January 28, 2014

Mary Gersemalina, DC Cyclist

Winter 2012 launched a series of interviews that I will continue this season. The first is with Mary Gersemelina, an avid Washington DC cyclist, whom I met through coffeeneuring. 

"I believe strongly in the idea that we are our stories. The details remembered, the tone that comes through, the metaphors used when writing… all of that is part of who a person is. We may all be on the same bike ride, but experience it completely differently." 

MG, Mary Gersemelina, said that to me in the interview that follows. It rang such a resonant bell, and made me realize something: that sentence exactly sums up what I so enjoy about her blog, chasing mailboxes d.c. To me, her exuberant spirit, energy and sense of fun shine through in her blog, along with her love of her home city and its cycling community, Washington DC. I am fortunate that she agreed to this interview, which will appear in two parts. The first part is here, the second will be next week.

MG in front of the Capitol. (Photo by Felkerino)

We've never actually met, but from reading your blog, and having participated in coffeeneuring for the last two years, I feel like I sort of know you. I suppose knowing DC a little, and being such a fan of the city influences that. But then, I don't actually know you well enough even to know whether you prefer being called MG, or Mary ...
I like both, and answer to both as well. Let's go with MG.

So, MG, you seem such a multifaceted cyclist that I've been having a hard time getting a sense of direction for these questions. Originally I intended to ask you primarily about randonneuring, but the more I read your blog, the more that seemed too limited.  Perhaps we could just start, and see where we go. 

Your writing seems to me to show that participating in and strengthening the cycling community  in DC is central to your cycling experience. I think that when I  read about coffeeneuring, errandeuring, randonneuring  local events, even commuting .... Is that accurate to say, and what role does community play in your riding?
My husband and I started Friday Coffee Club (#fridaycoffeeclub), a meetup of DC cyclists every Friday morning at a local shop through Twitter. Five people showed up that first Friday and now 20-plus people will show up. Friday Coffee Club has been a great way to bring local commuting cyclists together. It's on the way to work, doesn't last long, and has provided a venue to really get to know people and feel connected.

Also, I am amazed by the way that Twitter has changed the way the cycling community in DC interacts. We use the #BikeDC hashtag and share so much with each other: traffic problems; questions about gear; cycling-centric policy questions; and whether we saw so-and-so on our commute.

Twitter and Friday Coffee Club have really helped me connect to the bicycling community here. I show up at a WABA event and I know I will see familiar faces. If I'm out riding or running, I regularly encounter people I know. I love those connections. It has made the city a more comfortable place in which to live and be a cyclist.

Friday Coffee Club (Photo by Dagny)

How have you seen that community change since 2004 when you started riding there?
I have definitely noticed it change since then. Over the years, I have seen the numbers of riders grow. More people are moving into the city and realizing that they don't need a car to get around. You really can be car-free in the city and access most services you will need by bicycle. Cars are expensive. They are a pain to park. They require trips to the gas station to keep them running. Cycling is much simpler and cheaper than car ownership and I think people are responding to that.

In the past few years, we've also seen a steady movement to place bike lanes in more places in the city, which sends a message that bikes belong in the city.

Capital Bikeshare has helped people who might not own bikes give them a try without incurring the cost of ownership. Bikeshare has been a great gateway to cycling. In addition, when people visit DC they can cover more ground through riding a bike than by walking. Having these stations readily available throughout the city invites people who might not otherwise ride to give it a go. I remember the first time I saw a family of tourists riding along Ohio Drive by the Jefferson Memorial and realized that various changes have occurred in DC to help normalize cycling here.

Our local advocacy organization, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) does a great job at hosting local cycling events that bring people together and working with local policy makers to encourage a more cycling-friendly city.

There seems to be quite a few fairly large organized rides by WABA. In 2012 I was lucky to be able to combine a visit to my family with participation in the VASA ride. It was such fun, I hope to be able to ride it, or another one of their events, again. Do you have a favorite?
I can't believe I'm calling this a favorite since I have an intense love-hate relationship with it, but an event I see as something you must do once is the WABA 50 States Ride, which I like to call “The Ultimate Concept Ride.” It's a 65-mile or so ride that goes over every state street in the District. It also takes riders through every quadrant in the District so in that regard, it's an excellent urban tour. If you live in D.C. and ride a bike, I think the 50 States Ride is a rite of passage.

You seem to bring a light touch, a sense maybe of grace and humor to much of your writing about riding...so of course, I imagine your bringing it to your riding also. I think I see that in coffeeneuring and errandeuring, also. What were your goals in creating the two events, were they similar?
Thank you so much for that characterization of my writing, Suze! I really appreciate it.

I believe strongly in the idea that we are our stories. The details remembered, the tone that comes through, the metaphors used when writing… all of that is part of who a person is. We may all be on the same bike ride, but experience it completely differently.

Chasing Mailboxes is a blog about stories. It started out being the stories of my commutes and, over time, grew to include my randonneuring and bike touring stories.

Weekend Solo Ride on the C&O Canal

When you first began riding in DC, was commuting your main focus?
No. I first began riding on weekends as another way to get exercise in addition to running. As I gained confidence with riding in the city and learned my way around, I realized that I could get places faster by bike than by walking or Metro. That's how I got hooked on using my bike for commuting.

