Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Charlie Strunk - Fairfax's Bike Guy

Charlie Strunk is doing everything he can to get Fairfax County residents on their bikes. Painting bike lanes, installing bike racks, printing bike maps - and more - just to make cycling an appealing alternative to driving. I call him the bike guy, but technically, for the last three years of his 24 years with the county, Charlie Strunk has been the Bicycle Program Coordinator. In other words, if you're leisurely cruising on a wide bike path or securing your Trek to a bike rack in Northern Virginia's most populace jurisdiction, he's the one to thank.

I met Charlie in his Government Center office a couple of weeks ago. What I first noticed about him was his expression, which toggled between a smile and a laugh. He talked easily and candidly, and he was a good listener (a plus for a chatterbox like me). What set his office apart from other work spaces were the two bike racks resting against a wall. One, called an inverted "U" rack, looked like a bent piece of black tubing, and the other one was green and was supposed to resemble flowers, but it looked like lollipops to me.

Charlie is serious about biking. To set the county's cycling priorities, he works not only with his colleagues but also with members of FABB, Fairfax's bicycle advocacy group. That's Charlie, on the right, at a FABB meeting. (Thanks to Bikes@Vienna blog for this photo.)

He said that FABB's priorities pretty much match the county's, and currently, installing bike racks and bike lockers at transit stations is at or near the top of everyone's list. That makes sense. Fairfax County, like all of Northern Virginia, has a vicious traffic problem and getting people on bikes may pull some cars off the road. A December 2008 article in Forbes claims that the greater DC metropolitan region is the worst part of the country for small-city commutes, and I've heard repeatedly that only Los Angeles commuters spend more time in their cars than their DC counterparts. That's a lot of cars and a lot of opportunity for cyclists to be injured and bikes to be damaged or stolen. The double risk of theft and flesh wounds is enough to send would-be bike commuters back to the gas pumps.

To protect bikes, Fairfax County has installed bike racks at VRE parking garages, park-and-ride lots, and other transit stations. 150 more sites are due to receive racks. Two park-and-ride lots (in Reston and in Herndon) have bike lockers, and 50 more lockers are on their way.

A bike locker is like a small square self-storage space; the bikes are completely contained in the lockers so there's no exposure to the natural elements (inclement weather) or the bad elements (thieves and vandals). The annual rental fee for one locker is $60/year. Fairfax County has also equipped its Connector buses with front-mounted bike racks that carry two bikes. Charlie said that some racks will be replaced with ones that can carry three.

To ensure safety on the roads, Fairfax County works with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to identify streets that can accommodate bike lanes. They also collaborate on painting the necessary stripes and symbols and providing signage. I am a poor judge of anything quantitative (prices, weight, age, distance, altitude, carbon-dating), but it makes me feel cool to know this and I'll share it with you: a normal travel lane is 12 feet wide with a 2-foot gutter pan - I'm trying to picture it as I type. A bike lane eats up about 2 feet of width on each side of the road. So, when identifying potential bike lane routes, Charlie starts with the easy roads - those that are wide and smooth. Currently, 40 segments are under consideration.

Charlie's budget is about $500,000/year. It seemed to me a paltry sum, given the entire county budget, but I guess in these lean times, I should be grateful that Fairfax has set aside any money at all for bike-related projects.

If you want more information about Fairfax County's bike program, click here. And the next time you ride on a well-marked ample bike lane, chances are, it's Charlie's.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Richmond to Host Bike Show

Richmond had to overcome some pretty stiff competition to be named host of the Sixth Annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show. The Virginia capital, the show's first east coast venue, beat out San Diego and Austin (Hi Lance), and quieted a northeast contingent that was pulling for Philly, New York, or Boston. From February 26-28, 2010, the highest quality bike frames, supplies, components, and accessories will be on display at the Richmond Convention Center, located at 403 North 3rd Street and online at

So far, nearly 60 frame builders have signed up to showcase their hand-crafted frames. I could drop a few names here, but I'm too new to cycling to know which ones to drop. I recommend that you can visit the bicycle show's website which is loaded with information, is easy to navigate, and most importantly, is aesthetically pleasing. The website will also sell tickets as the show nears.

What little I know of frame builders reminds me of sculptors, jewelers, or glass blowers - people who are skilled, dexterous, and who appreciate form and proportion. To get an idea of the level of artistry behind custom-made bicycle frames (and as an enticement to go the bike show), watch this trailer from the film Anima D'Acciaio (Soul of Steel). You can view the entire film at the 2009 Bike Film Fest which visits Washington, D.C. later this week.

