivate compassion for what they might be feeling – fear of being run over by a speeding bike, perhaps? (Or jealousy that biking is so much cooler than jogging? Oops, sorry, I guess that’s not very yogic.) Maybe they’re just having a crappy day, despite the feel-good endorphins that vigorous exercise is supposed to generate. Still, I often feel like the ditsy teen in the movie Mean Girls who plaintively asks, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Sigh…

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Come Rain or Shine

May 23, 2012 – Come Rain or Shine

After an exceptionally dry spring, at last, the rains have begun. I’ve always considered myself a dry-weather biker so, last week, when it rained both Monday and Tuesday, I drove to work. By Wednesday, I was desperate to get back in the saddle. No, it was worse than that. My mood had taken a serious downward descent toward depression. While Wednesday dawned overcast, it wasn’t raining, and I jumped on my bike with gusto, feeling my spirits lift with each revolution, for once, appreciating even the effort of climbing hills.

Over the weekend, I anxiously checked my I-phone, frowning at its gloomy prediction of rain, rain, and more rain for the week to come. Sure enough, Monday morning, as I let the dogs out, I angled my upper body out the door to test the weather. Rain was falling steadily, but I decided: it’s not that bad. Besides, it was a balmy 66 degrees – already sweating weather for me – so I pulled out my old bike and headed to work. Since my route along the Custis Trail runs roughly parallel to the Orange Line metro, I figured I could bail at any of five stops along the way, if needed.

To my delight, I was literally singing in the rain. Not only did I stay delightfully cool; I avoided the horror of either driving or taking the metro on a rainy day. No need to worry about the bike path getting clogged! I decided I have now officially crossed over: full-fledged fanatic. Like a born-again Christian, I was baptized by water. All right – there ends any similarity – although I suppose my zealous cycle advocacy smacks of evangelism. Yes, my hair frizzed out to new gravity-defying proportions, but I’ll take that over depression any day.

On the trip home, I put my bike on the bus at Rosslyn, already feeling like an old hand at the recently feared rack. A few stops later, my next-door neighbor boarded, adding her wheels to the other slot. It made bus travel more pleasant, as we found common ground in how the joys of biking help us balance the aggravations of raising college-age kids.

As predicted, it rained again on Tuesday. This time, without a second thought, I hit the bike path. During my ride, I planned a weekend trip to REI – thinking about the nice set of reasonably priced rain pants I sent to my daughter, who lives on the perpetually sodden Olympic Peninsula. I toyed with the idea of installing fenders on what I now consider my “rain bike.”

Friday, May 18, 2012

That's the Way I Roll

May 18, 2012 – That’s the Way I Roll

Today was Bike to Work Day. Just two years ago, I had never biked to work, despite half a century of joyful cycling. Once I started bicycle commuting, it grew slowly from an occasional thing to a year-round activity. I’m still a fair weather rider – no rain or snow – but I’ll bike in temperatures from the 40s to the 80s, even though I’ve decided that 58 degrees is perfect. But I’m starting to feel like I’m closer to the bike-only zealots that I used to think of as fanatics, and now consider role models.

Last year, the total number of riders on B2WD was double what I’d ordinarily encounter on a high-use day. So I tried to leave early enough this morning before the path got too clogged. When I started commuting, there was no one I ever passed on the path. Going uphill I even had runners overtake me on occasion. Now that I’ve become a regular, I’m no longer the slowest wheels on the road and, with my new, lighter bike, I’ve picked up a bit of speed. But get me on the path with a bunch of occasional riders, and suddenly I felt like a pro. Going up the last hill of my commute, along the Custis Trail near the Arlington Court House, a clump of 5 or 6 bikers toiled up the hill. I easily (and, of course, safely) breezed past the lot of them, feeling fit and confident, with just a hint of machisma swagger.

When I arrived at the B2WD pit stop in DC and was choosing the hot pink plastic bike pin to decorate the fluorescent green 2012 B2WD T-shirt, the 20-ish woman working the table noticed my neoprene knee braces and asked how my knees were doing. I told her they were great and she mused that she’ll probably need supports herself one day. Her eyes popped when I told her that I’m 59 and just glad to be able to still bike commute. She smiled and slapped me a high-five.

