Lessons from a Biking Birthday Century

a cathedral of trees

I hate my birthday – it’s a reminder that I’m getting old. Rather than stewing in annual misery, I decided to do something about it. My birthday would be the perfect opportunity to bike a century (100 miles). A Birthday Century!

I’m a city cyclist. A typical ride for me is a Sunday jaunt around DC, with a requisite stop for coffee. Decidedly not a MAMIL (a middle-aged man in lycra), I don’t have clip-in pedals, bike shoes, a trip computer or any of the other accoutrements of the serious cyclist.

Instead, I have a ten-year old Specialized Sirrus that I call Bikey.

With little more planning than filling up a water bottle, I set off early on May 31. Destination: the end of the WO&D Trail in Purcellville.

A hundred miles provides a lot of time to think. Here’s what I learned along the way:

BikeDC is a Rolling Community

I like Best Buns. I cannot lie. With hours of biking ahead of me, I decided to fuel up with a massive pastry from this Shirlington bakery.

Rolling up after crossing the river from DC, I saw bikes and a couple of bike people that I recognized.

It was the Hump Day Coffee Club, a meetup of Northern Virginia cyclists. There are coffee clubs around the region, including a Friday Coffee Club that I occasionally attend at A Baked Joint. It’s a chance to meet other bike riders, swap notes about commuting routes and plan future rides.

I proudly told them of my plan to bike to the end of the WO&D, as if I was Magellan about to set out into the unknown. One of the coffee klatch casually tossed out that she had done the whole trail herself, on a whim, when she got a new road bike for her 60th birthday.

Suitably shamed/impressed, I set out from Shirlington, following Four Mile Run until it connected to the WO&D Trail. A long day of biking stretched ahead. Twenty miles later, as I biked through Reston, I heard a shout. It was one of the coffee club members, passing me, with a friendly hello.

As I rode my century, I tweeted and shared photos using #abirthdaycentury. In return, I received suggestions and encouragement from other #BikeDC cyclists on Twitter and Instagram. Though I might find myself in a dark wood, in the middle of my journey (like Dante), I never felt alone because of the BikeDC community. Instead, I felt like I was part of a small town on wheels, a rolling community of cyclists that exists on streets, trails and in cyberspace.

Eat, Eat, Eat

My plan was to get as far down the trail as possible without stopping. I knew that each time you stop, it’s harder to get back on. So, I kept going, the towns going by every few miles – Falls Church, Vienna, Reston, Herndon, Ashburn.

I reached Leesburg around noon. Eat here or keeping going to Purcellville? I had packed a single Clif bar so I ate that, before beginning a four mile ascent through Clark’s Gap and over the low range of green hills that I’d been watching since Reston.

Long climb to Purcellville

The elevation profile tells the story. Doesn’t seem a lot but it was enough to wipe me out. This was the hardest part of the ride, 45 miles in and a climb to the highest point on the trail on an empty stomach.

You really cannot eat enough on a long bike ride. During the day, I ate:

  • Massive muffin (Shirlington)
  • Clif bar (Leesburg)
  • Burger and fries (Purcellville)
  • Smoothie (Herndon)
  • Clif bar (Vienna)

But this was not enough. I could’ve fit in a whole other meal and not been satisfied.

Never(mind) the Weather

I felt sense a tremendous sense of accomplishment seeing the end of the trail and the iconic Purcellville train station, photos of which I had seen in the Instagram feeds of countless #BikeDC friends. Now I had joined them.

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55 miles done. I just needed to get back. Thankfully, it was mostly downhill, providing me the opportunity to enjoy a gorgeous ride through the woods back to Leesburg.

Then I went back through the towns I had passed earlier, like a film being rewinded. Leesburg, Ashburn, Herndon. Local biking legend Mr T in DC suggested on Twitter that I stop for a smoothie at Green Lizard Cycling so I did. It was delicious but I needed more food.

The day before, Northern Virginia had been hit by a line of severe weather, possibly including a tornado. More storms were expected. As I biked back, I noticed the puffy clouds gathering behind me, chasing me back to DC.

Rolling into Vienna (almost home!), the skies grew dark and I felt the first patter of rain. I decided to duck into Whole Foods as a thunderstorm swept the region. I bought some Clif bars and waited for the storm to pass. It was a big one, with hail in Reston (which I had just gone through).

Rain won’t kill you. But lightning will. You should respect the weather. After the rain was mostly done, I resumed my journey on a jet-black trail with steam rising off it.

