News & Politics

Training Wheels

Participants in the annual Bike DC event talk about the city’s cycling culture.

Kevin Rapp almost didn’t have a bike to ride for last Sunday’s Bike DC event—last month his $1,000 road bike was totaled by a sports car, which slammed into his bike, bruising his knee, and took off. A month later, the endorphin junkie started itching for some two-wheeled action again. So he borrowed a bike, jumped into his Spandex suit, and joined 3,000 people for DC’s annual 20-mile bike ride despite the drizzle and overcast sky.

Blazing on ultra-light race bikes, pedaling on tandems, lugging babies and dogs, or sitting back in reclining bikes, cyclists made their way through DC into Virginia on May 23 in conjunction with Bike to Work Week.

Life in the Washington bike lane has its highs and lows. Riders often complain about bicyclists here—those with fixed-gear bikes (and sometimes skinny jeans) hate on those with Spandex and vice versa. They gripe that cyclists are aggressive and downright rude. But they’re also proud to be part of a growing culture on two wheels.

“The biking community is quirky. To be able to walk around town in Spandex, you’ve got to be a pretty comfortable cat,” said Rapp, who strives to bike about 25 miles a day and is a cofounder of the nonprofit Bike to the Beach, which is organizing a charity 100-mile ride from Washington to Delaware this year.

The Wigglesworth family got a lot of oohs and aahs with their spectacular quad tandem. “The secret to happiness is to take turns at the front,” said Laura Wigglesworth, a nonprofit recruiter, while her husband escorted their two daughters to grab a bite. Especially “when cars here don’t take to us very well on the road and bikers don’t even say ‘on your left’ when passing.”

Paul Silberman wore star-spangled Spandex and lugged around a 70-pound sound rig blasting ’80s and ’90s tunes. Silberman, a dentist, has been an unofficial DJ on two wheels at marathons and bike races for nine years. He recalled one time when Senator Max Baucus of Montana gashed his head on a rock after tripping up on the first eight miles of 50-mile run in 2003, so Silberman played the soundtrack of the movie Rocky to motivate Baucus to continue the 42 miles to the finish line.

Baucus had to undergo surgery to relieve pressure in his head after the race. He has also been a key lawmaker pushing health-care reform in Congress. “By keeping Baucus moving with ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and the theme from Rocky, Dad allowed Baucus to have the aneurysm [by keeping him moving after his fall], which made him interested in health care, which led to him carrying it through the Senate,” joked his son, Joel Silberman. “So yeah, I guess my dad is kind of a hero.”

Bike DC has had its starts and stops. The city went into panic mode following September 11, 2001, and the event was beset by bad weather the next two years. Its then-organizer, the Washington Bike Association, pulled the plug in 2004 to cut its losses. Bike DC came to life again in 2008 when Rick Bauman, a former Democratic politician in Oregon, stepped in to shoulder the costs.

“There’s a growing group of bike advocates to influence the elected leadership,” said Bauman, “and there are more bike events. All these things will build upon each other. It’s a great trajectory we’re on.” Now, perhaps, the biking community can honestly say it’s taken off its training wheels and moved into full gear.

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