Don’t Go Back to Rockville

Made it to Lake Needwood!

When I first started biking, I contemplated the map of Rock Creek Park with amazement, watching the trail stretch miles out of the city to a place called Lake Needwood.

It seemed an impossible distance, a good twenty miles away on a winding ribbon of asphalt. One would need all day to get there – maybe two! The fantastical white spires of the Mormon Temple just beyond the Beltway was my idea of a long ride.

But you keep biking and the distances seem smaller and smaller. Twenty miles goes from an epic journey to something you do after a couple beers on an evening.

I did a century a few weeks ago, a 100-mile ride to the end of the WO&D Trail, a destination that once seemed as far away as Shangri-La. On Sunday, I set out for another place I hadn’t been to: Lake Needwood.

With just a sideways glance at the new Klingle Trail (I’ll do that another day), I enjoyed the widened Rock Creek trail by the National Zoo before encountering the rutted surface of Beach Drive. Then I just kept going north, past the Mormons and deep into suburban Maryland.

I imagined a beer garden. Or at least a place to get a hot dog. Yet, after a couple of hours of biking through the woods, there was neither. Instead, a beautiful lake dotted with bright kayaks. But I had made it to the end, accomplishing what once seemed impossible.

Needing food (a common theme of these bike journeys), Yelp alerted me that there was a Big Greek Cafe in Rockville. I love Big Greek!

My Strava route for this section is amusing, showing figure eights in a parking lot as I search for the restaurant, which was on other side of the shopping plaza.

After lunch, I decided to take a different route back to the city. Google Maps led me down this long, circular road with speed bumps next to a huge empty lot. Ahead, an unfamiliar tower of condos.

remains of the White Flint Mall

Then it hit me: this was the White Flint Mall. Or, rather, the remains of it, for the entire structure has been demolished save for Lord and Taylor. People don’t go to malls, anymore.

And they certainly don’t go to Rockville, for the entire area has been rebranded as North Bethesda, a tony district of new condos, restaurants and a Whole Foods.

Also included, the latest hipster amenity: a protected bike lane, running by  yoga studios and kombucha joints.

The protected bike lane led me to the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which goes through backyards all the way to actual Bethesda. The trail is being widened around NIH, for the population of cyclists is ever-increasing in this traffic-choked region.

The trail (which is just a sidewalk near NIH) ends in a postcard-cute Bethesda neighborhood. Good signage led me to the Capital Crescent Trail, another rail trail and a nice downhill run back to DC.

50 miles done! What once seemed impossible now very much possible, even easy, new horizons opened up by one of man’s greatest inventions: the bike.

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

An Evening of Bike Touring at The Bike Rack

biking past tulips on the Metropolitan Branch Trail

Do I want to bike across the United States? I’m fascinated by stories of people who have done it. I bike nearly every day. Sleet, snow, rain, polar vortex – I’ve been out in every kind of weather, either on my Specialized Sirrus or Capital Bikeshare. I’ve done a metric century. I’m reasonably healthy. Why not?

Colin O’Laughlin shared his experience biking across the country in a recent talk at The Bike Rack. His blog is fascinating, a day-by-day account of his epic trip from DC to the West Coast. It goes into a tremendous amount of detail and honestly includes the ups and downs of the trip. Plus, it’s got a detailed map and equipment list.

What I found inspiring was how little training he did for the ride. A biking newbie, he did fewer miles than I do in a week before setting off on the C&O Canal trail in April of last year. His approach was to learn along the way. He ditched gear he didn’t need (like front panniers) and learned to listen to his body – when it’s 115 degrees, you need to get inside or die.

In contrast, Natalie Chwalisz is a planner. A veteran of several bike tours, she trained extensively on group rides with The Bike Rack before her cycling expedition. She did miles and miles around the DC area on the bike she would take to Europe. She had a serious purpose for her trip – investigating the plight of migrants from the Middle East – but most of her trip looked like heaven as she biked on trails along the Elbe and Danube.

The lesson from these two talks is that there’s no one way to conduct a bike tour. You can set off, like Colin did, on a friendly trail like the C&O and see how far you get. Or you can train for hard miles ahead of time. You can power through the endless plains of Kansas or leisurely cruise between European capitals.