Gear Matters

I was going to write that gear doesn’t matter. After all, I did a 105 miles on an outdated hybrid bike with an even more outdated human.

But gear does matter. Without padded bike shorts, I wouldn’t have been able to spend all day in the saddle. A bike jersey with a ventilating zipper kept me cool in the stuffy weather. Gloves enabled me to hold on to handlebars slick with rain.

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Riding back after the storm, my backside grew damp, as my wheels kicked up water and grit from the trail. Fenders! Why don’t I have fenders? And as much I love Bikey, a road bike or even a newer hybrid would’ve made the century faster and in more comfort.

Gear matters. Of course, you can bike without bike shorts, a jersey, gloves or, hell, even a water bottle but those basics make biking easier.

I took the Custis Trail back into DC, a roller coaster ride, going up and down overpasses all the way into the city. I was hungry, and moving, flying down the descents as the sun emerged over the Washington Monument.

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I wanted to get a picture in front of the White House but, of course, the Secret Service had it blocked off. I settled for a photo from behind the yellow tape. Welcome back to the security theater of Washington, DC.

105.1 miles in nine and a half hours, according to Strava. But numbers don’t tell the true story of a Birthday Century. It wasn’t the miles biked or the hours in the saddle that was important. Instead, like any journey, it’s the lessons learned along the way.

I Hate South of the Border

A post shared by Joe Flood (@joeflood) on

Ever wonder what America would look like if the South had won the Civil War?

It would look a lot like South of the Border, the kitschy roadside attraction at the North Carolina-South Carolina border. A beloved landmark on I-95 for some, it’s an abomination for others (like me), its towering sombrero tower filling me with horror as it emerges on the horizon.

If Gettysburg had gone a different way, all of America would look like this – tacky, cheap and vaguely racist.

Sherman led his March to the Sea through South Carolina, famously offering Savannah, the birthplace of secession, as a gift to President Lincoln. General Sherman believed not just in defeating Southern armies, but destroying the Southern way of life by burning plantations and freeing slaves.

He didn’t do enough. More than a century later, vestiges of the Confederacy and its animating principles linger in city squares and the hearts of Trump supporters.

I long for a new Sherman to raze South of the Border. Consider it the ultimate highway beautification project. Let this vomit of technicolor along the interstate be replaced, even if it’s just with a simple welcome center, a recognition that South Carolina is just like every other state in the union.

Does Anyone Make Real Shit Anymore?

metro trash
Once the envy of the nation, Metro is now a mess.

I ask, cause I’m not sure:
Do anybody make real shit anymore?

– Kanye West, Stronger

I put off getting a new iPhone as long as possible, waiting until the battery life was mere minutes and I carried a charger every time I left the house.

I knew replacing it would be an ordeal. Months earlier, I had gone to the Apple Store and asked about my options. It took an Apple genius 30 minutes and a complicated diagram to explain the new pricing plans.

Eventually, I upgraded, ordering an iPhone 7 through my carrier, AT&T. FedEx lost it. I called AT&T, who blocked the phone from the network. Then, of course the phone showed up. AT&T unblocked it and then, perversely, decided to block it again the next day, making my phone a shiny, non-operational brick. I tweeted in frustration:

@ATTCares responded. Their Twitter account says that they provide support. But they don’t, they just refer you to the website, to an endless customer service chat. On Friday, I went through a lengthy chat where I had to type in various technical data about my phone. They said they would unblock. And I went through the whole process again on Sunday. My phone still doesn’t work.

This isn’t an unusual story. American life these days largely consists of doing battle with broken things.

On Sunday, while I was trying to work all this out, I had to go downtown. Ten years ago, I would’ve taken Metro. I avoid the transit system now. During the week, Metro features breakdowns and beatings, while on the weekends, it barely runs it all.

Instead, I took Capital Bikeshare. I write about CaBi so much because it’s a system that actually works. Swipe your key, hop on a bike, and go.

Capital Bikeshare 2.0
Capital Bikeshare – the one thing that works in Washington.

Washington seems to be going backwards in terms of transportation, from heavy rail to bicycles and rickshaws. I fully expect a horse-sharing scheme to emerge within the next couple years.

At least I wasn’t on Amtrak #161, a Twitter saga that also unfolded on Sunday, passengers trapped on a train outside Washington for so long that they had time to order pizza. Their rescue was delayed for want of a stool so that they could climb from one train to another. Richest country in the world.

