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.

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.

Artomatic Demonstrates the Creative Power of DC

Artomatic in Crystal City

Washington is not The Swamp. Nor is it House of Cards. And it’s certainly not the sleepy burg with a couple of cool restaurants that The New York Times rediscovers every few years.

Instead, it’s something different – a sprawling urban corridor that stretches along I-95 from Richmond to Baltimore, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the green forested Appalachians. More than just the nation’s capital, it’s six million people in a megacity that dominates the Mid-Atlantic.

Saturday, while the cherry blossoms were blooming along the Tidal Basin, I crossed the river and went to Artomatic. More than 600 artists, performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes have converged upon Crystal City for this massive art festival that runs from March 24 – May 6. Artomatic is seven floors of art, along with classes, performances and movies, all taking place in an empty office building just across the Potomac from the capitol. Admission is free.

Artomatic is a non-juried festival. Anyone can participate. Artists that pay a fee and agree to do some volunteer time get space to display their work. Which means that you’ll find stuff you love, stuff you hate, and lot of work that falls somewhere in between.

It’s always inspiring. And I love to see friends of mine in the show. You’d be surprised at how many artists there are in Washington. Lawyers, web developers, government workers by day, they’re painters, photographers and dancers by night. Artomatic gives them the opportunity to shine.

Reach IV by Frank Mancino
Reach IV by Frank Mancino

The 5:01 Project by Victoria Pickering
Victoria Pickering took a photo at 5:01 PM every day for this project.

Artomatic is quirky

And where else but in the Washington megacomplex could you have a massive, open festival like Artomatic? Only here will you find the ingredients necessary for this unique happening:

  • Space. A lot of it. Thousands of square feet of space in a building soon to be redeveloped, opened or torn down. Artomatic began in 1999 when a developer donated space in an old building. Artomatic typically takes place in transitional neighborhoods, where space is being converted from use to another. Military offices have moved out of Crystal City and their space is being redeveloped.
  • Artists. A lot of them. The 2008 show featured 1,540 individual artists, including painters, sculptors, photographers, dancers and poets stretched over ten floors in a new office building in NoMa. The artistic community is large in the region, featuring moonlighting professionals as well as graduates from local universities.
  • Audience. The memorable 2008 edition of Artomatic hosted the biggest audience ever, drawing 52,000 people. When I visited on Saturday, the halls were full of friends and family of the artists, as well as the culturally curious, drawn to see something new.
  • Organizers. Artomatic ain’t easy. The festival requires talented event planners to acquire the space, recruit volunteers and manage the event. Smart, well-organized, Type-A people, something DC specializes in.

Only in DC will you find this combination of arts, audiences and organizers. Washington isn’t the city you see on CNN. It’s more than just marble columns and endless arguments. Artomatic demonstrates the creative power and vibrancy of a city that few in America truly know.

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.

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!

Sunday afternoon bike ramble in Alexandria

Sunday afternoon ramble

Lately, I’ve taken to rambling bike rides in Virginia. I like crossing the Potomac. Like my coffeeneuring friend Mary G., I enjoy looking at the river. It’s more than just open space in the city – it’s a bright, blue, cheerful respite from trees turning brown everywhere.

I don’t bike too far on my rambles – twenty miles or so. And they have a casual aspect to them that makes using Strava a bit of a joke. Average speed: 10 miles an hour, thanks to frequent stops to backtrack, eat cupcakes, get lost and take photos.

Sunday afternoon is a great time to bike, too. There’s hardly any traffic in DC and, if the weather’s the least bit cool, the trails are largely free of other cyclists and runners. I like exploring new places.

I don’t know much about Del Ray in Alexandria so set out there. I biked over the 14th St Bridge (the Memorial Bridge is closed to traffic) and then to Crystal City, for a mediocre slice of pizza, then rolled through Del Ray on Monument Avenue. It’s a cute neighborhood that has somehow managed to avoid complete gentrification.

I wanted coffee (always be coffeeneuring) but didn’t see any place in Del Ray so, after getting lost for a bit, made a left down King Street and another left on Royal. A cop car at a stop sign freaked me out – was he going to give me a ticket for failing to completely stop with my foot down? But the car was empty, fortunately.

One pretty cupcake. Seems a shame to eat it. #IGDC #lifeiswanderfood

Royal led me to the Mount Vernon Trail Alternate, which I knew would take me right by Buzz Bakeshop. Buzz! The coffee is decent and the cupcakes are photogenic as hell.

Afterwards, I got lost in the development north of Buzz, wondering if it connected back to the Mount Vernon Trail. It doesn’t (I didn’t believe the No Outlet sign). I went back to the MVT and then around the makeshift cyclecross trail that the National Park Service has established around National Airport.

Then I zipped home before the early winter sunset caught me.

Trail closed detour

Why am I exploring Virginia? Part of me wonders: could I live there? I like DC but I envy those MVT commuters. And it would be so much fun to live near the WO&D Trail.

Northern Virginia seems bike-friendly, from the perspective of a Sunday afternoon trail rider. What it’s like during the week?

Running on Empty on the Jackson River Scenic Trail

Crunchy on the Jackson River Scenic Trail
The leaf-covered Jackson River Scenic Trail in Covington, VA.

Can you outrace a flat? I found out on the Jackson River Scenic Trail.

It was a lovely, warm October day. I was on my way to western North Carolina when I made a little detour up I-64. I wanted to check out the Jackson River Trail outside Covington, VA.

The terrain looks more like West Virginia than the Old Dominion – it’s tree-covered mountains broken up by narrow, winding streams. Covington is an old factory town, with a towering paper mill surrounded by closely-packed houses.

A couple miles outside of town, I parked at Intervale, where the trail begins. On this Friday afternoon, my car was the only vehicle in the lot.

I took the foldy out of the trunk – it’s a Breezer Zig7, basically the same thing as a Dahon. I bought it off Craigslist seven years ago. Other than changing the occasional flat (foreshadowing), it’s needed little maintenance.
Breezer Zig7 in fall leaves

The trail follows the Jackson River up into the hills. The day was warm, the leaves were at peak color, and I hardly saw another soul on the trail. The surface is crushed gravel and is very soft and smooth. I meandered and took photos with my iPhone.

Jackson River #latergram #fall
The Jackson River in fall.

Along the trail, I passed rocky cliffs, gurgling rapids, a crossroad called Petticoat Junction, a gaggle of little barky dogs (behind a fence) and even some miniature ponies.

Seven miles in, the trail turns from gravel to dirt. I decided to turn around.  It seemed like I had been going uphill for the last couple of miles. Then I noticed my rear tire – it had gotten dangerously deflated. Pressing my thumb into the tire, it had lost half its pressure over the course of the ride.

Did I have a pump and a spare tube? Of course not. I am the unprepared cyclist, one that relies on serendipity to guide me.

I didn’t want to walk seven miles back to my car so I decided to outrace the slow leak. I would pedal as hard as I could to get back to Intervale before my tire went completely flat.

Is this logical? Can you really outrun a flat? Is a flat a function of time, distance or weight? Wouldn’t riding the bike make the tire go flat even quicker?

These were academic concerns. I hopped on my bike and took off, racing past the miniature ponies, crumbly cliffs and colorful leaves of the trail.

With relief, I made it back to the car. The tire still had some air in it. By the next morning, it would be totally flat.

Did I learn my lesson? Maybe. Maybe not. The joy of having a bike is the ability to just go. If I had to plan things, it wouldn’t be as much fun. The downside, of course, is the possibility of a long walk home. But I can live with that.