Anima D'Acciaio Trailer Ver5.1 from Cinecycle on Vimeo.

Monday, November 30, 2009


This is the time of year when the generosity of ordinary people is in the spotlight. The requests of food pantries and homeless shelters replace the news about the Redskins offensive line and take their rightful place on page one, above the fold. Most charities, however, operate not just during the holiday season but all year long.

The "Local Living" section in the Thanksgiving edition of The Washington Post ran a story about a quiet charity that I had never heard of. It's a Fairfax county bike shop that refurbishes donated bikes and then gives them to children who cannot afford to buy their own.

Here's the twist: The bike mechanics are students from Herndon Middle School. The repair shop is a trailer behind their school.

The lucky recipients are kids whose families participate in the Neighborhood Resource Center, a joint effort of the town of Herndon and Fairfax County that offers comprehensive services to Herndon neighborhoods that need assistance.

The middle schoolers stay after school one day each week to learn bike repair and how to transform a discarded pair of wheels into something to be coveted. By the end of the year, they can even earn a bike of their own. Some who already have bikes donate their earned bikes to the Resource Center. Others who are without wheels keep the earned bikes for themselves. The kids from the Resource Center get free bikes. Everyone wins. Bikes that are not salvageable are disassembled and used for parts. According to the Post, the shop's goal is to restore 40 bikes this year. Currently, the junior mechanics are working to deliver 10 bikes to the Resource Center before Christmas.

If you get a shiny new bike this holiday season, please don't throw your old one away, even if it's a clunker. Give it a second life. Take it to the main office at Herndon Middle School, 901 Locust Street, in Herndon, Virginia, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. There are some eager middle schoolers there, equipped with wrenches, rags, and technical expertise. They have big plans for your bike. It's called re-cycling. Herndon is accessible from the Capitol Beltway (Route 495), the Dulles Toll Road (Route 267), and Leesburg Pike (Route 7).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Physics, My Fickle Friend

Attention conspiracy theorists: Do you know what shape-shifting, cunning force has the power to make or break the human race? Starbucks? No. Wal-Mart? Could be. Karl Rove, the round-faced face of the Bush #2 admininstration? Well, maybe. But even automatons are only as intelligent as the people who program them.

I'm referring to the science of physics, that fair-weathered friend that either keeps you upright or shoves your face in the dirt. Physics shows her generosity. Within her, there is some magical, merciful law that lets completely uncoordinated people do the improbable: balance on two wheels. People like me who can not throw a baseball, or water ski, or turn a cartwheel, or catch a Frisbee can manage to balance on a bike. And we never forget how, because riding a bike really is like riding a bike. And we don't feel insecure because the ability to balance - at least to some degree - is what we have in common with the cycling greats. Sure, some BMX cyclists flip and fly. And Tour de France riders can reach speeds of 60 mph as they descend the Pyrenees. But at reasonable speeds and under normal conditions, we can remain upright too, and maybe, if we're feeling daring, ring our bike bell as we pedal to Target.

I cling to my ability to ride my bike. Cycling is easy on the knees. It lets me cover long distances fairly quickly and run errands at the same time. Because my own weight far exceeds that of a small load of groceries, loading up my panniers doesn't tip me over. Yet, there are times when I'd rather load up my minivan, or just stay home and balance on a stationary object that doesn't require a kickstand - a chair, for example. But I'm under pressure to keep up with younger, fitter people and there's no other athletic endeavor, besides biking, that doesn't leave my 48-year old, "AARP-here-I-come" self in the dust.

I've tried tennis, but haven't progressed much in the last 20 years. If someone ever invented a game called "Forehand," I'd be a star. In that game, hitting to your opponent's backhand side or requiring him to serve would result in an immediate forfeit. (I don't envision that catching on.)

Almost 10 years ago, I tried sailing. Sailing is all about positioning the boat so the wind hits the mainsail at the proper angle (depending on if you're going upwind or downwind). All of this calculating wasn't fun for me; in fact, it was way too much work. I capsized the boat. I have no one to blame because I was going solo. But, if I had to blame someone, it would be my brother, who was paddling alongside me in a kayak and barking orders in a strange language. If you don't know the parts of a sailboat or the vocabulary of sailing, the commands are meaningless. "Put the snorfler at a 45-degree angle to the nuttle!"

"What?" The wind was whipping my hair into my face. My eyes stung from the salt. The water swelled like a pregnant beast and my hand, raw-skinned and stinging, clung to a thread of a rope. (Not really. I was on a calm lake in Vermont. It was sunny.)

