Cyclists with DC Velo Ride. Photo by Skip Brown
IT BEGINS AS A MURMUR, then slowly becomes a hum. Soon I can make out voices, some joyful, some raised in an argumentative but playful way. Then gears meshing, derailleurs dropping and the kind of whoosh! that’s made by wind or a swiftly moving object. In this case, it’s a peloton (from the French word meaning “little ball or platoon”), a swarm of 40 or more helmeted cyclists clad in brightly colored Lycra jerseys. Seen from my bedroom window on Bradley Lane in Chevy Chase, the little ball is an impressive sight, hurtling, churning, legs pumping, a shape-shifting flock in blurred motion, heading toward Wisconsin Avenue and miles beyond. It is Saturday morning, 7:30; I can set my clock by it.
I have ridden with these guys, or tried to, having been dropped—dropped, from the English word, meaning “left behind or dumped”—shortly after the group left the meet-up spot at East West Highway and Beach Drive at 7 a.m. This is the DC Velo ride, known as the fastest of the many group rides around, a kill-or-be-killed sprint up to Goldsboro, then Massachusetts Avenue, then Sangamore to MacArthur up to Great Falls Park and then looping through Potomac and back to Rock Creek Park via Democracy and Gainsborough. A finish by 9:30. Average speed: 28 mph, nearly twice the pace of good recreational riders. As I said, not for the faint of feet.
These weekend warriors are the elite among the cycling groups in our region. They cut across all demographics of age, race, gender, education and profession, but they share an unbridled passion for cycling and for the best and fastest bikes they can afford—or not afford, as some admit. They job network, share stock tips and shop talk, and occasionally do deals on two wheels. They party together, go on cycling trips together, analyze the results in stage races like the Tour de France and Spain’s Vuelta, and can quote lines from the seminal bike movie Breaking Away. Some of the guys even shave their legs to reduce wind resistance.
The warrior mindset is take no prisoners: compete, crush, repeat. Eli Hengst, 43, a local restaurateur who rides with the hard-charging Rock Creek Velo group, says it can be a humbling experience. “Never mind that you’ve been on a construction site all week, you’re opening a new restaurant, that your child is sick, that your girl- or boyfriend left you by text two minutes ago, or that you just got out of the hospital with heart problems—the group does not care,” he says almost gleefully. “You are young, say early 40s, an ‘elite’ category rider, a generally nice person—and you will be pummeled.”
“This is bad in that you might just be dropped in the first five minutes riding up Mass. Ave.,” Hengst says, “and terrible in that the guys dropping you are 10 to 15 years your senior.” Common conversation topics while cycling include where to catch the group rides, where to get coffee, where is the nearest hospital, he says with a laugh. They curse scofflaw riders who give them all a bad reputation, and debate the overused Capital Crescent Trail. A common refrain, Hengst says, is, “Love the trail. Hate the trail riders.”
Some compare the current rage for road biking to golf in the passion and obsession it inspires, its business networking and its group vacations. Yet most riders agree that the trend toward fitness has caused golf, a more sedentary pastime, to be pushed aside.
Cyclists with the DC Velo Ride venture out every Saturday morning and typically average around 28 mph, nearly twice the speed of good recreational riders. Photo by Skip Brown.
BICYCLING IS TRANSPORTATION, but also a means of transporting oneself from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the usual rhythms of everyday life to a different landscape of living. At their core, bicycles are simple machines—made much more complex by human ingenuity—but still a vehicle powered by muscle and the motion of legs and arms, asking little, really, but delivering an experience disproportionate to the effort.
I took up bicycling in a serious way in 1990, after a bone spur in my heel limited my running, then my chief form of exercise. Quickly, it seemed, I became a convert, partly because of the sheer exhilaration of going fast, but also because I could see more in a shorter time. I have bicycled in different countries, in many different states, on all kinds of bikes, on all kinds of terrain. Down the slope of a volcano and toward the face of a glacier. I have joined group tours and ridden on long-distance charity rides, where I experienced the exquisite agony of back-to-back “centuries,” or 100-mile rides. I have raced in duathlons—riding and running contests—singly and as a relay. I have ridden in all sorts of horrendous weather. I have crashed more times than I can count, and sustained the kinds of injuries that linger to this day. I cherish all of these experiences—well, the crashes not so much—and continue to find the joy of cycling unmatched by other pursuits.