Cycling Back Around
Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Better. In the City, an Old-Fashioned Conveyance Returns

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.

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.

This is the summer you realize you need it again.

* * *

What's happening is, the American conception of the bicycle-as-toy and the bicycle-as-sports-equipment is being infiltrated by the European notion of the bicycle-as-transportation and the Asian notion of the bicycle-as-cargo-hauler.

The idea has dawned that, guess what, contrary to biker dogma of the 1970s and 1980s, you don't have to break your back with drop-down handlebars and obsess over ever-lighter space-age frames. The totemic two-wheeler is no longer the Specialized Roubaix Elite Triple with the carbon frame and the 30-speed Shimano drivetrain for $1,949.99, last seen tearing down Beach Drive on weekends, bearing lawyers and lobbyists in full spandex peloton plumage. And good riddance to the 1980s' and 1990s' craze for tank-treaded, double-suspension mountain bikes. The only time you ever found yourself "off-road," dude, was on the C&O Canal towpath.

Hybrids came along, of course, a compromise between road bikes and mountain bikes. Now hybrids have been refined and gussied into "commuter bikes," made by such companies as Jamis, Breezer and others, costing a few hundred bucks up to $1,000.

The handlebars are set higher than the seats, so you sit upright and comfortable. What a concept. The reign of the purists is over, and all the accessories they forbade are permitted again. There are baskets in front and racks in back. There are chain guards so you don't get grease on your slacks, and skirt guards so you don't catch your dress. Kickstands are no longer a heresy punishable by sneering. Fenders are back, along with mudflaps, so you don't get a splatter trail up your back on rainy days. On some of the models, front and rear lights come installed.

Basically, it's the 1969 Schwinn Racer, with more gears.

The bike industry's fresh supply of new-old bikes is being supplemented by the tectonic forces of Craigslist and eBay unearthing vast midden heaps of old-old Schwinns, Raleighs, Huffys, Peugeots, Sears Roebuck Free Spirits and so on. They have the advantage of being cheap and retro-hip.

"There's a whole new clientele" choosing these bikes, Charlie McCormick, founder of City Bikes, says of this summer in Bicycle Washington. "People who haven't been riding for years and years are going back to it. It's all right to show up at a barbecue on a bike. You're not marginalized. It's cool."

* * *

A bicycle is a minimalist sculpture, an object that is also a concept, sparely rendered in a few lines and curves. The old ones have a certain special elegance. Never discount the aesthetic motive when it comes to biking -- even commuter biking.

"My friends call it the Cadillac of bikes," Bryce Pardo says of his green and white 1969 Schwinn Racer. It is locked to a parking sign on the sidewalk of K Street, where he works with an international exchange program. He commutes from Capitol Hill in his dark slacks, button-down shirts and work shoes.

Ah, the fat tires, the fenders, the molded plastic hand grips, the "S" on the saddle. Pardo got the bike on Craigslist for $75 and added a vintage-looking rearview mirror from eBay.

Emily and Chris Leaman ride fixed-gear bikes. Favored by messengers, now adopted by hipsters, these direct-drive machines have pedals that move with the wheels, like a child's tricycle. Sometimes they have no brakes. The way to stop is pedal backward. They are the most extreme expression of the pared-down, low-maintenance, retro ideal. Wheels, steel and a chain. And beautiful.

Emily rides hers to work at Washingtonian, Chris to the State Department. This evening they've ridden to Whole Foods on P Street NW, where the bike rack is full, and the parking meters and parking signs, invented for cars, also are tethering shoppers' bicycles.

Into their messenger bags they pack hummus, guacamole, pita chips and wine. They are biking down to the Mall to picnic and watch "The Candidate" at Screen on the Green, another lovely night in Bicycle Washington.

* * *

Found and lost, lost and found. What Bicycle Washington affords this summer is redemption, for both rider and bike.

It all began for Ed Cabic with a Mt. Shasta Capella that he got about 17 years ago when he was 11, growing up in Columbia. It was a nice hybrid, large for the boy, and he rode it a lot. Then he got his driver's license.

Nothing beats driving, until Cabic realized he was arriving at work every morning mad and stressed.

A couple of years ago, he hauled out the dependable, upright Mt. Shasta. He started riding from Petworth to his job as a computer applications developer for a law firm at 10th and K.

The first day, he had to stop five times on the hills going home. Within two weeks, he didn't have to stop anymore.

"I went from hating my commute to having the commute be what I was looking forward to all day," says Cabic, now 28. "I come into work happy."

So happy that: "I found my commute was not long enough."

So he moved to Alexandria. That commute is about 15 miles round trip, 30 minutes each way. He got studded tires to ride in the snow. He does 2,500 to 3,000 miles a year.

While shedding 40 pounds, he calculated he also was saving about $4,500 a year -- before the recent jump in gas prices.

He has invested about $1,500 of the savings to upgrade the Mt. Shasta. Old bike, new accessories: He's got two panniers -- one doubles as a backpack, the other holds a full-size grocery bag -- plus a utility bag on the rack. The panniers carry his work shoes and a change of clothes. He rides in faded spandex and showers at the office.

He packs a lunch, a breakdown kit, lights, a CO{-2} tire inflator, latex gloves in case he has to handle his chain. On the handlebars is a bell, an air horn for really obnoxious or dangerous motorists, and a GPS device that he mainly uses as a speedometer.

He kept the Mt. Shasta's friction-shifters because he considers the old system more durable and lower-maintenance than the new index gears.

He wears a helmet, and also goggles, to which he has attached a tiny rearview mirror: "Probably the best $15 I ever spent."

"I love D.C.," he says. "A big part of being in love with the city is biking it."

His favorite part of the morning commute is cresting the hill on the Mount Vernon Trail bike path near Reagan National Airport. That's the moment the monuments suddenly come into view.

Now it's the end of the day. Heading home, he cruises the Mall on Madison Drive. As he pedals over the 14th Street bridge, planes swoop toward National while boats ply the Potomac River. "You get quite the vista," he says. "At night you can see the Nationals' stadium."

He turns onto the Mount Vernon Trail and follows the river toward Alexandria. Bikers are coming and going. They have left the cars behind, and it is quiet along the river.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company