Top Rides: Portland, Oregon
Stumptown. The River City. Bridge Town. These are all names for what some call the finest cycling city in the United States: Portland, Oregon. While the state itself plays host to “Cycle Oregon” – a week long adventure to wow riders of all skill levels with rides like Bridge Pedal, Worst Day of the Year Ride and many others, the crown jewel city of the state, Portland, is one fine town in which to ride your bike.
In this beautiful town of just over a half a million folks nestled where the Willamette and Columbia rivers diverge, one can find oneself a thousand feet above sea level, lost in dense forest, piloting their steeds among sword beams of sunlight poking through tall iconic trees, in just a matter of miles out of city center.
They don’t call it the Bridge Town for nothing.
Take your choice. Surrounded by spectacular riding options, accessible by bike lane heavy streets or dedicated paths, one can ride the flats to the east and south on car free bike lanes, jaunt down to take in the neo-rural south, or blast up steep and challenging climbs to the west and southwest.
Maybe a quick inner city jump to Mt. Tabor, a dormant volcano peak smack dab in the city’s Southeast neighborhood, and site of a weeknight summertime criterium series, and there’s even a fixed gear class. There’s also weeknight criteriums at Portland International Raceway when motors are no where to be found and only a brightly clad peloton screams round the twists and turns normally reserved for vehicles doing 200mph, not 20. I look forward to jumping in to a few of those once they start in May. The local racing is some of the finest I have seen in the land, and the overseeing organization, OBRA (www.obra.org) does a stellar job in putting it all on for us lycra clad freaks.
Portland has always been revered as a mountain biking utopia, and rightfully so, but it’s road biking amenities are about as top notch as a rider could hope for. Not only is the road culture healthy, the cycling culture en masse is personified here in Stumptown. Take a look around on any of its fabulous bridges during a rush hour and you’ll swear you see half the workforce of the city commuting by bike. Ample bike lanes criss-cross the city’s innards, and you won’t go too far without finding a reputable bike shop. VeloShop, River City Cycles, Sellwood Cyclery, NW 21st cycles, the Portland cycling co-op, to name but a few. If you are into bikes, Portland is your town. Trust me on this one. It’s also fostering the growth of the stalwart cyclo-cross scene, certainly worth checking out if around when the season comes.
Ollerenshaw and Elken wait in the fog for Dave at the top of the Thompson Climb at Skyline.
A few pros call this place home, too. Doug Ollerenshaw of Health Net presented by Maxxis and Evan Elken of Jittery Joe’s let me tag along on their recovery rides from time to time. Chad Hartley of BMC calls this area home, too.
It would be a War and Peace length epic to try to name all the possible rides available to us roadies out here, so I’ll focus on my have become my favorite two: The West Hills loops and Skyline, and Sauvie Island. If so inclined, be sure to check out the Sellwood cemetery, Springwater corridor and 205 paths, Mt. Tabor, the Thompson climb up and over the west ridge to North Plains, Lake Oswego, Government Camp, and anything you can get to by taking the MAX (Portland’s bike friendly, efficient, clean and trusty light rail system) out to Hillsboro or Gresham further west of Portland. Simply put, you will be hard pressed to run out of places to ride your bike.
Hailing from the Midwest US and being a lanky 6’4” 185, I know flat. I understand flat. I have a symbiotic relationship with flat. Being of Dutch descent, I had fit right in being in the center of the US. Like my Dutch countrymen, I took well to riding on the flats and in the wind. It was my bread and butter. So, moving to Oregon and taking my new landlord’s advice of, “Head up Market to Vista, go up through Washington Park, there’s great riding up there” I was in for some immediate growing pains. I never did well on hills in my former life, as evidenced by my internal organs still being strewn about places like Snake Alley and the like in the Midwest, Hogpen in north Georgia, and the mountains around Boulder. I would bet parts of me are still on roadsides in all those places. The pain in these new Oregonian hills at first was considerable, but the group of roads known as the West Hills, and the artery called Skyline, provide what is now one of my favorite rides ever. It’s up there with the Passes at the Tour de Georgia, up there with the hills in Denver and Boulder. Maybe not as hard, long, or as steep, but the scenery is as formidable as the climbing.
The West Hills are stunning, but Hills isn’t a part of the name for nothing.
To the west of the city, one can see the ridgeline standing above, and once there you have options . You can combine the loops of Fairmount and Humphrey into a figure 8 once you climb the roughly 1000 feet to the plateau of the ridgeline which is an absolute treat of a ride, complete with twists and turns aplenty, lots of stellar old trees and houses, and stunning views to all sides of the city as you circumvent the loops atop the west hills. If one chooses, one can simply take Skyline, which parallels the northwesterly highway 30.
