Deb of Women BikeDC. Part 1: Infrastructure Beyond D.C. and Turtle Rescues

Every time I post one of the Women BikeDC interview series I feel proud to be part of the women’s cycling community. No matter the barriers, we ride, and cycling has transformed us in many different ways. Today I’m featuring the first part of my interview with Deb, who some of you may know as @debiguity on the Twitterverse.

A year-round commuter with an 18-mile one-way bike commute in the Virginia suburbs (!), Deb describes bicycling as active meditation. Today she  discusses how bicycling has changed her world view, and the ways our area could be improved for all cyclists. Also, a dramatic tale of a turtle rescue. These turtles are surprisingly more common in the D.C. area than I knew!

Thanks, Deb, for being part of this series– tell us a little about yourself.

I’m your standard government contractor living in the D.C. area. I live in Arlington and commute to Springfield – almost to the Occoquan! I’m vegan, I have 3 cats, I’m a java programmer and I’m 5′ short.

I tell my coworkers that I bike commute because I’m too lazy to go to the gym. It’s not actually why I started bike commuting, but I am indeed too lazy to go to the gym, so it is kind of true.

How has riding a bicycle influenced you?

Riding has changed the way I view the world around me, for certain. I still remember the feeling on my first day of bike commuting. When I first set off, it was this incredible rush, a freedom and a power.

I remember thinking, “I am really going to do this! I’m free of the car!” It felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. And then when I made the final turn that put me just a half mile from work? I realized I really *could* do this. And walking into the bathroom stall to change, I felt like a superhero.

I still sometimes have moments where I’m in awe of being able to propel myself through the world with whatever strength I have in my legs (and with the bike’s mechanical assist). This, in turn, gives me a different body image than I’ve ever had – whatever my body might look like is completely overshadowed by its ability to get me where I need to go.

Of course I also eat a *lot* more. I used to be able to skip meals, but no longer!

But also, bike commuting has been an incredible mood stabilizer, which I desperately needed. I call it an “active meditation.” Not quite the same as sitting meditation, but the constant interruption of thoughts means it is really hard for me to hold onto negative thought cycles. My brain can be my enemy. Biking is a powerful tool to keep that in check!

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When did you start riding?

When did I start riding or when did I start bike commuting? I started riding as a little kid, I’m not sure how old I was. I remember the banana seat though! The first bike that I chose for myself was a Schwinn Predator, admittedly because of the name! It can still remember that bike, too.

I started bike commuting about seven years ago. I didn’t do a lot of biking after childhood. I did bike around college campus a bit, but then barely biked at all until I started bike commuting. When people say they can’t bike commute because they’re not in good enough shape, I kind of laugh. I got in shape for my original bike commute (which was 14.5 miles each way) by bike commuting!

What sorts of things do you do by bike?

Mostly I bike to and from work. I very quickly found that in my heart of hearts, I’m a utility cyclist. Riding to get somewhere makes me happy. Riding in a circle just to ride doesn’t thrill me as much. Or sometimes at all. And my commute is long – it’s now 18 miles each way – so I don’t have a lot of time (or energy or inclination) for other riding and the weekends are actually a welcome break from the bike!

Of course when I have to go to the bike shop that’s usually a detour on my commute home. And if I am going home near the Clarendon-Ballston area, it’s just easier to ride than drive.

Each summer I go to a few concerts out at Wolf Trap with a friend. We both bike and we have the same taste in music, so it’s a lot of fun. I bring wine, she brings snacks. And we snicker at the people inching their way out of the parking lot at the end of the concert as we scoot by on our bikes.

What features do you think make a city bike-friendly and why?

Bike infrastructure, especially separated infrastructure, is undoubtedly the most significant feature for a bike friendly city. That’s what will make cyclists feel safe, and what will get more cyclists on the road. The fact that riding the W&OD allows you to bypass many lights and intersections, for example, also makes the ride more fun. That it goes through some gorgeous areas that make it hard to believe is still through a city doesn’t hurt!

Bike lanes that aren’t separated are nice too, though it still means you are relying on drivers paying attention to something other than their phone, their laptop, their newspaper on their steering wheel, their kid in the back seat, their coffee, etc.

I hear some scary stories from my driving coworker about what other drivers are up to while they drive. And reading the paper is apparently a thing some of these drivers are doing. The safety that a line painted on the street gives is minimal. However it does help drivers to know what to expect (seems to confuse them less) and for the most part reduces conflict and therefore puts both drivers and cyclists at more ease.

