Category Archives: Commute Reflections

Stillness in the Ruckus of Washington, D.C.

Buses align Ohio Drive, one after the other, and block my once-daily view of the Potomac.

Large chatty groups of tourists swarm the National Mall, oblivious to the bike commuters that weave around them. They start the day early, and I fail to wake up any earlier to avoid their field trips.

The sudden influx is an annual jolt. The quiet commute is gone. Rush hour noises surround me. They seem even louder than before. People chatter and shout, buses belch and surge. And there’s honking. Always honking.

I still seek stillness in the ruckus. It’s my silent scavenger hunt. Instinct guides me, and the camera in hand is like an extra set of eyes.

A moment may be all there is before a still spot vanishes. Years ago, that would anger me. Now it is all I need.

Forsythia on the Mall
Forsythia on the Mall
Bike shadow on Green
Bike shadow on Green
Early Blossoms on the Mall
Early Blossoms on the Mall
Tidal Basin plus Surly
Tidal Basin plus Surly

Fallen flowers on 14th Street

Celebrating a sunny warm day as the cars go by
Celebrating a sunny warm day as the cars go by

Birthday Week Bike Rides in BikeDC

Dear Washington, D.C., my current city of residence,

I discovered a better way to maneuver around you after too many years as a subterranean Metro passenger.

Monday Afternoon at the Monument
Monday Afternoon at the Monument

Your dense pinwheel layout and abundant side streets instilled a belief that I could pedal your roads without too much angst or trouble.

Tuesday Morning Under the 14th Street Bridge
Tuesday Morning Under the 14th Street Bridge

My first days were simple routes, from Adams Morgan to L’Enfant Plaza. I had lots to learn. There were missteps, like that one morning I was late to work and foolishly tried to rip down 14th Street. I won’t tell if you won’t.

Tuesday Morning Cheesy Monument Photo Time with the Jefferson
Tuesday Morning Cheesy Monument Photo Time with the Jefferson

But I gained confidence. I explored. You became even more easily navigable than I first imagined.

Tuesday 15th Street Cycletrack and These Horses
Tuesday 15th Street Cycletrack and These Horses

Through the years, we’ve come to know each other better, you and I. You’re a decent place for us cyclists, D.C.

Wednesday by the Jefferson. Watching the Tourists Arrive
Wednesday by the Jefferson. Watching the Tourists Arrive

The cars have tried to take you over, but you still save some parts of yourself just for us. Never concede them, please. Try and reclaim others, if you can.

Thursday Under Memorial Bridge
Thursday Under Memorial Bridge

This is my birthday week– a week in March that also marks the changing of the seasons.

Thursday. Calm water on the Potomac. The Surly wants its own Shot.
Thursday. Calm water on the Potomac. The Surly wants its own Shot.

Before the buses block the view of the Potomac River and the tourists overtake your streets and sidewalks, I captured some moments of us together.

I also snuck in my own tourist photo.

Cheesy pre-work selfie with my favorite cycling partner
Cheesy pre-work selfie with my favorite cycling partner
Ending the Week with a Rainy Pass through the White House Plaza
Ending the Week with a Rainy Pass through the White House Plaza

The city. My bike. Me.

I think we look good together, and I look forward to another year with you. Let’s hope it’s the best year yet.

The Truth and Nonsense of the N+1 Principle of Bicycles

If you’ve been around bikes long enough, you’re likely familiar with the “n+1″ principle. Velominati describes it as follows:

The correct number of bikes to own is n+1.

While the minimum number of bikes one should own is three, the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of bikes currently owned. This equation may also be re-written as s-1, where s is the number of bikes owned that would result in separation from your partner.

I became quite caught up in the n + 1 principle in my early days as a bike enthusiast, although I did not know it had a name. My stable quickly grew from one Fuji road bike to a road bike + fixed gear + light touring bike + a commuter/touring bike + folding bike + single speed folding bike + you get the idea.

As cycling became one of my central activities, bicycles also caught my fancy. I justified my n+1 purchases in different ways. I need a bike for commuting. I need this one as a back-up bike. I need a fixed gear to work on my spin. I need a single speed because it’s low maintenance and easier to clean.