So, that’s the way I roll. I treated myself to a free bagel and fruit and continued on to the second day of the Aging with Disability symposium, proudly wearing my bright green T-shirt as a conversation starter. The biggest take-away from yesterday’s session: the single factor that is most strongly correlated with higher incidence of disability is obesity. Just one more reason to keep riding the bike – which I wisely parked in the bike rack today.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Day in the Life

May 17, 2012 – A Day in the Life

My heart skipped when I went to the place I’d locked my bike and saw…nothing. I’d been at an all-day meeting at the HHS building, and had looked all around the front for a bike rack. Finding none, I wheeled over to the fence around the outdoor play area used by the kids at the building’s daycare center. I carefully looked for a “no bikes allowed” sign and, seeing none, locked up.

When I discovered my loss at the end of the day, I hoped that I had violated some unwritten Federal rule and my ride had been confiscated, not stolen. Sure enough, after a lengthy negotiation with no fewer than four officials, I was escorted to the basement storage room where my bike was returned to me. I left behind the vintage 1980s-era kryptonite lock that had served me so well – now hacked in two along one straight edge of its steely U. Replacing the lock is small potatoes, compared to the price of my still-new bike, which I was just happy to get back. But the disturbing part was the officious lecture I received from the security guard.

When I told him I had looked for a “no bikes” sign on the fence, he informed me there was a rack along the 3rd Street side of the building. That part was fine. But – regarding the sign – I was told, “This is Federal property. We make our own rules. We don’t have to tell you not to park here.” He seemed to take absurd delight in this pathetic wield of power. He then launched into a lecture about my bike being a safety hazard to children using the play area.

I proceeded to the metro, where I had a much more pleasant encounter. I asked the homeless guy panhandling at the escalator whether he knew where the elevator entrance was. He politely directed me and, as I slipped a bill into his plastic cup, he complimented my bike, asking if it kept me in shape. Clad in shorts and a tank top, I bravely replied, “You tell me.” He nodded enthusiastically, and a nicely dressed man in a business suit who overheard our exchange smiled and added, “Oh yes indeed, I’d say so.” Pushing 60, it makes me feel good to still get a thumbs up on my physique.

But some days you can’t count on your luck to last. In making “improvements” to the bike route at the East Falls Church metro, they’ve installed one of the truly annoying curb cuts that are narrow, with high edges on either side, and must, therefore, be approached straight on. These are popping up all over Arlington. Does it take a genius to understand that a broad, wide curb cut is much more user-friendly – for bikes, wheelchairs, strollers, and suitcases alike?

As I waited to cross Sycamore Street to get on the bike path, I could see a pedestrian toting a wheeled suitcase trying to get past me. There is not really sufficient space for multiple users – especially those with various types of wheels – to negotiate this much-used sidewalk space. Attempting to straighten out my bike to allow him more room to pass, my front wheel caught on the high curb and I toppled straight over onto my side, bike on top of me, wheels spinning uselessly. The guy with the suitcase looked back at me sprawled on the ground and didn’t so much as ask, “Are you all right?” For anyone old enough to remember Laugh-In, I felt like the guy in the weekly skit who used to pedal a tricycle and then, for no reason, just fall off to the side. I felt like a dope and had little bloody scrapes on both legs. The tumble also derailed my chain, which I can’t seem to fix without covering my hands in sticky black grease. At least I was prepared with both water and a washcloth. Yippee! And the weather was perfect, allowing me to savor the rest of my short ride home. So, despite my whining, as usual, the bike ride was the best part of the day.

Friday, May 11, 2012

My Magical Miracle Morning

May11, 2012 – My Magical Miracle Morning

“It’sa bike thing, you wouldn’t understand.” I should get a T shirt with this on it.There is something about riding a bike that seems to change the human genome.The more hours you log on two wheels, a subtle shift in the DNA begins to causea psychological phenomenon, like an 11th commandment: Thou Shalt NotDismount. Perhaps it’s a twisted application of Newton’s Law: a biker in motionshall remain in motion, regardless of red lights, pedestrians, motor vehicles,or even other bikers.

It’slogical when riding uphill. You need to keep the momentum in order to ease theuphill climb. It’s hard to get started at the top of a hill. But I find that,even on a perfectly flat street, I do notwant to stop, for anything. If I see a light changing to red in the distance, Iwill slow my pace, I will ride in circles, and, yes, I will carefully check thetraffic and go through on yellow or even red, if green is not available. I havebuilt my skill at balancing, even on my new skinny wheels, rather than set afoot down.