But when you have no infrastructure other than the roads themselves (which is how half of my commute would be described), then it is the drivers themselves that make the entire difference between bike-friendly and not.

I am also now convinced that a narrow twisty road (Old Colchester) induces more polite driver behavior than a wide straight road with long sight-lines (Van Dorn). It reminds me a bit of when I lived in Colorado, and driving in the mountains. Suddenly everyone adopted a different attitude about how their driving behavior impacted others.

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What do you like about riding in the D.C. area?

I like that trails are real viable options for biking to get somewhere you need to go. I can’t use them to get to work, but when I ride to Wolf Trap, which is about 15 miles from home, it’s almost entirely on the W&OD! I can ride into D.C. on bike trails, or over to Alexandria. It is such a great resource, even if I don’t use it often.

The bike community in D.C. is also awesome. Even though I am not exactly a social butterfly, I have made some really wonderful connections. I’ve even met a couple in person! I’ve gotten endless advice and feedback, weather commiseration, and even a personal bike tour of D.C! Thanks be to Twitter, I feel like I have a community out there supporting me. And of course some of my bike support on Twitter is not even in the D.C. area!

How could the D.C. area be improved for cyclists?

Most of the attention goes to the District itself, and the close suburbs. This makes sense, as this is where the cyclist density is. But I often feel like everyone else is neglected. Not completely – I do have bike lanes on half of my commute, and the 2 major ones (Beulah and Telegraph) are even connected to each other. But there are these giant disconnects in the route as far as reasonable infrastructure goes.

I ride Van Dorn from Braddock to Franconia Road. This is not exactly a recommended road. Most of it isn’t bad, actually, but the key part (and the part that I can’t avoid without adding 1.5 miles to my commute) is the part that gets you outside the beltway. Any time you’re crossing the beltway your options reduce to very few, and those options will be miles apart. This is a burden for cyclists.

I’m sure city planners will look at Van Dorn and point to the side path…on the downhill side of Van Dorn. This just doesn’t work for me.

First of all, it’s on the wrong side of the road. I can go 42 mph downhill on that section, so obviously I don’t have any need of the side path when going downhill unless traffic is backed up and I exercise my dual citizenship (vehicle / pedestrian) to get around the traffic jam.

Second, have they ever ridden that path? The wooden slats are treacherous if they aren’t dry. It is so narrow under the bridge that 2 people can barely pass each other.

And then there is the Tunnel Of Doom! What woman wants to ride through a tunnel that is completely out of sight of everyone who isn’t actually in the tunnel?! And there are swaths of this path that are basically a collection of ruts that I’m not sure anyone with a road bike would want to ride. (I throw my Surly Long Haul Trucker at it, of course, with no worries. It’s not exactly comfortable though.)

Since there are extremely limited options to get from one side of the beltway to the other, city planners need to make those limited options extremely bike and ped friendly. So far they have not done this, at least at Van Dorn. Even worse, the Van Dorn option for getting across the beltway is just down the road from the Van Dorn metro station.

There’s a hotel on the top of the Van Dorn Hill (the metro station is at the bottom, on the other side of the beltway) and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people walking from that hotel along a part of the road where there is no sidewalk, and crossing wherever they can (to get to the side path on the other side) because there is nowhere that is actually legal to cross, and no ped assistance to cross. It is ridiculous. A hotel that is a couple of tenths of a mile from a metro station, and nearly inaccessible other than by car? What are these planners thinking?!

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What suggestions do you have for employers who want to be bike-friendly?

a. Parking
b. Clothes dryer

Everyone talks about showers, but I’ve never had one and it’s not a show-stopper, or even close. I think the bike advocacy community is shooting themselves in the foot by putting so much emphasis on showers. I have talked to too many potential commuters who say “but we don’t have showers at work” and can’t get beyond that.

But a clothes dryer…this is my dream. I have a heater under my desk that I use mostly when I’m cold, but also when I have ridden to work in the rain and need to dry my clothes for the ride home. It’s a pain though! I’d love a dryer. And that’s never going to happen!

I don’t even have a bike rack now, so just having some bike parking would be fantastic. Covered parking would be especially nice!

My bar is set low. My employers have been bike friendly in the sense of not giving me any kind of hassle (and verbally encouraging me) and until recently they allowed me to park inside in the loading dock because there literally was nothing to even lock my bike to.

