Local Cycling's Weekend Warriors
Meet the hardcore Bethesda-area bike riders who are all about speed
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The Bethesda Babes are a free association group, with a core that includes Schaffer, Lawson and Brown as well as semiregulars and pickups, who spot the women riding or at an après-bike coffee shop. Often they’ll meet weekdays at the Bethesda Outdoor Pool to ride the Capital Crescent Trail, which they avoid on weekends, when it turns chaotic. The Babes ride three times a week, somewhere between 20 and 30 miles. Most have rediscovered riding in adulthood or are using it to rehabilitate a knee injury—or just because riding with other women is fun and frequently ends with socializing and a restorative snack. “We are a small, feisty group of seasoned riders who bike because we enjoy it,” Lawson says. “But we have had a challenge with people who were not prepared to keep up, didn’t have their own extra tubes or pump, and seemed to want to talk more than ride.”
Women are more courteous than men, they contend, and the Babes say they are highly aware of the less attractive habits of other cycling cultures. They ride with purpose but aim to be congenial. When they ride with the Wednesday Irregulars, whose members include some fast riders, they impose the “Anne Brown rule.” To wit: The leader may go out as fast as she or he wants, but is obligated to wait at any turn until the “sweeper,” or last rider, catches up. Civility also calls for discretion when nature calls, and thus Bethesda is a favorite start and finish because, as Schaffer pointedly notes, “It has places to go to the bathroom.”
The Babes are selective about which men they let ride with them. Kevin Beverly, the business executive, says he was invited a few times, and after his “tryout,” he was allowed to purchase a Babes on Bikes kit, which included a cycling jersey and shorts. “I was ceremonially given a lei,” Beverly says, “and permission to tell people that I have been lei-ed by a Babe.”
Members of the Bethesda Babes cycling group like to start and end their rides in downtown Bethesda. From left to right: Althea Johnston, Joan Schaffer, Holly Clay, Anne Brown, Addie Smith and Linda Lawson.
EVERY WARRIOR CLASS has its Attila, its Hannibal, its Crazy Horse. Local cycling has Michael Gildenhorn—not because he’s the fastest or the flashiest, but because of his devotion to the sport. In his 14th floor office at Chevy Chase Trust, where he advises clients on how to spend their money, he has invested some of his own in his passion for cycling. The corner room overlooking downtown Bethesda is replete with bike memorabilia, bike parts, even bike art.
Gildenhorn, a youthful 55, took up cycling 15 years ago after participating in a long distance charity ride. “The more I rode, the more I got into the culture,” he says. He sought professional training camps, learned the importance of power training, started tracking his kilojoules. He rides with a select group of friends who tolerate his bike nerdiness. “We have our rituals: stopping at the same convenience store in Poolesville or at Roy Rogers after riding at Catoctin,” he says.
In 2006, he began leading a group of friends on annual four-day riding trips to Yellowstone and other national parks out West. Recently, they rode the Blue Ridge Parkway. The group, called No Chains Attached, wears custom jerseys and orders souvenir bike-size license plates for each trip. This September, the friends will head to Glacier National Park. Gildenhorn also has ridden with friends in the French Alps and Pyrenees, including the switchbacks of the fabled 11,000-foot Alpe d’Huez, one of the most challenging climbs on the Tour de France.
Gildenhorn regularly rides his Trek Domane 6.9, a $7,600 Tiffany jewel with $2,000 Zipp wheels that’s crafted for speed and climbing, on the so-called Triple Bypass route from Denver to Vail, Colorado. A fellow traveler he met on the ride turned out to be a Bethesda real estate developer, and now the two are contemplating a business deal. Gildenhorn smiles with satisfaction that his passion has a practical side. Even if it didn’t, he says, “cycling enriches my life.”
For Ponte, the former bike racer, it’s all about the adrenaline rush. “Every movement is amplified, and your focus is totally on going fast. You have little notice of your surroundings—only using them as a reference for speed,” he says, admitting that he wears a heart rate monitor that sometimes spikes to 175 beats per minute. He smiles at that ludicrously high number. “When I’m racing, my pain receptors go numb until it’s over,” he says.
I was thinking about what Ponte said, recalling a ride on Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park a few years ago. I was trailing a rider at speed, both of us decked out in eye-melting spandex, when for some strange reason he lost concentration and missed the opening in the gates that bar vehicles on weekends and holidays. Up and over his handlebars he flew, landing hard on the asphalt. I stopped and ran over to where he lay, amazed to see him trying to get up. He looked up anxiously at me and asked, “How’s my bike?”
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.