My brother was exasperated. "I said angle the snorfler against the nuttle so the fibster doesn't seize up on the leeward side."

Did I mention I was in a Sunfish? Sunfish are as light as bathtub toys. They hardly displace any water and are what old New England salts call "wicked tippy." The slightest wake or innocent school of minnows throws them off-course.
In the end, as I was speeding - literally - toward the shore, some piece of wood came about, which is a nautical term for swinging wildly and hitting you in the back of the head with enough force to send you into the water and overturn the boat. My mother says I went down with my ship with a smile on my face. When I emerged, the sunbathers who had gathered on the lake's modest beach clapped for me. One man asked if I'd be trying to sail again because he'd like to watch. I laughed. In private, I cried. I cursed the wind vectors and angles and torque that tossed me over the side of a boat.

I turned my failure into a "teachable moment" for my children, who were quite young then, because all mothers of young children are bound by some tacit law that requires them to treat every failure as a teachable moment waiting to be unmasked. We talked about the importance of life vests and how you can fall out of a boat and not die.

I can not fight physics. I must be grateful for the scraps she gives me. If she lets me stay upright on two wheels on land, but nearly drowns me at sea, then so be it. Physics has taught me that my bike is my ally. It has self-stability, which explains why, if you push a rider-less bike, it will roll for several seconds before falling. Bicycle-balancing theories abound and they're complicated. They're riddled with words like gyroscopic action, steering-geometry, and angular momentum. But don't be intimidated. I threw all the words in a pot and boiled them down for you: Me pedal, me go. Me stop, me fall.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

News Cycle 2

The bike news I've shared in some of my recent posts has either been comical (the Fendi bike) or disappointing (the sorry state of Velib, Paris' bike-sharing program). So it is with a big virtual smile on my face that today I bring you glad tidings about local events (and one that's not-so-local) that involve bicycles.

Bikes for the Poor
In early October, my church, St. Mary of Sorrows in Fairfax, Virginia, hosted a Bikes for the World bicycle collection. 33 volunteers gathered in the church parking lot on a cool autumn morning and collected 57 bikes and one tricycle. In addition, donations totaling $1,045 were designated to cover the cost of shipping the bikes to developing nations. The church bulletin stated that the "generosity will have a positive impact on the lives of many poor people, both near and far away." We donated one girl's bike and one boy's bike. Now my family of four is down to six bikes (from our high of eight) and yet we still have no garage.

Vienna Bike Shop Wins Award
Not too far down the road in Vienna, Virginia, there was more good news. The Adventure Cycling Association awarded its 2009 Sam Braxton Bicycle Shop Award to Bikes@Vienna. The ACA recognized, among other things, Bikes@Vienna's commitment to serving riders of all abilities, including those with physical disabilities, and applauded the shop's community involvement. It praised owner John Brunow for creating "positive change in his community" as an "engaged local leader."

I've visited Bikes@Vienna twice: once to snoop around and again to rent a crank forward bike which I rode on the W&OD Trail. John Brunow was a great help both times. His receiving this award confirms my initial impression of him - that he's well-respected, civic-minded, and an all-around good guy. If you need a bike, want to rent a bike, or you're looking for some honest two-wheeled advice, give him a call.

New Bike Lanes in DC
On November 14, The Washington Post reported that the District of Columbia has opened a new bike lane on a stretch of 15th Street that runs from U Street to Massachusetts Avenue. That section of 15th Street is one-way northbound. The bike lane, called a contra-flow lane, is only for southbound bike traffic, and so-called because cyclists are riding against traffic. (Northbound cyclists have to share the lanes with cars.)

Photo courtesy of Gerald Martineau of The Washington Post

The bike lane, pictured above, is different from most others in two important ways. First, it is closer to the sidewalk than the parking spaces. The cars in the photo are parked and form a wall between cyclists and traffic. Second, the flexible yellow posts were installed to separate the bike lane from the parking lane and protect bike commuters from getting "doored" by people exiting their cars.

Photo courtesy of

Some disgruntled cyclists wrote to Dr. Gridlock, the Post's traffic guru, and complained about the hazards of the bike lane. What the District really needs, though, is not a traffic flow expert, but a bike lane proofreader. Remember this photo the next time you "trun" left.