Romans didn’t just wake up one morning in the ruins of empire. Instead, it was a slow decline. Officials weren’t paid. Water from the aqueducts stopped flowing. Barbarians walked in, unopposed.

We could have a national train system that’s not dependent on a stool. DC could have a safe and efficient Metro (it once did). AT&T could fix problems for customers instead of sending them to chat-based hell.

It’s a choice. As Kanye, bard of our age, asks: Does anybody make real shit anymore?

We can’t cut our way out of crisis. If America is going to move to the next chapter, then it needs to invest in quality once again. We need to make real shit.

Letter from Washington: Macron!

Saturday morning soccer

I’ve been to France a couple of times. It was my first real overseas trip. While England was interesting (I studied abroad there), it didn’t feel alien in the way that Paris did because I could speak the language.

In France, however, I had the experience of being immersed in a culture where I didn’t understand a word of what was going on around me. It’s an experience that every American should have because it makes you appreciate that the world is larger and more complex than you can possibly comprehend.

Fortunately, I was with a friend who spoke French. It was a feeling of agreeable helplessness, of being unable to even order in restaurants without my buddy translating for me. I knew the words for please, thank you and butter. And what more do you need in France?

We did all the tourist things – Eiffel Tower, Louvre, lunch in a brasserie – and everyone was lovely, maybe because I didn’t understand the blur of French around me.

My proudest moment came on the train back to Brussels. Speeding across the French countryside at 150 mph, I got up from my seat and went to order coffee unassisted:

Un café s’il vous plaît

Hearing me speak, the woman in the cafe instantly switched to English. She said my American accent was charming. Charmingly bad, I imagine.

But my biggest memory of France didn’t even happen there. It was 1998 when France won the World Cup. I went to Lucky Bar, after playing soccer that morning. Les Bleus won! Dancing broke out in the dingy bar, men still wearing cleats tangoing across the floor.

Later, I met my French-speaking friend at Au Pied de Cochon, a legendary French cafe in Georgetown. Open all night, it was where you went for steak and frites after everything else closed. Inside the bar, patrons were waving a huge tricolor and singing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. And then everyone left, marching up the street to the French Embassy.

That’s what today feels like, with the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential Election. The French have done what we couldn’t – turn back to the destructive tide of populism.

To quote Churchill:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

Day Trip: Little Washington

Little Washington

Teenagers. Useless, am I right?

Unless you’re a 17-year-old George Washington who surveyed a town in the Blue Ridge foothills, a town that would eventually be named after him.

It’s Washington, VA, commonly known as Little Washington to differentiate it from nearby Washington, DC. Set amid vineyards and rolling green hills, it’s a quaint village that’s home to the five-star Inn at Little Washington. The inn itself is several buildings on both sides of the street that date back to the arrival of George Washington in 1749.

Behind the inn, there’s a short walking path that circles a field full of photogenic farm animals, from goats to a pair of llamas.

The village’s neat grid was laid out by the Founding Father himself. Little Washington is a historic landmark that has been carefully preserved, enabling you to imagine yourself in the George Washington’s day.

One of the attractions of this DC day trip is the drive from the city. After you escape I-66, the scenery grows hillier and greener as advance toward the mountains until you end up on a gentle two-lane road coasting into a town bursting with tulips.

Located just 70 miles from Washington, DC, this other Washington – Little Washington – is a quiet respite from the busy city.

Check out the photos from this nice day trip, taken with my rocking little Canon G9 X. Love this little camera.

This post has been sponsored by Enterprise CarShare.

Remaindered Reads

Remaindered reads - this is a good one. Arts and Entertainments by Christopher Beha is a sendup of the highly scripted world of reality TV #books #reading #fiction

What happens to serendipity in a world without bookstores?

The Barnes and Noble in Bethesda is closing. The last of the great literary superstores, it anchors downtown Bethesda, MD, providing a focus to the community and a convenient rest stop on the Capital Crescent Trail.

Books used to be big business. Downtown DC had several stores much like the leftover Barnes and Noble, from the sprawling Borders on L Street to the bustling Waldenbooks in Union Station. All gone now.

The margins are better in clothing. Most of the book stores now sell cheap frocks from China.

I’ll miss shopping at Barnes and Noble for the same reason that I miss reading the newspaper – serendipity. Online shopping is task-oriented – you know what you want and you search for it. Browsing in a good bookstore is about exploration. It’s about luck. It’s about stumbling upon the right book at the right time.

I had a gift card with $5 left on it. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I ended up in the remaindered section of the Bethesda Barnes and Noble, searching through the stacks of marked-down books at the front of the store.

