- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

This is the way the sport pulls you in: Four years ago Linda Schwartz of the District signed up for a two-day, 100-mile bicycle trek through Maine before realizing she didn't own a bike. So she rented one and started training for the tour.
That was step one.
"Next thing you know, I decided I'd buy the bike," she says.
That was step two.
Step three: She joined the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club, the largest of perhaps a dozen bike clubs in the Washington area.
Step four: She decided to lead rides for the club.
Now Mrs. Schwartz admits she can't do without her bicycle or the rush she gets from riding with friends and fellow club members.
"I've seen so much of this area thanks to bike riding," she says. "I've gone to Europe and biked. I'm terribly hooked."
Few pleasures in this world can beat the thrill of coasting down an endless, gently sloping hill on a bike, the wind in your hair, the delicate balance above a responsive machine, an open-air world going by at cruising speed and no hands on the handlebars.
For an experience like this, the Washington area is a near paradise. Some 100 miles of smoothly paved bike trails weave through the region. Many follow abandoned railroad beds with long easy inclines that would win any biker's heart.
Catering to devotees like Mrs. Schwartz are the area's many bike clubs, of which the Potomac Pedalers Touring Club may be the most visible. With 3,500 members and some 1,400 scheduled rides annually over widely diverse distances and terrain, Potomac Pedalers is open to people of all skill levels, so long as they have a bike and a taste for adventure.
Most of the club's rides are free, and all are open to the public. Organized by enthusiastic members, they often follow scenic "superhighways" devoid of car traffic.

On this sunny afternoon Mrs. Schwartz is along for the ride, one that is in its 11th year as a summer Sunday tradition among Potomac Pedalers. It's the Sunday Picnic Ride, a free, 24-mile round-trip tour from the Viers Mill Recreation Center in Kensington through Rock Creek Park and back.
Today's ride leader, Brenda Ruby of Wheaton, plans to go only as far south as Pierce Mill, at Tilden Street NW in the District. A freckle-faced dynamo with well-muscled legs who has been biking six years, she guides Mrs. Schwartz and about a dozen charges, from beginners to veterans, along Beach Drive NW, one of the more hilly roads around. The drive wends its way beside a lazy Rock Creek, starting at the rec center and running down past the National Zoo and the Kennedy Center.
Many sections of Beach Drive are closed to cars, as they are every weekend for the convenience of recreational users. The cyclists share the pavement with skaters, swooshing by on clattering in-liners and studiously clasping their hands behind them. They pass hikers, soundlessly treading the asphalt in admiration of this quiet center of the city. Joggers clomp by in white Nikes.
Not all is silence: A jet drones on its final approach to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. A child whoops with delight from the back seat of a tandem bike he shares with his dad. Birds chatter among the trees.
It's music to the ears of such as Neal Grotenstein, a 25-year veteran of Potomac Pedalers, though the hilly route can mean extra exertion. "There's still no motor on a bike to help you up the hills," he says with a shake of his long, gray-tinged mane.
When he joined the club at age 34 it had 700 members. It was the brainchild of Clay Grubic, who began it in 1967, while managing a Georgetown bike shop called Towpath Cycle. He figured that by organizing regular tours he would get people to ride their bikes more. That would increase wear and tear on parts, which would beef up business at his shop.
Mr. Grotenstein, a computer instructor at a Tysons Corner firm, is a past secretary of the club. Speaking quickly, he talks of demographics:
"This is Washington, where the guy behind you in the supermarket checkout line has a master's degree at least. This bike club is no different. It's loaded with college professors, NIH researchers, lawyers, doctors."
He says the hard-core membership has gentrified, along with himself, and that the rising popularity of the Internet and VCRs took a toll on the rolls, which peaked at 5,000 nearly a decade ago.
"A lot of clubs, representing a broad variety of special interests you know, garden clubs, stamps, coins, bikes all of them seem to have peaked about 1990."
Don't tell that to Mrs. Schwartz, who joined Potomac Pedalers in 1997. In a way, though, she is re-creating the past. She rode a bike as a girl growing up in Pittsburgh, but gave it up after college and then took 25 years off from biking to raise a family.
Now the athletic-looking woman is back in the swing, thanks to the Maine trip that prompted her to buy a bike. That tour, she says, rekindled a love long lost.
A similar story holds true for Elaine Talbott, a club member for six years. Mrs. Talbott, of Springfield, brought her antique Peugeot bike 35 miles around the Beltway to join the Sunday Picnic Ride.
A biker as a young woman, she got back into the sport once her four children were grown up. Memories of youthful summers she spent wheeling around Cape Cod and Nantucket coaxed her to recapture those halcyon times.
Soon, she was joining tours all over the country. In May, she cycled through the vineyard regions of California's Sonoma Valley.
"Next weekend I'm going to do the Shenandoah Music Festival Ride," she bubbles to a fellow cyclist. The two-day ride takes in not only picturesque vistas but live music, with a Saturday evening concert. Small wonder she has no time any more for another great passion of hers, contra dancing in the Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park.

Suddenly a car approaches a stop sign on East Beach Drive, which joins the main road at a section not closed to traffic. It threatens to jump the sign in order to beat the approaching bikers. And the ride leader, Ms. Ruby, holds up her hand.
Ms. Ruby believes cyclists should show some aggression toward cars once in a while particularly if drivers appear reluctant to share the road. Now, palm out toward this edgy driver, she tools past, before the car bolts and separates the cyclists.
It's all the more reason to wear a helmet when cruising congested streets. Most tour leaders require helmets on every rider, Mrs. Schwartz says.
Now that the cyclists have hit traffic, the wisdom of sprinkling experienced riders among the beginners on tours becomes evident. Mrs. Schwartz, sensing a car trapped behind her and a companion riding abreast, waves her partner ahead of her into single file along the right shoulder and the car passes.

Once back at the Viers Mill Rec Center in Kensington, the riders drop their bikes to the grass, remove their helmets and stretch out for the "picnic" part of the ride: a potluck feast that includes fruit and potato salads, hot dogs, hamburgers, brownies, ice cream bars and frosty sodas.
The break gives Jean Mason of Alexandria, who works for the U.S. Parachute Association, a chance to talk about her reasons for buying the Raleigh she's strapping to a rack on the back of her car.
Miss Mason is not a member of Potomac Pedalers. She has come to the Picnic Ride today for the first time, drawn by the sense of community she feels while biking in groups. But as it does for so many club members, her story seems to trace back to old times, to a 1960s childhood in a north Dallas suburb.
She remembers exhilarating bareback rides that she began taking as a 3-year-old atop a Shetland pony, on visits to the ranch owned by her aunt and uncle. But she biked, too, "ever since I was little bitty," she says.
When she'd ride her 10-speed Schwinn, she would jump Dallas curbs at a gallop, pretending the bike was a horse, and would try most of the other tricks dear to a child's heart.
The saddle she currently mounts has 21 speeds and costs nothing to feed. It's a hybrid, a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. The first are considered the sports cars of cycling and are often used for racing; the chunkier, heavier mountain bikes can handle rugged terrain like bighorn sheep.
Miss Mason's Raleigh C40, an all-purpose bike that finds many buyers, emphasizes comfortable suspension, a soft saddle and an upright riding position.
Miss Mason test rode a number of makes, models and styles. This one, she says, stood out from the rest in one very important way:
"This one," she says, proudly patting the Raleigh, "was the easiest to balance with no hands."


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