Mymorning commute is 10 miles. From the front door of my house, I go downhill forone block and take a left on a suburban road that is partially closed totraffic, and is solely bike path for several blocks. Unless it’s school bustime, I can make my way to the only traffic light before the entrance to theFour Mile Run and W&OD bike paths. On the morning in question, the light atWashington Boulevard is green and I sail across, taking the bike lane up andover the bridge over Route 66, taking a left into the cul de sac that gives meaccess to the W&OD. It’s less than a mile to the beginning of the CustisTrail, which I ride uninterrupted to Rosslyn. The few traffic lights along thefinal approach are usually clear, as they are this morning, and, with luckytiming, the two major roads to cross before taking the pedestrian bridge to theMount Vernon Trail turn green for me.

Thebig hurdle is crossing Route 50 and the GW Parkway – both clogged withcommuters reluctant to stop for runners or bikers, regardless of how slowlythey’re moving. But on this day, like the Red Sea complying with Moses’scommand, the traffic parts as I approach – not just once, but twice. Happily, Iride across Memorial Bridge. As I round the curve toward the Lincoln Memorial,again – the flow of cars ceases, just for me. It’s like a movie fantasy inwhich the background freezes and only the protagonist is alive and moving inthe scene. The world has come to a standstill for my benefit and I rideunimpeded. I make my way down the Mall and, this is too good to be true, this never happens: I hit the lights to crossfirst 17th Street and then Constitution Avenue without so much as ahesitation. I’m starting to wonder: is it possible? Could I have a no-stopmorning?

Up15th Street to Pennsylvania Avenue – the lights remain with me. Iknow that if I get onto my favorite high – the autobahn of biking – the two-waybike path in the center of Pennsylvania Avenue, I have a chance. Yes! Thetraffic stops as I approach and I’m in the center lane. I’ve done it oftenenough that I know exactly when to speed up, when to slow down, when to pushthrough on yellow, and when – well – I just have to anticipate the green that Ican’t quite wait for. It is too good to be true. I take my left turn onto 7thStreet and know: I WILL NOT STOP. Heart pumping with glee, I pedal furiouslyuphill toward my final destination on E Street, and I’ve done it: my magical, miraclemorning; the one, the only, non-stop bike commute.

Ican’t help wanting a repeat, but, let’s face it: what are the odds? I know Ishould simply savor the joy of that special day and not expect or even hope forit again. After all – it won’t ever be like the first time. And other days havetheir own special magic. One day the glisten of the sun sparkling the Potomac.Another day the sighting of a great blue heron, or a hawk, or the wigglingcuteness of a duck’s white tail pointing skyward. But still…

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

May 7, 2012: Beautiful Bike

I’ve just snaked down the hairpin curves of the Custis Trail and am rounding the bend where the path runs along the dumpsters behind the CVS/Italian Store/Starbucks/Big Wheel Bikes strip mall. A skinny woman enters the trail just ahead of me, and I feel the usual pang of envy, seeing her tiny butt that would fit inside a baseball mitt, her bony elbows pointing back at me. I could pass her, but I don’t, recognizing that she’s starting to ride at about my pace. A matched set of panniers are fitted to her bike rack, one bulging out, and the other flat. We arrive at the red light in Rosslyn and I see her helpless looking tiny short braids, skinnier than her pencil limbs, poking out from between the plastic webbing at the base of her helmet, the hair soft brown, like a fawn.

When she turns around I see how young she is, soft rosy peach blush on her smooth light cheeks, and an open innocence in her round blue eyes. “Can you tell me how to get to the 14th Street Bridge?” she asks. Any grumpiness I may have felt about her skinniness melts away. I’m happy to provide directions, glad to repay the favor that other bikers have bestowed on me as I attempted to navigate new routes. I tell her to cross straight ahead and follow the Mount Vernon Trail to the bridge. She sets off ahead of me, and I realize I didn’t tell her to go left where the boardwalk splits, knowing the signage is confusing. I catch up to her at the fork, just as she’s about to take the wrong turn, and she gratefully thanks me when I direct her to the left.

