Coasting into the City

5/29/2015

Spring 2015

I'm gliding through the crisp air, the wind in my hair, and it feels like freedom. It's an unexpectedly temperate day in early April and I'm greedily taking advantage of it, breaking my trusty bike out of storage, and charging out into the sunny day. Zipping down the streets of Chicago, I can feel my muscle memory waking up to what I'm doing after a long winter of dormancy, and it's like rejoining a dear old friend after a long separation.

 

Shifting into a higher gear, I slip through the side streets to cut across the park and enjoy a few minutes of greenness along the way. The brisk wind off the lake races through the wooded park and fills my senses with the resinous, mossy scent of the trees. The sun sparkles on the water and bathes the pastoral scene with brilliant light. I coast for a moment, grateful to be here.

And then with a quick jog to the right, within seconds, I'm out of the park and back in the thick of the everything-all-at-once-ness of Chicago, rolling through a musical cacophony of many voices, the competing aromas of restaurants and food trucks selling espresso and fresh baked goods and every world cuisine you can imagine, all set against the backdrop of the jumbled spires of one of the world's great cities. It's exhilarating. Not "better" than mountain biking in the wild; different. A good kind of different. Cities – the best of them – are pulsing, vibrant hubs of our nation's culture, filled with unique architecture, people, neighborhoods, monuments, and museums. We go to national parks for their grandeur and soul-restoring natural beauty, but we go to cities to see what makes us tick.

THE COAST IS CLEAR

Photo: Cavan Images/Offset.com

A few years ago, you'd take your life in your hands steering your bike into this country's bustling urban areas. Unlike many European cities, American cities have treated bikes like an afterthought at best, or an annoyance at worst. Thankfully, that's changing, as many cities are trying hard to increase their pedal appeal. There are new bike lanes and paths, designated on-street shared-use lanes, and signed bike routes to help riders heading across town. Cities' websites also offer colorful, detailed bike maps.

And some 40 cities have added "bikeshare" programs, in which public bicycles are rented by the hour or day from one of many bike-rack "stations."

With two-wheeled transportation becoming so popular in so many cities, bike manufacturers are now designing bikes specifically for heads-up urban adventure, making them more compact, more comfortable, and engineering them for lower maintenance. So what are you waiting for?

Let's take an over-the-handlebars look at three cities judged wheel-worthy by cyclists.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Even if you've never been there, you know there's plenty to see: The White House, Capitol Hill, Smithsonian, Washington Monument, and the Lincoln, Jefferson, and Martin Luther King Memorials. Plus, a score of art and history museums. Most are free, and conveniently close to the 56 miles of marked bike lanes and 2,300 bicycle parking racks.

Want a quick overview upon arrival led by someone who knows the town? Private bike companies will escort you (and a handful of fellow cyclists) to the monuments and museums, and to lesser-known sites in between, on your own bike or one they provide. Even the National Park Service conducts ranger-led bike tours that are free. What a deal!

Try pedaling the capital during a tranquil weekend; early mornings can be sublime. These are also great times to tackle longer routes that wind through neighborhoods, such as the 11-mile-long Capital Crescent Trail that takes you to historic Georgetown. The city's DC Bike Map shows how to intersect with other trails to make a 22-mile-long loop back to where you began.

Take a longer break from the bustle by biking the 18-mile-long paved Mount Vernon Trail to George Washington's former home. Travel south along the Potomac River through Alexandria. It's a great place to de-saddle for a walk through Old Town; just leave time for the shops and eateries!

SEATTLE

Almost 3,000 miles west lies another great biking city, though here you will find the splendor of Pacific Northwest scenery. Sparkling salt waters of the Puget Sound and views of the Olympic Range lie to the west. Ride east and you'll come to the blue fresh water of Lake Washington, and, in the distance, the green Cascade Mountains.

Unlike D.C., you'll be tackling hills in Seattle, unless you stay on the smooth, paved trails along the water. But don't. There's a lot to be said for the satisfaction of heart-pumping climbs when the view from the top is magnificent. And if you come in summer, you'll glory in the cool, refreshing air. It's perfect weather for wrapping your bike-gloved hands around a warm mug at one of the many independent coffeehouses. And a perfect time to pore over the Seattle Bike Map to plan your next route.

Consider a second cup while studying the map's explanations of "protected bike lanes," "climbing lanes," "sharrows," "neighborhood greenways," "bike boxes," and more. Confusing at first, you'll appreciate these bike-friendly features for the access and safety they provide. At present, bikers can ride on sidewalks. But note that the map says "Pedestrians rule!"

Don't miss the century-old Pike Place Market, the historic Waterfront, or the Seattle Art Museum. For a citywide taste of it all, try the paved 27-mile-long famed Burke-Gilman Trail. The ride will get your legs in shape for cycling up Queen Anne Hill for wonderful views of downtown.

NEW ORLEANS

Photo: Cavan Images/Offset.com

The Crescent City is a gumbo of many cultures – plus the Creole amalgam that its Gulf Coast geography and early French, Spanish, and West African settlement history has created.

If you're new to town, try a prebreakfast ride along the Mississippi in Woldenberg Park, and dine on crepes and beignets and chicory coffee. Then cycle slowly through the nearby French Quarter; the brightly colored walls of the "Creole cottages" lining the narrow streets provide a momentary kaleidoscopic blur, until you're stopped by a horse-drawn carriage or an artist's wares on a sidewalk that are too interesting to pass by.

From there you can follow the new bike route north along Esplanade Avenue to the massive City Park, and on to the cooler breezes coming off the huge Lake Pontchartrain. Or head west from "the Quarter," where in minutes you'll be pedaling through the gleaming high-rise downtown and back into the wildly mixed art and architecture of Magazine Street.

You're in the aptly named Garden District now, only minutes from the trolley line along stately St. Charles Avenue, and minutes more from the enormous live oak and dark lagoons at Audubon Park.

Slow down to enjoy it. After all, you're pedaling the Big Easy.

Explore routes near you.