I got the idea to go on a bike overnight when my husband returned home from a friend’s bachelor weekend. When he saw our toddler and baby, he told me, “I had a lot of fun, but by the end, I really started to miss them.”
I thought to myself: that must be nice.
I don’t mean that to sound sarcastic or bitter. I mean it literally. I truly think that time apart from the people you love helps remind you why you love them so much. I work full time as a teacher and my kids go to daycare, but my son was almost 11 months old and we’d still never spent a night apart. Going away for a night seemed like a healthy thing to do, and using my bike to get there felt like an adventurous way to do it.
With spring break coming up, I set my sights on a minimally ambitious overnight trip to Leesburg, Virginia, via the W&OD Trail.
The W&OD Trail is a fully paved rail trail that spans 45 miles, from Shirlington outside DC to Purcellville in the heart of Virginia’s wine country. I’d hop on the trail about four miles from my house at mile marker 12 in Vienna. From there, I’d take the trail outside suburbia, all the way to mile 34.5 in downtown Leesburg. I picked Leesburg because they have a lively business district but still maintain a small-town feel.
An extra consideration I had to make while planning is that I’m still nursing. Because of this, hydration was important, and I’d also need a way to pump. To help with hydration, I brought a Camelbak backpack in addition to a water bottle that I’d fill whenever I could. I brought some Nuun hydration packets; they don’t taste as good as the tablets, but I suspect they’re more effective. Knowing I’d need more calories than usual, I threw some Perfect Bars in my pack. As far as pumping was concerned, my electric pump was light but extremely expensive, so I didn’t want to risk losing it. I opted for a hand pump instead. It was even lighter and easy to disassemble. Since it doesn’t use electricity, I was confident I could do it anywhere, even along the trail if I had to.
The weather was ideal if a tiny bit cold. The ride to Vienna was an easy one I’d done many times. On the W&OD Trail, I was reminded that the section from Vienna to Reston has a couple of intense climbs. It was nothing I couldn’t handle, but I had to remember to gain as much momentum as possible during the downhill moments since they were often followed by uphill moments.
I first got off my bike at Hunter Mill Road to use a porta-potty and eat a mini Perfect Bar. It felt good to take off my 8.6-pound backpack for a moment of reprieve. While I’m used to wearing my 19-pound son for hours at a time, my baby carrier has lumbar support, which my backpack does not, and obviously, I don’t wear him while riding.
There were endless food options at Reston Town Center and in downtown Herndon, but I was getting in the groove, so I decided I’d hold off for a barbecue place in Ashburn right off the trail called Carolina Brothers. Before having kids, my husband and I would ride out there, eat an absolute feast, take a nap on the grass, and then ride back. Those were the days!
However, I started gaining an appetite before reaching Carolina Brothers. In Sterling, the trail gets more rural and service stops get fewer and farther between. As my strength waned, I saw an elaborate gold dome on top of a church. As if it were some kind of divine intervention from the food gods, I remembered an unsolicited recommendation I’d received from a student the week earlier. He told me that in an unassuming strip mall in Sterling, right next to a gold-domed church, there was the best diner he’d ever been to. I opened Yelp trying to remember the name of the place. There it was, right across the street: Joe’s Cafe.
I locked my bike to the bench out front and followed the savory smells right up to the breakfast counter. A sign on the wall read: “No Wifi. Talk to Each Other.” A kind but serious waitress handed me a menu and a glass of ice water.
I ordered Chito’s Spanish Scramble, which came with eggs, cheese, salsa verde, a fresh tortilla, and plantains. It was the exact fuel my body needed to keep going. It was also quite possibly the best breakfast I’d ever had.
Back on the trail, I passed Carolina Brothers soon after as well as a few unique and memorable spots — a rock quarry with some foreboding signs about coming too close to it, and a long bridge with chain link fences on either side over Goose Creek. I knew Leesburg wasn’t far, but I was starting to get the impression it wasn’t that close either. My back was starting to hurt, my legs felt tight, and despite the delicious Spanish Scramble, I was starting to run on empty. I remembered feeling underwhelmed by my plan initially, thinking that riding to Harper’s Ferry would be more epic and impressive. Now I wasn’t even sure I’d make it to Leesburg!
