Ten Reasons to Love #BikeDC

10. Group Rides

If you are relatively new to DC, biking, or both, joining a group ride is the absolutely best way to get started. Pretty much all the DC bike shops organize weekly group rides. For example, the 7th Street Social organized by my favorite bike shop in town, BicycleSPACE (700 5th St. NW), on Thursday nights is a classic. They also organize Nice-N-Easy rides for people who are new to (urban) biking, and several others for more experienced cyclists. I can highly recommend the Hills of Anacostia ride if you feel like starting your weekend by acing killer hills in SE DC, and the City Explorers ride if you just happen to be a very curious person like me. If you wish to go all out on a road bike, check out the group rides organized by The Bike Rack (14th & Q NW). You might also find like-minded company in the DC Triathlon Club.

Hills of Anacostia

9. Bike Commuting

DC traffic may feel like a jungle first. Once you get used to it (which took me about three weeks), bike commuting becomes a real joy. In addition to saving you time and money, it makes you happier, healthier, and more productive. The list of benefits is nearly endless. As the winter in DC is relatively short – at least compared to Finland – and the streets are seldom icy, it is possible to commute by bike almost year round without any particular winter riding equipment apart from warm clothes. As a bonus, on rainy and cold days you can often have the bike lanes all for yourself.

Biking in the Rain

8. Bike Advocacy

Washington Area Bicyclist Association, WABA, does an amazing job promoting better bike lanes, better bike laws, and better bicyclists in DC and in the surrounding metropolitan area. They run an impressive range of advocacy activities, and additionally they organize classes and events. WABA also runs a Women & Bicycles program to encourage more women to pick up biking. Coming from Finland where biking is roughly equally common among men and women, it was quite a shock to realize that in DC less than 30% of cyclists are women, so the program is very much needed. (Many of the Women & Bicycles activities were actually so awesome that we might want to copy them with pride in Helsinki anyway.) Read more about WABA and become a member today.

Inspired by WABA’s example, I decided to convince the American Red Cross headquarters facility management to invest in an additional bike rack. The earlier bike parking capacity simply was not enough when the weather got nicer in spring. I started lobbying for an extra bike rack in April. After four months of chasing, a brand new rack was assembled at the Red Cross Square just before I finished my Fulbright project. I could not resist decorating it with a Women & Bicycles sticker on my last day.

The Extra Bike Rack at the Red Cross Square

7. Special Events

There are loads of bike related special events throughout the year. In addition to WABA, especially BicycleSPACE has been super active in organizing them. I went for example to their Halloween themed ride, Holiday Lights ride, and Holiday Party. Both BicycleSPACE and The Bike Rack also offer weekly yoga classes in their stores outside the regular opening hours. Additionally, The Bike Rack organizes events specifically for women. Every now and then there are even public alleycats in DC. These urban navigation and problem solving races were originally a cult thing among bike messengers only but now there are also events open for anyone.

131219 Zoolights

6. Bike Trails

If biking with traffic does not appeal to you, don’t worry, there is a wealth of trails in the DC area as well. Some of the most popular ones are the Mt. Vernon trail (gets hilly towards the end), the Four Mile Run trail, the W&OD trail, and the Custis trail. Parts of these also form a nice roundtrip also known as the Arlington Loop. Once you have covered these, you can head to the Capital Crescent trail (very scenic and paved), C&O trail (very scenic, but unpaved), the Metropolitan Branch Trail (spot murals along the way), the Bethesda Trolley Trail (a little hard to navigate), and the Sligo Creek Trail (excellent ice cream in Takoma Park). Additionally, large sections of the Beach Drive in the Rock Creek Park is closed from cars during weekends. Many road cyclists also enjoy doing “lycra laps” in Hains Point and biking to the Potomac Village even if that means sharing the road with cars.

Sligo Creek Trail

5. Bike Maintenance Skills

If you have ever wanted to learn bike maintenance, in DC it is very easy. Bike shops offer basic maintenance and fix-a-flat workhops on a regular basis. These are often completely free of charge. A fantastic community-based bicycle repair cooperative, the Bike House, also organizes more in-depth maintenance courses for a nominal fee. I attended their excellent four week long course in Petworth in May. I could not have imagined how much one can learn about brakes, gear, cables, hubs, and spokes in such a short time. So empowering! Highly recommended.

Mechanics Class

4. Volunteering Opportunities

The Bike House is completely volunteer run. In addition to offering bike maintenance courses, they organize weekly bicycle repair clinics at Petworth and at the Bloomingdale Farmers Market. Every now and then they also do the same in other locations, often in the spirit of outreach. In summer 2014, the Bike House teamed up with DC Public Library, WABA, and DC Police and organized four clinics in Anacostia in SE DC. I joined one of these clinics as a volunteer. That turned out to be one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences during the entire Fulbright year.

If you ask me, these free clinics in Anacostia were a marvelous concept: SE DC is one of the lowest income areas of the city. For quite obvious reasons, there are no bike shops in the area, meaning that if someone’s bike breaks down, it is tough to get it fixed. At the same time, for many residents their bike is their main form of transportation for getting to work and school, doing groceries, and running errands. Hence, teaching people fix and maintain their own bikes is simply brilliant as it solves so many problems in one go. In addition to a couple of professional mechanics and a bunch of us volunteers with varying skill levels, even a couple of DC police officers were wrenching with us. For them, this was a unique opportunity to interact with the residents in positive terms. We helped more than 50 happy customers during the afternoon. (As a side note, some of them were quite puzzled with my accent. One gentleman even asked if I am from Siberia. Maybe I was the palest person in Anacostia so far…)

The Bike House Volunteers

3. Bike Lane Art

Whenever one stops at traffic lights, it is worth glancing down: There are small witty stencil pieces with biking related messages painted on the bike lanes around the city. What a brilliant form of street art! Check out some more of my photos on Flickr to get an idea. Unfortunately, the mysterious artist has had to take a break of stencil activism for now, but I’m sure many of the pieces are still visible.