The USA is a big country. I’ve driven across the vast and unforgiving spaces of Kansas. That was enough. Instead, I’ll take the biking between storybook towns on the Danube, with time for leisurely lunches and photo opportunities. That’s the bike tour for me.


Vice-Presidential Debate: Both Parties Can Agree Upon Bike Trails

High Bridge
High Bridge is more than 2,400 feet long and 125 feet above the Appomattox River.

Bikes mean business, drawing visitors to lesser-known regions that they otherwise might speed by on the interstate.

Prior to tonight’s Vice Presidential debate, who had heard of Farmville, VA? It’s a town hours from anywhere. Located on the path of Lee’s retreat from Richmond, it might be of interest to Civil War buffs but most people would find no reason to visit this sleepy burg.

Unless you bike. Then you’ve heard of Farmville, for it is located on the beautiful High Bridge Trail, an old rail line that stretches more than 30 miles through the rolling Virginia countryside and crosses the Appomattox River on the aptly-named High Bridge, a historic landmark.

The prospect of this vista lured me from Washington, DC. I spent a couple hours biking the trail one rainy morning. I even stopped in the town of Farmville for a bite to eat.

High Bridge Trail State Park
High Bridge Trail State Park runs right through the middle of Farmville, VA.

Bike trails like High Bridge are an inexpensive way to bring tourist dollars to your region. In addition to the health benefits, bike trails are also an amenity that keeps people in the area.

If you’re a Democrat, you can support bike trails for environmental reasons. Republicans can support them for the economic benefits.

Will the VP candidates be asked about nearby High Bridge Trail at tonight’s debate? Doubtful. Which is unfortunate, because the spread of bike trails is something that both parties can agree upon.

Tour de Bike Lane Cheers on City Cyclists

tour de bike lane

Sponsored by the Awesome Foundation (really), Tour de Bike Lane is designed to cheer on bike commuters as if they were in the Tour de France.

Bells, horns, vuvuzela, cheers, glitter and even free flowers greeted very surprised people biking up the 15th St bike lane in Washington, DC, on Friday, August 5th.

I heard about the event thanks to a Washington Post article. I bike 15th St every day of the week. Anything that gets more people biking is a good thing. More biking means safer biking because it habituates crazed Maryland drivers to cyclists. Maybe it will get them to slow down and be more cautious. Maybe!

DC is filled with events for people who bike, everything from WABA’s group rides to the rolling carnival known as DC Bike Party. It’s what makes biking in the city so much fun.

See more photos from Tour de Bike Lane.

Will Bike for Virtual Trophies

Will bike for virtual trophies. The thought occurred to me as as I biked up the Capital Crescent Trail to Bethesda. Ordinarily, I’d ride up to Bethesda, look at some books at Barnes and Noble, then turn around and fly back down the trail to DC.

But Strava was in the back of the mind. The fitness social network has occupied an increasing chunk of it this year. I even purchased a premier membership to better track my rides and runs.

I couldn’t just bike to Bethesda – I was being tracked! I had to put more miles in, especially after I saw some of my Strava friends off on a hundred-mile ride to Sugarloaf Mountain. What would they think of my little jaunt to the book store?

Nice people, Mary and Ed. But following them on Strava will make you feel like a slacker.
Nice people, Mary and Ed. But following them on Strava will make you feel like a slacker.

It was a lovely day anyway. I didn’t even stop in Bethesda but followed the Capital Crescent Trail until it connected with Rock Creek Park. Then I took that back home, racking up 26 miles and 22 different Strava medals, lol. Strava is more generous than a helicopter mom handing out post-soccer treats.

Stopping the Strava for a selfie in Rock Creek Park.
Stopping the Strava for a selfie in Rock Creek Park.

I once scoffed at the ride-tracking service, thinking it was only for MAMILs. I’m a slow-cyclist, more apt to bike a couple miles for coffee then do a century with a pack of lycra-clad men (yuck).

