When Stephen Marks and his wife, Janna, acquired Bike the Sites in December 2002, they didn't realize how their two-wheeled tours of Washington, D.C., would translate to a Jewish audience.
"We put together some talking points to generate discussion and thought from a Jewish perspective at the different sites," says Stephen, who took over the company from its founder, Gary Oelsner, who began offering professionally guided bicycle tours and rentals in 1995.
The Markses, recreational bikers until purchasing the company, also started providing customized programs for Jewish organizations such as B'nai B'rith, Jewish camps, federations and synagogue groups.
Bike the Sites, a smart solution to the challenges of sightseeing in heavily trafficked D.C., allows visitors to enjoy Washington's history and architecture in an environmentally friendly way. It is among a handful of unique ways to explore the capital and enjoy local Jewish culture, kosher restaurants and community resources.
On a trip to Washington in 2003, a friend and I opted for the Marks' Sites@Nite tour -- a warm-weather option. March 1 through Dec. 30, the Bike the Sites menu features its flagship outing, the Capital Sites Tour, an easy three-hour ride around the National Mall and the Potomac's Tidal Basin. Guides share the scoop on more than 50 of the nation's most popular attractions, including the presidential monuments, as well as a few lesser-known sites that may have more meaning to Jewish visitors, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Einstein Memorial.
After adjusting our seat height on our 21-speed comfort mountain bike (a more upright ride and a larger seat) and helmets, we began our tour with a brief orientation on safety tips and hand signals from a CPR-trained guide. We took off from the Bike the Sites headquarters at the Old Post Office Pavilion (near the offices of the Internal Revenue Service) and rode on the sidewalk up busy 12th Street to the Mall.
In a picture-postcard setting, we rode past locals playing ball on the green open spaces in the shadow of landmarks. We cruised toward the Smithsonian Castle on a level, gravel path toward a number of top-billing destinations: the National Gallery and Sculpture Garden, National Archives, Air and Space Museum and the future American Indian Museum, which is slated to debut in September 2004.
From time to time, our energetic guide Mark, who earned a bachelor's degree in American history at George Washington University in D.C., would roll to a stop and tell us more about our capital.
As we looked on at the Capitol building and munched on kosher Clif Bars (provided gratis for hungry guests), we learned how President Abraham Lincoln ordered tons of iron to be used for the construction of the Capitol dome -- a message of strength and determination to the rest of the world that the North would win the Civil War.
Pedaling onward, we noted the increased security around the majestic Washington Monument and the White House. At the Vietnam Memorial, Mark told us an Israeli visitor pointed out that the soldiers on a statue that looks on at the poignant wall of victims' names are equipped with authentic models of the M-16 rifle.
At the Einstein Memorial, we took a water break and marveled at the beautiful execution of this memorial to the 20th century's most legendary scientist. A larger-than-life statue combines Einstein's thoughtful gaze with the body of a child to evoke his childlike wonder of the world and his unique ability to see it anew.
At the foot of the statue, a fascinating star map depicts the skies on the night of what would have been his 100th birthday. As you stand in the apex of converging rays and say a few words to Einstein, you hear yourself speaking to him in the most perfect echo. It's a whole new theory on relativity.
Bike the Sites is at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, behind the Old Post Office Pavilion in the historic Penn Quarter. Prices for the Capitol Sites Tour are $40 for adults and $30 for children under 13. The fee includes the use of bikes and helmets, professional tour guides, bottled water and snacks.
Summertime Beat the Heat trips and customized tours for Jewish groups are also available. All groups of riders receive a 15 percent discount for a post-bike ride meal at Stacks, a nearby kosher delicatessen. Bike, tandem, trailer tandem, burley (a buggy that attaches to bikes for young children) and stroller rentals are also available. For group reservations, call (202) 842-BIKE; e-mail, Stephen@bikethesites.com; or visit, www.bikethesites.com .
Stacks, at 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. (at 11th Street NW), is under Star-K hashgacha. For information, call (202) 628-9700.