Pedestrians get a limited view of a small geographic area, and car drivers are moving too fast and concentrating on traffic to pay much attention to fine details (say, a city's architecture). On a bike you can cover more ground and you're better positioned to absorb the sights.
Tour companies have picked up on this, including Bike and Roll, which offers bike tours and rentals in New York, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and Washington. During a recent visit to the US capital, I took a spin through Washington's monuments and memorials on a bike tour.
This three-hour Monuments@Nite tour showcases the National Mall in sun (at the start) and dark (by the time it's over). The first stop was outside the White House followed by a swing by the Washington Monument, and stops at the World War II, Vietnam Veterans and Korean War memorials; and at the Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and the new Martin Luther King Jr memorials. There was time for exploring at all stops except the Washington Monument (closed because of earthquake damage), the White House and the FDR Memorial.
The tour travels about six and a half kilometres and covers pretty flat terrain, making it an easy ride for most bicyclists. Tour groups average one guide and eight to 10 tourists with a maximum of 15.
Sam Edelstein, a new guide, led my tour while more-veteran guide Kris Ankarlo tagged along to supervise. Both were holding full-time jobs elsewhere - Ankarlo as a radio news anchor and Edelstein as a communications associate at Cultural Tourism DC - but both men said they like the chance to get outside through their Bike and Roll jobs. Both were biking aficionados before their jobs as bike-tour guides.
"DC is full of bike paths and bike lanes, and I try to ride as often as possible,'' Edelstein said. "If you go on [the Metro subway system], you don't get a sense of the city. Walking and biking are how I learned the city.''
Ankarlo said he enjoys tours most when he sees a glimmer of recognition in tour members' faces as he debunks urban legends - for example, the sculptor of the Abraham Lincoln statue did not place a surreptitious profile of Robert E Lee on the back of the Lincoln statue's head - and Ankarlo particularly likes to explain the composition of the city.
"The biggest monument is the city itself,'' he said, referring to the symmetry of the city's original street layout by designer Pierre Charles L'Enfant. "That's one of the lesser-known things.''
At the Washington Monument, Edelstein pointed out how the obelisk is actually several hundred feet away from where it was intended to be situated. At the time construction began in 1848, the land around the Washington Monument was marshy, so the monument was moved up a hill to keep it stable.
As we visited the newest memorial on the Mall, dedicated to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, the more than nine-metre-tall granite bas-relief of the civil rights leader was overrun by exuberant teenagers from school groups who posed for photos at its base. The Bike and Roll guides said the MLK memorial has driven more traffic to the nearby FDR memorial, which previously sat marooned alone along the Tidal Basin. Now tourists venture from MLK to FDR to Jefferson.
"It's like that line from The Big Lebowski: `That rug really tied the room together','' Ankarlo said.
Michele Hickle of Lubbock, Texas, took the Bike and Roll tour with her 13-year-old son, Austin. It was his third trip to Washington.
"I like that it's fitness-oriented,'' she said. "You're getting a little exercise, and you're learning as you go, which is a fun way to soak things in.''
Beth Altman of Madison, Wisconsin, was also a return visitor to Washington when she took the Bike and Roll Monuments@Nite tour in June.
"It seemed better than a bus,'' she said. "I liked learning about all the symbolism - four rooms for four terms at FDR, the number of columns at the Lincoln Memorial are for the number of states (at the time of Lincoln's death). You look at these things and think they're really cool, but then you see the symbolism of it and it's even more interesting.''
IF YOU GO:
Bike and Roll tours
Location: Washington-area Bike and Roll tours and rentals kick off from three locations - Alexandria, Virginia, and Union Station and the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington - but most of the tours, including the Monuments@Nite tour, begin at the rear plaza of the Old Post Office Pavilion, 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW.
Cost: Prices vary depending on the specific tour, but many are in the same range as the Monuments@Nite Bike Tour, which costs US$35 (NZ$42.18) per child and US$45 per adult. Bike rentals without a tour range from US$14 for a two-hour adult-bike rental to US$55 for a full-day adult-road-bike rental.
What to take: It's most comfortable to bike without a backpack; bikes come equipped with a pouch large enough to carry most cameras (bags could be left in unsecured bins at the Old Post Office location). All guided tours include a generously sized 680 grams bottle of water and a granola-bar snack break. Evening-tour riders wear reflective safety vests, and when it gets dark safety lights are clipped to each bike.