September-October 2009 | Features in Bethesda Health

Wheeling to Work

Each day, up to 600 NIH employees ride their bikes to work and, in the process, get exercise, save money and help the environment.

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When most people think of the morning commute, they envision long lines of creeping cars on the Beltway, traffic tangled at intersections and commuter reports blaring in the background.

Phil Snoy pictures beavers and muskrats scurrying along the banks of the Potomac River, deer playing chase along a wooded path and the chirp of new goslings in the spring.

Snoy, like some 600 of his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health, rides his bicycle to work. Instead of driving down River Road from his home near Poolesville, he bikes a bucolic six miles or so alongside the C&O Canal, then turns up into Potomac at Swains Lock Road and pedals another 12 miles over to Bethesda and NIH. Then he showers there, dresses for work and begins his day as a veterinarian for a research animal colony.

Snoy, energetic and rangy at 57, began the 70-minute bike commute to work four years ago, partly as a way to supplement a running regime and build muscle strength. When the price of gasoline shot up to $4 a gallon last year, he was even more motivated; each day he commuted by bike, he saved $6 in fuel. Now, he pedals three days a week. “I get to work, I save gas, and I get a workout,” Snoy says. “Talk about multitasking. That bike commute does it all.”

For many NIH scientists, researchers, health technicians and other staffers, bicycling to work is an enjoyable option. Some mount their bikes every day, some just a few times a year. Some are summer cyclists, others brave wintry cold. Many cycle a mile or two to the office; others travel 15 or 20 miles. A number of bikers are researchers from countries where biking is the norm, such as China, India, Germany and the Netherlands. Others are young American mothers towing children in specialized trailers, athletes decked out in the latest micro-poly jerseys and septuagenarians getting a bit of exercise on their way to the office. “It’s good for the ol’ ticker,” says information technology specialist Donald White, 72, who recently celebrated 50 years of biking to work daily, 34 of them from his Chevy Chase home to NIH.

Many of these riders come together each May during Bike to Work Day festivities. This year, for the fourth time in a row, NIH won the award for the Washington area workplace with the most participants in this national celebration of the bike commute. A total of 577 NIH workers registered, with 347 stopping at one of three “pit stops” on the NIH campus where cyclists grabbed breakfast, got their bikes inspected and picked up information about bike safety and cycling routes. The pit stops were set up by the NIH Bicycle Commuter Club (NIHBCC), which was established in 1979.

The club was started by then-NIH director Donald Fredrickson, who rode a bike to work himself. These days, it is run by employee volunteers. NIHBCC President Angela Atwood-Moore says the club has little clout with an NIH administration more focused on parking for auto commuters, but it did help secure a covered bicycle rack in the last parking garage that was built. Biking advocates hope such accommodations will become an automatic part of future construction planning.

The club has 300 members, a Listserv and an extensive Web site with suggested routes to NIH; the location of campus showers, bike racks and bike lockers; a mentoring network; and tips for new riders.

Atwood-Moore, a research associate in gene regulation and development, bikes to work three days a week, first towing her 19-month-old daughter, Sofiya, in a Burley trailer from her home in Silver Spring to a day-care center in Wheaton, then riding alone into Bethesda. She keeps the Burley attached to the bike for her solo ride as “a sort of statement,” she says. “I choose to live in a world where a mother could pull her child safely behind her in a trailer on the road as a part of the commute.”

She says her ride isn’t always pleasant. “Routinely, I’ll be riding right next to a ‘share the road’ sign and I’ll have a motorist yell at me to get off the road,” Atwood-Moore says. Commuters have shouted obscenities at her, thrown trash at her, and she has even been “egged.” Is biking still worth it? “Absolutely,” she says, “because drivers do crazy things to you when you’re in the car, too.” She says such encounters make her so angry that she rides hard, sweating through her frustration and getting a good workout.

Bikers also are able to breeze by backed-up traffic. Evan Krichevsky, 56, an NIH IT specialist who commutes eight miles from his home in Potomac, recently glided right past blocks of cars at Fernwood Road and Democracy Boulevard. “I was able to get through and just pass them all,” he says. His half-hour bike ride to work is just 10 minutes longer than what it takes by car, and sometimes, when traffic is backed up between the Beltway and Pooks Hill Road, it’s the same.