At my new location and new employer, there is now a pole I can lock to right outside the entrance, but still no actual bike parking. We will be moving to a final destination in a few months (yet an additional 0.2 mile further – I can’t get a break) and I’m promised a bike rack then.

Tell me about your bikes.

I have three bikes, but 99% of my riding is on my commuter.

– Surly Long Haul Trucker — This is my commuter. I have something like 42,000 miles on it. I throw it at everything, and it can basically take everything. It is a bit of a frankenbike at this point, but it suits me perfectly. I wish I had a disk trucker (I wear through rims basically yearly thanks to mileage and weather), but they weren’t out when I got my LHT.

– Ice Bike — this is an old mountain bike that I turned into an ice bike with studded tires. I only ride it a few times a year, but when the conditions warrant it, it is golden. This year we had a morning that wasn’t that much snow, but which turned all the roads into hockey rinks. Cars sliding all over the place, unable to get up hills, etc. and I rode right by all of them, rock solid on my ice bike!

– Mountain Bike (Trek something or other) — I haven’t ridden it in a couple of years, because having to drive to go mountain biking means that I almost never go mountain biking! But there is something special about riding through the woods that I love. I just wish we had places like they have out west where you can spend hours exploring. Here we have loops.

What bike accessories do you consider must-haves?
  • mirror
  • lights
  • fenders
  • rack
What’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever had on a bike?

On my way home from my first Wolf Trap concert, I was riding along the W&OD and it was firefly season. They were everywhere! It was magical. I haven’t had any serious bike adventures, so magic will have to do!

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What question did I forget to ask you?

Have you ever rescued / transported an injured turtle by bike?

Why yes! I have! Last year I was on my way home from work, barely a mile down the road, and I rode past something that caught my eye.

I pulled my bike over, basically dropped it on the sidewalk, and ran back to rescue the turtle before my brain fully registered what I’d seen. The turtle was on his back, all his limbs in his shell, so at first glance I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.

I picked him up and jogged back to my bike. I wasn’t sure he was alive, and when I turned him right side up, blood dripped out of his shell. I put him on the grass and after a few minutes I saw his shell open a bit. I peeked in and sure enough, he was looking right at me.

I called the Virginia Wildlife Hotline for advice, and they said to bring him in. Of course “bring him in” meant somewhere way out in Tysons or beyond.

So I put him in my pannier – luckily I have a top portion that is separate from the rest, and I transferred everything to the lower portion, and put the turtle in the top portion. He just fit.

I rode home, checking on him at every stoplight. Once I closed the zipper, he must have felt safe, because he spent the whole ride trying to get out! I then drove him out to the vet and left my name/number and where I found him.

Turtles are very territorial, and they visually orient themselves so it is extremely important that they get released back where they were found. Otherwise, they will wander and wander until they find their way back, so it can be deadly to release them elsewhere.

About a month later I got a call from the Long Branch Wildlife Center, where he had been rehabilitated, so I picked him up and drove him to where I found him. I wasn’t sure which side of the road he’d been headed toward, so I released him, and then when he shot straight toward the road, I picked him up and walked him across the road.

When I put him back down on the other side he made a beeline straight for some bushes. I never would have seen him and been able to rescue him if I hadn’t been on the bike. And upside down…he stood no chance without help.

3 thoughts on “Deb of Women BikeDC. Part 1: Infrastructure Beyond D.C. and Turtle Rescues

  1. What a wonderful interview and I love the story about rescuing the turtle! Well done, Deb! May your kindness be returned ten-fold.

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  2. the stretches she rides….man, or woman, she must be super tough!! i ride those stretches, like telegraph and old colchester…and am always on high alert. the old church with the civil war graffiti is super cool, at colchester and us 1.
    the tunnel she refers to…ha ha ha…its creepy, but handy…if you take it the other way it can take you out to cameron run where “foods from around the world” is!!! — a great store…
    van dorn and getting over the beltway…ugh. she’s right. up the hill to van dorn is a pain. but you can ride the (illegal) dirt road down to franconia — that’s an adventure…ha ha. does she cut through the belvoir base down to old colchester? thats illegal too if you enter from northern end at the bottom on the hill…but ive never had any problem…
    im impressed by her knowledge of the roads and her infrastructure suggestions…and bike choice. and for what it’s worth, disc rotors break and warp and get bent…disc pads arent cheap…so rims wear out from rim brakes…it’s no big deal. this woman is a hell of a rider…

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