Best Buys to Start Selling Electric Bikes
Best Buy, the uber-giant electronics retailer, has begun selling electric bikes and scooters at several of its west coast stores. Just think: you can purchase a Samsung French door 25.5 cubic foot refrigerator with thru-the-door ice and water for $1,600 and, for another $500 or so, you can get an electric bike, strap the fridge on your back, and zip on home. Save on delivery costs and get a low-cost environmentally friendly vehicle to go with it. I called my local Best Buys (in DC's Viriginia suburbs) and no store has any electric bikes in stock, nor does any store expect to receive them in the near future. Still, it's nice to hear about a Big Box store embracing a Little Box idea.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Green Day

No, I don't mean these guys. When it comes to applying eyeliner, I'm no Billie Joe Armstrong. I'm referring to my own modest green day. No, I did not save the planet. I didn't sell my vehicle or give up meat or install solar panels in my roof. I didn't purchase a composter. Here's what I did: All bike. No car. All day. Well, just a teeny-tiny bit of car. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll confess that I drove my van to the service station for an oil change and rode my bike home. But the station is only two miles away and an oil change will result in a better-running vehicle, so I think I earned enough carbon-offsets to wipe out the effect of my drive.

As I had written in an earlier post, I had hoped to get panniers for my birthday and my family obliged. Panniers are heavy-duty tote bags that attach to either side of a rear bike rack.

This is what an empty pannier looks like on my bike. It folds up into a compact shape.

Today, I put my panniers to the test. First, I stuffed a bulky winter coat in one, and in the other I put my camera, a small purse, and a bike lock. Nothing too heavy. Here are all of the things that went into the panniers. The winter coat is in the Whole Foods bag.

The pannier expands in every direction, and can hold a surprising amount of stuff. A loaded pannier looks like this. I know what you're thinking: "Can my bike ever look that cool?"

The scenery in Burke offered more variety than I expected. During my time in the saddle, I passed the Silas Burke house, home of Lt. Col. Silas Burke and built in 1825. Architecture in Burke is so new that 1825 might as well be part of the Paleozoic era. I saw a diversity mural, laid out in colorful tile, on the facade of my local elementary school. I spied a giant inflatable turkey on a front lawn. I got a close look at something I've passed thousands of times while driving: a homemade roadside memorial. A white cross fronted by fresh mums was etched with the names Jason and Liz and the date September 23, 2006. Forever in our hearts.

I won't bore you with my grocery list, but I did stop at Giant. There, I unclipped the panniers from the bike and carried them into the store. They have sturdy handles, and loading groceries directly into them eliminates the build-up of plastic shopping bags in my house.

My purchases are shown below. Some of the items were small and dense, like sweet potatoes and a bottle of maple syrup. Others were light but large, and one item - my panettone - was shaped like a trapezoid. I packed the panniers carefully (with room to spare) and paid some attention to weight distribution. I weighed both when I got home and the total was 21 pounds, 18 pounds of which I'd estimate is attributed to purchases.

18 pounds hanging off the rear rack of my bike is much better than 18 pounds hanging off my back. Not wearing a backpack was liberating. Honestly. The extra weight didn't compromise my balance at all. And more importantly, I felt smug and terribly self-righteous.

But I looked like hell. My helmet completely flattened my hair, so much so that my head appeared to be almost wet. I had foregone makeup, exposing my ruddy complexion. My windpants went
swoosh swoosh when I walked so I couldn't even skulk, unnoticed, in the stores. But hey - I brought my own reusable bag and reusable water bottle. Isn't that beautiful in its own way? Anyway, this isn't about me. It's about her.
Fortunately, I am not vain. If you could see me, you'd realize how much of an understatement that is. But, just to maintain a shred of dignity, I carried my bike helmet in plain sight, a sort of tangible, preemptive apology for my bad hair. Nobody would criticize the appearance of a middle-aged woman who rode her bike to the store. Having achieved success, I've decided that I'll always carry my bike helmet in stores, even when I've driven there, as a sort of
carte blanche for a lousy appearance. I also flaunted my Whole Foods reusable bag. I could have taken my Giant or Target bags, but I wanted to show a true commitment to social responsibility and a certain amount of taste.

That was my personal Green Day, and I plan on having many more. Not be outdone by the other Green Day (Billie Joe and two other guys) I rewrote the lyrics to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" so they apply to biking. If you don't know the original song, click here to hear it. Then read my own lyrics below. I think I may be a rock star.

I ride suburban streets
with this awkward helmet on my head.
Stop at each red light
to avoid conversion to the dead.

The hills seem steeper now;
they looked so much flatter from the car,
I persevere somehow,
knowing that my house is not too far.

I ride alone.
I ride alone.

I ride alone.
I ride a-

My quads they burn - I think I've got a fever.
The wheels, they turn - I need some pain reliever.
I soldier on - I am a bike believer.
For now I ride alone.