Steve Friedman, acting chief of the operations and informatics branch of the National Cancer Institute, rode to work 220 days last year. “You always miss a little due to vacation or other commitments,” he says. Named Montgomery County Bike Commuter of the Year for 2009, Friedman, 42, rides 12 miles along thoroughfares such as Little Falls Parkway, Bradley Boulevard, Seven Locks Road and Tuckerman Lane from his home in Somerset to his office at the NIH Rockville campus on Executive Boulevard. “I basically wake up in the morning and I pretend like I don’t have a car to drive during the day,” he says. “It’s solitude. It gives me the opportunity to exercise in the morning, exercise in the afternoon. It’s one less car on the road. And it saves money.”

He also believes biking might have saved his life. After a bike ride more than a decade ago, Friedman felt a “sensation” in his testicles and found a hard lump. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Friedman went through surgery and chemotherapy and spent almost a year off his bike. He has been cancer-free for 14 years. Because of his scare, Friedman rode in the first Tour of Hope, a cancer awareness ride started by American cycling superstar Lance Armstrong, who also survived testicular cancer. “Cycling has been very therapeutic for me in many ways,” Friedman says.

Even on rainy or cold days, Friedman and others prefer two wheels to four. Rain gear is a must, and for cold weather riders, hand warmers and special neoprene booties make all the difference. Snoy says his cold weather limit is 14 degrees Fahrenheit. Riding in extremely cold weather “gets old fast,” he says, adding that it can take him all night to warm up from the trip home.

And there are hazards. Friedman, for example, averaged two flats a month until he got high-tech, puncture-resistant tires. “There’s a lot of debris on the road,” he says. “We have gravel, we have potholes, we have glass from car accidents.” Avoiding all of it and dealing with drivers who don’t always yield takes a commitment. Staying safe and comfortable on the road also requires a bike in good riding condition, a planned route and well-honed anticipation skills.

Krichevsky says pedestrians must be watched closely, too. Riding down Old Georgetown Road, “I was ringing my bell and announcing myself,” Krichevsky recalls, “[and] this guy was busy reading his newspaper. He almost stepped into the street to avoid me.” Krichevsky says pedestrians are upset with him when he rides on the sidewalk, and drivers don’t like it when he’s in the street—a no-win situation.

Augie Diana, 51, rides his bike to stay in shape. He supplements his 13-mile round-trip commute from Kensington to the Executive Boulevard offices with rides at lunch and after work, saying he tries to log 30 miles a day. He also uses the gym at the National Naval Medical Center and plays volleyball near the Lincoln Memorial three days a week to stay in shape for an annual 200-mile charity ride in the central mountains of Colorado. “It seems to be working,” he says. “My Colorado ride has felt good, rather than painful, each of the last several years.”

Not everyone who bikes to work is an uber-athlete. Ellen Condon, 47, insists that she is out of shape, yet she pedals from Silver Spring to Bethesda, a 13-mile round trip, three days a week. When she began, four years ago, she lost 25 pounds in three months. Now her weight has leveled off and she takes her time riding to work on what she calls a slow, heavy bike. It takes her about 45 minutes—15 minutes more than it would take to drive. “I’m not in a hurry,” she says. During the holidays, when she pedals through the dark (her days as an X-ray technician sometimes begin at 6:30 a.m.), she adds colorful Christmas lights to her bike.

“The funny thing is, you get this sense of…I’m allowed to play before I get to work,” she says. Condon even met her boyfriend, Richard Hoye, through bike commuting when she took a bicycle safety course he taught at NIH. Hoye, of Bethesda, is an aide to Montgomery County Council member Duchy Trachtenberg and teaches safety courses on the side. He has been car-free since 1995, and has a collection of bicycles that includes four folding bikes (for traveling), more than six recumbent bikes, three beach cruisers, four pedicabs for pedaling passengers around, and even a bike that pushes a wheelchair.

Condon is a bicycle commuting convert, even without a fleet of bicycles. She has swapped the smell of exhaust for the woods along Beach Drive. “Every season has a particular smell,” she says, such as honeysuckle in the spring and decaying leaves in the fall. “You can’t experience that in a car.”

Virginia Myers lives in Takoma Park.