#bikedc

2. Mural Tours

For an urban art junkie like me, mural tours by bike were a treat. As a bonus, they are also an excellent way to explore DC neighborhoods that you might not feel totally comfortable checking out on your own. A hip-hop nonprofit Words Beats and Life organizes mural rides in cooperation with BicycleSPACE a couple of times a year. Also, if you have any designer connections, you might want to check if AIGA DC is planning another mural ride.

Mural Riders

1. Coffee Clubs

Each Wednesday morning a group of bikey women swing by the Coffee Bar (or another carefully selected location) on their way to work for a cup of coffee and some bike talk. These weekly informal gatherings hosted by awesome Nelle from WABA are a part of the Women & Bicycles program. They are a great way to meet like-minded people, get tips and peer support – often also in non-biking related matters – and generally become energized. On Friday mornings, there is a co-ed Coffee Club at Swings (17th & G NW). The DC biking power couple Mary and Ed founded the coffee club some three years ago, and it has become an institution. I do not even drink coffee, yet these morning coffee clubs might be the DC routine that I miss most.

Women & Bicycles Coffee Club

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Best of June

1. Virginia Road Trip

After The Head and the Heart saved my day in March after one of the most challenging half marathons of my life, I was determined to see them live soon again. When I spotted them in the line-up of the (free!) Norfolk Harborfest in Virginia, I decided to use their concert as a perfect excuse to plan a weekend road trip to Virginia – or use the road trip as an excuse to get to the gig. This time I managed to recruit a “partner in crime” over lunch at the World Bank.

As I was well aware of the notorious reputation of I-95, we started our drive early on Friday afternoon. The drive time without traffic should take around 3 hours, so I assumed that the early start at 1:30PM should help us to get to Norfolk in 4-4.5 hours. That’s not exactly what happened. There were at least four accidents on the highway making the traffic jams exceptionally bad even for a Friday. Eventually we made it to our hotel in about 6.5 hours, parked the car, rushed to check-in, tossed our bags into the room, hopped on a cab, and made it to the festival grounds at 8:35PM. The band had just started so we did not miss more than half a song. What an amazing race! And what a lovely concert! The music and the dark warm summer night by the water were a perfect combination.

The Head and the Heart

On Saturday morning, our first “sight” was Walmart. My friend had never been to one, so I wanted her to experience this essential part of America. Slightly disappointingly, we did not come across any very strange people this time, but at least we were able to stock up the car with snacks. The drive up from Norfolk to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and eventually to the Chincoteague Island was super scenic.  The 50 year-old Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was definitely one of the highlights of the day. This 20-mile / 32km long “engineering wonder of the modern world” took us over and under open waters exactly where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Chincoteague Ponies

The Chincoteague Island is most famous for Chincoteague ponies, also known as Assateague horses. The latter makes much more sense as these wild horses actually live on the neighboring Assateague Island. The ponies have lived on the island some 400 years, and no one knows for sure how they ended up there. The main theories are that either they were brought by early settlers or that they are shipwreck survivors. Before heading to Chincoteague, multiple people did their best to manage my expectations and warned me that we might not see a glimpse of the ponies as they often hide in more remote parts of the island. Hence, we can consider ourselves lucky as we spotted a herd of these small, shaggy creatures right after getting on the island.

In addition to the bridge and ponies, Saturday highlights revolved around food and taking it easy. For lunch, we had delicious fish tacos at Bill’s Seafood Restaurant. Then we spent a couple of hours on the beach on the Assateague Island. On the way back from Assateague we stopped for ice cream at the legendary Island Creamery. In the evening we had a Vietnamese takeout on our patio. Our hotel Waterside Inn was perfectly located for admiring one of the famous Chincoteague sunsets, and excellent for star-gazing, too. The combination of sea, stars and silence reminded me of Coromandel peninsula in New Zealand, one of my all-time favorite places. I think I can add Chincoteague to the same list.

Chincoteague Sunset

Trying not to neglect my triathlon training on the road trip entirely, I started the Sunday morning with a 10-mile run around the two islands. It was pretty hot already before 8AM. Not long ago I would have whined about this, but now I just perceived it as an excellent opportunity to practise running in heat and test how my body reacts to salt tablets. The other highlights of Sunday included returning to the beach on the Assateague Island once more and swimming in the Atlantic, climbing to the Assateague light house, and having a “gourmet carry-out” lunch (gazpacho and a huge sandwich) at the Sea Star Cafe.

Atlantic Ocean!

Driving back from Chincoteague to DC through Maryland was fortunately not as slow as getting to Norfolk. This time we crossed the Chesapeake Bay over another gigantic bridge close to Annapolis where we stopped for an ice cream break at Storm Bros and to pick up another World Bank friend who needed a ride back to DC.

Check out additional Virginia road trip photos on Flickr.

2. Midsummer

Celebrating midsummer (juhannus in Finnish) is more or less as important for Finns as Thanksgiving is for Americans. In a country far north with long dark winters, the summer solstice is an important milestone, as after it days are getting shorter again. Maybe that is why Finns take this celebration of summer and light very seriously. I know I am all but objective, but I can’t help finding it more logical to refer to the occasion as midsummer rather than the first day of summer, like it is called in the US.

The most typical way to celebrate midsummer in Finland is to gather with friends or relatives to someone’s summer cottage (mökki) and spend up to four days by a lake. The main activities are eating, drinking, and having sauna, and maybe lighting a big bonfire (kokko). Most of my midsummers have followed this exact formula, but this was not the first midsummer that I would spent abroad. Ten years ago when I lived in Brussels, we had a very authentic and successful midsummer simulation. Those fond memories inspired me to do my best to create midsummer spirit in DC.