I didn’t care for the cover of Arts & Entertainments but read the blurbs and the first couple pages and was sold. At $4.98.

This funny New York novel by Christopher Beha asks, “How real is reality TV?” The answer: not very. Like with scripted programs, reality characters have arcs – narratives imposed upon them by producers. We like pantomime villains and high drama so that’s what reality TV gives us, whether it’s true or not.

And once you join the reality world, it’s impossible to get out, for you become addicted to fame and money. The only escape is death and, even then, your demise will be used to anchor another story, another narrative arc, another turn of the wheel, your complex existence reduced to a single stereotype, whether that’s hero or heel.

I was thinking of doing a blog series on remaindered books, panning for gold among these leftover titles.

But, like the last Barnes and Noble, even these remnants of the publishing industry are soon to be no more.

People still read – 73% of adults read a book in the last year, most of them in print.

Bethesda will survive the loss of Barnes and Noble. In cities like Washington, we have other options, independent booksellers like Kramerbooks.

But, in most of the country, Barnes and Noble was the only bookstore in town. And it did more than just sell books, too, but provided a safe space for reading groups, online dates and Craigslist transactions. It’s a loss to the community.

No more will readers have the experience of aimless browsing, of searching through stacks of discounted books looking for something you can’t describe until you pull a black comedy out of the pile. The end of Barnes and Noble means the end of serendipity.

In a country enthralled by reality TV, Barnes and Noble is no longer needed. But what about all those remaindered books? Where will they go? To the great pulp mill, destined for recycling as flimsy wrapping paper, their contents unread.

What Price Louisville?

Plane takes off over pedestrian at Gravelly Point

“The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”
― Timothy SnyderOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

Shocking, even for travelers accustomed to the routine discomforts and indignities of flying these days – a man being beaten and dragged from a plane for refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight.

Around him, passengers filmed and cried but did not move. After all, they had to get home to Louisville. Raise your voice or get out of your seat and you could be the one on the floor, bloodied and humiliated.

After the video surfaced, the United CEO responded with the kind of corporate-speak that is sadly typical, a masterwork of weasel words designed to avoid responsibility:

As Esquire pointed out, the statements are just as bad as the injury, faulting the passengers for their failure to pre-volunteer for tribute, like the Hunger Games on a plane.

Since they refused to leave their seats, a “volunteer” had to be selected. If that sounds Orwellian, it is because it is:

“This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.”
― George OrwellAnimal Farm

American life has become so degraded that this type of hard-edged mistreatment of customers has become something to be celebrated. Just a couple weeks ago, the United CEO was honored for his work as a communicator:

But let’s go back to the passengers in the plane. Delayed, anxious to get home after a long day, watching this violent drama play out in front of them and their iPhones.

They sat there. No one moved. Some yelled, some filmed, but no one got up from their seats as the police beat and bloodied a man at the behest of United Airlines.

I’m sure I would’ve just sat there, too. The airport experience systematically strips you of your rights and dignity. After enduring long lines and groping from poorly-trained government agents, you’re willing to put up with anything just to feel your plane lift off from the runway and into the blue sky. That includes doing nothing as one of your fellow citizens is violently re-accommodated.

We all want to get home to Louisville. We stay in our seats, lest we receive the same treatment meted out to the unfortunate “volunteer.”

What price Louisville?

Americans must ask themselves this question in the coming days, forced to make a choice between submitting to the kind of routine mistreatment that has become common in American life or deciding to resist.

Take One Home: The Community Collective Photography Show

field school
Blue bus on 15th St – my photo in the show

No cherry blossoms. No sunsets. None of the postcard-pretty Washington, DC, that you’ve seen a million times before.

Instead, ballerinas at rest. Shirtless men outside liquor stores. And a blue bus that catches the eye of a photographer who bikes everywhere.

It’s the Community Collective Photography Show, opening this Saturday at the Capital Fringe Festival. 48 photos of the people and places beyond the monuments, organized by Jarrett Hendrix and Karen Ramsey, and selected by a panel of local judges. Dozens of visions of the real DC, featuring perspectives on city life that will surprise even long-time residents.

The master at work
Jarrett Hendrix carefully hangs photos in the Fringe bar.

photos hanging at Capital Fringe
The photos are framed with white space to draw the viewer in. We want you to get close.

Did you know that the city of Washington used to be square? As conceived by Congress, it was a ten miles on each side, a hundred square miles in total, extending out into Virginia. Sadly, DC lost this territory in 1846.

