Pedaling past Washington's monuments Bicycling: Participants in a Bike the Sites tour get to see 55 landmarks in the nation's capital

Short hop

June 28, 1998|By Mary Ann Zehr | Mary Ann Zehr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Past the White House, the Jefferson Memorial and the American Red Cross building we went. In three hours, we were to see these and at least four dozen more Washington landmarks.

But, we weren't huffing and puffing from a jog or cursing at the traffic congestion. We were pedaling our bikes at a leisurely pace around Washington with a touring company called Bike the Sites Inc.

The three-hour, 10-mile tour is an excellent alternative to sightseeing by foot or car. As well as giving the tour to individuals who sign up for it, owner Gary Oelsner leads capital-sites tours custom-designed for groups, whether it be members of an extended family or conference attendees. He leads a tour that starts at 5 p.m. and ends with dinner in Georgetown, for example.

Bike the Sites doesn't actually take you inside any buildings. We started with the Smithsonian Castle -- the headquarters of the Smithsonian museums -- and ended with the Bureau of Engraving, the structure where our nation's green money is printed. Sites in between included the Organization of American States building; the Lincoln, Jefferson and Franklin D. Roosevelt memorials; and the Vietnam and Korean War memorials.

While I didn't keep count, the company advertises that it shows bike riders 55 historic landmarks. That's certainly counting statues.

Having lived in the Washington area for eight years, I was familiar with most of the sites. But I hadn't yet heard about or seen the bronze statue of Albert Einstein hiding amid holly bushes next to the Academy of Sciences on the corner of 22nd Street and Constitution Avenue. I didn't know the American Red Cross building and the Organization of American States building had museums inside them.

Besides learning about a couple of new sites from Oelsner, I discovered some new touring tips. He said that the Corcoran Gallery of Art has a popular jazz brunch on Sundays and that people who want to avoid waiting in line for tickets to get into the White House can contact their representatives several months in advance for tickets.

Tour participants biked behind Oelsner from site to site and then periodically dismounted and pulled our bikes alongside one another so that we could hear his stories. He told how contralto Marian Anderson was to have sung in Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday in 1939, but the Daughters of the American Revolution would not permit the performance because she was a black woman. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR as a result and tried to right the wrong by sponsoring Anderson to give an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

I learned that the sculptor and the architect of the Supreme Court building sculpted their own likenesses into the frieze at the top of the building next to famous judges and lawyers. I learned that the national Christmas tree was lighted for the first time to promote electricity.

While I spun up the Capitol's hill on my bike and rode around its stone base, I thought how much more fun I was having than when I'd shown friends around the Capitol on foot. As we stopped at the base of the building and peered up at its majestic dome, strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, played by a youth bell choir on the Capitol's steps, floated toward us. Riding downhill from the Capitol, I caught a fragrant whiff of hyacinth blooms. Our presence was fleeting, but not so fleeting that we couldn't take in sounds and smells along with the views.

The other tour participants seemed equally pleased for having found a way to expose themselves to some information about the city while stretching their muscles outdoors. An economics professor from Michigan said he enjoyed being out in the sun after being cooped up for a couple of days at a minerals-economics conference. A fit-looking 60-something couple from Massachusetts were psyched that the tour provided a starting point for biking in Washington. Avid back-country road cyclists, they'd arranged to rent their Bike the Site bikes for the rest of the weekend and explore the city's bike paths on their own.

Oelsner handles the tour in a matter-of-fact, relaxed manner, relaying information as if he were a part of a conversation rather than delivering rehearsed lines. He is a reasonable guy, and offers a reasonable solution to the hassles of sightseeing in Washington.

When you go ...

The tour: Bike the Sites' "Capital Sites Ride" costs $35 per person. Reservations should be made at least a day ahead by calling 202-966-8662. Children age 9 and older are welcome when accompanied by an adult. For groups, Bike the Sites offers a 17-mile ride from Alexandria, Va., to Mount Vernon for $55, which includes the entrance fee to George Washington's former home, a tour of the premises and a box lunch. The company also gives groups tours of Gettysburg and Antietam, each lasting a day and involving about 20 miles of biking. The cost is $85 per person. See Bike the Sites' Web site at

After the ride: If you go on the capital-sites ride and wish to rent a bike from Bike the Sites for the rest of the day, you can do so for an additional fee of $15. Gary Oelsner will pick up the bike at your hotel at the end of the day. You may keep it for 24 hours after the tour for an additional fee of $25, but in that case, you have to return the bike to the point where you started your tour.

Other biking options: Washington has an extensive network of bicycle trails extending from Mount Vernon to Harpers Ferry and Rockville. For maps and information, contact Potomac Pedalers Touring Club (202-363-8687) or the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (202-872-9830).

Pub Date: 6/28/98

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