It’s a perfect morning commute, the soft green of the willows sweeping the darker green of the grass, a cloud cover keeping the temperature down. As we approach Memorial Bridge she looks back and asks, “Is this it?” No, I tell her, it’ll be the next one.  She thanks me again. Such a sweet face, I think – maybe she just moved here from someplace like Minnesota. As I’m about to cut up to cross Memorial Bridge, she turns back once more. “That’s a beautiful bike,” she says, and now it’s my turn to thank her. Yes, I think to myself, my beautiful bike, my lightweight black Trek with thin turquoise accents adorning the frame; the bike I finally convinced myself I deserved, after over a year of commuting on my daughter’s old mountain hybrid, heavy as a tractor. I feel satisfaction at these few shared moments, biker-to-biker, beautiful bikes, her skinny legs and my thicker ones, each wheeling across a bridge to start our day.

May 3, 2012 Mastering the Bus Rack

METRO had started cracking down. I used to get my bike on the subway just ahead of the 4 p.m. deadline, figuring that once I made it past the turnstile I was good. It had worked without a hitch for over a year. But, the week before, I had been accosted at 3:50 by the glaring METRO lady – barring my entry, grilling me as to my destination, and hostilely informing me that I wouldn’t reach it by 4. When I tried the line, “I changed my mind, I’m only going one stop,” she informed me that I could get back on my bike and ride that distance. I told her I didn’t think so, and proceeded through the turnstile. As I feared, the METRO man at East Falls Church handed me the “Bike on the METRO” brochure as I exited, mumbling, “You’re not supposed to be on until 7,” but, thankfully, not subjecting me to additional humiliations.

As a lifelong “people pleaser” who doesn’t like to get yelled at, I sadly realized that my strategy of biking to work and taking my wheels home on the metro would be untenable, as I couldn’t leave the office much ahead of 4:00. I decided it was time to conquer my fear of the bike rack on the bus. I realized I could bike to Rosslyn and take the bus up Lee Highway, all the way home, thereby avoiding the long, grueling uphill climb from Rosslyn: my major deterrent to biking the whole 10 miles home. I reviewed the instructions on the METRO website about three or four times. I consulted my transit-guru at work, who gave me meticulous step-by-step directions on how to get my bike into and out of the rack, even encouraging me by saying, “Most of the bus drivers are really nice. They even helped me put my bike on the first couple times I used it.”

My BikeNav app showed me a shorter route than what I’d been using to get to Rosslyn. As I reached the end of Memorial Bridge I looked for where I could connect to the path that skirts the edge of Arlington Cemetery. The next minute, like a crash test dummy about to meet its demise, a young man went somersaulting through the air, his bike cartwheeling behind him. The good news was that he landed on the broad sidewalk, and not into the rush hour traffic that stops for no one. I slammed on my brakes and ran to him, asking if he was ok. He assured me that he was, although one arm was scraped and bleeding from elbow to wrist, both elbows and knees were raw and painful-looking, and he had unconsciously smeared blood onto his forehead and mouth.

“It’s my fault,” he said, repeatedly, somewhat in shock, I think. “I was going too fast.” Neither of us had a water bottle, and it was a good distance to water in either direction. I vowed to never ride without a water bottle again, and band-aids. He kept repeating, “I’m ok, nothing’s broken,” perhaps to convince himself, as he wiggled his fingers and rotated his wrists. I continued to hover, feeling helpless and motherly. We checked out the bike, which he insisted was fine, and I chided him for riding without a helmet, although his head appeared to be unscathed. He looked to be under 30, drop dead handsome, despite the close-cropped hair that doesn’t appeal to my child-of-the-60s sensibilities, and athletically well-built. We exchanged stories about other crashes. “I’m Will,” he said, shaking my hand, as he finally convinced me that he was going to walk his bike the rest of the way to the baseball game he was rushing to get to and I should take off. He assured me that his buddies would have water and take good care of him.

So, riding with extra caution, I made my way to the Rosslyn bus stop for my first encounter with the bike rack. As I anticipated, I did not get the “nice” bus driver who was inclined to help me. As the website instructions clearly indicated, I placed my bike in the slot closest to the bus. The driver wildly gesticulated through the window and I could see her lips moving, but couldn’t hear a word, so I went around to the door. “Put the bike in the other slot,” she spat out at me. Ever compliant, I removed my bike, turned it around, and placed it in the other slot, worried about facing hostile looks from the bus passengers who had to wait another minute or two for me to complete the maneuver. As I swiped my farecard, I explained to the driver that the website had advised using the proximate slot in the rack, but she insisted I was wrong. I gave her a “whatever” shrug and took my seat. I guess bus passengers are used to waiting, because no one seemed annoyed by the delay, although I tried to avoid eye contact. The next week I got a different driver, who had no objection to my use of the slot closer to the bus.