This commuter takes his cycling seriously


July 05, 1992|By Dolly Merritt

Bicycling to work is no small task for a man who lives in Beltsville and works in Columbia. For Mark Charleston, it means that every work day -- summer and winter, through rain, sleet and snow -- he undertakes a 35-mile round trip.

Mr. Charleston, who grew up in Columbia, is amused by those who express amazement at such an effort.

"I don't like cars, pollution or being programmed like a little zombie," said the 29-year-old, who is a pizza maker at Mamma Ilardo's restaurant in Columbia. "Biking is the more sensible thing to do and it's not that hard. People are lazy."

Mr. Charleston clearly is not.

Bicycles are his principal means of transportation. The cycle he uses most is an odd-looking vehicle called a "recumbent" bike -- a low-to-the-ground cycle. It is equipped with a windshield, and he cruises along U.S. 29 at about 18 mph. He makes the trip between home and work in under an hour.

When not commuting, Mr. Charleston also pedals to errands, vacations and even grocery shopping -- he can pack a week's worth of food in the bicycle's two side pouches. He also owns three other bikes -- two mountain bikes and a road bike. The only car he ever owned was totaled in an accident about six years ago.

"I hadn't used the car much and decided I wasn't interested in getting another one," Mr. Charleston said. Besides, he said, bicycles do not pollute the air and cause little wear and tear on the highways.

"We can't go on the way we are going using fossil fuels," Mr.

Charleston said. "I am a very principled person . . . I believe it's a responsibility to live life in an ethical way. It pleases me to know that I don't contribute to destroying the planet."

Since buying his second recumbent bike in February, he has put 5,100 miles on it. He usually rides within 75 miles of his home, which he shares with four non-cyclist roommates. Maintenance on his bicycles costs about $50 a year, he said.

Mr. Charleston grew up in Columbia and graduated in 1985 from St. Mary's College of Maryland with a bachelor's degree in classical guitar.

Two years ago he moved from Columbia to Lanham, then to Beltsville. But the added mileage didn't deter him from cycling.

He admits he is a curiosity to passing motorists.

The recumbent bike, which cost more than $2,400, is about six inches closer to the ground than other bikes. The windshield, called a fairing, is aerodynamically designed to reduce wind resistance, allowing for greater speed. The handlebars are upright and the pedals -- located forward between the front wheel and the rear wheels -- allow a more comfortable leg position for the driver, who sits upright rather than hunched forward over the handlebars.

"It's faster, it's safer because of the lower center of gravity," he said. "It's more comfortable and I'm not exposed to the wind."

Generally, passers-by are friendly and will wave as they pass. Some offer to help Mr. Charleston when he has a flat tire, or is caught in inclement weather.

He keeps rain gear, along with snacks and repair tools, in the pouches or "panniers" that are attached to the rear of his bike. In some circumstances, Mr. Charleston admits, he is very willing to accept a motorist's help.

Others are something less than helpful.

"Sometimes it's frustrating that there are some obnoxious people . . . I don't do anything to them. I am a careful driver," Mr. Charleston said. Yet some have thrown things at him -- a young couple once drenched him with a beverage tossed out the window as they drove by. Others shout obscenities, and one tailgating driver narrowly missed a collision with Mr. Charleston's bike.

"I never get on the road without realizing I could be killed," said Mr. Charleston. Yet he says he will wear a helmet only during inclement weather, night riding or during long-distance rides.

"There is no protection other than the mind, a state of awareness and being prepared . . . you need to be an expert, always looking for other vehicles and to always expect the unexpected," he said.

On winter nights, when Mr. Charleston rides home in the dark, the bike's headlight and tail lights alert motorists of his presence. Mr. Charleston travels to work in the winter equipped with a double layer of socks, polypropylene underwear and a jacket that's waterproof and breathable.

His boss, Eric Fabiszak, manager of Mamma Ilardo's, describes Mr. Charleston as "remarkable." Customers who have spotted him on U.S. 29 often inquire about him, said Fabiszak.

"He has incredible stamina and is almost never late; most times he is early," he said. "It takes a good amount of dedication on his part to make that trek every day."

For Mr. Charleston, it appears to be just plain fun.

"It's a sensation of speed unlike anything else," he said. "When you are on a bike going 25 miles an hour, it's very fast and it's a blast. It's pleasing to move under your own power. And here these motorists are in these things that weigh tons that make them fat and lazy.

"It's fun, healthy, saves money and I feel good that in my own small way, I am living life the way it should be lived."

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