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5 Washington DC Area Bike Trails for the Indoor Cyclist Who Wants To Ride Outside

5 Washington DC Area Bike Trails for the Indoor Cyclist Who Wants To Ride Outside

by: Dru Ryan
Tuesday, July 12, 2016 - 10:12am

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5 Washington DC Area Bike Trails for the Indoor Cyclist Who Wants To Ride Outside
How Watching the Tour de France Can Make you a Better Cyclist


"But there are cars in the street!"

That's the typical response after making a pitch for an indoor rider to take their pursuit of spin outdoors. Some mention the cost of a bike -- though with a single spin class costing anywhere between $20 and $35, that argument falls short pretty quickly. As an indoor cycling instructor, I totally get the benefits of riding inside: safety, doesn't require bike-handling skills, predictable room temperature, endorphin release, cool factor... all positives. And yes, it improves your cardiovascular system too. But you’re always left wondering, “Am I capable of more?” Can I ride for 90 minutes? 2 hours? A whole day?

Yes, you can train indoors and really grow as a rider. Pro riders jump on the 'trainer' to warm up or cool down. And triathletes are frequent indoor trainers due to time constraints. Christine D'Ercole, NYC-based spin instructor extraordinaire, even won a national championship training exclusively indoors. But, eventually, they all go outdoors. With the Tour de France upon us, this just begs for a Parisian-inspired analogy.

The impressionist artists (Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir to name a few), were considered mavericks for painting en plein air (in open air). Art was to be done indoors with subject matter often restricted. This was the norm and few people challenged it. By going outdoors, the impressionists saw new perspectives, in various lights and angles … scintillating their senses far beyond what the studio offered. Are you part of the crowd, or an individual? (either way, keep reading please!)

Riding outside is like taking a spin class with 3D goggles. It brings a realism to everything you are doing. Oh, THAT's a SPRINT – THIS is what a CLIMB FEELS LIKE! Riding outdoors won't make you forget indoor cycling, but it will never be the same.

Washington DC, and the surrounding areas, have some of the best maintained trails in the United States. Traffic on these mixed use paths thin out away from access points, leaving space for a cyclist to pedal without weaving in and out of the bike lane. If you thought studio cycling was fun, riding outside will blow you away (and it's cheaper:).


Capital Crescent Trail

If you're just getting started, this 11 mile rail-to-trail is perfect for the newbie rider. Start in Georgetown and ride along the C&O Canal for a few miles, rewarded with great views of the Potomac. Turning inland, a modest uphill grade brings you to the Maryland border where the trail flattens out as you approach Bethesda. The return is downhill, but be careful as speed limits on the trail are regularly enforced. The trail has a friendly Facebook page which keeps everyone informed and connected. At the very least, just ride through the old train tunnel. It’s so much fun.


Mount Vernon Trail

A fun 18 mile trail bookended by George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Roosevelt Island. Bikes aren't allowed in either, but we're here to ride, not sightsee. Loaded with great views of the Potomac and a few natural habitats, there are even a few ascents to keep you focused on pedaling too. A couple of tight turns and limited space to the left and right of the paved path will slow your pace at times.

Bonus: Take a detour across the Wilson Bridge (yes, there’s a bike path) and visit National Harbor. It's not quite the Golden Gate Bridge, though the views are pretty spectacular.


Arlington Loop

A 20 mile path encompassing several popular trails -- Four Mile Run, W&OD, Custis and Mt. Vernon. The clockwise route is more forgiving if you intend to complete the entire loop. A near compulsory stop by the airport will put you about 100 yards from the runway with jets roaring overhead. Connections to other trails make the Arlington Loop popular among commuters.


Washington and Old Dominion Trail

The Washington and Old Dominion Trail is the purest bike trail in the area. Spans 45 miles from Shirlington to Purceville, Virginia. The trail is dotted with stops for food and even a bike shop in Reston. It's not the most scenic route, but with nary an intersection for miles at a time, it's the most bike friendly trail on the list.

Bonus: Make it a day trip and take the trail to White's Ferry and cross the Potomac on the oldest independent ferry in America. Then return via the C&O Canal.


BWI Trail

With MARC now allowing bikes on some weekend trains means a bike trip to Baltimore (or BWI) is possible without pedaling there and back. This 11 mile trail borders the airport before heading east toward Glen Burnie. It then links with the B&A trail (13 miles long) to Annapolis. Of course you could drive to the airport and then ride. As a train lover, I recommend leaving the car at home.


Honorable Mentions

The National Arboretum, though not a bike path, does allow bikes and contains some decent hills. Plus, you get to see the arboretum and some cool views of the city. Go early before the crowds.

The Anacostia Tributary Trails are a hidden gem in the area. Accessible from the College Park metro (or at the Peace Cross if you drive or ride in the street), you will soon forget you are anywhere near a major metropolis. The cover picture of this story is taken from that trail.

Feel free to reach out if you have questions or need route suggestions. Go plein air today!

About the Author

Dru Ryan is a daily bike commuter, indoor cycling coach (EquinoxCrunch, Mint DC) and road cyclist who averages 200 miles a week. Follow Dru on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook or visit his website