But then Strava started giving me more trophies than a Millennial spelling bee, awarding me Personal Records, Second and Third Place medals for biking tiny little segments of DC. Even though it was absurd, I felt honored to achieve a new record for biking a .7 mile segment of 15th St, giving me the self-esteem of a selfie-obsessed teen as she passes the thousand-follower mark on Instagram.

We respond best to rewards, even virtual ones, a topic that Jane McGonigal explores in SuperBetter. I saw her speak at SXSW ten years ago. Her message stuck with me because she changed my mind about online gaming.

McGonigal extolled the virtues of gaming and the reasons for their appeal. Unlike life, games have fixed rules and rewards. It’s no surprise that people find more meaning in games than our chaotic and uncertain world.

Lessons learned from games are now being applied to real-world challenges. It’s called the gamification of life. From the Apple Watch to Pokemon Go, gamification encourages us to be our best selves.

This is bewildering for a GenXer. We never got trophies! Unless, you won, of course.

But, now, with apps like Strava, I can win scores of trophies, like the only child of suburban parents in Montessori school. Game on, Strava, game on!

Biking the NCR Trail

flags in Parkton

I’m a Brand Ambassador for Enterprise CarShare. In return for sharing my photos, I get three free trips from the carsharing service. For my first trip, I went on a lovely loop around western Maryland, including a stop in Shepherdstown.

For my second trip, I returned to Maryland but this time went north, to Monkton, and the Northern Central Railroad Trail (NCR). Loading up my Specialized Sirrus in the back of a Nissan Rogue, I got an early start on a very steamy Sunday.

A couple hours later, I was in Monkton Station, the most scenic starting point on the trail – and the most crowded. Parking restrictions meant that I had to park a couple blocks away, on a side street. But I had a bike so it didn’t matter to me. I rolled over the bridge and onto the trail.

Monkton Station
Monkton Station on the NCR Trail is a popular spot for biking, hiking and tubing.

And into the mud. Epic rains had hit the night before, flooding the nearby town of Ellicott City. The trail had some big puddles and some muddy patches to traverse. There was even a tree down. My Specialized Sirrus is an older model with skinny tires. It got wobbly at times passing through the mud.

NCR Trail
NCR Trail has a crushed stone surface with some muddy patches.
Gunpowder River
Gunpowder River

The trail follows the Gunpowder River upstream. It’s an incline that I only noticed by the amount I was sweating. Trail amenities (like water) are sparse once you get north of Monkton. It’s a pleasant ride through the woods with a river for company. Lots of runners on the trail, utilizing several access points along the NCR.

A dozen miles in, and I was about out of water. But, by then, I was really close to the Mason-Dixon Line, so I kept going for the photo-op. Pretty cool to pass over the line and then cross into another state.

Bike at the Mason-Dixon Line
Made it to the Mason-Dixon!

At the Pennsylvania border, the trail becomes the York Heritage Trail as it rolls into New Freedom. What a cute trail town! Reminded me of the towns along the WO&D except this one had a real steam engine plying the rails. I had lunch and waited for my friend Bob, who started later, and caught up with me at the trailside cafe in town.

Steam engine in New Freedom
A working steam train in New Freedom.
Me in New Freedom, PA
I did not visit the Party Caboose.

On the way back, most of the mud had dried, so we flew downhill. Bob exited at Parkton, which had a very cool stone bridge and a former bank that had been turned into a private residence.

There was a slight uphill portion getting back to Monkton. I passed people carrying tubes along the trail. They put in the river upstream and float down to Monkton. It was a long walk for them – at least a mile. After hours in the muggy heat, I was ready to get home.

Tubers and bikes in Monkton
Carrying tubes upstream at Monkton.

In the morning, there had just been a couple cars on the side street where I parked. When I returned in the afternoon, cars were everywhere and there was a tow truck on the street. Time to leave. My bike was covered in soft sand and mud. I put it in the back of the Rogue and took off.

The NCR Trail is a beautiful woodsy trail – but the Heritage Trail in Pennsylvania looks even nicer. I hear there’s ice cream along the trail, too. That’s my kind of bike ride. Looking forward to going back to New Freedom and riding it north to York.

