Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Memories From 2001

Susan was hugely pregnant. This from Eric...

Below is a story for Ride On that Ellen and I wrote about Bike DC 2001, which took place right after September 11th. Every year on this date my mind always returns to that terrible morning and the days that followed as we somehow managed, with the help of many of you, to pull off a great ride that hopefully helped the healing process.

Wishing you all peace on this day.


BikeDC: A Tale of Two Bike Rides

By Eric Gilliland and Ellen Jones

The planning for BikeDC 2001 began before the dust had settled from BikeDC 2000. The first permit applications for the ride we submitted in September of 2000 and the next 12 months were spent attending countless meetings, working out the details of what would be the largest bike ride in the region and the longest road closure ever in the District of Columbia.

On the morning of September 11th, less than two weeks before BikeDC, the WABA office was in high spirits. The final details were coming together: the route had been finalized and approved, site plans had been drawn up, bagels were waiting to be baked and 450 volunteers were ready to go. Over 5,000 people had registered anticipating a 32 mile tour of scenic Washington and its environs completely closed to traffic for the first time.

As the events of that day unfolded the questions changed from how it would be done, to would it be done at all. BikeDC had always been a celebration of bicycling as a form of transportation and recreation, a peaceful event that was also a celebration of community. Now, more than ever, the ride had to happen…but would it? WABA staff and volunteers assumed the affirmative and continued preparations for the ride as planned.

Days passed in silence. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the National Park Service, Capitol Hill Police, the Emergency Management Agency were out of touch, understandably occupied in dealing with the recent disasters and the threats of even more. Finally, after 8 days of waiting the call came on September 19. Peter LaPorte, Director of the Office of Emergency Management Agency (EMA) wanted to meet. “Now, more than ever, the mayor wants this ride and we are going to have it. We just need to sit down and figure out how.”

In its original conception, BikeDC would have required the services of over 180 officers from the MPD, Capitol Hill Police and the Park Police, numbers that were not available. Jose Acosta, Commander of the Special Operations Division of the MPD stated flatly, “75 officers. That’s all you’ve got.”

Twelve months of planning and countless meetings had come down to this: 5 people in a room, pouring over a map, counting and recounting the number of intersections where police would be required for alternate routes. The George Washington Memorial Parkway was the first route segment to go. The route was re-drawn, the start area moved, 35 miles had been whittled down to 12. It was not the ride that had been planned, but it was a ride that still included the Anacostia River front, the Southwest waterfront, monumental views and the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood.

We left the meeting with measured enthusiasm. The responsibility transforming such a large amount of BikeDC planning and still being able to offer something that was a positive experience for thousands of cyclists was sobering. Over the next 5 days the ride was re-invented.

Volunteers were reassigned. “Where do you need me?” volunteers asked when they got news that their section was no longer part of the ride. Marshals were sent to Freedom Plaza to reroute riders to the new starting point, and three rest stops were collapsed into one really BIG rest stop at RFK.

Delivery times and locations changed for equipment and services needed the day of the ride. “If I call the Port-a-John company one more time, they’ll kill me!” moaned Rachel Possel, BikeDC’s event manager.

“No, the NEW site map I just sent you,” Eric Gilliland, Tour Director, was heard to say over and over again as he redeployed 12 variable message sign boards and 2,500 traffic cones and barrels for traffic management on the changed course.

BikeDC media sponsors WTOP and washingtonpost.com took dictation over the phone to make changes in event announcements that were running nonstop to inform as many people as possible about the changes. Dave Weime of Sports Wave, a public relations firm, juggled media contacts, “Pull the spot I just heard about starting at Freedom Plaza – it’s RFK!”

Hundreds of phone calls and emails flooded the WABA office and responding to them was a full time job for Susan Klasmeier, Volunteer Coordinator and Administrative Manager, and a core of volunteers who became the front line for the event. The reaction of cyclists to the new plan was generally positive. A cheer would go up when particularly encouraging messages came in.

Saturday’s activities at then DC Armory were reaffirming. Bicycling Magazine’s Great Gear Exchange drew and enthusiastic crowd and the WABA Kid’s Safety Rodeo was a success. People were happy to be out enjoying the day and thinking about their favorite activity.

Sunday morning dawned clear and warm. At 4 am some of us looked over the vast empty space surrounding RFK Stadium and wondered for the first time, “What if no one comes?” That was the last moment of unstructured thinking for anyone as 400 volunteers began streaming in to set up the event according to a plan that most of them were learning about on the spot.

And the riders came. We estimate that 6,000 people rode on Sunday morning. Over 1000 people registered on the day of the event. The adaptability and resilience of the bicycling community was proven. H.G.Wells statement, “When I see a man riding a bicycle I have hope for civilization,” was never more true.


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