I hiked my skirt up, straddled the red bike and steeled myself for the task at hand. Just minutes into my commute from northern Virginia to downtown DC, Metro had had a meltdown. I had already spent 90 minutes on a train only to off-load onto a subway platform that was packed with the contents of the two trains ahead of mine. I had then walked from Clarendon to Rosslyn to catch a bus that would take me the rest of the way into work. Blocks before I reached the station, however, I realized this idea was flawed; Rosslyn Metro had been evacuated and my intended bus was on the other side of several hundred people, four emergency vehicles and a traffic jam that rivaled any I’d seen in DC.
My choices, it seemed, were to wait it out (which could possibly take hours), walk (which would definitely take hours) or bike (which could take…I have no idea).
I decided to bike.
Capital Bikeshare is a bike renting service that allows you to pick up and drop off bicycles throughout the DC metro area. I’d always wanted to try it, but hadn’t really had the opportunity. There was a station nearby where I could pick up a bike, and I knew there was one near my work where I could drop a bike off, so I went for it.
Now I’m not a complete bike newb. In fact I’d purchased a new bike last year and ridden it quite a bit. But never in the city. Never at rush hour. Never in a maxi skirt. And never without a helmet.
A quick check of Twitter (with #Rosslyn trending nationally at this point) confirmed that this was indeed my best option.
I fumbled through the purchasing and unlocking of a bike process, then using the attached bungee chord, strapped my purse and lunch into the built-in basket, all the time thanking God that I hadn’t worn heels or brought my laptop. I texted my husband my plans, then walked the bike through a couple of intersections, to ease into reality of what I’d just committed to.
I pushed off and then endured about 500 terrifying yards – in my haste I’d forgotten to adjust the seat and could barely reach the pedals. Mercifully a red light gave me a chance to pull over, get off and fix it.
As I put distance between me and the Rosslyn Exodus, I found myself wondering about the intricacies of biking in the city. On really crowded streets could I ride on the sidewalk? How in the world would I get into a position to turn left? Would it be possible to get to work making only right turns? In need of guidance, I realized I had a choice: follow the actions of other metro refugees on bikes (identifiable by their non-biking attire and rented bikes) or those of more seasoned bike commuters. I can tell you that it is wrong to assume that men on ten-speeds and wearing Lycra make the best role models. (Consider that a free life lesson.)
I crossed the Key Bridge (on the sidewalk with all the other cyclists) ringing my bell to warn everyone of my presence. Half way over the bridge it stopped working, I’m sure to the relief of everyone. I then struggled in stops and starts through Georgetown traffic; Every time I started to feel confident on the bike, traffic patterns would change, turning cars would take up my lane, or taxis would pull over in front of me. A helpful warning printed on the handlebars I gripped so tightly reminded me of the dangers of car doors opening at any minute. I tried not to get distracted by the tragedy depicted by the stick figure illustration.
Finally I made it to Pennsylvania Avenue, but that’s when DC rush hour truly unfolded. It’s funny (funny interesting, not funny ha-ha) how different rush hour is when you are in the safety of your air-conditioned car, listening to NPR. Desperate to get out of the car-door-can-open-any-time deathtrap, I turned off and went up 26th street to N. Here nannies pushing strollers replaced taxi drivers making sudden stops, and I lessened my vice grip on the handle bars. Blissfully, I traveled the wrong way on a almost empty one-way street for several blocks. Instinctively I turned onto Connecticut, and as I contemplated turning onto K I realized that I although know my way around the city in a car, bike navigation is a skill I do not have. I had no idea which streets had bike lanes, and although my instinct was to find major roads, once I biked on them, I regretted it.
Up until this point my internal GPS had been set for somewhere in the southwesterly direction. But now I needed a clearer direction. As I sweated, waiting for the light at Connecticut and K, it came to me; I understood my path. Just get to the Mall, Laurie. And don’t follow those men in Lycra. Buoyed with new determination, I flew down 17th street, maxi-skirt flapping in the breeze like a cape, signaling to everyone that I was in fact a federal-worker super-commuter.
When I made it to the Mall, I was confronted with a new challenge: tourists, and lots of them. I dodged and weaved my way past the WWII memorial and made my way to 14th. I then headed east on Jefferson Drive and for the first time, relaxed enough to enjoy the sheer delight of riding a bike on a beautiful morning in a beautiful city. The street was devoid of traffic, and I was surrounded by loveliness. On the left was the grassy area of the National Mall, with joggers, families and not-in-the-way tourists, and on the right, grounds keepers were planting flowers at the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshorn Museum. Up until that point my morning had felt like Frogger, but now it felt more like the scene from the Muppet Movie where Miss Piggy rides through the park with Kermit in her basket. If I wasn’t already more than 3 1/2 hours late, I would have slowed down a little and hummed.
When I got to 4th street, I saw a bike lane and being the super-commuting bicycle pro that I am, took it. A few minutes later I deposited my Capital Bikeshare bike at the HHS station and unstrapped my purse and now well-tossed salad lunch. I walked the rest of the way to work, arriving at 10:40, a little bow-legged and drenched in sweat.
I’m not exactly sure how much time, if any, I saved by biking from Rosslyn to Federal Center SW (my commute had started at 7:20 in Reston). I am certain, however, that even despite the white-knuckle ride through rush hour traffic, I came away much less stressed than if I’d sat in traffic in a crammed bus with 60 other sweaty, angry, off-loaded metro riders. And, I came away with a sense of accomplishment – something I don’t usually get from my 75 minute metro ride.
Will I try riding to work again? Absolutely! But next time I hope to be a little more prepared (sans maxi-skirt) and perhaps have a better route planned out. And this time I’ll know for sure not to follow the example of men in Lycra.