2005 Washington DC Tour
Renting and Riding a Motorcycle in Washington, DC
If you're like me, the only thing that a near-perfect vacation lacks is a motorcycle. Unfortunately, not even the latest Japanese miniaturization techniques are adequate to allow you to pack your favorite bike into your carry-on luggage. Nevertheless, you still might want to see what it's like to experience a new city or visit old haunts on a powered two wheeler.
We here at MO love to ride anything, anywhere, so when I was offered an opportunity to take advantage of a rental Harley-Davidson from Eagle Rider in Chantilly, Virginia on a five-day trip to Washington, DC, I quickly incorporated a motorcycle into my travel plans. All in the interest of science, I was to take a three-day rental of a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy ™ and tell you, the MO reader, what it's like to rent a motorcycle in a strange city and use it to get around, see the sights, and have a good time with in general.
Eagle Rider is a nationwide chain of independently owned motorcycle and scooter rental shops. Most of them rent Harleys, but some rent other brands, such as BMW, Honda or Victory. Many of the locations offer ATVs, dirtbikes, motorcycle trailers, and even personal watercraft.
"I was in high-tech and looking around for something to do after the dot-com bust," said Matt
"I realized the rental market in the DC area was underserved, and it would be a nice way of making a living."
Rental rates start at just $60 per day (more on weekends) with unlimited mileage for an 883 Sportster to $109 for an Electra Glide, Road King, Heritage Softail Classic, Fat Boy, or Dyna Wide Glide. For $100, you can rent a Victory Kingpin. The Heritage Softail is the most popular choice as customers seem to like the versatility of the detachable windscreen and luggage, but the full-touring Dynas are most selected for cross-country customers.
One-way rentals are also available, and Eagle Rider DC offers ½ price rates for the adventurous renter who wants to take one of Matt's bikes from a distant city back to Virginia. Up to 14 days are allowed to complete the trip, which would make an ideal summer vacation for an adventurous rider who wants to experience going cross country on a Harley tourer or cruiser.
In addition to a wide array of cruisers to choose from, Eagle Rider offers sunglasses and other accessories as well as maps of the areas and a friendly staff that keeps the motorcycles clean and well maintained. I was led to a black 2004 Fat Boy ™ with less than 2000 miles on the clock and not a scratch on it- not even on the bottom of the floorboards! I was offered one of Harley-Davidson's excellent convertible windshields, an indispensable cruiser accessory that mounts in seconds and works very well. After we made sure I was going out on an undamaged, unscratched and perfectly functioning motorcycle, I was given a brief orientation on how to work the ignition, fork and brake disc locks and sent on my way.
But where to ride to? I had no idea where to go, but fortunately, I had met a motorcycle enthusiast at a party the day before and he offered to show me around.
Dick Vosseller is an artist and art teacher who lives in beautiful Wolf Trap, just minutes from the George Washington parkway and in the heart of beautiful green woods and farmlands. We went on an afternoon tour of the area, riding around Fairfax county and then along the lovely George Washington parkway. The roads in this area are wonderful: nicely paved and shady, with plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting.
Unfortunately, sprawl has hit this part of the country as hard as anywhere, so we spent most of our ride bumping along behind mellow-driving Virginia suburbanites, which was fine for me as I could slow down, enjoy the scenery, and not have to pay $85 each to replace over-scuffed floorboards.
The next day I took advantage of having a vehicle slightly smaller than my rented compact car to get around the equally compact environs of Washington, DC. DC is a small city that lends itself well to two-wheeled transport. Although there is not as much motorcycle parking as in San Francisco, there was more than I expected, and so there are a large number of motorcycles and scooter plying the streets. Even though lane-splitting is quite illegal in the entire Metro DC area, a determined rider can get away with sneaking around stopped traffic in the unmarked "half-a-lane" on many of DC's streets.
The warm, fresh air was waking up the city's motorcyclists, as I saw plenty of motorcycles and scooters around town. There were plenty of 50cc automatic scooters around, especially Kymcos and Vespas, which makes perfect sense in a city DC's size. The areas around the Georgetown and George Washington universities especially seemed to be breeding grounds for the buzzing, mosquito-like vehicles. Hey, Washington's built on a swamp, right?
Motorcycle parking is inadequate around the museums and National Mall, but there are lots of spots between cars an intrepid motorcyclist can share. In addition, much of the permitted parking around the Capitol building isn't checked after 3:00 PM, so you can find a spot there. Parking in other parts of the city is difficult, with permit-only parking, two-hour parking limits and the last 10 feet before each corner a no-parking zone for no discernible reason.
Maybe it was the nice spring weather, but motorists in DC are a surprisingly relaxed bunch, especially to a rider used to battling for his life in angry Left Coast traffic jams. Rarely do vehicles exceed 35 MPH in DC, and people seemed to be especially aware of motorcyclists, although I rarely ride anything with as much presence as the rumbling, hulking Fat Boy.
The weather in May is very nice, warm but not muggy. My wife Katherine and I found that t-shirts and light pants were comfortable for most days. October and November also offer nice motorcycling weather. Washington, DC and Virginia both have helmet laws, but we both indulged in wearing the half-helmet that was the only offering at Eagle Rider. I asked if any customers ever asked for a full-face helmet: they told me no one ever had.
Katherine had never spent any time on a Harley, and she took to the experience well. Although the Fat Boy's passenger seat is worse than we expected, she enjoyed the nice looks and envious glances from people on the street. She also liked the earthy rumble from the stock exhausts, and I concur. What's more American than the sound of a Harley V-Twin in Washington DC?
The Fat Boy is a good motorcycle for casually exploring backroads and wide-open spaces, but I should have taken the lead of the Metro DC Police Department and selected an 883 or 1200 Sportster for inner-city use. The Fat Boy looks and sounds great, but it is heavy and sometimes a hassle to park because of its large size and weight. However, if you were planning on a combination of city rubbernecking and backroad exploring, I would go with the Fat Boy, as nothing is more American than having more than you need, right?
Returning the motorcycle to Eagle Rider DC was easy to do, as it is so close to the airport, and Matt and Rich were very attentive and professional. I really get the feeling that they are both motorcycle enthusiasts first and foremost, recommending ride destinations before I left and asking how the ride was when I was through.
Being able to rent a motorcycle in a new city is a great experience. It allows you to make new friends easily, get around a crowded tourist destination with ease, and get out and connect with the countryside in a way you never could in an econobox rental car. Eagle Riders and Eagle Riders franchisees like Matt deserve support from motorcyclists, as they are accepting the risks of renting motorcycles to a litigious public so that a motorcyclist's vacation doesn't mean a vacation from two wheels.
There's an Eagle Rider in almost every tourist destination in the USA (as well as in Cancun, Mexico and Cannes, France), so consider them to spice up your next vacation.