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Seth Thomas Pietras Headshot

Pick a Bike, Any Bike -- Just Ride It in D.C.

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What a nice bike chained to the lamppost: a Worksman Industrial Newsboy, made in America. Then down the street another fine frame, a well-maintained Spezzotti. A neighborhood over, more cool rides -- fixies, cruisers, boutique roadies, old beaters resurrected, 80s-era 10-speeds and more. All around the District now, I see bikes worth riding. Whether it's a product of the economy, the city's warming embrace of cyclists, or an indicator of the transforming make-up of those who live and work in D.C., we have before us a growing and legitimate bicycle culture. 
 


Based on the condition of those I spy, many bikes have been largely unretired -- dragged from the parents' -- or grandparents' -- shed. But there's care put into them: rust spots scrubbed, chains well-maintained, new baskets, reflectors or lights. I also see new ones, many finely tuned, exotic brands and models -- the domain of aficionados. Into all of them I read: "This is my mode of transportation, damn it. And I'm proud of it." Cheers to that, and to what it says about our city.

Washington is burgeoning, swelling in population in recent years, people moving back after decades of suburban retreat. While the District is well known for the transience of its citizenry -- the ebb-and-flow of staffers, civil servants, expats and students -- it makes for rejuvenation, and lately a possible urban awakening. The people arriving may be all right with staying, and bring with them a desire to invest and participate in what makes this a city. (That we have jobs here doesn't hurt.) No longer do people just bide their time. There's a demand for something more.

You can see this in the many local arts festivals (such as the 2011 D.C. Bicycle Film Festival), the rise of boutique coffee shops (such as Qualia Coffee, which hosts "coffee bike crawls") and good restaurants (such as Coppi's Organic, an eatery that celebrates the legacy of Italian cycling champion Fausto Coppi), not to mention that you can now find a well-crafted cocktail (too many messenger hang-outs to name).

Not that having a bicycle is requisite, but it is a good indicator of change. After all, riding a good bike is certainly time well spent. And it allows for a certain level of self-expression in a city dominated by conformity and conservative aesthetic values.

"There are some artistic types with a little bit of bike mechanic in them who want to make their own bike and so they make it somewhat unique," David Cranor informed me; he writes the blog Wash Cycle. "There are some women who are disinclined to ride an ugly mountain bike and prefer something pretty and more feminine than just a 'girl's bike.' There is a West Coast cruiser bike influence. There is a retro movement that prefers leather seats, chrome fenders and big lights, sometimes in an old bike and sometimes new. And there's a minimalist group who wants to push the bike down to as little as it can be -- frame, wheels, seat, chain, handlebar. These are largely national trends, but I've seen all of them manifested in D.C."

Perhaps presciently anticipating the influx of new life to the city, the government -- and I mean the D.C. government under Mr. Fenty -- supported cyclists in many ways. Washington has many new bike lanes and is one of a handful of cities with a vibrant Bikeshare system. U.S. bike commuting may lag the rest of the world, but here you can spy red bikes zipping around with regularity -- men in suits, women in skirts, codgers teetering about. And the recognition of its usefulness is only growing. As the Washington Post reported recently:

"After Tuesday's earthquake, roads were jammed and Metro slowed, but one mode of transportation sparkled: bicycling. People who had biked to work had little trouble getting home, and the Capital Bikeshare system recorded 1,236 rides between 2 and 4 p.m., more than three times the number for the same period the previous day."

For the long-commute cyclist, we now have the D.C. Bikestation -- a half-football-shaped glass structure at Union Station that holds 130 bikes, lockers and a repair shop. It is meant to provide security, reduce traffic and encourage exercise. Others see it as validation.

"For those of use who have biked to work all our lives, our nerdy way is suddenly the coolest thing in town!" says Bill Gallagher, my neighbor and a Principal at KGP Design Studio, which created the Bikestation. A little bit of cool can go a long way in a town like this.

"People no longer look at bikes as just for recreation," says Mike Pih, a sales rep at The Bike Rack, an independent shop on Q Street. "Once people start using them every day, they think: Why not get a bike I like, or one that looks good, or one that looks good to me... We sell a hamburger bell that's quite popular."

In a city often chided for not having character or community, I savor seeing bikes stacked dozens deep outside new bars, Critical Mass clogging our streets, public debates about bike lanes, and pedicabs to help me get home -- as well as the occasional encounter with the Dandies & Quaintrelles, a plaid and seersucker-ensconced club that rides in style every now and again. There is much to see on the streets of D.C. -- more than politics and bureaucracy. Bicycles are just the beginning.

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