Cycling Stories

Winter Mornings on the Potomac

June 21, 2020

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Winter Mornings on the Potomac

“Van Aert and Van der Poel never get to ride in a place like this. But, today, it is all mine.”

Bob Ludke

I never need to set the alarm. When 6:00 am comes around, I am awake, and (mostly) ready to hit the road. 
 
It often takes another 15 minutes to stretch out my middle-aged joints and muscles. Plus, another few minutes to get organized and dressed in all the gear I need for cold-weather biking. 
 
Nevertheless, before the sun rises, I usually am out the door – pedaling through the chilly, often damp, early morning. 
 
My bike of choice is either a Spot single-speed or a Specialized cyclocross. Both are hand-me-downs from my brother—a far more accomplished and skilled cyclist than me. 
 
Living just outside Washington, DC, in Alexandria, Virginia, I enjoy easy access to the Mount Vernon Trail. This paved, multi-use path runs along the Potomac River from Arlington, Virginia, to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. 

A section of the Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac River in Washington, DC. Credit: NPS.gov

Riding the Mount Vernon Trail is akin to taking a tour through American history. If I go north, I take the Trail to the Memorial Bridge and cross into Washington, DC. There, I coast by the Lincoln Memorial, around the Tidal Basin, and back to Virginia again over the 14th Street Bridge, all while trying to fully grasp and appreciate the accomplishments of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Jefferson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 
 
When my timing is right, I catch a sunrise over the Washington Monument. 

The Washington Monument at sunrise. Credit: Pixabay

 
If I want to add a few miles onto my ride, I climb the short hill leading to the Iwo Jima Memorial—arguably the most powerful and moving monument of them all, which is a tribute to those who served in the U.S. Marines Corps. 
 
If I go south from Alexandria, I leave the world behind. Pedaling through the wooded stretch along the Potomac, I am greeted with a sunrise over the river as I make my way to Mount Vernon. Orange, yellow, and pink hues majestically light up the river, providing me with a private screening of breathtaking art on Mother Nature’s canvas. 
 
While some mornings I go further, most rides are around 20 miles, give or take. 
 
I wish I were Wout Van Aert, Katie Compton, or Mathieu van der Poel, flicking my way across rugged singletrack in the woods of Belgium. Or, powering my way across the cobbles of Paris – Roubaix. Or, gliding up Alpe d’Huez like Nairo Quintana, seemingly without exertion. 
 
Heck, I would settle for getting up the gumption to do a local century ride. 
 
Alas, that is not where I am at in life at the moment. Too many commitments. Too many obligations. Too many other interests (if you want to experience something truly beautiful, take an early morning stand-up paddleboard ride on the Potomac!).


 I used to get down on myself for not pushing harder on the bike. For not completing longer, more challenging rides. But I learned that when I went further, my enjoyment declined as the distance increased. Biking became a chore and a burden rather than something to be enjoyed and treasured. 
 
Over the last few months, I have learned to value those things I have been blessed with. 
 
I have the opportunity to ride in near solitude in and around some of the most historic parts of the United States (if not the world), all while appreciating the accomplishments of people that have transformed humanity for the better. 
 
The clutter of daily life, the endless news cycles, the increasingly strident nature of our public discourse, vanish when I am biking along the Potomac. I am alone in a tranquil world, often surrounded by greatness. 
 
I have never seen a professional cyclist during my morning rides (or maybe I have, and they passed me so quickly I didn’t recognize them). Unlike the pros, I don’t have to worry about my wattage or a Strava record. I take it all in and enjoy. 
 
Some days, my average pace is better than others. 
 
Some days, I feel great. Others, not so much. 
 
But I always make it back home. And that counts for something. 
 
On mornings when it is especially cold, windy, and raining, I feel like I conquered a challenge by getting out on the bike, even if it was less than 20 miles, and I encountered no real hills. 
 
As I thought to myself on a recent ride, “Van Aert and Van der Poel never get to ride in a place like this. But, today, it is all mine.” 
 
For that, I am thankful. 

A resident of Alexandria, Virginia, Bob Ludke is an occasional weekend warrior cyclist. When not on a bike, he has advised policymakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, taught at the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, and provided counsel on sustainability, CSR and ESG strategies for companies in the retail, oil and gas, transportation, and finance industries. 

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