Fat Tires

The Custis Trail is a branch off of the W&OD Trail.  While the latter winds southeast down along Four Mile Run to Shirlington, the Custis splits off east of Falls Church and takes off to the northeast, hugging the sides of I-66 (technically called the Custis Memorial Parkway on the maps) into Rosslyn at Key Bridge.  There it hooks up with the Mount Vernon Trail, that can take you all the way down to Washington’s home on the banks of the Potomac, though you cannot even glimpse it without paying admission once you get there.  Another thing you can’t do is use the Custis Trail to get to the Custis-Lee Mansion in Arlington National Cemetery.  You won’t get past the Cemetery’s front gate.  The post-9/11 Security Hysteria which still grips DC includes the total proscription of bicycles from the Cemetery.  Wonder what kind of bike Osama bin Laden owns?  As best I could find, they don’t make bikes in Afghanistan, and the Pakistan bike industry is being crushed by competition from China.  Perhaps he has an old Pakistan-made Sohrab, though.  I can imagine people who own one hold on to it with much nostalgia.  Can’t imagine Osama selling out to western capitalism, so his ride’s probably not a Trek or a Cervelo.  Maybe he’s got a Fuji: Japanese name; Taiwan manufacture.

The Custis Trail is very leafy.  To ride it is to experience polarized contexts for most of the route.  You get your shady, old North Arlington parks, neighborhoods, schools, or apartments on one side, and a sound barrier wall or chain-link fence separating you from the I-66 din on the other.  Occasionally there’s enough wiggle room to take you past a pond on one side and some shrubbery on the other, but for the most part it’s leaf this way, road that way.

When they built the Trail, the Arlington Parks Department planted as many shade trees as they could along the non-road side to increase the beauty, the shade, and the presence of nature.  But with these benefits came an inevitable problem.  The tree roots have grown under the trail in many places.  They push up the asphalt in ridges at right angles to the direction of travel.  The County tries to keep ahead of it by milling the trail flat and repaving, but they do this only when things get dire.  There are several places where the latitudinal bumps across the Trail are currently so bad that it’s hard to control the bike at the speed one is likely to be going.  Furthermore the bike gets shaken, and compression flats and even broken spokes are possibilities.  I’m becoming more averse to taking my Trek, with its light wheels and 115 lb. tire pressure, down there.

So today I rode my Coda.  It has a steel frame, carbon forks, and 28mm tires, all of which help to soften the ride.  Steel has some flex to it where the Trek’s aluminum has none, the wheels and spokes are a bit heavier, and the wider tires (yeah, I know it’s only 5 mm difference but it does matter a lot in the contact profile) and lower pressures (85 lbs. front and 100 lbs. rear [I’m getting some wear out of a couple of former front tires whose rear partners wore out]) also soften the ride.  The wheelbase of the bike is a bit longer too, because it’s a hybrid rather than a road bike with a racing configuration.

I was surprised at how much difference it made to ride this bike!  The whole feel of the road, the lower impact of the bumps, the smoothed-out ride, were evident.  Why this contrast was not more evident to me before I’m not sure.  I’ve ridden all my bikes along the Custis Trail regularly.  It’s such a nice place to go that I am pleased to know for certain that I have a bike that will take me there in comfort.  But I’m still a bit aggravated that the Trail is not better maintained.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.


In the Wake

Last Sunday afternoon, which turned out to be the end of a prolonged heat wave, the temperature hit nearly 100°.  It was so hot and humid in the morning that I did not even want to risk an early ride, lest I get caught on the far end of my loop with the temperature rising rapidly, as it tends to do about three hours after sunrise.  Just opening the front door and stepping onto the porch felt like walking into an oven.

So I was at the computer in mid-afternoon when the cold front came through.  Accompanied by strong gusts of winds that took down trees in Fairfax and nearby counties,  the downpour dropped .31″ of rain here in 30 minutes.  A demi-gullywasher.  The temperature dropped 25 degrees in that time, to a milder 74°.  When the rain stopped I stepped out on the front porch again.  “Is the air different?” my wife asked.  “Yeah, now it feels like a sauna instead of an oven.”  That’s one of the things about cold fronts: they don’t transform the conditions immediately.  Before dark it had risen to 78°, and the night air was heavy with humidity and the din of summer’s nocturnal creatures.

But with the new sunrise all was well.  The air was bright, the temperature around 65°, the wind light and from the NW, straight from Canada by way of the Great Lakes.  For the first time in weeks I could ride without worry about my start time or the estimated air temperature two hours hence.  Ironically, we’d risen a bit on the early side, so I was off and away by about 8:15.  I was going to do a routine trip because I’d been on the exercise bike and/or off bikes altogether for several days, thanks to the insanely extreme heat.  Didn’t want to shock my system by overdoing it the first time out.

Along the way, evidence of the wind and rain was literally all over the place.  At the end of the right-of-way, before I’d even hit the trail, I encountered a cleanup crew.  They were removing some big fallen limbs just off the trail, and while they were at it they were cutting the bamboo stand way back for better sightlines entering and exiting from the trail.  On the trail itself the debris was strewn everywhere: twigs, small branches, bunches of leaves.  But everybody I saw was smiling.  And why not?  It actually felt as if exercise could be a pleasure rather than a test of endurance and suffering, the body pushed to its limit by the need to keep the core temperature down.  When that’s not an issue, more energy goes into the constructive kind of physical exertion.

Obstacles are never absent on the trail, it seems.  Right now we’ve got one long-standing detour where the W&OD goes under the Dulles Access Road.  They’re putting in the huge piers that will support the rail line on its route to Dulles Airport, and we’ve been warned that there will be some 15-minute closures when they’re ready to put the steel girders on top of the piers.  But except on rare occasions that’s been all on a straight paved path paralleling the Trail.  Farther out, at the intersection of Van Buren St., they’ve been putting in a median strip and somehow have managed to involve a spot on the Trail for what seems a long-term issue.  So they’ve got us on packed gravel and old asphalt for a few hundred feet.  Just for a taste of riding the Tour de France on the roads of 75 years ago, I guess.

But on this trip, there was more.  On the trail going downhill into Vienna a big bunch of branches had come down, so that riders only had one narrow edge to get by on.  Snapped boughs and small branches lay all along the trail, and particularly on Hunter Station Road.  Lots of them were maple, a rather brittle wood that can snap and break, often in a long diagonal line across the wood, like a “greenwood fracture” of a human bone.  More tree debris too, but no serious obstacles.  Then between Wiehle and Old Reston Ave. was the big one, a huge Black Locust down across the whole Trail, so that I nearly had to dismount to get around.  Black Locust is tough, stringy wood, the bane of woodsplitters.  I knew it hadn’t just snapped.  Must have been weak roots or a decayed trunk.  On my way home, the cleanup crew had just arrived and was sizing up the situation.  They’d need a mighty big chainsaw for that baby.

When I got back to the right-of-way the cleanup crew was finishing picking up their work.  Nice–a clear view of the trail and the side path.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes that bamboo to grow back.

I arrived home rather elated at the great air, the great temperature, and the refreshment of the ride.  Sooner or later, a cold front always shows up to revivify life, despite the obstacles.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.