The photographs in the Community Collective show are all presented as squares, attractively framed, and carefully hung in the bar of the Fringe Festival. Maybe it’s a nod to DC’s past  – or maybe it’s just an Instagram thing 😉

I have a photo in the show. And I’m glad to know many of the other photogs, who I’ve met through InstagramDC. It’s amazing to see their diverse perspectives of the city, every one of them choosing to focus on a different aspect of urban life.

Take one home! The photos are for sale, with a portion of the proceeds going to support Fringe. With the prices quite reasonable (my print is $100), it’s an opportunity to add a little square of DC to your walls.

Community Collective Photography Showcase
1358 Florida Ave. NE Washington, DC 20002
Saturday, April 8, 7-11 PM

Letter from Washington: A War We Must Win

Greetings, comrades! Glory!
Greetings, comrades! Glory!

There was a moment during a recent demonstration. A crowd had gathered outside the White House to protest immigration policy. Standing in front of a chain-link fence, a young Honduran woman described fleeing the violence in her country. She loved America for saving the lives of her children. People applauded, including a 94-year old Holocaust survivor who had insisted on attending the demonstration. Stooped over, her eyes flickered with life.

At the edge of the crowd, a middle-aged couple approached, the female half in a Make America Great Again hat. They saw the demonstrators protesting Trump’s treatment of refugees. The woman snuck into the crowd and made a mocking peace sign so that her husband could get a picture. They laughed.

My friend Pippa is conducting dinners with Trump supporters. She feels that if only we all knew each other a little better, it would be easier to get along. Results have been disappointing. Breaking bread doesn’t change political opinions.

I was not a political person until this year. Living in DC, I had the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill. I declined, feeling it to be a waste of time, disliking the passion people brought to even the simplest of issues. A pragmatist at heart, I voted for Republicans and Democrats, always seeking the candidate who would do the least harm.

But Trump is different, representing an assault on democratic institutions, something that every American should oppose. Evidence is growing that he colluded with Russia, part of a Putin strategy to use fake news and select leaking to influence the 2016 election. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Secretary General of NATO, warned:

“It is Russia’s aim to undermine the political cohesion in Western institutions.”

Putin seeks is to divide and weaken the West, to discredit democracy itself and restore the old Soviet Union. He wants to end the Pax Americana that has kept the world free of global wars for more seventy years. It’s a dangerous moment, as America wavers, the prospect of a new wave of conflict on the horizon. A global war would mean the end of the connected world that we know and enjoy.

Encouraging these end times is a selfish con man, Donald Trump, a dupe who is willing to go along with Putin’s schemes and court international disorder if it will benefit his family of grifters.

Trump’s supporters have told me that he can do whatever he wants, because he is the President. They’re willing to throw away the Constitution and their own hard-won democratic rights in pursuit of vengeance against people like me. “We suffered under Obama. Now it’s your turn,” I’m told.

After the election, I was ambivalent. I even wrote an award-winning short story about my mixed feelings, Victory Party, in which a waiter receives the election news with something approaching happiness.

But since Trump’s American Carnage speech (“That was some weird shit,” George W. Bush), it’s clear what he and his supporters want: revenge. They don’t want to build a new America; they want to punish America and are willing to work with the Russians to do so.

“Since when are you a liberal?” a friend of mine jokingly asked me. I’m liberal in the classical sense, as someone who believes in free speech and free markets. I believe in the West, in freedom from tyrants under a system where every person is equal before the law. That marks me as an enemy of the state, at least this state, for Trump and his supporters seek to turn this country into a soft dictatorship, Putin light, where an autocrat makes all the decisions, without the pesky impediments of the Constitution.

“There was a very serious effort made by Mr. Putin and his government, his organization, to interfere in major ways with our basic, fundamental democratic processes. In some quarters that would be considered an act of war.”

Who said that? Dick Cheney.

The war began last year, when Trump’s entourage colluded with Russia to subvert the election. It’s a war against democracy itself – and one that we weren’t even aware that we were fighting until recently.

No amount of gentle conversations around a candle-lit dinner table will budge the hate and envy in the hearts of Trump partisans. Sorry, Pippa! No accommodation is possible with people who would collaborate with a foreign power to snuff out democracy in America.

Trump and his Russian backers declared war on America during the last election. It’s a war that will be fought in the streets, courts, legislatures and media. The majority of the country voted against Trump. We did not choose this war. But it’s one that we must win.