I had to remind myself that my body was working overtime, trying to use calories to create breast milk alongside the calories it was using for my bike escapades. With this in mind, I gave myself a little grace and looked for a bench to sit down, rest my back, and regroup.
I texted my husband: OK I’m sitting on a bench 21 miles in and I’m kind of hitting a wall. I think 12 miles was my max post-baby so far? Geez.
Why did I ever think this wasn’t hardcore enough? This is proper hardcore.
I did what I didn’t want to do: I looked up the mileage left to go. Just 5.8 miles. I could do this, right? He texted me back, pepping me up and assuring me our kids and dog were happy and being taken care of. With all of this in mind, I hopped back on my bike for the final stretch.
The last few miles were rural and pretty, mostly covered in a canopy of trees. I entered downtown Leesburg in a triumphant daze. I found the Leesburg Colonial Inn and wondered why I’d never noticed it before. It was cute and charming, a relic of another time. The woman working in the diner helped check me in. I had emailed her about bike storage, and she led me to the wine cellar, which she keeps locked at all times. There were about five steps from the street down to the cellar. I could barely handle them. I was grateful I didn’t fall — that would’ve been mortifying.
My room had mostly bare-bones accommodations. It was historic, after all, and rooms came pretty small back then. Either way, I was grateful to have a nice place to crash. I was even more grateful for the bathtub. The first thing I did was take a nice bath to soothe my aching muscles.
Then I got dressed and hit the town. My first stop was Kings Court Tavern and Wine Bar downstairs, where I was entitled to a free drink as an inn guest. I enjoyed a Guinness and a fun conversation with the bartender and the only other patron, a teacher like myself.
Then I went out in search of a small souvenir, small enough not to kick my 8.6-pound backpack into the nine-pound range. Elyse, the owner of a boutique called Muz and Rose, helped me pick out some funky gold hoop earrings. She also let me know I needed to check out Tuskie’s for dinner, known by most of us non-Leesburg-locals as Tuscarora Mill.
Tuskie’s was unexpectedly closed for the night, and since it was a Monday, options in Leesburg were limited. My favorite spot, Doner Bistro, is now only operating on weekends. That said, a fun restaurant called Sidebar was right across the street from my inn, and their menu looked incredible. Considering what would make the best bike fuel, I did what any other responsible cyclist would do: I ordered the shrimp and lobster pasta. This was not a mistake. The stars had aligned for me to have this delectable meal.
Back at the inn, I got cozy for the night. I pumped with my hand pump for comfort (I had no intentions of transporting bags of milk on a bike ride, but I suppose it’s an option.)
I probably should have had more water than I did, since I pumped only five ounces, a little less than usual. Finally, I checked the weather. To my dismay, the forecast, which was clear a few days before, had changed. The rain would roll in at 8:00 AM.
Considering my options, 27 miles seemed like a far distance to ride in the rain, especially as someone who had only really ridden in clear conditions. Staying an extra day wasn’t possible. My daycare would close early at 2:00 PM for spring break, and I needed to be there to pick the kids up while my husband continued working. In the worst-case scenario, I figured I could take an Uber XL, but from what I was reading online, it seemed like a gamble, and even if they did have room for my bike, rides that far were starting at $80. Reluctantly, I set my alarm for 6:30 AM. I needed a head start to beat the rain.
It took everything in me not to sleep in, but when my alarm went off, I forced myself to wake up, pump one more time, and make my way down to the diner to grab my bike from the wine cellar.
After scarfing down a muffin and a shot of espresso at King Street Coffee, I hopped on the W&OD Trail. The skies and the trail were eerily clear: the calm before the storm. I only stopped to use the porta-potty at Smith’s Switch Station. I felt the first few drops somewhere in Sterling. I kept my eyes on the trail ahead of me.