As sauna is a cornerstone of Finnish midsummer traditions, living in a house that has one put me to an excellent position to host a midsummer party. The trickier part was how to get a vihta (also known as vasta), a bunch of birch branches used to gently whip yourself or each other in the sauna to relax muscles, stimulate the skin, and enhance blood circulation. (I must admit this may sound pretty weird or even violent, but it is simply great.) First I considered asking someone to send me a frozen vihta from Helsinki or heading to a nearby park in the dark to collect a few branches. A friend of mine even offered to check out the local offering on her business trip to Moscow, but as we did not want to take any chances, we continued scheming. Then we found out that it is possible to order one on Amazon! Who would’ve thought? I placed an order immediately. When the mailman brought a big parcel a few days before midsummer, a big smile spread across my face.

Juhannusvihta

In Finland, the first potatoes of the new season are typically available just before midsummer, so it would be hard to find a midsummer party where people would not be happily munching boiled new potatoes. DC is so much further south that here the potato season is obviously starts much earlier and is much longer. I decided try my luck at a couple of nearby farmers’ markets anyway to see if they had anything comparable available. No potato luck at the Adams Morgan Farmers’ Market, but I did find excellent rye bread (Russian style, not Finnish, but still). My next destination was the Mt. Pleasant farmers’ market. When I saw boxes full of nice small round fresh dug potatoes, it was time for another big smile. Even after bargaining, these were probably the most expensive potatoes of my life, but definitely worth every penny. As a bonus, I found fresh rhubarb as well.

Midsummer Delicacies

Having secured the birch branches and new potatoes, I knew the evening would be a success. And it was! I loved having our house and patio full of friends. I was of course super late with my slightly too ambitious cooking plans, including making rhubarb soup and Finnish pancake, but that did not matter at all as the kitchen was immediately full of helping hands. The atmosphere could not have been more authentic, so casual and relaxed. It felt like people had known each other for a long time, although many of them met only in the party (or in the sauna). In the end, nearly 30 people joined the fun, mainly Finnish and American and a few brave representatives of other countries. All the Finns loved the sauna, and so did most foreigners, even the beating with the birch branches.

3. Bike Virginia

Participating to Peasantman was not only consequence of bumping into a friend a mine at the pool in spring. There was a raffle at the Peasantman race packet pickup happy hour, and I happened to win a one-day participation to an event that I would have otherwise probably never heard of, Bike Virginia. It is a six-day-long bike tour in a different part of Virginia each year. Participants can choose between multiple route options varying between 14-100 miles in distance. The routes are fully supported with drinks, food, and special treats. This year the event took place near Williamsburg, and there were some 1,500 participants. Again I was lucky to find a friend who was interested in the event, this time a fellow triathlete. We signed up for one of the days pretty randomly.

We had signed up for the event before my knee issues started on our Memorial Day bike tour. I had done only one longer ride after the tour. On that ride I started to feel some pain after about 30 miles / 50km, so I had been resting the knee since then. I had no idea how biking 68 miles / 110km would feel, and how smart biking would be. Following the advice of two of my midsummer guests (a Finnish nurse and a Finnish physician), the day before Bike Virginia I got my knee KT taped at Rose Physical Therapy by Claire who was so kind that she promised to help me out with a short notice between her other customers.

With a nice pink strip of tape on my right knee, I hopped on a train with my bike and camping gear that Monday night and made my way to Alexandria. We had agreed that I would stay over at my friend’s place to make our super early start more doable. On the train I could tell right away that an old man sitting close to me showed a special interest towards my bike. A few stations later he dared to open the discussion. It turned out that this grandpa was from Colombia, an avid cyclist himself, and from the same village as one of the future Tour de France talents (Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana, I assume). For some reason he totally loved my Focus Culebro. He even complimented the design of the seat. What a great start for the Bike Virginia adventure! The best crab cakes of my life cooked by friend’s boyfriend made the evening still more glorious.

Bike Virginia

On Tuesday morning we had to get on the notorious I-95 again, this time already 5AM. We managed to get out of DC before the morning rush hour and made it to the Bike Virginia based camp, the Chickahominy camp site in a few hours. The weather was beautiful when we got on our bikes around 9AM. I felt almost cheating being on a road bike with clip-in pedals as my friend did the whole ride with her hybrid and running shoes. The benefit of this asymmetry was that for me the pace would be very relaxed, meaning less work for my sore knee. This was also the first time that I had a cadence meter, so I could practise maintaining a super high cadence.

Crossing the James River via ferry was a fun way to start and end the day. The ferry was very similar to the ones I had taken on a bike tour in Turku archipelago in Finland, so I felt immediately like home. Whereas in Turku archipelago we were biking in the middle of wheat and canola fields, here we were surrounded by endless corn fields. After my friend told me about a horror film where aliens are hiding in the corn fields, I spent the rest of the day trying to spot one.

There were three rest stops along the route serving everything from PB&J sandwiches and animal crackers to baked potatoes and ice cream floats. Being able to indulge in all kinds of treats during the ride is a big plus for biking compared to running! Despite the high number of participants, the crowd was so spread out that we mainly saw other bikers at the rest stops and on the ferry. Whenever we chatted with anyone, my accent triggered the usual questions, and I happily shared my Fulbright elevator speech over and over again.

Glamping

My knee behaved well the first 60 miles, but after that it got pretty painful again. The comforting fact was that the Half Ironman bike ride is only 56 miles, so that would have been fine. Once we were done with the pedaling for the day, even with the last painful miles, we got our second ice cream serving of the day.

After having a blissful shower, it was time to set up our tent. I’m pretty sure that two of us had the biggest and fanciest tent of the entire campsite, so this was not only my first time of car camping, but also my first time glamping! I slept super well in the fancy tent. Spending the whole day on the bike and having a brief but fabulous massage after dinner probably contributed to that as well. On the following day, my friend made sure that my visit to the Virginia countryside would be as complete and educational as possible by taking me to the Colonial Williamsburg first and then to Cracker Barrel for lunch.

