A few weeks ago I decided to join a local cycling club (Potomac Pedalers Touring Club) so I could meet new people to ride with and discover some new roads. So, last Tuesday I went on my first organized club ride, a regular Tuesday night meetup called the “downtown breakaway.” The club website promised that on this route you could “ride in DC at rush hour and not be in the midst of cars,” a promise that intrigued me given some of the hair-rasing times I’ve had jockeying through traffic after work.
So I got what I was looking for- took a nice long bike ride and met some new people, but these things weren’t nearly as interesting as the fascinating and sometimes surprising glimpses of the city that unfolded before me. A few things that crossed my mind:
-You can indeed find a lot of empty roads in DC, even at rush hour. Except for a quick segment on Massachusetts Ave, almost all of the streets we covered could have been mistaken for the suburbs on a quiet Sunday morning. Of course, to find and connect all of these streets requires putting together an incredibly complex ride plan consisting of countless short, linked segments. A look at the cue sheet (see below) shows that there were 40 turns in the first 10 miles. This is a bit of a culture shock from Charlottesville, where one could put together a gorgeous 30-mile route using about five state roads. There’s certainly cycling in and around DC (beyond trusty old Beach Dr and Haines Point), youjust have to dig harder for it
-The social strata in DC are beyond belief, but so is the scenery. Looking beyond the new luxury condos that keep popping up everywhere, there are some truly beautiful old neighborhoods in DC that one must at least appreciate for their aesthetics, if not the mountains of old money that made them possible. We spent the first part of our trip rolling down roads I’d never even heard of in almost a year living here (Rockwood Parkway? New Mexico Ave? wtf?) through neighborhoods like The Palisades and Spring Valley. Now, back to the old money thing: the houses around here were gorgeous, but not in a way that cried out for attention. The MO of the design of each house seemed to be this: pick one classically beautiful style of architecture, and do it well. While some of the houses were quite large, they were perfectly integrated into the landscape– trees and green things seemed to be a prominent asset rather than completely absent. Also, while the lots were relatively large for Washington, houses were still close together, eschewing some of the usual class signifiers such as huge yards, hedges, and gated driveways.
This was a welcome break from the McMansion style of the suburbs that that seems to reward showing off as many bricks, windows, and misplaced styles as possible, and razing any trees that might distract passerby from the display of megalomania. Eventually, I got to thinking about the changes in the aesthetics of wealth that have taken place in the last half century or so. It seemed that when these homes were conceived of many decades ago, they were designed to show off the taste and refinement of their owners as well as their money. While I knew I’d never break my back seeking the wealth possessed by those who commissioned these houses, I couldn’t help but quietly respect their aesthetic, one that valued respect for architecture and harmony over grandiosity. Going forward, I’m hoping to spend some time taking in DC’s other beautiful old neighborhoods off the beaten path, such as Ledroit Park and the northern part of Mt Pleasant. That’s a very incomplete list, so any other suggestions would be welcome.
-If you don’t like the heat, you really should get out of DC, at least for an afternoon. We passed through parts of Potomac, MD that must have been 20 degrees cooler than the city. Having green things around you really does make a difference.
If you want to try and follow the route I took, the incredibly complex cue sheet is posted here (I would advise following someone who knows the way already, which does not include me):
Also: Thanks to Just Up the Pike, which has a funny and informative “McMansions” category where I found some of the above links.