As a novice to riding in the rain, I decided to see how far I could make it through the light droplets, hoping I’d be closer to a town along the way to reassess. Luckily, it wasn’t until I was close to Herndon that it really started raining.
Downtown Herndon has many fabulous businesses, but I immediately knew the right place to go was Green Lizard Cycling, a bike/coffee shop. That way I could dry off, warm up, and maybe even ask other cyclists for some advice about this slippery pickle I'd gotten myself into.
I warmed up with a cup of coffee and tried to regain some calories with a power smoothie. I met a group of men in cycling gear who introduced themselves as the morning regulars. They all met on the W&OD commuting.
When COVID hit, their commutes stopped, but they all decided they had a better workday after riding on the trail. So even though their commutes were no longer necessary, they continued to meet for a morning bike ride to get coffee at Green Lizard.
Their advice on riding in the rain was solid: be careful on turns and avoid painted parts of the trail. I’d never heard this. I knew firsthand how slippery wet leaves could be, and it made sense that painted lines could work the same way.
After they left, an older gentleman — another regular — struck up a conversation with me. He told me they called him 1.6 since it was the distance from his house to the shop. He seemed a little more nervous about my plan to bike home and assured me that the store owners could look after my bike if I wanted to take a cab home.
I’m a little stubborn, but I’m not unreasonable. That’s when I came up with what seemed like the best course of action: bike slowly in the rain to Reston, a quick three-mile jaunt. Hop on the metro with my bike. Take a roundabout metro ride home, and bike the 1.5 miles the rest of the way.
I was so thankful I gave in to this plan. It hurt my pride a little but not as much as a crash would have. During those three miles, cold and seeking a safe route home, I thought about how much I missed my family. I smiled to myself: mission accomplished!
I’d never been happier to see the Metro. While it was as dirty as I remember it from my pre-pandemic rides, it was also dry and warm. The ride was relaxing, and I ended up making it back to my house before noon.
The next part is probably the most important takeaway: after an overnight bike adventure, even a short one like mine, I should have given myself time to rest and recover. Instead, I picked the kids up a few hours after returning and carted them to my mother-in-law’s workplace for a visit, still riding the high of my endorphins. It wasn’t until the next day that it hit me.
While watching the kids (or should I say, letting the nice Cocomelon family watch my kids for me), I felt tired, achy, and dehydrated. I had awful diarrhea and fatigue. In retrospect, it might have been a nasty stomach bug that was going around, but I was telling my husband it was a “biking hangover.” I’d felt this way after exercising before, but only during the peak of summer. It was a strange sensation to feel the symptoms of heatstroke on a string of cold, rainy days.
Part of me wondered how much breastfeeding had to do with it. I was already asking more of my body by making nutrients to support another life, so when also requesting it to ride much farther than normal, things kind of went haywire. My body seems to be more hesitant to “do it all” these days, and it sometimes sends me signals to slow down. I wish I’d listened this time. Planning a bike trip on Thursday and Friday and then taking it easy over a weekend might have been a better plan. All of that said, I wouldn’t trade the memories of my bike trip for the world. I’m glad I went for it, even if it was a slightly humbling experience. I saw so many beautiful things and met so many interesting people. I breathed in the fresh air and tested myself in an exhilarating way.
Here’s my advice to parents looking to go on a bike adventure. Do it! Go, have fun, and take time for yourself. But by that same token, take all the time you need. Don’t rush your getaway, because then you might have to make some tough decisions, like waking up extra early, riding in the rain, and sacrificing recovery time.
Your kids are always watching and listening. If you never take time for yourself and bring an aura of stress wherever you go, that’s what they’ll think is normal. Ditch the parental guilt. By taking a couple of days for yourself, you’re modeling a healthy attitude towards self-care for them.
The night I got back, I put my son to sleep in his crib and pulled the covers up around my daughter in her twin bed. She was fiddling with my Apple Watch, which has somehow become one of our nighttime routines. She cycled through the different exercise icons, landing on the little image of a person riding a bike. She asked me if I’d missed her on my bike trip.
I kissed her on the forehead and smiled, “I did.”