Check out additional Bike Virginia photos on Flickr.

Bike Touring Small Town America

Even if I am not the biggest fan of small talk and mingling, I have to admit that sometimes it can lead to most amazing things. I learned about an awesome bike trail between Pittsburgh and DC in the Fulbright welcome reception in October when chatting with one of the Fulbright staff members. It was only half a year later, though, when the topic came up again with a friend of mine over lunch. To my surprise, she was immediately all in. It still took a few more months for the plan to mature. One more bikey woman was approved to join the team, and we decided to time the adventure for the Memorial Day weekend.

Thursday May 22: Washington, DC – Pittsburgh, PA

As I had signed up for a series of bike mechanics classes with The Bike House on Thursday nights in May, we could not leave before I had finalized the class on shifters and derailleurs. Skipping the class would have meant too much bad karma for the tour. The girls agreed to pick me up from Petworth right after the class. We loaded our bikes and panniers to a rental van, and our crazy adventure started. Around 1AM after about four hours of driving, Pittsburgh by night opened up in front of our eyes. Pretty! I was a little surprised as well: Pittsburgh is actually a proper-sized city, much bigger than I had imagined. Our first home away from home was an old priory converted to a cool hotel.

Friday May 23: Pittsburgh, PA – Dawson, PA

After a good night’s sleep and stuffing as much food to ourselves as possible at breakfast, we packed the van again and drove downtown to return it. It still took quite a while to get going: Reassembling front wheels on the bikes, adding air to the tires, buying a map and a copy of the legendary the TrailBook, and taking photos in front of the baseball stadium, the local Red Cross chapter, and eventually in Point State Park, the official starting (or actually ending) point of the Great Alleghany Passage (GAP), all of this took time.

GAP Trail End in Pittsburgh

Around 2PM we were finally on the trail. The weather was a little cloudy, but I didn’t mind at all, as heat is not for me. The first part of the trail was paved, so we were moving very quickly along the Monongahela River. We crossed a couple of impressive bridges, saw and heard the first trains, and rode a while with two chatty, patronizing guys who were heading to the same direction. We had a quick break by the beautiful Dravo Cemetery, and then stopped for dinner in West Newton. I was a little concerned that we would not arrive at our next home away home in Dawson before it gets dark, but I also figured that it is better to arrive in the dark than to arrive hungry. The patio of The Trailside restaurant was full of locals and other bikers, and we all loved the relaxed Friday night atmosphere.

Dravo Cemetary

We had about 20 miles / 32km to go after dinner. We got about half way before it started to get dark. The trail was no longer paved, but still in very good condition. Around 9PM we were done with our 57 miles / 92km. This was the all time highest daily mileage for each one of us, the first time biking with panniers for both of my friends, and even the first time with clipless pedals for one of the two. My heart rate monitor estimated that the recovery time was 68 hours, but I actually felt great: Knowing that I could do this distance on my hybrid with panniers made the 56 mile ride / 90km on a road bike as a part of a Half Ironman feel much less frightening.

Having dinner in West Newton was probably the right decision, as Dawson turned out to be a tiny town with 451 inhabitants at the 2000 census (and many have probably left since). Fortunately, we found our accommodation, Dawson River Guest House, easily. We had the entire 194-year-old house for ourselves. The house looked very much like someone’s grandmother’s place, or like the house of the three bears in Goldilocks. There were even three beds in a small bedroom upstairs, one of which clearly belonged to the Baby Bear.

Dawson River Guest House

The only establishment that was open in Dawson on a Friday night was Phil’s Nite Club. Finding it turned out to be surprisingly difficult considering the size of the town. The first lit building that looked like the bar from distance, was actually a garage that belonged to a local weirdo. The garage was full of 50s memorabilia and other random junk. It was easy to imagine that it also would serve as a meth lab. The guy was hanging out there with his lady friend and two teenage boys. None of them seemed to be doing particularly well. Kind of a sad scene, so we cut the small talk as short as we politely could, and headed forward.

Luckily, the next lit building was the one we were looking for, a combination of a restaurant and a bar, sort of an American version of Kaamasen kievari. Three gals in biking gear definitely stood out from the crowd. There sure were a few other bikers in the bar, but they do not ride bicycles, they ride motorcycles. A very memorable evening, and probably the cheapest beer (2 beers and a bag of pretzels for $5) and the biggest tip (60%) of my Fulbright year.

Saturday May 24: Dawson, PA – Rockwood, PA

In the morning I noticed something funny on the front porch: A chair made of skis. And two skis in the middle were not just any old skis. They were Finnish skis by Karhu! I love spotting Finnish brands in unexpected settings, and this definitely was one. A similar proud moment for a Finn than spotting the Fiskars machetes on the Kingman Island.

Ski Bench

Before the trip, my internet research had shown that there is a gluten free bakery in Dawson. Based on what we had seen the night before, it felt very hard to believe that there would be any kind of bakery in the town. We decided to check out Lisa’s Gluten Free Bakery anyway. And it does indeed exist, but unfortunately the opening hours on Facebook were up to date, so we had to carry on without cupcakes.

Lisa's Gluten Free Bakery

We ended up having a no-nonsense breakfast at Valley Dairy in Connellsville instead. A few mamils had also stopped there for a coffee. They were not as patronizing as the guys we met the day before, but again we got to answer a few funny questions, like if we had cancelled the trip if it was raining. Of course not! Like always, my distinguishable accent was also of a lot of interest. I gradually started to feel like a celebrity on the trail due to being Finnish, and eventually we did not meet any other foreigners during our entire ride.