Skyline will offer you some great views from the bluffs, and provide some challenging riding as the road undulates northward, and it is festooned halfway to the island with the Skyline Tavern. Stop by for a cold one, some horseshoes or ping pong, or just lounge on the back deck and soak up some sun. Caveat though: if in Full Bike Dork Regalia (phrase used without permission courtesy of Doug Ollerenshaw) be wary of the looks and comments cast upon you by mostly a motorcycle crowd, and bring cash – no credit cards accepted and no ATM on site, either. I was also made aware of a certain fact by one vacant eyed Sunday afternoon bartender:
“You know what they call people like you around here?”
“No ma’am, afraid not. Cyclists?”
Usually the folks are nice, but it certainly is a different crowd. Walk in wearing a full kit and you can hear the needle come to a grinding halt on the record, figuratively speaking. Worth the stop though, just don’t ask to dance with anyone’s date.
The West Hills loops are twisty and fast, a payoff for the climbing it took to get to them. The roads can at times make you think you are in Europe. Walled embankments with age old stones will brush by your elbows as you meander through. Quaint bundles of exotic houses whiz by you as you negotiate your way up, down, and around. Trumping all is the lush vegetation all about. If the West Hills had been reached via climbing through Washington Park (one of Portland’s treasures in its own right and one of several rides to get to the plateau), riders will experience a neo-jungle of dense forest, replete with aged majestic trees, moss thickening on anything that doesn’t move, and shrubs and dense thickets of all sorts.
Everything about it screams wild nature. You’ll catch some glimpses of local wildlife. I startled a fox the other day – a fox about as big as most Labradors. The fox sized me up and was immediately un-startled. By the time I drew even with him, and we locked eyes, it was me that was startled. I could see it now: “Pez writer eaten by large fox, film at 11.” These same hills host a late winter ride paying homage to the Tour of Flanders, and it’s a 42 mile affair with 7200 vertical feet of climbing, never more than 5 miles from downtown. Pain.
A treat of a ride, and a respite from the hills, is Sauvie Island. If there’s a downside to it, one must traverse at least some piece of Highway 30 to get to it, which usually will result in a few flats, so be sure your spare kit is loaded for bear, and it never hurts to travel with a buddy or two. It’s a highway with a bike lane, so one must go shields up to road hazards such as trucks blasting by, road debris, etc. The bike lane, however cluttered with schmutz, is indeed wide and once the skin has thickened to the metal boxes on wheels hurtling by, all is well. The hardest route is to take Skyline all the way to Newberry and drop down, limiting your exposure to 30 to about a mile. Otherwise, one can go on the east side of the Willamette river, over St. Johns Bridge and endure only 4 miles of 30.
Departing the hills, we head on over to Sauvie Island for a delicious serving of flat.
But once on the island, all is forgiven. I’ve heard it said one must own 80 acres if one wishes to build on the island, and the result is wide open plots of land, livestock, farms, all set against a backdrop of ridgelines encircling the island.
In the channel, rising above corn, longhorns, and llamas, one might see an ocean steamer, heading into the river with its cargo, you can hear their horns bleating through the thick fog that sometimes drapes itself around the area. There is a popular cyclocross race held here at Kruger’s farm, complete with corn maze riding and a bonfire. Any given weekend, and more especially since the weather is getting better and the racing has begun, you will see groups of all caliber of riders making their way to and around Sauvie island. Most city folk simply ride out. Some drive from further out, just to enjoy the loop and the scenery. Last week while tagging along with the Portland State University cycling team, it was quite evident that this is a popular place to come and do a few laps around the 12 mile circumference. Outside of the loop, there are a few spurs that will take you out to the islands tips, but one must take the same road back to the loop. The NE end of the isle boasts some clothing optional beaches. Makes sense for cyclist, what with being clad in a millimeter of lycra and all. Don’t go rubbernecking and hold your line, you have to go off the road a bit to get to the beaches.
And a wonderful convenience on the island is the little sundry market, right at the foot of the St. John’s Bridge. Energy bars and snacks aplenty, pint cans of PBR if the rides’ been rough, and heck, even chicken wings and greasy burritos, if one desires. Language barriers thwarted by the almighty dollar, be sure to bring a couple of bucks to get some refueling done before rocking it back to Portland.
The East Side paths aren’t too bad either.
She’s a true gem, this city of bridges, and it gets the gold seal of approval from Pez Cycling News, no doubt. I am happy to call this place home. And for you Pez readers: hit me with an email or two about your club ride, your alleycat, your team, whatever. I’d like to maybe pop in a ride or two and learn some new routes, see some new faces. And, if you see me on the road, do say hello. You can’t miss me, I’m tall and lanky and I am the only one you’ll see in a full Pez kit: just look for the skinny kid that looks like a blue raspberry colored stick-like treat.
I Want To Write About Your Town Too!
I am soliciting group rides in any of the following cities, as my job takes me to them rather frequently. These would be after hour, two to three hour rides through the best of what your town has to offer. All I need is a 60cm bike, and a group to show me around. Let me put your town on the TOP RIDES map! Seattle, Salt Lake, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver – I’m looking at YOU!