Ah-ah, Ah-ah, Ah-ah, Aaah-ha
Ah-ah, Ah-ah, Ah-ah

My ride was not too long,
And I ran my errands on my bike.
Plus I wrote this song,
Now Billie Joe and I are just alike.

Ha-ha, Ha-ha, Ha-ha. Haaa-Ha
Ha-ha, Ha-ha, Ha-ha

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To Have and Have Not

La ville est plus belle a velo. The city is more beautiful by bike. That's the motto of Velib, the bicycle-sharing program that began in Paris one day after Bastille Day in 2007. Loosely translated, Velib means either "free bike" or "bicycle freedom." For about $43 per year, a rider can purchase an annual pass that gives him access to the shared bikes for 30-minute periods, or longer if he pays a minimal fee. The city of Paris purchased 20,600 bikes. Each cost $3,500. I'll do the math for you. That's $72,100,000.

You can get a lot of bike for $3,500. In this country, $3,500 will buy you a custom-built bike. That means the bike is built to fit your measurements with the highest quality craftsmanship. You pick out the handlebars, saddle, and paint. In the end, it's one-of-a-kind. In Paris, each bike is one of 20,600.
Because they're for public use,
Velib bikes are of sturdy construction and the parts that are usually exposed, like the chain, are well-protected. Because the bikes are for Parisians, they must be aesthetically pleasing with clean curvy lines and just a dash of je ne sais quoi (literally, "I don't know what," but figuratively, that certain unnameable quality that makes a person or thing irresistible).

So far, Parisians and other cyclists who visit the City of Lights have rented bikes about 63 million times. (See "French Ideal of Bicycle-Sharing Meets Reality,"
The New York Times, 10.30.09). An unqualified success? Sort of. Don't let the perky logo fool you.

To date, more than 16,000 bikes have been stolen or vandalized. That's about 80%. (Again, I've done the math. This makes twice.) I almost understand the theft. The bikes are hip, and whereas most hip things are skinny and fleeting, the Velib bikes are rock-solid and durable. Why wouldn't someone steal one? Rent it. Ride it home. Can't thieves join the green movement? Haven't you ever heard of a get-away bike? But what about the vandalism? True, Velib parts have turned up in other countries where they're sold in black markets. But many abused bikes never leave the city limits. They are strewn all over Paris - high-end bikes with their tires punctured, frames bent, and rendered unrideable by vandals.

According to
The New York Times, the problem is the the bobos, or really, the resentment that they foment among Paris' underclass. Bobo is shorthand for bourgeois-boheme, and refers to those trend-setting city-folk who looked fabulous in their red hot pants and Ugg boots before they began scooting around on an expensive pair of wheels. The less privileged suburban population views the Velib program as one more perk for the beautiful people. The underclass rebels. It wants to make a statement.

"Take that, you hipsters!" it cries, metaphorically, that is. Vandals destroy the bikes and leave the crumpled frames in plain sight. (Statements not made in plain sight are just secrets.) I am not challenging the feelings of the disenfranchised. I don't deny them the right to protest and self-advocate. I don't know enough about them to even have an opinion. But bike destruction can't be the best way to make a point. That's despicable for so many reasons, and I'll name two here: Bikes for the World (BfW) and Pedals for Progress (P4P).

a project sponsored by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, and P4P, based in New Jersey, are non-profit organizations that collect used bikes and ship them to people who need them for basic transportation and communities where a thriving bike shop contributes to economic livelihood.

BfW partners with
non-profit community programs and P4P works with non-profit community-owned bikes stores. In both cases, the recipient - whether it's a local Goodwill store or a fledgling bike business - pays nothing for its first shipment of bikes and tools, and then has to earn enough money by selling and repairing bikes to pay for the next one. So far in 2009, BfW and P4P together have shipped nearly 12,000 bikes to Panama, Ghana, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Moldova, El Salvador, and other developing nations. I found this photo of a young Ghanaian boy on the BfW website and he was too cute to keep to myself.

It costs about $35 to ship one bike, one-hundredth of the cost of one Velib.

Using the bike as metaphor seems inescapable. I've done it in this and other essays that I've posted and I can't seem to stop. Once I believed that bikes were simply fun to ride. Now I see them as symbols of privilege, hope, elitism, exclusivity, promise, and high -fashion. I can't resist stating the obvious: French vandals, some of them anarchists, are literally crushing their country's attempts to "go green," while a greater, more silent, less noticeable population is just trying to go - anywhere.