Portlandia: a Biker Town

Portlandia: a Biker Town

Portland, Oregon. Say it again, go on. Portland. Oregon. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Feels healthy to even utter the words, right? Do you feel more organic? Want to go get (another) tattoo? How about a unicycle? Learn how to build an ax?

No, I kid.

Sort of.

You see, ever since I began my love affair with cycling, Portland has been the one domestic place I’ve wanted to see for myself – this mythical land where you can commute on your bike anywhere and not get run off the road. But I never quite managed to make the trek, not until timing landed in my favor and I had the opportunity to visit a friend last weekend who recently moved there for work.

So I come to you now not as a native giving you the infamous Portland High Five (to do this, pat yourself on the back whilst simultaneously raising your other hand), but as a stranger from a strange land.

And what a wonderful, strange land it is.

The stories are all true. The food? Amazing, fresh, organic, and compared to California, inexpensive. The people? Friendly and generally covered in pictures (I would guestimate that 40% of the population has visited a tattoo parlor). The weather? Well, I can’t comment on the other 362 days of the year, but for my three, the sun shown down without a cloud in the sky. Birds? Yes, there were a lot of very endearing birds on a variety of products and people (see tattoos above).

The bikes?

photo 1

The bikes.

During my stay, I had no car, just one of my more beat up steel offerings that I didn’t mind locking up around the city, so I relied on pedal power alone. And I have to say, if you are going to visit the area, I can’t recommend a better way to do it. My Air B&B place was in NE Portland, right on Broadway which turned out to be an amazing plus, as it dumped me straight onto the Broadway Bridge and into NW Portland/Downtown. Not that downtown was the only amazing place to check out, though. NE, SE, and SW also had their charms, their picturesque houses, and their quirky neighborhood bars with ample bike parking.

The main take away I have is this: Do you know how you love living where you live because you can go ride outside your door and be on a lovely road, having a lovely ride? Imagine getting to do that, but every single time you step outside your door to go anywhere, by default. Not just “Oh, I’m going to do the Saturday Shop Ride,” but “Oh, I need milk,” or “Oh, I need to go to work.” The streets are flat and straight and lined with Alice in Wonderlandesque trees, gently shading the route. The drivers are polite and seemingly aware most of the time. The bike paths are plentiful. And if you are going for a true ride, you have the option of flat, hilly, or sustained climbs, without having to slog through a commute out of town to get to them. The ride starts in your driveway and ends at one of the many fantastic coffee shops.

photo 3

And that is how you live your life.

But, there is one very telling aspect to Portland that evens the playing field just a touch, and it’s a point that I discussed multiple times with various cycling folk during my stay. You see, in addition to their robust commuter population, Portland is also home to many industry companies, Chris King/Cielo, Rapha, and Castelli USA just to name a few. Combine these facts and you assume it follows that there is a very strong, spandex clad cycling community in Portland. But when I joined in on an open-to-outsiders industry lunch ride, the group was quite intimate, about six strong. When riding out on my own over the weekend, I didn’t see any more road bikes on road rides than I normally do in the Bay area, perhaps even less so.

I did see the World Naked Bike Ride, one of the highlights of PedalPalooza, as well as the Super Hero Ride, though I missed the Prince Vs. Bowie Ride and the Morrisey Look-Alike Ride. And I saw many people, like me, just out riding from here to there on bikes, taking care of daily tasks.

But while I would definitely support the conjecture that Portland is a bike town, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s any more a cycling town than Santa Cruz, or San Francisco, or Austin, or Boulder. People ride bikes, and bikes are part of the Portland culture in that they are a part of everyday life, and they feature prominently in fun community events. But the “cycling” culture, the part that shaves legs and wears caps and dons tight clothing, that part is harder to see. Even amazing bike shops, such as Velo Cult, pride themselves on catering to the general public, regardless of that public’s cycling inclination, as much they pride themselves on their amazing vintage MTB collection. In fact, their basement screening room features Breaking Bad just as often as Breaking Away.

The upshot? If you love bikes, Portland is still the place to vacation with yours in tow, for a time if not forever. The hype is true. The streets are paved with sharrows, the bike racks overfloweth, and the residents pedal happily each day.

Just be prepared to see more of them in their birthday suits than in lycra.

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7 comments

  1. Jesse

    While you missed it, the roadie/racer life is out in force. The weeknight series at PIR (Mon/Tues) often gets 100+ racers a night and runs May-Sept. The velodrome has racing and training a few times a week as well. Like CX? The largest participation race in the world (1,500+) is held in PDX. Like it really dirty, summer has a short track MTB series with 300+ racers at times. OBRA has USAC beat hands down for grassroots racing.

  2. Weylandsmith

    “The weather? Well, I can’t comment on the other 362 days of the year, but for my three, the sun shown down without a cloud in the sky.”

    Ha!
    Part of the reason Portland hasn’t grown into an LA or an SF (aside from the more stringent land-use laws) is the weather. That three days without a cloud? Total anomaly of a dry spring/early summer. Portland and the Willamette valley generally has two seasons – wet and dry. Dry is usually around three months long – late June or early July through September. Otherwise it’s kinda like Belgium. Maybe that’s why ‘cross is so popular here.

  3. Tom in Albany

    Thanks, Irene. I’ve been to Portland once for their other wonder – beer festivals! The Oregon Brewers Festival (OBF) is an amazing event with some of the best been in the world represented.

    Of course, I preceded the OBF with a week of Mtn Biking around western Oregon. Highly recommended. Incredible stuff!

  4. jorgensen

    Every time I have been to Portland there has been “chamber of commerce” weather.
    Terrific town. For me visits have always tied in with my son’s favorite steam locomotive that calls Portland home. I study the bikes and riders while riding the street cars around. A place where fenders are common though.

  5. MCH

    Portland is great, but I hope you also had a chance to get out of town. IMO, it’d be a shame to miss the Willamette Valley and some of the county’s best Pinot’s.

  6. Max

    Portland cycling culture is very different from the bay area and Boulder. I’ve lived all three of those places. Portland is a place where you can go about your daily life on a bicycle. Commuting by bike is as safe and pleasant as in any American city. The city has taken lanes from autos and given them to bikes, a rarity in the states. I frequently find myself part of a large peloton when riding to work, something that I’ve never experienced elsewhere. The recreational cycling in the Portland area is not as good. Most of the country roads that would be great to ride have too much traffic and no shoulder. Once you get out of town, the drivers can be less than respectful. Boulder has us beat in terms of recreational cycling by a long shot as most of the country roads have nice paved shoulders and there are a lot more cyclists out riding recreationally. If you can get where you need to go in Boulder on a bike path, life is great. However, the bike lanes within the city of Boulder are narrow, poorly maintained strips on the edges of very busy four lane roads (30th, Iris, Folsom) and are wholly unpleasant to use. When living there I was on the verge of changing my commute mode because of the number of unpleasant incidents biking from my home to my office through the city. The drivers there are both aggressive and distracted and many go out of their way to intimidate cyclists. The Bay Area, especially the East Bay has the best of both worlds, with truly rural-feeling, low-traffic roads just a few minutes’ ride from Berkeley and Oakland. The bicycle boulevard system in Berkeley/Oakland is the best urban cycling infrastructure in the country.

  7. Adrienne

    You’ve got us!
    I thoroughly enjoyed your review of our fair city and our bike culture. While your view of our weather is optimistic it was refreshing to hear. As someone new to working in the bike industry I’ve found it interesting to see how lycra the rest of the world seems to be—your article helped me see that my Portlandia culture is unique and now I love it even more.

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