“The trail opening in 1996 stimulated the start of cycling in Bethesda,” says Nick Griffin, owner of Griffin Cycle on Bethesda Avenue. “We started our rental business then and it launched commuting, which is now a huge part of our business.” Photo by Skip Brown.
Dave Feinberg, 39, a friend and fellow cyclist, says there’s a simple commonality that unites cyclists. “There are all these cultures—the commuters, the hard core, the Lycrans, the just-tooling-arounders,” he says. “If you draw a Venn diagram, there is an overlap—and that nexus is simply that we all love bikes and the joy of riding.”
In 1993, when I moved from Philadelphia to the Bethesda area, there were many things about the Washington area that were not appealing at first. Yet I soon discovered that this was a place of opportunity for cycling, rich with potential, and that Bethesda is a hub with spokes. Confluence of trails, confluence of affluence.
Nick Griffin, who has been peddling bikes since 1971 at Griffin Cycle on Bethesda Avenue, says that older riders trying to reclaim the bodies they once had are among his best customers. “Lance Armstrong,” he says, “whatever your opinion of him, helped our road business take off, and boomers have the cash to spend on high-end bikes.”
Bethesda’s Rui Ponte owns 20 bikes. At 56, Ponte has the lean, supple physique of a bike racer, which he was for many years. Now a successful architect, he is the Kevin Bacon of local cycling groups. As he focused on his career, he found that he missed having a community of cyclists. He evangelized while designing homes in Edgemoor, talking cycling to anyone who’d listen. He invested in a building on Georgetown’s K Street and opened a bike shop called CycleLife USA (now closed) that became a clubhouse for riders.
“Bethesda is almost D.C., but 5 miles to the west you’re in some of the best riding around, so it’s a gateway,” Ponte says. “There’s affluence and an undertone of health and fitness here due to that.” Ponte’s vocation has prospered through his avocation, too. “When meeting a client who also happens to ride, a common passion always breaks the ice and creates a good spirit for mutual trust,” he says.
With race numbers lining the walls, bicycles hanging from the ceiling, and tools and gear stuffed in cubbies, Michael Gildenhorn’s Bethesda garage is devoted to his cycling obsession. Photo by Skip Brown.
In 2003, Ponte was renovating a home at Bradley Boulevard and Glenbrook Road. “I told my friends we could meet there—I had a portable john,” he says with a laugh. Soon, a morning ride at 6:15 was set for Tuesday and Thursday, and then another on Saturday, often out in the direction of Poolesville. Bethesda Edge Cycling (BEC) was born. “It grew organically,” Ponte says. His email list expanded to 200, including prominent locals such as investment adviser Michael Gildenhorn and business executive Kevin Beverly, whose son and Ponte’s have been friends since grade school. “We’re classic weekend warriors,” says Beverly, a serious rider for 10 years who has a carbon frame Specialized Tarmac—a Benz of bikedom.
BEC draws a crowd of hammerheads. Other groups, from Performance Bicycle and other area bike shops, tolerate all levels. A Sunday ride gathers at 9 a.m. at Cedar Lane and Beach Drive to bike in Rock Creek Park at a moderate pace, welcoming beginners and the BEC women’s group. On Tuesday and Thursday, riders meet in downtown Bethesda at 6 p.m. for a brisk but relaxed run out to Potomac.
Then there’s the popular N2 (No Name) ride at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, which gathers near the Mormon temple in Kensington and heads out to Poolesville or White’s Ferry, a sight that mimics the Tour de France, with a scrum of brightly colored jerseys flowing along lightly traveled roads, bracketed by the hedgerows of Montgomery County’s dwindling farmland.
A Rock Creek Velo regular named Greg, who asked that I not use his full name, rides fast on weekends and with a weekday lunch group that meets at Strosniders on Arlington Road. He says camaraderie is spiked with competitiveness. “We may chat about the last ride, what rides we plan to do later, upcoming races,” he says. “Focusing on the ride—and not your job, phone, spouse or children—provides an escape. Once the pace steps out, there is no idle chatter. It’s about turning the screws on others or trying not to get dropped.”
What about the women? Is there sexism among cyclists? Says Hengst: “Wasn’t it Yoda who said, ‘Dropped or not dropped. There is no gender.’ ”
JUST AS THERE ARE bikes designed for women, there are women’s bike groups. Joan Schaffer, Linda Lawson and Anne Brown are Babes. Bethesda Babes, that is, a subset of the local Babes on Bikes cycling group and not to be confused with the Babe Magnets, who are men, or the Wednesday Irregulars, a mixed-gender group, or any of the many other Babes and Chicks groups, including the Dykes on Bikes, who ride motorcycles.