July-August 2015 | Featured Article

Bike Commuters

These Bethesda-area residents leave their cars behind and bike to work.

THE DYNAMIC DUO

ANDREW GLOVER, 36, grew up riding bikes with his dad in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and his first job after college was as a bike messenger in the District. But it wasn’t until his wife (Mary Clare Glover, managing editor of this magazine) switched jobs in the spring of 2014 that he considered riding with his son, Henry, as a way for the family to put off buying a second car.

Glover bought a front bike seat and a helmet for Henry, who was 18 months old at the time, and carefully planned the mile-long route from their home in Silver Spring to Henry’s preschool in Takoma Park. “I was a little nervous about how Henry was going to react,” says Glover, who planned to drop his son at school, and then ride to the Takoma Metro station.

“If I put him in the seat and he was scared and unhappy, the whole plan would be no good.”
On a test ride a few days before the first commute, though, Henry more than cooperated. “He didn’t want to get out of the bike when we finished the ride,” Glover says.

Henry, now 2, likes to chat with his dad on their rides, which take them on a bike path that skirts alongside the Metro’s Red Line in Takoma Park. Henry points out every train that comes by, often calling them Thomas or Percy, two of his favorite characters from the Thomas the Tank Engine series.

They ride in all but the worst conditions, and have matching balaclavas for cold weather and matching blue ponchos for rainy days. “It’s my way of introducing Henry to bikes,” says Glover, an attorney in the Office of the Attorney General in Washington, D.C. “I want him to think that biking is this easy, fun thing to do, and I hope he can enjoy riding bikes as much as I do as he gets older.”

 

THE DIE-HARD

WHEN JENNI VOORHEES started working at the Sidwell Friends Lower School in Bethesda 37 years ago, there was no question she’d be commuting by bike—despite the fact that she was living in Arlington. This meant a sometimes harrowing trip on roads with heavy vehicle traffic and no bike lanes. “I grew up going everywhere by bike,” says Voorhees, now 59, who spent her childhood in Seattle.

Voorhees continued that commute for nearly 10 years, and says she had a love-hate relationship with Canal Road, which provided beautiful views of the Potomac River, but also, she says, “an obstacle around every turn.”

One morning, shortly after she began bike commuting, she got a flat tire and realized the tube couldn’t be fixed. Although she had a tube-repair kit, she hadn’t thought to bring a new tube. Another cyclist stopped to lend a hand, produced an inner tube to replace Voorhees’ busted one, and “in less than 10 minutes,” she says, “taught me everything I needed to know about changing a flat in a hurry.”  

It wasn’t until Voorhees moved to the White Flint mall area 23 years ago that she truly fell in love with bike commuting. Her kids were young then, and she says some of her happiest memories are of commuting by bike with them—sometimes with all three at once (two in a trailer and one in a bike seat).

Voorhees’ kids are grown now, but she still enjoys her 5½-mile ride along the Bethesda Trolley Trail to the National Institutes of Health, and then through neighborhoods near Suburban Hospital.

“It’s so freeing,” says Voorhees, who now serves as director of technology for Sidwell Friends Lower School. “There’s no traffic or anything else to create an obstacle to my progress—except maybe a flat tire.”

 

THE ACTIVIST

COLMAN MCCARTHY glides down Wisconsin Avenue on his commuter bike, cruising alongside traffic while wearing slacks, a shirt and tie, and a bike helmet.

It’s the opening scene of a video about him that was created by his students at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where for nearly 30 years he has taught a class in peace and social justice. The longtime activist and former Washington Post columnist says his daily 9-mile round-trip bike commute from his home near American University to B-CC is an important way for him to live his values.

McCarthy bought his first commuter bike, a Raleigh three-speed, during the 1973 oil crisis. “One of my great joys is cycling past the gas stations and seeing the suckers in there getting ripped off by Big Oil,” McCarthy says. “I know that’s a cheap thrill, but I do allow myself a moment of schadenfreude.”

McCarthy says blustery days provide a unique sense of joy. “You get a feel for the earth and a feel for the wind that you’re not getting when you’re trapped in a steel, rubbery oily machine,” he says.

McCarthy, 77, credits cycling for keeping him healthy—he takes no prescription medications and has no major health problems. He says it’s good for his spirit, as well.

“Socrates said to do something hard every day, that it’s good for the soul,” McCarthy says. “There’s a long hill up Massachusetts Avenue by the Brazilian Embassy that fulfills that function for me.”

 

THE LATE BLOOMER

GROWING UP, Margaret McBurney went on many bike rides with her father, but her interest in cycling fell off in adulthood. It wasn’t until she started commuting from her home in Kensington to her job as an executive assistant at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda that she thought about taking up her old hobby again.

“NIH is only about 2½ miles away from me,” says McBurney, now 54. “I’m not a big fan of driving, and I knew it would have the added benefit of giving me daily exercise.”

So eight years ago, she set out on her hybrid bicycle headed toward the NIH for the first time. She acknowledges that the first few years were full of learning experiences.

Once, she accidentally left her work outfit at home and had to wear her biking clothes all day. When she got her first flat tire, she found a place to lock up her bike and walked the rest of the way home. Now she keeps an extra change of clothes at work and always carries a bicycle pump.

She also has learned to appreciate the bike racks on the front of Metro buses, which she takes when she encounters a thunderstorm or other severe weather.  

Three years ago, McBurney invested in some additional gear—waterproof and windproof pants and a jacket, for example—so she could ride every day, year-round. She also changed routes so she could travel through quieter neighborhoods, rather than on commuter thoroughfares.

“It takes me about 25 minutes, and it’s a truly pleasant view of daily life,” McBurney says. “I see nature—deer and rabbits and birds—and I also see children waiting at bus stops. Sometimes it’s so enjoyable I think, ‘If only I didn’t have to turn into work!’ ”

 

THE CONVERT

WHEN DAVE DABNEY became executive director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership 16 years ago, he realized he’d need to change some of his habits. As part of his new role, Dabney, who had spent the previous 25 years in the auto industry, would be responsible for encouraging traditional commuters to consider more sustainable alternatives.

“I realized that if I was going to try to mitigate traffic within a vibrant urban setting by convincing people there were alternatives to driving alone in a car, I had to be able to walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” says Dabney, 68.

So, on an early-spring day in 2000, Dabney loaded his bike into the car, drove from his home in Olney to Lake Needwood in Derwood, and then embarked on his first two-wheel commute.

“The first time I ventured out, I didn’t know where I was going, and I learned that one wrong turn can lead you to end up in downtown Rockville, not downtown Bethesda,” Dabney says.

There have been other occasional mishaps, such as the time six years ago when Dabney’s front wheel skidded on damp asphalt, resulting in a crash that left him with a broken wrist.

He didn’t ride again for two months, and has been careful on rainy or humid days ever since.

But once he learned the route, Dabney says he grew to enjoy the hourlong, 12.8-mile ride, which mostly follows Rock Creek Trail. “I found it to be really peaceful,” he says.

Dabney now commutes on his Trek mountain bike at least once a week during warm weather. When he tells people he bikes from Olney or Derwood to downtown Bethesda, they often say, “Really? I didn’t know you could do that.”