When the workers come out, the fixtures, the monocycles and the penny-farthing arrive for an evening of competitions in which “everything is fine”.
At 8 o’clock on a cold Wednesday evening, the streets of Crystal City are fairly quiet. Most of the workers in the northern Virginia area have emptied themselves in the after-hours and the noisiest noise of the night is the howling wind. That is, until you go into hiding.
Unbeknownst to the few at street level, there is a crowd gathering in a parking lot under an insignificant office building. Inside, giant speakers make rock music explode. The bells of the cow are ringing. There’s screams and screams, there’s cake and beer – and there are bikes everywhere. Well, bikes, unicycles, scooters … practically everything with wheels that are powered by human beings and are not cars. They will spend the next half hour whizzing on a makeshift runway that extends over two floors.
This is the “Anything Goes” competition, and is one of the most popular competitions in a series of races held every spring in one of the numerous Crystal City garages. And really, everything is fine.
“I 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 everyone.”
In this night, there is a bit of everything. A man with a nun’s habit rides a tandem bicycle. A boy dressed as Deadpool jumps on a compact penny-penny, and another in a cow costume maneuvers a unicycle. Parents carry their children on a cargo bike. Some go by bike Capital Bikeshare, others prefer the type without a dock. There are tricycles, skateboards, skates, scooters. A runner is on foot, seems to have abandoned his bike halfway. An adult man sweeps away while riding a child’s bicycle: his cute pink basket has remained unharmed.
“It’s a complete mess,” says Schieken. “And it’s really fantastic.”
Racing for rebrand Crystal City
Despite being underground, nothing of these “garage races” is secret. The weekly competitions, held in March and April, are organized by the District for the improvement of the Crystal City enterprises for motorcycle enthusiasts from the whole great region of Washington, D.C. Organized by Crosshairs Cycling, the event includes separate competitions for beginners and professionals, and one specific for women. The last week offers non-traditional competitions: Anything Goes, a relay race between federal employees and contractors and only one for fixed gear bikes.
“It puts 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 knight women into the cycling community. Since the garage races started six years ago, the women’s field has grown exponentially. “There’s a lot of support from viewers, so it does not matter if you’re dead first or last, or if you end up,” he tells CityLab. “You’re out there, you’re running, you’re having fun.”
It’s all part of the old CCBID effort to create a high-rise community that seems stuck in the ’60s. Part of the strategy was to tap into the cycling community of the region. What is ironic, however, also for the admission of the managing director of CCBID, Robert Mandle, is that these races have started 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 is designed for cars, with one-way streets, overpasses and a large highway that divides the neighborhood into two. The sidewalks saw little pedestrian traffic, thanks in part to the opening in 1976 of a five-block tunnel, which essentially pushed pedestrians underground.
The district was used to seeing around 60,000 office workers during the day of the week. Nights and weekends were quiet, just like 6,000 or so. In 1995, John Russo, who was the president of one of the condominium buildings, told the Washington Post that the neighborhood was “our private city on the weekends”. When the US Department of Defense began relocating its military bases in 2005, Crystal lost nearly a third of the entire workforce and remained with over 2 million square feet of vacant posts. “When you have 10 million square feet of office space, 2 million is a big deal,” says Mandle.
On the verge of becoming a ghost town, he needed rebranding. To appeal to the new generations of workers moving around the region, CCBID has started hosting a series of events, including farmers markets, weekly competitions, concerts and the revitalization of the underground tunnel.
After hours, Crystal City has an abundance of parking lots in the street and in the garage; about 13,000 seats are empty. So, in an effort to highlight abundance – and to attract visitors with free parking – CCBID had the idea to host underground bike races. He collaborated with the cycling community to design an underground path suitable for families that included the competitive nature of cyclocrossing, a kind of off-road cycling competition. The result was a “one-day show”, as Mandle describes, full of races, treasure hunts and costumes.
In a sense, the location of the neighborhood makes it perfect for cycling: it is located near the 18-mile Mount Vernon Trail, which runs along the Potomac River and in DC Plus, Arlington, Virginia, where Crystal City is located, is was named one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States, after adopting a “bicycle element” in its Master Transportation Plan in 2008. An important part of this plan is to build a network of cycle paths linking residential areas to shopping centers, transit stations, schools and government facilities.
The initial one-day event attracted the crowd and eventually turned into a recurring series. Over the years, the popularity of the event has grown, as has the emphasis on cycling; groups such as Phoenix Bikes, which promote cycling among young people at local risk, and Scheiken Crosshair Cycling has been involved.
Even the race becomes serious
Most of the series is advertised as silly, but some still take it seriously. Robyn Spann has competed in the relay between contractors and federal staff and has already taken part in the women’s race. “I’m interested in personal documents, everyone else has been doing this for much longer,” he says. “I have not had the experience yet, so I’m just trying to measure myself.”
While the runners make their last rounds in the Anything Goes competition, Danny Koniowsky prepares for the final race of the series, the “Fixed Gear Final”, which usually attracts a good handful of bicycle messengers. It’s his first garage race – he’s usually a volunteer – and his eyes are on a goal: finish in the lead.
Koniowsky has been a bicycle courier for 14 years and currently runs his company, Steadfast Messengers, but this means he is usually behind the desk or driving a van. When you get on a bike, it’s usually because you’re competing in a race. For him, the fixed gear race is, in part, to bring him back into training mode for the cyclocross season.
“It’s a cross between joke and hard work, so it’s really unique,” he says. “Cross the border between a traditional sanctioned cycling race and an alley of transport bikes”, which are more than just fun.
This night, he has against dozens of other knights. So he’s more serious, with a whole strategy: “I’d like to stay as close as possible to the front at the start of the race without going too fast too fast,” he says, “and be able to measure me because I’m less likely to be surprised by an accident “.
It must have worked, because when I checked the scores, Koniowsky finished third.