Velointerlude: DC’s Essential Bike Rides

So, my anonymous sources tell me that articles are out, and lists are in. Okay. A list it shall be. The same anonymous sources tell me that lists of local places—”10 Essential DC Eats,” or “13 Best Brunches on 14th Street,” or “11 Places to Get Your Dog’s Toenails Painted in Shaw”—are especially in. Uh, sure, I guess?

Some of these are the “touchstone” rides of DC biking—the things that people on the ever-helpful Washington Area Bike Forum will reference, or that are a unique part of biking in DC. Some of them are just my own personal favorites, hidden gems that most people skip past or don’t even know exist. One or two of them are things that I’ve been meaning to try, and am putting them on a public list so that I now have to do them.

And, this being me, I’m including my favorite places to stop for coffee/ice cream/cool stuff along the way.

1. Commute to work: What’s the trip that’s probably most familiar to you? The one between the two places you spend most of your time. Try making that same, familiar trip from one place to the other by bike if you haven’t tried it before. Or try biking to a Metro station or a bus stop. Or perhaps try biking from work. It’s a great way to see a different (and usually more interesting) side of neighborhoods you’ve passed every day for years.

2. Ride for coffee/happy hour/lunch/dinner: Okay, after work and home, where can you be found third most often? Fourth? Etc? Chances are, at least a few of them are close and might be easier to get to than work—and more enjoyable once you’re there!

3. Find and read every historical plaque, inscription, statue, and marker in your neighborhood: In one sense, this is hard to do; there are a lot of small and easily overlooked historical markers and works of public art even just here in College Park! It helps that there are people online who look for, photograph, and catalogue these things to give you a head start. Of course, there are still other challenges—finding the boxing ring in Berwyn Heights, for instance, or the Gluckstern Garden might take some hunting. For those of you who live around College Park, it’s also very much worth finding the Maryland Dairy in the Stamp Union for ice cream.

4. Beech Drive on Sunday: On Sundays, Beech Drive in Rock Creek park is closed to cars, but open to bikes! It’s nice to enjoy the wide, seemingly flat roads on your way up to the Parkway Deli’s reubens and radial bars (among other things) at the north end of the park…and take advantage of the downhill going the other way.
Bonus 4.5—Sligo Creek: Sligo Creek Parkway is also closed to traffic on Sundays, and is also quite nice—and not only because it’s a short jaunt from it to Capitol City Cheesecake.

5. Hains Point/East Potomac Park: Bonus points if you can do it during cherry blossom season and bike through a tunnel of cherries—all the blossoms, fewer hordes. It’s also a great place for doing a bit of fast riding and acting like you’re Totally Pro, or watching the schmucks (like Yours Truly) killing themselves going too fast, not fooling anyone into thinking they’re even slightly Pro, and missing out on the cherries. Extra special bonus points if you can find the original 1910 test plot of the first trees given to the US by Japan.

IMG_19336. National Arboretum: Bonus points if you can do it during azalea season, when Azalea Hill is covered with blooms in every color. Come to think of it, dogwood season is quite nice as well. As is the fall, when the leaves change. Or winter, when the Asian collections and conifers show themselves in their subtlety. Or, well, any other time of year when the National Bonsai Museum is open (don’t miss the 400-year-old pine that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima) and the surreal Capital Columns rise out of the wildflower meadow. A bit further south to H Street, and you’re at Dangerously Delicious Pies for coffee and pies that are decidedly delectable.

IMG_14907. Brookland: Bonus points if you can do it in June, when the roses at the Franciscan Monastery are in bloom. This is one of my personal favorites; while some parts of Brookland, especially the parts just south of CUA and along 12th Street, have changed dramatically in the last few years, other parts have retained their old character. The gardens and catacombs of the Monastery are worth a visit, as is the Basilica of the National Shrine, and, for that matter, JB at Menomale for a good negroni and Neopolitan pizza afterwards.
Bonus 7.5—Rock Creek Churchyard: Probably my favorite cemetery in DC, home to the Shakespeare-inspired Kauffmann Memorial and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ memorial to Clover Adams. One of my favorite autumn rides, when the orange and gold of the falling leaves contrasts with the green and granite of the monuments.

IMG_19638. Cyclocross Races: Bonus points if…well, they only happen in the fall, so automatic bonus points, I guess. No, you don’t have to race yourself to enjoy ‘cross season, though if you want to give it a try, you will get a whole crowd of cowbell-ringing crazies cheering for you from the moment you start until you cross the line. Or you can grab a cowbell and a souvenir beer glass and join in from the sidelines. Do it right, and you’ll be hoarse before it’s time to grab waffles between the single speed race and Lil’ Belgians. Hyattsville CX in Magruder Park is the first week of October, and local; for DCCX a few weeks later, you’ll get a rare chance to ride the roads and slopes of the Soldier’s Home.

