Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
When the workers clock out, the fixies, unicycles, and penny-farthings roll in for an evening of races where “anything goes.”
By 8 o’clock on a chilly Wednesday evening, the streets of Crystal City are fairly quiet. Most workers in the Northern Virginia neighborhood have cleared out in the after-hours, and the most raucous noise of the night is the howling wind. That is, until you go underground.
Unbeknownst to the few at street level, there’s a crowd gathering in a parking garage below an unremarkable office building. Inside, giant speakers blast rock music. Cow bells ring. There’s whooping and hollering, there’s pie and beer—and there are bikes everywhere. Well, bikes, unicycles, scooters… pretty much anything with wheels that’s powered by humans and isn’t a car. They’ll spend the next half-hour whizzing around a makeshift track that spans two floors.
This is the “Anything Goes” race, and it’s one of the most popular competitions in a series of races held each spring in one of Crystal City’s many parking garages. And really, anything goes.
“I’ve heard people call it the Fight Club of cycling,” says Bill Schieken, who runs the local Crosshairs Cycling group. “Except our rule is to tell everybody.”
On this night, there’s a little bit of everything. A man in a nun’s habit rides a tandem bike. A guy dressed as Deadpool hops on a compact penny-farthing, and another in a cow costume maneuvers a unicycle. Parents haul their kids in cargo bikes. Some ride Capital Bikeshare bikes, others prefer the dockless kind. There are tricycles, skateboards, skates, scooters. One racer is on foot, seeming to have abandoned his bike midway. A grown man wipes out while riding a child’s bike—his pretty pink basket was unharmed.
“It’s a complete mess,” Schieken says. “And it’s pretty awesome.”
Racing to rebrand Crystal City
Despite being underground, nothing about these “garage races” is secretive. The weekly races, held in March and April, are put on by the Crystal City Business Improvement District for avid bikers across the greater Washington, D.C., region. Organized by Crosshairs Cycling, the event features separate competitions for beginners and pros, and one specifically for women. The final week offers non-traditional races: Anything Goes, a relay race between federal employees and contractors, and one just for fixed-gear bikes.
“It gets people out and comfortable on their bikes,” says Megan Jones, who rides with the group called Team Sticky Fingers. Their mission is to bring more women riders into the biking community. Since the garage races started six years ago, the women’s field has grown exponentially. “There’s a lot of support from the spectators, so it doesn’t matter if you come in first or dead last, or if you even finish,” she tells CityLab. “You’re out there, you’re racing, you’re having fun.”
It’s all part of CCBID’s longstanding effort to breathe life into a high-rise community that seems stuck in the ‘60s. Part of the strategy was to tap into the region’s avid biking community. What’s ironic, though, even by CCBID chief operating officer Robert Mandle’s admission, is that these races began as a way to promote driving.
Crystal City was initially built for government employees and military contractors. Its skyline is crowded with beige concrete office buildings, hotels, and apartments. It was designed for cars, with one-way streets, overpasses, and a major highway that splits the neighborhood in two. Sidewalks saw little foot traffic, thanks in part to the 1976 opening of a five-block mall tunnel, which essentially pushed pedestrians underground.
The neighborhood used to see some 60,000 office workers come through during the weekday. Nights and weekends were quiet—just the way the 6,000-or-so residents liked it. In 1995, John Russo, who was the president of one of the condo buildings there, told The Washington Post that the neighborhood was “our own private city on weekends.” When the U.S. Department of Defense began relocating its military bases in 2005, Crystal City lost almost a third of its entire workforce—and was left with over 2 million square feet of vacancies. “When you have 10 million square feet of office space, 2 million is a pretty big deal,” Mandle says.
On the verge of becoming a ghost town, it needed to rebrand. To appeal to the younger generation of workers moving into the region, CCBID began hosting a range of events, including farmers markets, weekly races, concerts, and the revitalization of the underground tunnel.
After hours, Crystal City has an abundance of street and garage parking; some 13,000 spots sit empty. So in an effort to highlight that abundance—and to attract visitors with free parking—CCBID came up with the idea to host underground bike races. It worked with the biking community to design a family-friendly underground course that incorporated the competitive nature of cyclocrossing, a kind of off-road bike racing. The result was a “one-day spectacle,” as Mandle describes it, filled with races, scavenger hunts, and costumes.
In a way, the neighborhood’s location makes it perfect for cycling: It sits next to the 18-mile-long Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac River and into D.C. Plus, Arlington, Virginia, where Crystal City is located, was named one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S., having adopted a “bicycle element” into its Master Transportation Plan in 2008. A major part of that plan is to build out a bikeway network connecting residential areas to commercial centers, transit stations, schools, and government facilities.
The initial one-day event drew in the crowds, and eventually turned into a recurring series. Over the years, popularity for the event grew, and so did the emphasis on cycling; groups like Phoenix Bikes, which promotes biking among local at-risk youths, and Scheiken’s Crosshair Cycling got involved.
The race gets serious, too
Most of the series is advertised as goofy, but some still take it seriously. Robyn Spann competed in the relay race between federal contractors and staff, and has previously taken part in the women’s race. “I’m interested in personal records. Everyone else has been doing this for way longer,” she says. “I just don’t have the experience, yet, so I just try to pace myself.”
As racers bike their last few laps in the Anything Goes competition, Danny Koniowsky is getting ready for the final race of the series—the “Fixed Gear Finale,” which usually attracts a good handful of bike messengers. It’s his first garage race—he’s usually a volunteer—and he has his eyes set on a goal: to finish on the lead lap.
Koniowsky has been a bike courier for 14 years and currently runs his own company, Steadfast Messengers—but that means he’s usually behind the desk or driving a van. When he does get on a bike, it’s usually because he’s competing in a race. For him, the fixed-gear race is, in part, to ease him back into training mode for cyclocross season.
“It’s a middle ground between goofing off and trying hard, so it’s pretty unique,” he says. “It walks the line between a traditional sanctioned bicycle race and a bike messenger alleycat,” which are more about having fun.
This night, he’s up against dozens of other riders. So he’s more on the serious side, with a strategy all laid out: “I’d like to, at the beginning of the race, stay as close to the front as I can without going too hard too quick,” he says, “and being able to pace myself because I’ll be less likely to get caught behind a crash.”
It must have worked, because when I check the scores, Koniowsky finished third.