Picture Perfect

From Connellsville it was a lovely ride to Ohiopyle. So green and lush, a nice canopy, sunshine, blues skies, and a winding trail along the Youghiogheny river. It felt like flying, except that you could feel the wind and warmth on your face, and you knew that the only thing moving you forward were your own muscles. In Ohiopyle we got off the bikes to visit Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s houses. The brilliant architecture of the house really takes the most out of its beautiful location. Fallingwater reminded me of the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki, although Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house in 1930s whereas Viljo Revell designed the Didrichsen villa only in the 1950s.

Fallingwater

From Ohiopyle it was supposed to be a pleasant 10-mile ride to Confluence. It was incredibly pretty, and we kept moving pretty fast – until I started to feel pain in my right knee. Significant pain. I did not want to make a big deal out of it, but eventually I had to unclip my right foot and do the last miles pedaling primarily with my left leg. I felt grateful for the one-leg drills that I had done earlier in spring as a part of my triathlon training. At least I had some strength in my non-dominant left leg as well.

Confluence was possibly the most picturesque town along the whole bike route. The famous Sister’s Cafe was closed unfortunately, as it was evening already, but River’s Edge Cafe was open. I hoped that my knee pain would leave together with hunger. Unfortunately our delicious dinner overlooking the river in the wonderful evening sun was not enough to cure my knee. For a moment I thought I could get away by only clipping in the left foot again. Soon I realized that even if I was able to do that for a few miles, it would be irresponsible and just plain stupid to try to do it for another 19 miles. I would have to stop biking immediately to avoid further damage, if not entirely, at least for the rest of the day.

I had been looking forward to the bike tour so much that having to stop was a huge disappointment. At the same time, pedaling had felt so horrible that I also started to panic if I had just destroyed my Half Ironman dream as well. The feeling reminded me of a teary night in October 2010. I had hoped to run my first marathon in Beirut in November that year, but after suffering multiple consecutive colds, I just was forced to face the facts and do just a 10K Fun Run instead.

Bikey Woman In Trouble

Once the tough decision was made, I got back to my solution-driven mode. Years ago, one of my first supervisors taught me what she called the law of karma: “Whatever you do, good or bad, comes back to you threefold.” A Wiccan tenet or not, I’ve kept this in mind ever since. Now it was clearly time to cash back some of my good deeds. So what do you do if you are in a small town in rural Pennsylvania without phone reception? You start asking for help! We spotted Lucky Dog Café right by the trail and stepped inside.

I explained the situation to the bartender. We learned that there is no taxi service in Confluence, neither is there in Rockwood which was our destination for the day. Calling an ambulance would have been an option but it did not feel justified, plus probably they would not have taken a bike onboard anyway. Next I asked the bartender if she happened to have a friend or know anyone who would like to make me big favor for some gas money. A man in his late 40s or early 50s eating fries at the bar overheard the discussion and offered to drive me to Rockwood with his pickup. Under normal circumstances I do not hitchhike or accept rides from middle-aged men that I know nothing of. In this case, though, I decided to let this man prove that not all helpful men are ax-murderers. It seemed that everyone who worked in the bar knew the man, so I figured they would not let me accept the ride if there was anything sketchy about it.

And everything worked out just fine: I sent my friends off for the last leg of the day. I let the man finish his fries together with the bartender. Then we walked to his massive white pickup truck, offloaded a few kayaks and loaded my bike. The drive to Rockwood was actually quite a lot longer than the bike trail, so I got plenty of small talk exercise. My savior turned out to be originally from Germany, a father of two, and a devoted kayak teacher and kayaking enthusiast since the 1970s. He had lived and worked in Confluence for years before moving to the West Coast, and he had known the bartender since she was a little girl. He kindly dropped me off right by at our accommodation, Hostel on Main.

Hostel on Main

My earlier than expected arrival in Rockwood turned out to have a major positive consequence: The only grocery store (which actually was a Dollar store), was only open until 9PM. That left me with about 20 minutes of time to creatively hoard food for us: eggs, milk, bananas, granola, pretzels, Gatorade, and ice cream. Due to the Memorial Day weekend, the store would reopen on Sunday only at noon, so without my coincidental grocery run we would have had no breakfast. When my friends found the hostel after biking in the dark again, this time encountering snakes on the trail, especially the ice cream was much appreciated. After 36 miles / 58km and a pickup ride for me and 55 miles / 89km for them, lying on bunk beds, eating Moose Tracks and debriefing the day was glorious.

Sunday May 25: Rockwood, PA – Cumberland, MD

On Sunday morning I was very nervous to get on the bike again. After about half a mile it was clear that this would be my last day of biking. The strongest pain was gone, but I could feel that something was not quite right. Luckily, we had planned a shorter day for Sunday, only 45 miles / 73km. I also knew that after a very gradual climb to the Eastern Continental Divide the remaining 24 miles / 38km would be downhill. I would have hated to miss the leg from Rockwood to Cumberland, as I knew we had an awesome day ahead with lots of sightseeing on the way, so I decided to give it a go using the smallest gear possible at all times.

Another Awesome Bridge

The first major sight was the Salisbury viaduct. I must have had a ridiculously big smile on my face. After all the challenges on the way, I was so happy to be able see these impressive constructions build for trains more than a hundred years ago. In Meyersdale we stopped at an old railway station for a long unrushed lunch. They had a world map on the wall where guests were asked to pin their home towns. I was the first one from Finland. Biking Finland onto to the map of the world!

Soon after the break we crossed yet another impressive iron bridge, Bollman bridge, and the Keystone Viaduct. Seeing the Eastern Continental Divide in front of my eyes may have been the most rewarding moment of the entire ride. The Eastern Continental Divide is the line from where water drains to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. For me it was a big victory and relief as I knew this was the highest point on our route and I would make it to Cumberland.

