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Saturday, April 23, 2011

DC Bike Trip, Sterling, VA - Mount Vernon, VA

4/23/11 #238

4/22/11 Week 16 // Miles this week: 130
//Miles 2nd quarter: 267 // miles this year: 578

Just returned from a two-day bike trip which was prompted by a bit of winter cabin fever and the desire to go ride on relatively flat paved trails in warmer weather, and this trip delivered on the promise.

We departed Pittsburgh at 0600 and drove to DC, parking our van at 1130 in the parking lot of the Embassy Suites Hotel Dulles on Waxpool Road. We traveled southeast along the W&OD Trail, which was in excellent condition.

The W&OD Trail follows the right-of-way of a major overhead power line, so there's no canopy. The trail is not a straightaway as I had anticipated, but is an interesting path and a fun ride. On the western side of the trail there are several at-grade (which is to say, road-level) street crossings and in general local motorists were very cooperative. There are a few hills on the west side of the W&OD where the trail goes over major highways.

The W&OD trail is well signed and marked, certainly visitor-friendly. There are rest stations with water fountains, and there are a few electric air pumps along the trail. Very impressive.

We made our first stop at Caffe Amouri in Vienna, VA, a very nice indie coffee shop. We were very close to Bikes @ Vienna which has a great reputation and is known as a recumbent specialty shop, so we tooled over there for a look and then returned to the trail.

The trail passes next to some remarkable houses, and one of the things you can do with a group that has Droid phones is you can stop and Zillow the house you are looking at, see what it costs, and if it's recently up for sale you can see interior photos - that was borderline spooky/stalky.

The wind was out of the southeast at about 15 knots, so there was a headwind for today's ride. It wasn't bad at all for most of the trip, but it was pretty strong as we got closer to DC.

We intercepted the Custis Trail which weaves along both sides of I-66. When it does that, often one side of the trail is the highway noise barrier wall, and the other side is the local neighborhood. The trail undulates over the highway and then down to street level numerous times, and it provided more of a climbing workout than I thought the DC area would offer.

From the Custis Trail we joined the Mount Vernon trail. It was nice to see the historic skyline across the river. The Mount Vernon trail is beautiful, it follows the Potomac quite closely. There's a major park right under the approach path for the south runway at National Airport, that was a very cool stop.

Coming south out of DCA was one area that I thought might have benefited from a barrier wall of some sort, you're southbound along the trail and separated from northbound highway traffic by six feet of grass on a descending slope, it would be too easy for a distracted bicyclist or a child to end up in a high-impact collision.

The Mount Vernon trail is not continuous through the town of Alexandria, you need to ride on streets through there but it's very bike-friendly. We stopped at a Starbucks in Old Town, Alexandria. By then it was 80F and we sat outside Starbucks and watched the world walk by for a little bit.

Back on the trail, the airplanes at DCA were landing in a different direction now which heralded the wind shift that would give us a headwind on both days of our ride.

M. has family and friends in the DC area and was communicating with them through the day in case we needed a safety net, and one friend hoped to meet us along the final leg into Mount Vernon. We serendipitously decided to take a break on highway overpass while M's friend was riding on the highway, so he pulled over with a supply of cold Yuenglings which was both a welcome respite and a remarkable intercept.

The Mount Vernon trail continues south along the Potomac into some beautiful wildlife areas, and we had the opportunity to remind ourselves of the Third Rule of Bicycle Touring:

Never Ride to A Place that is named "Mount _____"

You can never start riding to a place named Mount (anything) and not find hills at the end. That's why they call it Mount Pilot, Mount Olympus, Mount Washington - it's because they've got a hill that will make you want to cry.

We rode uphill to our hotel (Best Western Mount Vernon, great hotel, excellent staff, bike friendly) and were very glad that we hadn't set a more ambitious plan for the day, 49.2 miles was enough for an early spring ride.

The weather was wonderful the first day, we had a lot of sunshine, 80F temps. There was a lot of pollen; our eyes were irritated and the bikes were covered in fine yellow powder.

In the evening we ate at an adjacent restaurant, El Paso, which was excellent - wonderful food, reasonably priced, great staff. Highly recommended.

Bike Trip Day Two: Mount Vernon to Sterling, VA

We met at 0800 for the hotel's breakfast, which was very good. It was a cold morning, low 40s and very windy, northwest at 25 which was another headwind. It was a morning for full-fingered gloves and wool socks. We started our ride at 0900 wearing a lot of clothes, and we shed one layer after the first five miles.

We rode north into Alexandria and this time stopped at a Starbucks closer to the river, a very nice shop in the basement of an old building with a grotto vibe. We sat outside again but the temps were not conducive to lounging and so we got back on the bikes.

As we rode north into the cold wind we needed to ride to generate heat, and I kept thinking of Andy Hampsten an American rider who is the only non-European to win the Giro, and who had a remarkable ride over the Gavia Pass in a 1988 snowstorm, in which he needed to ride fast to stay warm but the conditions made any speed quite risky.

After passing DCA we crossed into downtown DC to ride along the Reflecting Pool. We took a photo by the Jefferson Memorial, then we rode across town (which was a bit congested), had a hotdog at a roadside stand, saw the WW2 Memorial, learned that the Reflecting Pool has been excavated for a refurbishment, rode to the Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed the river back to the trails again. The downtown excursion was a nice break in the middle of the day, slow pedaling in crowds.

While we were near the White House we met a couple on touring bikes from Germany that we had seen earlier in the day. Really nice bikes, all tricked out with Ortlieb panniers, surprisingly no high-viz clothing or gear. They were probably in their mid-60's, a husband and wife from Germany. They had left Miami on their bikes three weeks previous, and hoped to reach Boston in another few weeks, staying overnight in hotels. They were very impressive.

We left the Mount Vernon Trail for the Custis, and now that we had some knowledge of the path ahead we paced ourselves a bit more wisely across the I-66 chicanery. At about 30 miles into the day we stopped at a Starbucks (thanks Mr. Droid!) and enjoyed a nice break in big comfortable recliners, they were a bit hard to leave behind. We shed another layer of clothes there and enjoyed the last two hours at 60F.

We continued uneventfully to reach the destination at 5pm with 52.3 miles on the GPS. We used the hotel's facilities to change clothes, put the bikes on the rack and drove home. I was back at my house at about 1030pm.

This was a great trip. It was exactly what I had hoped for, a middle-distance ride early in the season with great company and paved trails. I could do this again next spring.

The W&OD Trail, the Custis Trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail are wonderful - well designed, well maintained, marked and signed. The traffic on the trail is a mixture of road bikes, recumbents, kids and geezers, joggers, dog walkers, people with strollers - but they're all well behaved and courteous.

The bikes performed well, no flat tires, no mechanical issues.

I do like the local policy (advertised on trail signs) of a maximum dog leash length of 10 feet, I see people on the Montour Trail with 25-foot leashes and that's not very practical IMO.

The 50-mile distance was luxurious (as opposed to an 85-mile day) because whenever we stopped there wasn't any time pressure to get back on the bikes in order to reach the destination in sunlight and before the restaurants close down.

Planning-wise, here's a series of DC-specific bikes maps and if you call them, they'll snail-mail you a few for free. This link will sell you a cool folding map of the W&OD for $6, sort of like the Adventure Cycle maps. Finally, Google Maps (bike) is a great resource.

Inevitably I gained weight during the ride, which is what usually happens.

1 comment:

  1. Saw your post to BikeWashingtonDC group. Sounds like a great trip. I live off the Mt. Vernon trail and have taken the Sterling route a number of times. Glad to hear you had such an enjoyable time in our area.