Biking In Hampton Roads
From Newbie To Spandex Mafia, Tips For Traversing Coastal Virginia On Two Wheels
In February 2013, 5 miles was a long ride for Seth Nelson of Norfolk. Then the stay-at-home dad bought a bike trailer for his son and started riding in the Norfolk Botanical Garden.
“I didn’t consider myself confident enough to bike on the roads with my son,” Nelson says.
By the end of last summer, Nelson had bought a road bike and a high-end bike seat, began biking to ODU and the grocery store, completed a 65-mile ride and lost 60 pounds. (See sidebar for biking with kids).
Interested in making that transition? Members of the Spandex Mafia are happy to provide tips to newbie bikers.
Safety Accessories and Rules
No matter where you’re riding or your age, you need a snugly fitting helmet sitting level on your head, says Nancy Carter, past president of the Williamsburg Area Bicyclists. If the helmet has been in an accident, replace it, Carter says. Accident or not, she recommends replacing your helmet after five years because the material it’s made of degrades over time.
Another key safety accessory is a little rearview mirror for either your glasses or your handlebars, Carter says. “Otherwise you must learn to turn your head before you turn your bike,” she says.
If you’re riding from dusk to dawn, state law requires you have a white light shining in front and a red light shining in back of your back, Carter says. That’s the minimum, she notes.
Additional safety options for visibility include reflectors on your wheels and clothing, she says. Carter uses USB rechargeable LED lights with a flash pattern that makes her more noticeable to drivers.
No matter what time you ride, wear clothing—white or international yellow or orange—that makes you easily visible to both car drivers and pedestrians, Carter says.
Remember to obey traffic laws, says Wayne Wilcox, membership chairman of the Tidewater Bicycle Association and senior Virginia Beach planner. That means ride on the right side with traffic and stop at all stop signs and red lights, he says.
Finally, another safety accessory is … other riders. “When you’re out by yourself it’s hard for people to see you,” says Sharon Bochman, president of the Peninsula Bicycling Association. Bochman, who lives in Poquoson, started riding with the PBA after a car mirror touched her arm as she drove by, almost knocking her off her bike.
“It’s easier for drivers to see a group of eight or 10 people than a single cyclist,” she says.
There are groups of bicyclists covering most Coastal Virginia localities—see end. Most offer rides graded A or even A+ + through D. A-level rides are about 20 mph or faster and riders who can’t keep up likely will be dropped, Bochman says. Contrast that with D-pace rides targeted at new/inexperienced riders with speeds a more leisurely 10-11 mph where riders stay together, there are frequent stops, lots of regrouping and no one is left behind.
“Before you come out to a group ride, get used to sitting in the saddle,” Bochman says. “People think you have to have strong legs, but you really have to train your rear end to sit in the saddle.”
If you’re picking a pace, be sure to ask whether the speed listed reflects moving speed—how fast you travel during the ride—or average riding speed—which factors stops into the speed, Bochman says. If the cited pace is average riding speed, the actual moving speed will be faster. So if you know you can ride 13 mph and pick a C pace ride listed at 13 mph, you may struggle to keep up with an average riding speed that’s faster than 13 mph.
Where to Ride
Coastal Virginia offers plenty of multi-use trails and other places for beginning bikers to ride away from cars. Keep in mind that even as a beginning biker, you’ll likely be the fastest mover on these trails because your fellow trail users will be bikers, joggers, families and people walking dogs. Bike protocol is to pass on the left and make some noise such as ‘on your left’ to let pedestrians know you’re coming.
In Virginia Beach, the 8-mile South Beach Trail starts and finishes at Norfolk Avenue—running along Pacific Avenue, General Booth Boulevard and Birdneck Road, says Wilcox, who plans bikeways and trails for the city. The Cape Henry Trail at First Landing State Park is another option, and you can ride it out of the park through adjacent neighborhoods. Or, if you leave the park at the 64th Street entrance, you can pick up the Maritime Trail and either turn left to head over to Shore Drive or turn right and pick up the South Beach Trail or the bike path paralleling the boardwalk, Wilcox says.
At the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, you can ride your bike from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through Oct. 14, garden spokeswoman Kelly Walsh says.
“Riding in the gardens worked really well for me—going from not biking at all to biking,” says Nelson, communications director for Bike Norfolk. “As I was able to ride longer distances, I began doing several loops in the garden.”
When Nelson felt more confident, he ventured onto Llewellyn Drive, which is parallel to Granby Street, to get downtown. This advice—finding a less-traveled road parallel to a main artery—works in any locale.
On the Peninsula, Newport News Park has a 5.5-mile multi-use trail popular with beginning cyclists. Once you’re ready to ease into vehicle traffic, the tour roads around Yorktown Battlefield are a good option for beginners, Bochman says.
In the Williamsburg area, riding options away from cars include a paved trail at Waller Mill Park, Duke of Gloucester Street—which is closed to vehicles—York River State Park, New Quarter Park and Freedom Park. New Quarter, York River and Freedom parks also offer mountain bike trails.
The Virginia Capital Trail, which when complete in 2015 will link Williamsburg and Richmond, already offers a good ride. Start near Jamestown High School and continue past Chickahominy Riverfront Park and over the Chickahominy Bridge. Nearby neighborhoods and shopping centers also link to the trail, Carter says.
The Colonial Parkway linking Jamestown to Williamsburg and Yorktown is another popular trip for bikers. Once a year, you can ride the parkway from Williamsburg to Jamestown with no cars. This year’s event is May 3, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It’s free, but helmets and registration are required.
Another good option, also with some car traffic, is to ride the 5-mile loop at Jamestown Island, Carter says.
In Surry, a good option for intermediate riders is Chippokes Plantation State Park and the surrounding rural roads, Carter says.
Other Bike Accessories
Although you can start out with a cheap bicycle, experienced bikers such as Carter recommend that you get fitted for the right size bike at a bike store. “If a bike shop is pushing you to buy a bike without measuring you, you need to go to a different bike shop,” she says.
Other accessories include a water bottle to mount to your bike,
padded bike pants (around $50) and bike shoes that clip to your wheels (around $200), Bochman and Carter say.
But you may save money by driving your car less. “We are not a one-car family at this time,” says Nelson, the former beginner. “But by the end of last summer, I was using my car very little. I really enjoyed it.”