Eastern Continental Divide

To document our achievement, we asked an experienced looking biker to take a photo of us. He was riding a very nice Surly touring bike, one of my dream bikes, so I got curious about his story. This crazy guy from Idaho, Harvey, had started his tour in February and biked over 3,000 miles / 5,000km since. He had started in California, crossed the Sierras, biked through the southern United States all the way to New Orleans, and eventually Key West. The bike ride from DC to Pittsburgh was the last leg of his tour. Very inspiring!

The next sight was the longest of three tunnels on the GAP trail, the Big Savage Tunnel. It felt strange to take off sunglasses and turn on bike lights in the middle of a sunny day, but the tunnel was long enough (1km!) to make both of those actions very necessary. Coming out of the tunnel, a beautiful view to the valley opened up in front of our eyes. Then we arrived to the state border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, also known as the Mason-Dixon line. That is where we had the next awesome encounter: Again I asked someone to take a photo of us. This time I had randomly selected a deaf couple. One of my friends is an American Sign Language interpreter, so thanks to her special skill we ended up having a lengthy conversation on biking and kayaking.

Mason-Dixon Line

From the Mason-Dixon line it was all downhill. There were two more tunnels, Borden and Brush, and miles and miles of railroad tracks. Some sections of the trail were quite narrow and uneven, so I felt very grateful having learned to bike on gravel roads a child. Otherwise whizzing down the hill might have been scary to say the least. I also felt grateful that we had decided to start the bike ride from Pittsburgh and not from DC. Climbing up this hill on a hot, sunny day would have been hard work even without any knee issues.

Rails to Trails

A little bit before Cumberland the trail was paved again. It felt so luxurious! At the same time I felt a little sad knowing that my ride would be soon over. Arriving in Cumberland was awesome, though! We found the official ending (or starting) point of the GAP. I have probably never been that gritty after biking, but that did not prevent us from another funny photo shoot. The bikes were obviously super gritty as well, but luckily Fairfield Inn where we stayed offered facilities for washing them before bringing them inside for the night.

GAP Trail End in CumberlandWe celebrated the completion of GAP by having dinner at Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria. Sometimes pizza and beer are exactly what you need! The rest of the evening we spent again lying on our beds and eating ice cream in our hotel room that was so full of bikes and gear that it would have been nearly impossible to fit in anything more. The girls were watching Youtube videos on how to repair a flat now as their mechanic (= me) would not be able to join them. Who would’ve thought that I would ever be considered a trusted bike mechanic?

Monday May 26 (Memorial Day): Cumberland, MD – Washington, DC – Hancock, MD

One of the main reasons why I decided to risk it and ride from Rockwood to Cumberland was that I figured that getting home from Cumberland should be much easier as it is a much bigger small town. All the car rentals indeed have an office in Cumberland, but when we started to investigate the situation, it turned out that they were all closed due to Memorial Day: Avis, Enterprise, Budget, Hertz… Similarly no luck with U-Haul either. This challenge had not even crossed my mind. Why on Earth would you not keep car rentals open during a long weekend when people actually have time to drive to places?

While the girls were getting ready for their nearly 60 mile ride, I started to explore other options. Greyhound? No buses between Cumberland and DC. And even if there had been, they would not have taken the bike unless it was put into small pieces and boxed. Amtrak? There would’ve been a train early in the morning, but again no bikes. Zimride? I even tried catching a ride through the car pooling service of the DelFest music festival that had happened in Cumberland that weekend, but no luck…

Bikes when Flashing

I was gradually getting unsettled. I published a general appeal on Facebook for someone to come rescue me, and I was about to start asking people in the breakfast room randomly if they were about to check out and head to DC. I did not get quite that far when things started to move: We got a friend in DC on phone half-asleep, and he promised to help the ‘damsel in distress’ probably before he properly woke up. When he did wake up, he realized that the clutch in his car did not work properly. Luckily the other of my friends on the trip realized he could take her car and drive up with it. Problem solved!

After I had given my last motherly (and probably completely unnecessary) advice about the importance of nutrition, hydration and not stopping for way too long to complete the ride before dark to the girls and sent them off to the trail, I had plenty of time to walk around Cumberland while waiting for my evacuation. I sat quite a while in the garden of the one of the churches in Old Cumberland, hung out at a cute book store, and got a cone of yummy ice cream from Queen City Creamery recommended by Harvey on Eastern Continental Divide. My rescue patrol arrived around 4PM.

Public Art

There was quite a lot of Memorial Day traffic, so it took us about 3 hours to get back to DC. Then it was my turn to hop on the driver’s seat, first drive to Columbia Heights to drop off my bike and then head back north to meet the girls in Hancock. I was super happy that I had been driving in Miami only a few weeks earlier, so I was not completely terrified in DC traffic. I also realized that thanks to biking around the city almost daily during the past nine months, I knew the street network very well: one-way streets, bike lanes, hidden alleys, and so on. Soon after getting out of DC, the battery of my phone died, so I had to navigate the rest of drive relying on signs – very old school, but it worked. Still I think I was more exhausted after the drive to our last lovely accommodation, 1828 Trail Inn Bed and Breakfast, than after any of the days on the bike. What a day! 270 miles for my rescue patrol, 230 miles for me, and approximately 60 miles on the C&O trail for the girls.

Tuesday May 27: Hancock, MD – Washington, DC

On the last morning of the adventure we took it very easy and had the most amazing breakfast prepared by our friendly host Darlene. For once even I was not in a hurry to get going. The girls had decided to only complete the Western Maryland Rail Trail on this trip, so it would be an easy 11-mile ride for them, and an even quicker drive for me, so we did not have to worry about darkness. Naturally I would have much rather biked with them… But when your body tries to tell you something, you’d better listen.

