All photos are from last year's DC Bike Ride. Image by DC Bike Ride used with permission.

Thousands of professional and amateur bicycle enthusiasts (upwards of 8,000 according to event organizers) will gather at 8 am on May 19 in West Potomac Park to kick off the District's largest bike ride event, DC Bike Ride. The best part? Absolutely no cars.

Enthusiasts will take over District roadways, even those considered no-go zones like Whitehurst Freeway and parts of highway 395, with a more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation.

Have you been celebrating? You'd be remiss not to. The DCBR event is the an ode to a month of gears, chains, and pedals. The day before, Friday May 18, is national Bike to Work Day and is expected to draw in more than 20,000 commuters. Bike to School Day took place on May 9.

Image by DC Bike Ride used with permission.

DC Bike Ride is not a race

The first thing you should know about DCBR is that it’s not a race, says Michelle Cleveland, marketing director at Capital Sports Ventures (CSV), which is organizing the event. Participants are encouraged to bike at their own pace. The region's only closed-road, car-free recreational bike ride is a family event, open to anyone ages three and up.

“It's a celebration of bicycling and the bicycle culture — the bike life — the growing number of bicyclists in the region,” Cleveland added.

DCBR started in 2016 with more than 7,200 people coming out to show their bike love. It has grown since then and will likely continue to — this year's event is expected to draw upwards of 8,000 participants.

Image by DC Bike Ride used with permission.

However, this isn't the first iteration of a large-scale, recreational bike ride of this kind. DCBR owes its roots to an older event, the Bike DC ride, which was put on by the Washington Area Bicycle Association (WABA). It had its last run in 2012 when the organizers couldn't secure the necessary permits. Without the permits, vendors were even more impossible to attract, so the event ended.

The idea languished for several years. Cleveland, who used to work for WABA as the events manager, said they tried to bring back Bike DC but were unable to. Then along came a small sports investment firm, Capital Sports Ventures, that saw it as an opportunity to capitalize on the bike community in the District. Cleveland credits DCBR's success and growing popularity with the company's experience in putting on these road events.

“We had roots with the Rock-n-Roll marathon back in the day, and so we were able to take our experience and expertise and kind of bring that tradition of those closed road bike rides,” Cleveland says.

DCBR hopes to promote a greater vision for infrastructure and safety

With the death of DC Bike Ride, WABA lost a major source of funding. However, it’s now been the revamped event's nonprofit beneficiary for all three years. CSV has committed over $100k back to WABA, which uses the money to fund its Vision Zero street safety initiatives.

As you may recall from my article profiling Alexandria activists, Vision Zero is a commitment to ending all traffic fatalities and serious injuries by 2024. Last year alone, more than 6,000 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the United States, and 30 were killed here in the District. I asked Cleveland about DCBR's involvement in promoting street safety and Vision Zero.

DCBR isn't directly involved in these initiatives, but she pointed out that they do their part: “Our event inherently promotes bicycling and safe bicycling, because it's able to bring down those barriers that a lot of people face when they consider biking in an urban environment,” Cleveland says. “Many people have never biked in DC before because they're afraid of the traffic, they're afraid of being in a crash [but] maybe [DCBR] encourages them to try it again.”

Image by DC Bike Ride used with permission.

While DCBR isn't directly involved in affecting change on the ground level like WABA and similar advocacy organizations, organizers believe the event nevertheless promotes street safety and bicycling.

“If it takes a huge, once a year event that closes down the streets to get all these people on bikes, it kind of says something about the region's need to invest in more protected infrastructure,” Cleveland points out.

The event aims to promote biking for people from all walks of life

In order to further support biking, bike safety, and other youth programs, DCBR partners with local businesses and nonprofits. This year they've partnered with several organizations that support community efforts.

Two of these are bike co-ops, Gearin' Up Bicycles and Phoenix Bikes. Both are nonprofits that not only fix bikes but have after school youth programs that give students a place to learn how to work on bikes and maybe learn relevant work skills. They've also partnered with the ubiquitous Capital BikeShare, which provides low-income residents with free or hugely discounted memberships. Bike Arlington and Seabury Resources for the Aging are also co-partners this year.

While hopping a bike and riding around the District is a free activity, this event is not. For a single rider it costs a $70 for standard registration, and $175 for a VIP. Youth seven and under ride free. There’s a crowd-funded scholarship program to make the event more accessible, and this year it’s raised enough funds to sponsor 54 riders.

Image by DC Bike Ride used with permission.

For now, these types of closed-street events are rare. A sister event will be held in Dallas on November 3 of this year (the city's first event in 2017) and it may expand to a few more places. However, Cleveland points out that organizing these massive rides is not just a matter of securing permits and getting sponsor.

Some cities don't have the same bike infrastructure DC and other cities have. Dallas, for example, is divided up by highways and a lot of people aren't really biking for transportation there — yet. If these events continue to grow, they may show residents the economic and health benefits of bicycling and inspire them to rethink their infrastructure.

Don't forget to use those bells and protected bike lanes tomorrow!

Matthew Koehler is currently a stay at home dad who formerly worked as an ESL teacher in Nagano, Japan and Washington, DC. When not chasing his three-year-old daughter around, he chronicles he fathering experiences in blog form and is always on the look out for obscure beers. For the time being, he resides in the ever-changing Southwest neighborhood, just down the street from Nationals Ballpark.