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Pedal-powered commuter rides the 14 miles to APG even in the rain


Most folks probably consider Dick Schwanke just a little obsessive about bicycling.

Not only does Mr. Schwanke race twice a week and take cycling vacations, but he also rides his bike to work every day -- rain or shine.

For Mr. Schwanke, cycling is not so much an obsession as a way of life. His bike offers exercise, transportation and think-tank all rolled into one.

"I do a lot of thinking riding to work. That's when I come up with some of my best ideas [for work]," said Mr. Schwanke, an environmental protection specialist for the Ballistics Research Laboratory at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

He began taking a bike to work during his first job off the family farm in Churchville. Summers during high school, he painted schools for the Harford County Board of Education. His first assignment was painting Hickory Elementary -- a little too far to walk.

"I needed to get to work, and the logical thing was to ride the bike," said Mr. Schwanke. "When I got out of college, I kept riding the bike. Then I got another job too far out, so I had to drive. But when I got this job [at APG]), I parked the car and went back to riding to work."

Now, Mr. Schwanke cycles the 14 miles between his Abingdon home and APG in about an hour. He leaves for work just before 6 in the morning and returns home by 7:30 p.m. Much like all those commuters who hop into their cars automatically, Schwanke gets on his bike every morning without giving it a second thought.

"It has to be like washing your face and brushing your teeth. It can't be a conscious decision," Schwanke said. "You're gonna get up and you're gonna do it. You don't look outside and say, 'It's too lousy to ride to work -- I'll do it tomorrow.' You can't think about it. You've just got to do it."

Most commuters never would consider trading their 15- or 20-minute drive for an hourlong ride. But Schwanke said his rides and from work don't take up as much time as they seem.

"As it turns out, it doesn't really take two hours," explained Mr. Schwanke. "If you go by automobile and obey the speed limits, it's going to take 20 minutes to work and 20 minutes home, so there's the first hour. And a lot of people do something for an hour a day for exercise. I've already done that on the way to work and back."

On Wednesday nights during the summer, Mr. Schwanke stops off for a biathlon on his way home. On an elongated loop between Churchville and Level, Mr. Schwanke and about a dozen others ride 13 miles and run five. Every other Sunday afternoon, he heads out to a different area of Harford County to join other members of the local Hearthside-COBRA bicycling club in competitiverides.

For 10 years, Mr. Schwanke owned a bike shop in Abingdon. In 1986, Mr. Schwanke's shop was named one of the top 100 dealers in the United States by Bicycle Dealers Showcase magazine.

In 1987, he and his wife, Alma, sold the shop and the three-room apartment upstairs. Instead of repairing bikes and custom-making them, Mr. Schwanke went back to school.

Even during the four years it took him to earn the equivalent of two master's degrees in systems management, Mr. Schwanke continued to ride to work and race as often as possible.

Like other avid Harford County cyclists, Mr. Schwanke is preparing for Le Tour de Harford. The annual road race, scheduled this year for Sept. 13, gives riders of varying skill levels a choice of four distances -- 100K (62 miles), 100 miles, 200K (130 miles) or 150 miles. The entire distance is within Harford County.

Riders build toward Le Tour de Harford on Sunday afternoons with shorter spring races, a weekly summer training race and then late summer road races.

"The object is to complete it and then to better your time every year," said Mr. Schwanke, who isn't sure which distance he'll cover this year.

Since he took his first weeklong bike tour of Lancaster County as a sixth-grader, Mr. Schwanke has ridden through much of the Northeast. He's toured Cape Cod, New England, Skyline Drive and much of the Mid-Atlantic area. He's been all over Maryland on the annual Cycle Across Maryland Tour.

Although he continues to race, Mr. Schwanke doesn't take competition seriously. He likes to improve his own times, but he enjoys touring more than racing. "I've gotten so slow at racing, most people think I'm touring anyway," Mr. Schwanke said, laughing.

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