Ivy City: The End of the Line

Ivy City ride detail
Ivy City ride detail

I originally only knew Ivy City as the end of the line, the final destination of the D4 bus that I would sometimes ride downtown. “Ivy City – wonder where that is?” I would think to myself as the bus chugged its way through K Street traffic,

If you live in Northwest DC, vast sections of the city exist only as vague and mysterious notions, sort of like that infamous view of the world from New York poster. Of the other quadrants of the city, you know Southeast as Capitol Hill, Southwest as the place with the brutalist architecture and Northeast… what the hell is in Northeast?

But it’s a big city, bigger than you imagined, sprawling north and east into neighborhoods that look like suburbia and others that look like Newark.

The best way to discover it is by bike. As Hemingway said:

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best

On a bike, you have a chance to look around in a way that you can’t on a car. It was by bike that I first encountered Ivy City, during last year’s Plaid Ride, sponsored by BicycleSpace. Cyclists dressed in plaid biked down 18th Street, then east across the city on K, before a gentle incline on West Virginia Avenue past Gallaudet University.

When we got to Ivy City, it was an industrial zone of razor-wire fences and and buildings that were being repurposed. BicycleSpace wanted us to see where their new space was going to be.

I recognized the old Hecht’s Warehouse and my mental map of the city reoriented itself – we’re off New York Avenue, I realized. The Hecht’s building is a landmark if you’re driving on New York Av.

Ivy City is being redeveloped. According to the Washington Post, it’s the next cool neighborhood you haven’t heard of.

Hecht's Warehouse

This pocket-sized industrial district is now home to a brewery, a gin distillery and hot yoga. You can also pay a fortune for a loft in the old Hecht’s building too.

It’s also home to a new BicycleSpace store. I biked into Northeast to check it out and Ivy City.

I was also tempted by bike deals. They had a Jamis Commuter on sale which was sadly gone by the time I got there. No major loss – my Specialized Sirrus is really similar to the Jamis, even if it isn’t as cute.

interior of BicycleSpace - Ivy City


pretty little bikes all in a row

I ogled the Bromptons, as I do, lusting after these British folding bikes, but then was massively distracted by the Salsa Marrakesh. Such a solidly-built bike, it looks like it could survive the apocalypse. If I ever drop out of society, and travel the world on two wheels, I will do it on one of these bikes.

Ivy City may be the next cool neighborhood but it’s still the end of the line to me. Not near the Metro, and hemmed in by busy New York Av, I don’t get the attraction – there’s a lot of concrete and not many trees. And paying Logan Circle prices to live there? Doesn’t make sense to me but DC real estate left the territory of rational explanation a long time ago.

At BicycleSpace, I bought socks. Figured I had come this far, may as well get something. Then I headed back downtown, where I could get lunch and coffee.

Let’s Ride to Reston!

It was one of those perfect Sundays in April that forced you outside. Tulips were blooming, the skies were cloud-free and the temperature was inching toward 60 degrees.

No way was I staying inside. I wanted the WO&D Trail, an old rail route that runs for 45 miles and escapes the DC metro sprawl. The furthest I’ve biked on the trail was Vienna. This time, I would go further.

And with my Specialized Sirrus tuned up by Bike Rack, I had the perfect vehicle to get me there. So I biked and biked and biked – up the long hill in Rosslyn, around the fun corkscrew on the Custis Trail, and then the ascent into Arlington, Falls Church and Vienna. Then I kept on to Reston, where I had lunch in their ersatz town center, and turned around.

Strangely, for me, I hardly took any pictures. I was focused on riding.

lovely day to bike to Vienna

After 33 miles, I need this to get me back to DC #bikedc #igdc

On the return leg, I started to flag near Vienna so I stopped for cappuccino at Caffe Amouri. The great thing about the WO&D is that every few miles there are breweries, restaurants, bike shops and coffee places. The caffeine was enough to push me back down the trail, where I got to fly downhill on the Custis Trail and back to DC.

I returned exhausted, a little sunburned and strangely un-hungry. I’m not that much of a Strava fanatic (it’s a fitness-tracking app) but I’m embedding this ride because 50 miles – that’s a record for me!