News & Politics

The Life-Changing Magic of Riding Your Bike to Work

Illustration by Andrew Archer.

I’m not a morning person. Until noon, I’m not really even a person. When the alarm goes off, warm sheets turn to quicksand. I languish in snooze despond, paying for sleep ten minutes at a time like a cheap cell phone. Cold floorboards and wardrobe decisions keep me under covers and make getting up the hardest part of the day.

But on the mornings when I leave at 6 am to bicycle 17 miles to work, I float from bed to the saddle. I have no trouble rousing. I don’t even fully wake up, because biking is just another kind of dream.

On the journey from DC to Tysons, spokes spin like projector reels producing a vivid film of images. On the continuous trail of the Custis and the W&OD, I pedal like a somnambulant cyclist taking in the dreamscape with rapid eye movement.

I’ve had some very good dreams on these rides.

The junior attorney dive-bombing Arlington’s hills, his dry-cleaned suit slung over his shoulder, snapping like a kite tail.

The perambulating Indian couples of summer evenings, the husbands’ hands clasped behind their backs, the wives’ saris glittering in the long, peach hours.

In winter, fellow bikers materialize out of the dark, their headlamps bobbing like anglerfish moving through the cold deep.

On my way home, the dream plays in reverse. All the climbing and gearshifting of the morning’s elevation slope to an easy downhill. The corkscrew turn leading up to the Lee Highway overpass—a spiraling menace in the am—releases into a theme-park slide by night. Its coiled grade propels riders behind the Lyon Village shopping center, where smells from the Italian Store’s ovens waft in the slipstream.

But dreams, though they can be pleasant enough, have a problem. Even the best—the ones in which you fly hand in hand over the Amazon with your grade-school crush—are in fact just terrible stories. With no logical plot or clear finish, they remain the random narrative of chance synapses, annoying everyone but the dreamer.

The same disconnect challenges the bike commuter. When I explain to coworkers the physical thrill and psychological necessity of starting the workday with humming legs and a miles-cleared mind, they regard my invitation to come along for the next ride with a look that says: Not in your wildest.

There are a lot of dreamers on the trail, however. The Rosslyn “bikeometer” reports about a million trips a year. This device at the corner of Lee Highway and North Lynn Street nets each passing biker’s dream in its digital weave. I’ve added a few to the count. A recurring favorite—the Friday-evening ride home—could make a believer out of even the most fixed desk jockey.

The day’s final hill, piston legs taking in the last scraps of energy to spark one more push. At Lee Highway’s peak, the front wheel tipping into the sidewalk’s long curve. Cruise without a pedal down through Rosslyn, a light touch on the handlebars navigating the tight, blind corners. Cross over Key Bridge into the District, into the night with all the waterfront lights glazed on the Potomac in a buttery slick. Keep your eyes open, look both ways, and try not to wake up.

Richard Barry ( is a writer in the District. He’s @richbarrys on Twitter.

This article appears in our May 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Richard Barry

Richard Barry ([email protected]) is a writer in the District. He’s @richbarrys on Twitter.