A year or so before I moved to Arlington, Virginia, and a few months after I started riding bikes, my parents and I took a trip back home to the Southwest. The joy of riding my bike during the trip was well worth the crick in my neck from looking out the back window to check on “Misty”—my borrowed, custom-built, titanium Serrotta road bike—due to my only-remotely-realistic, obsessive fear of bike-rack failure.
It was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that I discovered the glory of a real bike trail. I had heard of such things, but having spent most of my life in rural or un-bike-friendly areas, I didn’t believe it until I saw it.
We only rode on the trail for an hour or so, but I raved about it for days. The trail was paved, with a dotted line down the middle and official traffic signs—like an actual road. It was as though the bicycle was considered to be a legitimate form of transportation or exercise or entertainment—as opposed to a traffic hazard at best annoying and at worst selfish and barely allowed. From that time on, the memory of riding the bike trail in Albuquerque remained, in my mind, an idyllic ideal of what cycling should be.
You can imagine my joy, therefore, when I moved to Arlington and discovered that the DC area has an extensive network of trails that makes the few miles of trail in Albuquerque look like a playground. In this area, cycling really is considered a legitimate form of transportation—there are countless business people who commute to work—no matter what the weather—and make me feel very wimpy indeed when I take the bus to work because it’s snowing.
To call my first ride on the bike trail in Arlington a letdown would not be nearly melodramatic enough. It was more like a bipolar swing; I entered the trail exuberant over the wonderful turn my life had taken and was, within minutes, afraid for my life.
First of all, the trails are narrow and curvaceous—a stark contrast to the rural Texas roads I was accustomed to training on, where I could see a vehicle or the rare other cyclist coming from miles away. Riding 12 miles per hour feels like 30 on the trail, and even when I slowed down to five, I was scared to go around corners for fear of running into an oncoming cyclist or slow-moving jogger.
It wasn’t so much that I was worried about my own ability to navigate the hazards of the trail, but that I did not trust anyone else—and generally for good reason. Though there are no cars on the bike trail, there is an incredible amount of traffic that is varied and unpredictable. Cyclists barrel around corners in the wrong lane at 20 miles per hour and soccer moms with jog-strollers stroll three-abreast, taking up the entire trail.
And then there are the children. I would never take a child onto the bike trail, for fear for her life—and I don’t even like children. People here ride with small children in jump seats behind them, swaying precariously with each turn. Or there are the people who pull their child(ren) in carriages behind them—oftentimes these people can barely balance the bike itself, let alone the bike with a seventy-pound attachment.
Worst of all are the children who have graduated to bikes of their own and who—by someone’s estimation at least—have graduated from the cul-de-sac. They swerve haphazardly from one side of the trail to another, threatening to tip over at any moment. And of course it is often the case that the only person less aware of his surroundings than the five-year-old cyclist is the parent of the five-year-old cyclist who also appears to have not ridden a bike since he, too, was five years old.
Worse, if possible, than the children, are tourists on Capital Bikeshare bikes. The Bikeshare system is something else I thought was wonderful when I moved to Arlington, but whose brilliance quickly dimmed. The Bikeshare bikes, which weigh close to fifty pounds, are nearly impossible to control or ride uphill, and thus their riders often resemble the children described above. The one saving grace of the Bikeshares is that they are highly visible—they are bright red with front and rear lights that blink day and night.
Which brings me to the lights. I’m all for safely, of course, but I have all but given up riding anytime close to dusk for fear of being permanently blinded by the blinking fluorescent headlights that beam forth from the front of oncoming cyclists like the light at the top of Gandalf’s staff when he was attempting to slay the Balrog in Moria.
For all the hazards of the trail, it is practically unavoidable for a triathlete in this city. As a triathlete, you would think I might be more understanding of my other trailmates. But no. When I am cycling, I cannot help but being frustrated by the runners.
Common courtesy requires that cyclists make an audible warning noise as we approach pedestrians with the intent of passing them from behind. I followed this rule religiously my first month here, but quickly tapered off when I realized that, nine times out of ten, the pedestrian is unable to hear my “On your left!” due to the inevitable earbuds nestled, hidden, in their ears. Even more frustrating is when runners are spread across the entire path, running side by side—not chatting it up, but each absorbed in her or his own audio device even while on a group jog.
But of course, when I am running, I find myself cursing the cyclists when they unexpectedly and silently fly past, causing my heart rate to skyrocket (which of course skews my data). Or when they completely misjudge how long it will take to pass a pedestrian and rely on me to jump off the trail entirely.
However, for all my complaints about the bike trail, either as a runner or as a cyclist or just as a human being, I couldn’t live without it, even if it doesn’t live up to my ideals. After all, what would one expect from a trail in Albuquerque except wonderful dry desert beauty and hippies at peace with each other and the world? Why should I have expected the same thing from a bike trail on the other side of the country?
Just as DC attracts people from around the country and the world, so its bike trail is used by an eclectic and seemingly non-cohesive group of individuals who are all highly driven and purposeful. The bike trail user has all the arrogance of a cyclist, the stubborn independence of a runner, the type-A rigidity of a triathlete, and the carefree spirit of a child or businessperson on holiday—all wrapped up in the general intensity of a Washingtonian. It makes for an interesting ride.
Calah Schlabach (’09) is a Calvin graduate who—let’s just be honest—majored in cross country and track while minoring in English and writing. After a year or so of global wandering, she discovered the sport of triathlon. Calah is currently working as a professional triathlete.