Talk to me about coffeeneuring. These past two years I thought it was so much fun. I have to admit the only reason I didn't finish this year was because my last ride felt so out of the spirit of it all, so not fun. It would have been easy, but felt like a chore, so I didn't complete it. How did you think up this challenge?
Coffeeneuring began because I thought it would be a creative challenge to meld concepts found in randonneuring (long-distance cycling with a rules-based structure that requires proof that you went to a particular place) with the simple act of going to get coffee on your bike. My husband and I brainstormed and came up with the name Coffeeneuring. I had no idea if this challenge would appeal to anybody, but to my surprise it has really taken off.

Is a sense of lightness, or good humor, or grace central to it? I'm not sure of the word I'm searching for, but it has to do with an attitude or state of mind.
I think it helps if one does not take the rules too literally or seriously, but rather focuses on the larger point of you getting out for a bike ride in your area that involves some kind of tasty beverage. You don't have to use a special bike to coffeeneur and you don't need a special outfit. It is not pretentious or, at least, it's not supposed to be. You can have your coffee at a gas station, outside at a picnic table, or at a place that prides itself on making you the best cup of coffee you've ever had. 

Coffeeneuring is supposed to be a game not, as you noted, a chore. If coffeeneuring stresses you out, you must stop immediately (I should add that as a rule for next year's challenge, ha ha!).


And is the Errandonnee similar?
Yes, although the Errandonnee has its roots in the winter blahs and my own feeling that people deserve a little recognition for using their bikes to get stuff done, especially during the colder weather. This challenge actually started as the Utilitaire, but I made the Utilitaire way too complicated and stilted because I set unrealistic parameters like saying you could only do two errands a week. People don’t do their errands like that. They tend to do them in groups.

My friend Eric suggested the idea of changing the Utilitaire to the Errandonnee, and to broaden the challenge in some way. My husband suggested that the Errandonnee be done over a narrower period of time than coffeeneuring and, rather than a minimum mileage requirement per each errand, to have an overall mileage requirement (20 miles total) for the challenge. That’s more in line with how people go about doing their errands. It worked, and I think those changes contributed to 64 people completing this winter challenge last year.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the success of both of these challenges. People take great photos, send out creative tweets, and write blog posts of their time Coffeeneuring or doing the Errandonnee. People have connected to each other through both of these experiences. It’s really cool to see all that happen and to think you might have played a role.

That is so fun, it makes me miss urban, or town, riding. There are great advantages to living and riding in a rural setting, but commuting, errandeuring, just living on a bicycle, doesn't fit in so well. It's a shame. The growth in coffeeneuring strikes me as phenomenal ... do you plan to continue with it?
I hope to, but if it keeps growing I’m going to have to think about how I will continue to fund it as well as how to make it manageable time-wise. I received some great help from cyclists in Massachusetts and North Carolina who have aided me in mapping participation in the Coffeeneuring Challenge, but all other aspects of the challenge are managed by me. I really like that both Coffeeneuring and the Errandonnee are not sponsored by anyone but me. It’s non-commercial, clean, simple fun.

I imagine it takes quite a lot of time, and involves some expense. I loved my award prizes in 2012.  Does it interfere with your own riding, or running ... or perhaps you just don't need to sleep?!
I really enjoy following the challenges as they unfold, seeing who is doing it, getting a snapshot of what people are doing, and then summarizing it on the blog when I can. I have a weird fondness for aggregation. I also love reading the final submissions from participants.

The most time-consuming and tedious aspect is mailing out the prizes. I need to figure out a way to become more efficient at this and also keep it manageable over time, if I do continue doing it and provided people keep participating.

A marathon passes in front of the capitol.

Besides cycling, you are an active runner, including running marathons.
Yes, I do like my running. I started running when I moved to D.C. in 2001 and took up cycling a when I injured my plantar fascia and was unable to run. Then I connected with the D.C. Randonneurs, met my husband who is an avid cyclist, and I was almost exclusively bicycling.

After a couple of years of not running, I realized that I missed it. For me, running is a meditative, minimal-gear activity. I hardly ever feel meditative when I’m riding. I don’t know if that is because cycling requires a different sort of attention or if it is just the nature of my experience with it.

Now, both activities are part of my daily life. I try to do one marathon in the Spring and one in the Fall, and from April through September I primarily focus on bicycling.

Running on the National Mall
Continued, Part Two


  1. Hi Suze. I'm glad you're interviewing MG. She's done so much, especially with her challenges, to get people thinking of cycling in a whole new light. I'm happy you've recognized MG in this way.

    1. Hi Annie,

      Thanks... and yes, she has just an amazing ability to bring energy into a growing cycling world!

  2. What an enterprising and well organised woman. Thank you for the interesting interview, Suze.

    1. Hi Tootlepedal,

      Thanks! Indeed she is both of those ... I could do with half the focus and imagination!

  3. I've had the priviledge of meeting MG and she is the same postive personality in person that comes across in her blog. Any conversation about cycling in DC is incomplete without talking about MG, so I'm very glad to see her in your excellent interview!

    1. Thanks Steve. I'd love to get to meet her someday ... and you also! Maybe I'll be there for another WABA ride one of these years.


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