Heroines

Once the heroines completed their ride and we were happily reunited again in Big Pool, we only need to load bikes on the bike rack and hop in the car. At least the logistics were super easy as a result of my evacuation. In the original plan we would’ve needed to get a rental car from Hagerstown. Country roads took us to Williamsport where ate a yummy lunch at the Desert Rose Café, got the daily ice cream overdose across the street, and made some more biker small talk with another group of bikers. Then it was unavoidably time to drive back home to DC after doing our share to save the small town America.

Check out additional photos on Flickr.

Bike to Vote Day

Bike to Work Day was a big deal in DC today. Unfortunately torrential rain in the morning messed up the plans of some of the nearly 17,000 registered participants, but many did not let that matter. I was lucky to be able to head to the office only when the rain had almost stopped, and I still made it to a Bike to Work Day pitstop at the National Geographic Society. I got some free breakfast and swag, and – of course – a free T-shirt. Americans love free T-shirts.

Together

As I commute by bike daily, for me a bigger deal than Bike to Work Day was my very own invention, Bike to Vote Day. Another five years have passed, and it’s time for the European Parliament Elections. Finland will elect thirteen members to the European Parliament. The elections in Finland will take place on May 25, but the advance voting has already started and lasts until May 20. Outside Finland, the last voting day is already May 17, so especially Finnish friends living abroad, hurry up!

Finnish & EU Flags

Luckily if not surprisingly, the Embassy of Finland here in DC is a voting location. That’s where I headed with two Finnish friends to cast our votes. No waiting in line, a very fast and efficient procedure, just like you would expect from us Finns, I guess. Finns in DC can still vote tomorrow on Saturday from 10AM to 2PM.

The Greenest Embassy

The Embassy of Finland is the first embassy in the United States to be certified as an energy efficient building. Bike parking was provided for Bike to Vote Day participants. Yet another reason to brag about our green embassy.

Bicycle Parking Only

In 2004 I lived in Belgium and voted at the Embassy of Finland in Brussels, so this starts to feel like a nice tradition. Any wild guesses where I might find myself in 2024?

A Little Bit of History & Visiting Clara

Despite being involved with the Red Cross since a kid, I did not know too much of its 150-year-long history before my Fulbright project. Of course I was familiar with the name Henry Dunant, the Swiss businessman known as the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, but that was about it. Learning more about the history of the organization and how it intertwines with world politics has been fascinating.

When I started to read more about the Red Cross history, I soon realized that strong women played key roles in the early days of the organization. Even Henry Dunant himself commented that “it is to an English woman that all the honour of that Geneva Convention is due”, referring to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale’s heroic work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) to improve the care of sick and wounded soldiers was great inspiration for Dunant. Later, Nightingale initiated the foundation of the British Red Cross in 1870. In Finland, Countess Aline Armfelt was the driving force behind the foundation of the Finnish Red Cross (originally known as ‘the Association for the Treatment of the Wounded and Sick Soldiers’) in 1877.

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton (1821–1912). Based on the biographies, she sounds like quite a character: “a renaissance woman” who seemed to excel in anything she did, despite being very shy and living in a society where women were all but encouraged to work outside home. In her early professional life, Clara Barton first pioneered as a teacher, and then worked in the Patent Office, becoming one of the first women to gain employment in the federal government. During the Civil War, Barton risked her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field, getting the nick name “Angel of the Battlefield”. At the time of founding the American Red Cross, she was already 60 years old and had a notable career behind her, but that did not stop her from leading the organization for 23 years, until the age of 83! Even after that she remained active and founded the National First Aid Society that later became part of the Red Cross.

Clara Barton was originally from Massachusetts. In 1855 she moved to DC for the first time due to her work in the Patent office, and since then she lived and worked on and off in the area. Hence here are several interesting sights commemorating her and her work. One of them is Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office on the 7th Street NW where Clara Barton lived and worked from 1861 to 1868. The site is currently undergoing restoration and hence closed to public, but the restoration should be finalized in spring, so I hope to be able to visit it still before my Fulbright year is over. 

The last 15 years of her life Clara Barton spent in Glen Echo, Maryland. When I heard that her house can be visited year round, I planned a bike trip there right away. And what a memorable bike trip it was: I had never before biked in 17-18 m/s wind combined with a sub-zero temperature! But it was well worth it, as the guided tour in the house was pretty interesting. For example, I learned that Clara Barton’s favorite drink was milk – so she would have made a good Finn! I also learned that Clara Barton’s home served as an early headquarters of the American Red Cross. (My workplace, the current headquarters was finalized only in 1917.) Interestingly, also the volunteers lived on the site, mainly to save travel time. That made me think if I should propose a similar arrangement either to my boss or to the current president of the American Red Cross…

WP_20131124_024Clara Barton’s home in Glen Echo, Maryland

WP_20131124_018Volunteers’ office in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131127_002A volunteer’s office in Downtown DC in 2013

WP_20131124_011A volunteer’s bedroom in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131024_003A volunteer’s bedroom in Columbia Heights in 2013

Best of October

1. Hawaii

My father ran his first marathon in Honolulu in 1990. I have been dreaming of Hawaii ever since. Last January a New Zealand based friend of mine and I were joking that if I get the Fulbright scholarship, we should meet on Hawaii, as it is conveniently half way between Auckland and DC. Like (delightfully) often seems to happen in my life, also this joke became reality in early October.

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The state of Hawaii actually consists of hundreds of islands, out of which we had a chance to explore two on this trip. First, we spent a few days on Oahu in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. Having been a big fan of the Hotel board game as a child, staying in a hotel by the Waikiki beach felt quite surreal. Highlights of our stay included hiking the Diamond Head crater trail, visiting the battleship USS Missouri at the Pearl Harbor, and meeting up with a researcher at the University of Hawaii.