I need this bike for randonneuring, and that bike for summer vacations and future bike tours, a mixte just because, and I must have this bike because it’s a limited edition and this other bike since it is no longer made and this might be my very last chance to own one ever.

S-1 does not apply at my house. There are no furrowed brows when someone in my house says “Have you seen this bicycle? I think I may need it.” We don’t hide bike purchases from each other or lie about how much they cost (which I have my own thoughts about for those who do) and I don’t say that my other half “won’t let me” buy a bike (also something I have thoughts about). My spouse and I know all about the need for bikes. Our dining room is proof of that.

Over time I’ve realized that n+1 is truth and nonsense, but more nonsense than truth. That’s part of the ongoing joke, I know. Even though we may be able to concoct justifications for another ride and the bike industry would have us continue to purchase specialized bikes for all types of cycling and road surfaces, who among us actually needs more than one bike?

Rivendell Romulus

I am proud of the bikes I own and it took some years and careful searching to acquire them, but it’s no feat to have a bunch of bikes. All it takes is disposable income, time, and a desire for bicycles.

Over the years, I’ve also learned that n+1 does not match my riding style. Generally, I ride three bikes: the Surly Long Haul Trucker, my Rivendell Quickbeam, and our Co-Motion Java tandem. While these are my everyday favorites, I think of my Rivendell Romulus, Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, and my Rawland dSogn as my preferred weekend single ride steeds. But I’m not riding much single bike on the weekend these days so they don’t see much time outdoors.

I’d likely ride my bikes more if I was doing more long rides by myself, but my current way of touring and randonneuring is by tandem. The other bikes are pulled out every once in a while, but generally they spend most of their lives in the Dining Room Bike Shop.

In contrast, Felkerino is more of an n+1 rider than I am. He frequently rotates through the bikes on his side of the dining room. He told me that he likes to switch his ride every two or three weeks. Felkerino gives all of his bikes equal love and attention, while I focus my affection on a few of the bikes I have.

I am happy with all my bikes and, with the exception of my torrid relationship with the Bike Friday Tikit, I’ve dialed in their fit and comfort so they ride well for short or long distances. It’s nice to have bikes that work particularly well for brevets, mixed surfaces, commutes, and touring, but it certainly isn’t necessary.

I don’t generally ride each of my bikes enough to truly justify owning them all. In the meantime, I keep the bikes I own as an indulgence. I already own them, and I aspire to ride them all more one day soon. Maybe tomorrow. Or next week. Or when it’s warmer outside.

I still look at bikes, admire them, and think about how they would ride and the ways they would complement my current bike family. Future bike is always out there and I want it. Practically speaking, though, my n+1 days are at a standstill. The dining room is far too crowded.

Figuring Out How to Speak Bike

Recently Elly Blue put a question out to the Twitterverse, asking people about the things they found difficult when first taking up cycling. Her question took me back to 2003 or so when I began cycling around Washington, D.C., for transportation and fitness.

As I wrote about when describing my evolution as a transportation and recreational cyclist, I had a desire to explore the city on two wheels and get my blood pumping in the process, but I possessed little knowledge of the bicycle itself.

This inability to speak bike created a sense of frustration and vulnerability. Until I began riding as an adult (using a Ross mountain bike from my high school days), I had no need to know any of the proper words for bicycle parts.

Few of my friends shared my blossoming interest so my initial bicycle outings were solo affairs. I continued to put more  miles on my bike, and over time it dawned on me that my bike required regular TLC to keep it rolling smoothly. Naturally, I learned this through problems that manifested– flat tires, worn brakes, rusting chains, tires balding, and the like.

I couldn’t do this type of maintenance myself so I had no choice but to search for a bike shop. The whole idea of a bike shop was daunting.

Bicycle Letterpress Card from Larkpress
Bicycle Letterpress Card from Larkpress*

I knew little about bikes. I did not know how to talk about them. I imagined all the people working in the shop would be male and that they would all look down their noses at me, a struggling novice who couldn’t speak bike.

When presented with the choice of letting my bike fall into unusable disrepair or a visit to the bike shop, though, I mustered up my courage and went. As I feared, it was all men working in the bike shop, but they didn’t seem too horribly condescending or unapproachable so I started talking.

