Saturday, June 22, 2013

ISO - Bicycle Sherpa

Sometimes riding a bike feels like climbing Mount Everest: not because of the steep climb, but because navigating the route is complex and unpredictable. When you get lost in a car, you might drive in frustrating circles and waste gas, but when you lose your way on a bike, you pay in muscle, breath, and sweat. But it’s all part of the journey, and often the only way to learn a new route is by trial and error.

For months, this weekend has been marked on my calendar as the high point of my summer writing: a two-full-day workshop with the extremely likeable Kathleen Flinn, food writer extraordinaire. Okay, I haven’t actually read her books, but they’re now on my list.

Traveling from my home in Arlington, Virginia to the Writer’sCenter in Bethesda, Maryland (the workshop’s location) is inconvenient by any mode of transport. Driving entails either going around the dreaded Washington beltway or through the traffic-clogged streets of D.C. It could take anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on traffic. Taking the Metro entails two trains and two walks, and on a weekend one must expect it to take well over an hour, and possibly much longer due to frequent weekend track work. The best option (as usual) is to bike – a 10-mile ride – the same distance I regularly ride to work.

But there’s a difference. When I ride to work, I know where I’m going. At any point in my ride I know exactly how much farther I have to go, where the hills are, where the traffic is bad, and so forth. But I’ve only biked to Bethesda occasionally, so it still feels like uncharted territory.

My plan was to take Arlington streets to Chain Bridge. From there, the Capital Crescent trail runs to within four blocks of the Writer’s Center. This route entails riding up some of Arlington’s biggest hills, but they would come early, while the temperature was still cool. And at 7:15 on a Saturday morning I wouldn’t need to worry about getting whizzed by cars approaching Chain Bridge on the narrow, shoulderless road.

The biggest hazard is the required stretch of the C&OCanal Towpath. This route was not designed for bicycle convenience. After crossing Chain Bridge, a ramp descends to the Towpath – a rough and rocky unpaved trail that I find hazardous with my skinny tires. One must ride about a mile the wrong direction down the Towpath, which, for me, is slow and nervous-making, leaving my wrists and arms aching from their death-grip on the handlebars.

But it’s worth it, because the lovely Capital Crescent is a summer delight – the most thoroughly shaded path I get to ride in this area. While it looks flat, the path is, in fact, completely uphill from D.C. to Bethesda. Still, the grade is low enough that it doesn’t feel challenging.

The workshop was engaging, but the day was long, with too much sitting. So I eagerly anticipated my bonus ride home, knowing I’d get that rare treat of an eight-mile slide down the gently sloping trail. And what a treat it was. Shady, gliding effortlessly, I rode to Georgetown, over Key Bridge, and took the bus home the final uphill stretch.

This was a completely new route for me, which is why I ended up thinking a bicycle Sherpa would have come in handy. As I approached Georgetown, there was a set of cement steps, with wide curbs, presumably for pushing up a bike. It was a steep push, but I made it to the top, disappointed to see that it took me back to the rough Towpath. But I could see Key Bridge in the near distance, and didn’t have to ride it nearly as long as I had on the segment from Chain Bridge. Again, I saw a cement stairway – this one with no way to get a bike up but to carry it. I don’t have a problem carrying my bike up stairs, but this ascent was unusually steep, with a sharp turn halfway up. Luckily, it took me just a few feet from the entrance to Key Bridge – success!

The colorful view from Key Bridge
So while it ended up being a personal navigation victory, it saddened me that there was nary a trail marking. Surely this is a heavily traveled route, and perhaps there’s a better way that I have yet to discover. Would it really be that difficult to have a sign here or there, pointing the way to each trail or to the bridges?

Many boats on the Potomac

If there’s an enterprising and intrepid bicycle Sherpa out there, give me a holler. I’ll be your next customer.

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