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Cycling Back Around

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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 2, 2008

This is the summer of women on bicycles riding around town free as anything, wearing long dresses or skirts, sandals or even high heels, hair flowing helmet-free, pedaling not-too-hard and sitting upright on their old-school bikes, the kind with front baskets where they put their laptops, and handlebars that curve gently back in a bow shaped like the upper line of someone's perfectly drawn red lipstick.

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They never appear to sweat. They make you think you are in Paris or Rome. No, they make you think you are in a movie about Paris or Rome.

This is the summer of men rolling down 14th Street NW with briefcases in the grocery pannier, ties flipped back over the shoulder by the breeze, wingtips inserted into toe clips. In the movie version, they would return home at day's end with a baguette under one arm and maybe a bouquet of flowers. Instead, their left hand grips the handle of a Whole Foods bag while their right presses a cellphone to the ear.

This summer in Bicycle Washington, it's back to the future. Old bikes are back, new bikes look old. The riders, too, seem sketched from another age.

The machine of the moment is the 1969 Schwinn Deluxe Racer, picked up on Craigslist for $75, with lightly rusted metal fenders and a three-speed Sturmey-Archer shifter on the upright handlebars. Or it's a new Jamis Commuter, or a Breezer Villager, this year's models that aren't ashamed of the primitive, durable genius of an old Schwinn.

"Somewhere along the line, we made biking a hobby and a sport instead of a way to get around," says Alexandra Dickson, an architect who commutes from Southwest Washington to her downtown office on a blue Breezer Villager that she calls Babe, after Babe the Blue Ox. "I'd like to see it get back to being a way of getting around."

Shopping by bike, she says, "feels more like an adventure than a chore." The other day, she tied a milk crate to her rack, biked to a hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue and carried home a flat of flowers on the crate.

Riding to the office, sometimes "I wear heels and skirts," she says, "and I'm not the only girl in town who does. It's like, Why not? I'm not running. I'm just using the pads of my feet. . . . People need to see bikers dressed like that, so they can say, 'I can do that.' "

She says: "When you first take off your training wheels, the first excitement of being allowed to ride to school -- that was the first level of freedom. I think that's something you never lose."

This is the summer of bike-parking attendants at Nationals games, of a new fleet of communal unisex Treks at the U.S. House of Representatives, of a proposed bike-share program in the city, of street musicians strapping keyboards and speakers to milk crates on beater bikes, of thick, bright orange German-made contraptions pedaled by diplomats, with metal child-seats built on back and metal cargo carriers installed in front.

This is the summer when every day you witness astonishing feats of two-wheeled conveyance of everything from 30-packs of Bud Ice on the handlebars to gift baskets of fruit on the homemade wood-and-PVC-pipe trailer behind. This summer it makes perfect sense that columnist Bob Novak, after hitting a pedestrian with his Corvette, should have the police called on him by a lawyer commuting by bicycle.

Your first three-speed was a Schwinn. It was built to live as long as you did -- except you left yours behind in some dank, enchanted basement of discarded Flexible Flyers, little red wagons, scooters, badminton nets, croquet mallets and fishing poles.


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