I hearkened back to my days living in Colombia, when I lived in a second language. I called all the parts and processes I did not understand by “thing,” and made full use of my pointing skills. “My chain and this thing…” “Using this thing while I change gears…” “This thing here doesn’t seem to be working correctly.”

Language is not learned in a vaccuum, although you can try. You can sit at home studying grammar and vocabulary, and it will certainly help you some. It’s through having occasion to use the words that they begin to lodge themselves into our heads.

Even though I speak bike more than I ever did, I still don’t speak it very well. Yeah, I learned the basics alright because my bike is generally my preferred transportation method, and it’s necessary for me to have a roadworthy steed at all times.

The finer points of bike speak are reluctant to stick, like a person whose name you know you should know, but you have a delayed ability to recall it. Seat stay, chain stay, skewer, cantilever vs. caliper. Bah.

My lack of good bike speak doesn’t hold me back from bike shops and caring for my bike these days. I now have the experience that comes with 11 years of daily riding. I also have a circle of friends, established relationships with bike shops, and a randonneur and real-life spouse who are fluent in the language of bike. If there is bike vocabulary I need to learn or a particular aspect I’m struggling with regarding my bike, I’m comfortable asking.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. I look back on that woman just starting out as a cyclist and I feel so much empathy for her. She did not have a support network to teach her the language of bike. I’m proud of her for reaching out and overcoming her fears. The bike rider I am today thanks her.

*The card featured in this post is from Larkpress. They make beautiful paper goods (perfect for Valentine’s day, hint hint) so check them out here.

Combating Cynicism Through Active Commutes

Today I was reading David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water.”  In it, he addresses the theme of selfishness, as well as the tedious aspects of adult life and how we all construct and view our life experiences.

Our challenge, he says, is to step outside ourselves, take an active role in interpreting our surroundings, and not succumb to that everyday tediousness.

I call this fighting cynicism. In recent years, the importance of this challenge has been very present in my own mind. It’s easy for me to become irritated by the day-to-day administrative functions of my life as I fume about how they hold me back from a potentially “rad” existence. I’ve been hearing that word “rad” a lot lately, and I hate it, so I’m using it here. Cynicism! Wait, where was I?

As I read David Foster Wallace’s speech, I thought that it would have benefitted from a paragraph suggesting that one of the best ways to stave off cynicism is through actively commuting, whenever you can. Continue reading Combating Cynicism Through Active Commutes

The Wheelman’s Song

Those of you who follow me on Instagram may have noticed that I’ve been perusing old issues of The Wheelman and Good Roads.

Both magazines were publications of the League of American Wheelman, which is now the Bike League, and date back to the late 1800’s, when people’s fascination with the bicycle was just beginning to take hold in the United States.

The excitement and novelty of riding a bicycle permeates these editions. From tour recounts to illustrations and poems, men (mostly men, as women are unfortunately largely absent from these publications) unabashedly adored bike riding.

An example of this appreciation for the bike is found in the poem below, “Wheelman’s Song, ” written by Will Carleton in 1884. It seemed a fitting way to end one year and help inspire the next. Continue reading The Wheelman’s Song

Giving Thanks for Bike Rides

Ten years ago I began life as a daily bike rider, after years of mass transit and more driving than I care to remember.

My bike was my tour guide, encouraging me to explore and familiarize myself with the city.

Because of bike rides, I gained physical strength and confidence.

Surly LHT in DC
Surly LHT in DC

Through a friend of a friend I learned about the D.C. Randonneurs, and soon began clipping in with them on brevets and flèche rides.
Continue reading Giving Thanks for Bike Rides

Hard Reset

I came over to this computer intending to write a Coffeeneuring Challenge update (entries due this Monday!), but instead I’m pondering other matters– small changes in my own life that have altered my daily routine and energy levels for the past few months.

One month ago– though it feels longer– I completed my second marathon of October, the Marine Corps Marathon. It was a stimulating event that turned out to tip my emotions and fitness into unexpected fatigue. I lost most of my enthusiasm for riding and running, and ate too much during the lull.

I fell out of balance, which sometimes happens to me after a period of intense activity.
Continue reading Hard Reset