9. Christmas Shopping by Bike: Bonus points if you’re not one of Those People who does all their gift buying in July and therefore misses out the fun of shopping by bike in December. Wait. “Fun?” Christmas shopping? Biking in December? Fun? That word, it does not mean what I think it means, right?
No, it does. First, you’re on a bike, not stuck in traffic. Second, you’re on a bike, not stuck in something you have to park. Third, you’re on a bike, so all those delicious things you find at outdoor holiday markets go from being guilty pleasures to necessary fuel to get you around. Fourth, you’re on a bike, a person in the open air on the street, able to take in the sounds and smells around you, rather than being removed from the world. Fifth, you’re on a bike, and it’s lovely weather for a bike ride together with…okay, fine, I’ll stop butchering song lyrics now.
For bike-based gifthunting, I like to try Old Town Alexandria, which certainly has its share of small, locally owned, and unique shops—but the Torpedo Factory Art Center deserves special mention, and not only because there are people there who feed my pottery and woodcut addictions. Also worthy of note are two of DC’s best places for coffee practically next door to one another, Killer ESP and Misha’s. Misha’s roasts their own (and does the best Yirgacheffe I’ve ever found), while ESP also has ice cream and pie and macarons and empanadas and cookies and Afternoon Snack Heaven. I sometimes end up happily overcaffeinated from visiting both.

IMG_191110. East of the River Hills/Marvin Gaye Trail: Some of the hills east of the Anacostia are just hard. If you like going up hills, they’re all yours. If you like going down hills, the long descent down Massachusetts Ave., SE makes whatever you had to do to get to the top worth it. If you like views, the one from Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the top of Morris Road is the best in the city. If you like coffee and cool local landmarks, Big Chair Coffee has both.
For a bonus afterwards (or instead of the hills…) work your way north past Fort Dupont Park to the Marvin Gaye Trail, with its pocket parks (yes, even the peanut park), gardens, and home of namesake Marvin Gaye. Quite possibly the coolest—and least known—bike path in the area.

11. Bike Tour with a Tourist: Yes, there’s more to This Town than the Mall. There’s the place we live, the cities we call home, the places that most tourists don’t really see. Why not grab a couple bikes and show a few people from out of town all the cool things we know about in our neighborhoods but that they usually miss out on?

12. Moonlight Monuments: No, you don’t even need a tourist for this one, though a willingness to play one might help. Viewing the monuments at dusk is one of those classic “I live in DC, of course I’ll do it some day, no I haven’t yet” things for most everyone; doing it by bike lets you focus on the view rather than the distances. I like to stop in at Teaism in Penn Quarter whenever I’m in that part of the world—the bike racks behind the Navy Memorial were my favorites before they took ’em out, and that part of 7th Street NW is blissfully calm—but there’s no shortage of choices nearby.

13. Ride a CaBi Bike: And not just because the tourists you’re riding with for those last two need something to ride. Capitol Bikeshare is one of the most successful public bike transit programs in the nation, if not the world (and I’m not entirely sure that “one of” bit is really necessary) and has done wonders to elevate the visibility and viability of bicycling as a mode of transit. Why not give the revolution a ride?

14. Mountain Biking: Wait. Mountain biking? Don’t you need, well, mountains for that? Well, while you can schlep yourself and your bike out to the Alleghenies, Montgomery County hosts the yearly 11-park, 65-mile MoCo Epic, and Fairland Regional Park and Fort Dupont are both within biking distance, while the Schaeffer Farms are just off of John Denver’s country roads near Rockville. Find yourself a trail, grab your bike, and start shredding.

15. WABA’s 50 States Ride: Every state (and Puerto Rico) has an avenue or street named after it somewhere in DC. Every September, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association gives you a chance to visit all of them. 50 states, 68 miles, 8 wards, 200 turns, many hills, and innumerable things you’ve never seen before later, you get what may be the greatest conversation-starting shirt ever made, proclaiming that you have, in fact, biked the 50 States.

IMG_108216. C&O/W&OD/GAP: Feel like biking to Pittsburgh? You can do it without ever having to worry about traffic or hills, taking tunnels through mountains and bridges over valleys; ride past the Great Falls, Harper’s Ferry, the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail, Antietam National Battlefield, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater; visit innumerable small towns, each with their own unique character and characters—and all along a route surveyed by George Washington that played a crucial role in the development of our nation. Some of the stops along the way—White’s Ferry Grill, Shepherdstown’s Blue Moon Cafe, Desert Rose in Williamsport, Bill’s Place at Little Orleans, the pies at Weaver’s, maple syrup from Myersdale, and the homemade peanut butter topped burgers at OTB in Pittsburgh (something that probably only sounds good after enough time riding)—are attractions in and of themselves.

BONUS—Baltimore: And not just riding to Baltimore! Okay, so there’s a pretty great bike route up there that’s actually pretty pastoral and not choked with traffic, but sometimes the real fun is once you get into town. Baltimore Bike Party (last Friday of every month) is the largest, craziest themed party on wheels around (especially for the legendary Halloween editions), while the annual Kinetic Sculpture Race is…well, it defies explanations. I’ve tried. Or try from the Inner Harbor out to Gwynns Falls Park or Druid Hill and Hampden? Navigation can be tricky sometimes—bike routes on the south side of the city don’t seem to connect with those on the north side, and the geography of the harbor can frustrate the unwary—so having a look at the bike map might be a good idea.
As for where to stop…well, it’s Bawlmer, hon! “Lots of places” is a good answer! However, I have a soft spot for the Cross Street Market, where you can get a large cup of Zeke’s coffee at one stall, a Rachel on rye from the one next to it, and a radial bar to share (trust me—even after biking, you won’t be able to finish one) from the one next to that. Or try the Old Bay caramel ice cream at Hampden’s Charmery. Or the meatball sub at DiPasquale’s. Or anything with Golden West‘s green chile. Or…well, you get the idea.

And, of course, there are others—Tweed Ride, coffeebikecrawls, and Giro di Birra brewerytours spring to mind—but too much is enough—though suggestions from the peanut gallery are welcome.

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