After catching a flight to the actual island of Hawaii, often referred to as the Big Island, things got even more exciting and intense. Only a few hours after landing we were snorkeling with sea turtles and fish that looked like they escaped from an aquarium or a Disney movie. The same evening we drove to Mauna Kea and visited an observatory where star-gazing – or rather galaxy-gazing – got a new meaning. The furthest galaxy that we saw with the help of canon-sized telescopes and conversant volunteer grandpas was 7.5 million light years away!

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Finally, the main reason for the timing of our trip was the legendary Ironman World Championship in Kona. About 2000 athletes get to compete in this brutal race annually, and complete a 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim, a 112-mile (180 km) bicycle ride and a marathon (26.2 miles / 42.195 km) in the heat of Hawaii. The professional athletes get going at 6:30 am and are done in some 8-9 hours, whereas the amateurs – also known as the ‘age groupers’ – start at 7am and need to be done by midnight, so in 17 hours.

The nature of the race makes it a long day even for the spectators: We woke up at 4:40am and headed to the shores of the Kailua Bay to maximize the opportunities to witness the madness and cheer our “countrymen” from Finland, Estonia, and New Zealand. The most incredible experience was to see the last athletes cross the finish line at midnight, several amputees among them. Quoting Ironman World Champion 2013 Mirinda Carfrae, “the best IM memories sometimes come very late at night“, like this amazing story proves. If Ironspectating does not maximize your training motivation, nothing does.

Check out additional Hawaii photos on Flickr.

2. Art, Bikes and the City: A DC Mural Ride

AIGA, the professional association for design, organized a fun mural bike ride with the theme “Art, Bikes and the City” as a part of the DC Design Week. Thanks to my wonderful friend, I got to join the designer crowd for the tour. It was fascinating to realize how rich the DC mural scene is. Some of the works I had spotted on my own while cycling around the city. Others I would have never found without our knowledgeable guides. The guides excelled at pointing out interesting details, too. For example, if you look at this mural carefully, you will notice there is a mural in the mural. The first meta mural I’ve ever seen!

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Especially some of my DC readers might be happy to learn that the map of the murals we visited and more information is available online. DC Murals and Mural Locator are excellent resources with lots of photos, and this blog post describes in more detail the efforts of building a bridge to legal street art.

The tour ended to the pretty Georgetown waterfront where we had yummy treasures by the Malmaison for lunch. As an extra turn after the picnic, we still biked to Rosslyn, Virginia, and checked out the Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol at the Artisphere, just in time before the exhibition ended. Designers really know how to spend sunny Sundays!

3. Halloween

Celebrating my first Halloween in the US started when I joined a friend, two adorable 3-year-olds (a pirate and a train conducter), and a 4-month-old (wearing a fake moustache) to a Halloween party for kids at their school in the middle of the Rock Creek Cemetery. On the following night, there was a Halloween party for adults organized at my “second home”, a cool group house where I almost ended up living. Participants were dressed up as meticulously in both parties, and I promise to avoid the rookie mistake of not taking the ‘costumes-preferred’ guidance seriously next time… 

Halloween 2013

On the actual Halloween, my colleague treated us with delicious pumpkin bread, and our home street was filled with cute trick-or-treaters. As a final Halloween highlight, I joined a Zombie Ride around the city. One of the zombies turned out to be a Canadian actor on a 2000 km bike tour to draw attention to the environmental impact of fracking. I promised this energetic trumpetist to advertise his cause on my blog, so please have a look at the Save Our Water with Art project.

PS. If you like to see more photographic evidence of my life in DC, here’s a hot tip: I post extra photos of fun stuff on Flickr every now and then also between blog posts.

Best of September

1. H Street NE Festival

Out of all the street festivals that I explored in September (and there were many), the H Street NE festival was my favorite. Super diverse, super laid back. A DC bike map sponsored by WABA, an invitation to join the Black Girls Run movement (they do not discriminate!), and a yummy Burgorilla black bean burger were some of the highlights of the event.

H St. Festival

The most memorable part still was a dance performance by a group of multi-cultural kids. All that energy and joy! Towards the end of the performance, I was astonished to realize that all the kids were actually deaf or hard of hearing. Incredible. Inspired by what I saw, I wanted to learn to understand better how these kids can be so great dancers without hearing the music, and found an excellent article on the topic by Gallaudet University.

2. 7th Street Social

It was my third evening in DC when I was walking back from my yoga class and saw an amazing scene: 50 or so cyclists were riding together, led by a bike that carried a huge stereo system. It looked like loads of fun! The only problem was I had no clue what was going on or who was behind the event.

7th St. Social

Fortunately, soon I figured out that I had spotted the 7th Street Social, which is something between a group ride or a party on wheels organized by a local bike shop, BicycleSPACE. Last Thursday I joined the ride. For two hours we biked around the Capitol Hill area with music playing and lights blinking. We even rode up the ramp of an empty 4-story parking garage somewhere in Navy Yard to take a popsicle break at the rooftop, overlooking the waterfront and the city lit up at night. Unforgettable!

3. Nuit Blanche DC at Wonder Bread Factory

DC tends to have somewhat dull reputation. Based on my first month here, this is an unfair verdict. All you need is to make friends with a few nice key individuals, in my case an interior design student and a graphic designer, and all of a sudden cool-hunting becomes very easy.

As a result, you may find yourself at events like Nuit Blanche DC. This event was a part of Art All Night DC 2013, a free overnight arts festival in the Shaw neighborhood right next to the Howard University. The four floors of the renovated, post-industrial venue, Wonder Bread Factory, were filled with installations, performing and visual arts, short films, and DJs. For a street art fan like me, seeing graffiti artists in (legal) action was like Christmas.

Nuit Blanche DC

The Finnish readers could imagine the event being a mix of the Flow Festival and the Night of Arts in Helsinki. And similarly to these events back home, randomly bumping into acquaintances happened all the time. I had not even realized that I already know enough people in DC for that to happen. DC really is a village rather than a city, a cool village.