‘We’ve Been Riding Together for 20 Years’

There’s no arguing with the 5-minute rule. Meet at the Bethesda entrance of the Capital Crescent Trail at 7:30 am, every Monday through Friday. If you’re not there by 7:35, they’re leaving without you. 

After two decades riding together, this particular group of middle-aged male cyclists—the self-proclaimed Phat Bastards—have a routine in place. Most mornings, six to eight of them commute together from their Bethesda homes, traveling along the Capital Crescent Trail to Georgetown.

They stop at Dog Tag Bakery for coffee, sitting at a long table unofficially reserved for them. Half an hour later, they’re back on their bikes—some heading to work downtown, others to Rosslyn, and a few lucky, retired riders, back home.

‘In the beginning almost everybody went off to work, but with the passage of time, more and more are a round trip,’ says Bill Nussbaum, a College Park native who still works in the West End. ‘Many of us are neighbors and we started riding together on and off, and others have joined along the way. It’s all different levels. The most casual rider to the gazelle.’ 

The group keeps the same general pace during the six-mile ride to Georgetown, the first one to Dog Tag paying for the coffees. ‘It’s an honor system,’ says Bill, who believes it all evens out in the end.

‘Dog Tag gives points for frequent buyers. Our objective is to collect the points and not use them. They’ve promised when we get to 1,000, we’ll get our picture on the wall. We’re already at 800.’

The guys once rotated between different Georgetown coffee shops and bakeries, but a lack of seating—and Dog Tag’s mission to support the military—steered them toward Grace Street, where they’ve been ever since.

There are few permissible excuses for missing a seat at the table, and weather isn’t one of them. 

‘If it’s dry, we’ll ride even if it’s bitterly cold,’ Bill says. ‘We ride in single-digit weather. Now, there are certain wimps in the group. The routine starts with texts the night before of who’s riding the next morning. If you’re not riding, you get more texts.’ 

Winter, spring, summer, and fall, they’re on their bikes.

‘When you’re in a car, you’re not paying as much attention to what’s happening around you,’ says Ron Johnson, a lawyer on Capitol Hill. ‘On a bike, we get to watch all the changes of the seasons, day by day. You also see the density on the trail change. We ride on mornings when it’s 20 below and there aren’t many people, and then you get a nice day and the cyclists are like daffodils, just popping out all over the place.’

Weather stories begin popping out at the table, too, each of the friends chiming in with their own trail tales. 

‘Snow’s OK but ice is terrible,’ Bill says. 

‘I can remember riding on the trail when it was raining so hard, you couldn’t see 20 feet in front of you,’ adds another.

‘I remember riding home in freezing rain, and by the time I got home I had a layer of ice on me,’ tops Luis Zavaleta.

‘I’ve had the water in my water bottle freeze while I was riding to work.’ Tim Clifford.

‘Thunder storms are exciting.’ Bill again.

The camaraderie is as well-worn as the tires on their bikes, a series of friendships developed over thousands of miles. The Phat Bastards have biked from Pittsburgh to Georgetown, across the state of Iowa, and have even logged a few century rides—100 miles at a clip. 

‘We consider the Seagull Century in Salisbury our main event of the year,’ Luis says.

Just as important as the big rides are the small rituals, like Wednesday beers at Nick’s when the weather is nice.

‘Not in the morning,’ Bill clarifies, the group laughing. ‘After work. Then we ride home together.’

The Phat Bastards are tight, but they’re not exclusive. Erik Peterson—a ‘wannabe’—is sitting with them, his second day riding.  

‘I’m sore in a way I shouldn’t discuss,’ he says.

‘Our problem isn’t getting people, it’s keeping them,’ Bill explains, noting they’ve had a few women in the group—if only for a short stint.

Although most of them agree women aren’t well represented in the cycling community, Luis says that’s changing.

‘19 years ago, there were no women biking to work. Now you see a lot. The whole bicycle community has increased.’

‘The number of Millennials who are biking to work—especially with Capital Bikeshare—is incredible,’ Ron adds. ‘I love it.’

The Phat Bastards—a name whose origin has since slipped from the collective memory—ride for many reasons. For Luis, the first time he rode the Capital Crescent Trail, he knew he’d never drive to work again. The city’s bike-friendly initiatives have made their commutes all the more enjoyable, safe and manageable. The addition of Georgetown Waterfront Park was no small bonus.

At the end of the table, another rider named Brian Campbell speaks up for the first time.

‘It’s obviously not just about the biking,’ he says, taking another sip of his coffee. ‘It’s the company.’