I'M RIDING THROUGH Brooklyn when an old Buick appears at my side and, like an amorous cow, begins to rub up against me. At 20 miles an hour, I lose control, launch into the air, and roll to a painful stop. The driver pulls over—eventually—and just stands there as I limp toward her.
"Why'd you hit me?" I ask.
"I thought I could get around you," she says.
I've often dreamed of living in a city where you can spend an entire day on a bike without once suffering an act of aggression or a near-death experience, and scarcely a day goes by that I don't hear or read someone going on about a city just like that: Portland, Oregon. The New York Times calls it "Bike City USA," and more people commute by bicycle there (over 7 percent) than in any other metropolis in America. Portland also boasts an extensive light-rail system (trains and trolleys) and biodiesel buses, all of which accommodate bicycles, and plans to triple the length of its 300-mile bike-route network by 2030.
But it's not just robust statistics and support for alternative transport that make Portland seem mythic to cyclists in the rest of North America; it's also the bike-obsessed populace, the artisans and small businesses that serve them, and the consequent social interaction that people call a "bike culture."
While storied Italian frame builders like Colnago have mostly embraced carbon fiber and begun outsourcing work to Taiwan, Portland is now home to the world's greatest concentration of custom bike builders (currently about 30), who work primarily in the classic medium of chromoly steel. They build road bikes, mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, cargo bikes, townies, etc. The most famous is Sacha White, of Vanilla, whose wait list is so long (more than three years) that he's not accepting new orders. The rest of America's businesses are in the grip of the Great Recession, but Vanilla won't even take your money.
Portland is also home to some very recognizable names in cycling attire and components: Rapha, Showers Pass, Chris King, and Portland Design Works are among those who've hung a shingle in town. Then there's all the riding. The Cross Crusade, the 17-year-old, 12-event cyclocross race series based there, is the largest in the world, seeing some 9,000 participants. If you're not competitive, there are also the theme rides, both planned and impromptu. When Michael Jackson died, scores of Portland cyclists materialized en masse and started riding around dressed like the King of Pop. The Flaming Lips recently shot a music video at one of the city's 250-plus parks; it starred a bunch of naked cyclists and a gigantic vagina. Sure, there's all that rain, which peaks in the winter, but the city is also drenched in quality coffee and beer, arguably the ideal pre- and post-ride beverages, so you can always slip into a café or bar while you wait out the weather.
I actually visited Portland once, years ago, but it was a bikeless overnighter that I remember only as a blur of precipitation and flannel. So while I'm familiar with the Portland myth, I don't know if it's true or if there's really such a thing as a "bike culture." I'm still picking scabs left over from the Buick incident when I pack up my bike and board a plane to find out.
NATURALLY, IT'S RAINING when my plane lands on Halloween morning, but by the time I cross the Willamette River into downtown, it's cleared. As I step into the lobby of the Ace Hotel, I notice that the 20-foot bike corral outside is brimming with practical yet stylish rides, like a hitching post in a hipster western.
"Is it OK to bring my bike through the lobby while I'm here?" I ask the lady at the front desk.
"Of course," she says, as though I've just asked if the complimentary matches are free.
Once inside my room, which manages to evoke a doctor's office on a sailboat, I set about reassembling my bicycle and am soon out the door, headed for—surprise!—a bike show, where I'm certain to run into some of the attendant culture. The Oregon Handmade Bicycle Show is part of a six-week celebration of cycling. As I ride across downtown, I'm struck by how calm the traffic is. With my coarse NYC riding style, I feel self-conscious, like someone dining in a formal restaurant after decades of throwing elbows at a country buffet. And there are so many people on bikes—normal people, not miserable-looking messengers and delivery folk—that I feel like I should be waving to them. But this would be odd, akin to giving the thumbs-up to the guy next to you at the urinal and saying, "Isn't peeing fun?!" In New York, there's so much fighting for space, I sometimes feel like I have to run lights. Not here. The sensation is refreshing, like getting to the beach and exchanging your boots for flip-flops.
By the time I make it to the show, not a single motorist has honked at me. My entrance fee includes a pint from one of the 35 breweries in town—the keg rests in a purpose-built "beercycle"—which takes the edge off a long, early flight. The bicycles, all displayed in and around an elevated model-train circuit, are not gimmicky carbon race bikes, nor are they like the fixed-gear scene's exercises in color coordination and co-branding. Vertigo shows a bike with rack and fenders that swiftly converts into a full-on cyclocross racer. English shows a belt-driven winter bike with an internal hub. These are bikes that speak of daily commutes with off-road detours, of long after-work rides, of fun and practicality, of cycling integrated tube-in-lug with life.
After sidling over to a table to rest my beer, I fall into conversation with a few friendly strangers.
"Did you read that Bike Snob post?" one of them asks when talk turns to a certain cycling clothier I've written about. He has no idea that I not only read it but wrote it, yet I immediately turn red and try to change the subject. I've never heard anyone reference my blog in conversation before.
In New York, I'm a traffic cone. Not here.
IF YOU GO SEE A JAM BAND, you'll find a game of Hacky Sack, and if a city has a cycling scene, you'll find people playing bike polo. I have a deep hatred of ball sports that dates back to a head injury incurred during a softball game at Camp Hillel, but I suck it up in the name of science and ride east across the Willamette to Alberta Park, where I've heard a game will be in progress. It turns out to be what I expected: A bunch of people with cycling caps, tattoos, and various facial-hair configurations ride single-speeds and chase a ball around a de-netted tennis court while others wait their turn on a bench, smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon.
I watch them for a while through the fence. It seems like an insular group, one I'm hesitant to approach, but like an aspiring hippie in 1967 San Francisco, if I don't want to be taken for a narc, I'm going to have to eat some acid.
"Ever let new people play?" I ask.
"Sure, you can play right now!" says a guy on the bench.
I'm led to a polo-appropriate bike and a mallet, and I warm up by riding around and trying to hit the ball. This proves quite difficult, and despite total sobriety I seem to have the ball-handling skills of a drunk mini-golfer. The rules, however, are simple: Try to score a goal and "don't be a dick."
"It's too late for that," I reply.
While the more dickish part of me feels about playing bike polo the same way that Sacha White would probably feel about working for Huffy, another secretly hopes that I will be awesome at it. Sadly, I begin sucking almost immediately, though I do manage not to break my collarbone. No thanks to me, my team wins, but since I failed to score a goal and mostly just circled the action, I assume they'll be glad to see me leave. Yet as I begin to make my retreat, the guy who invited me says, "That's it?!" and implores me to stay. And though I'm moved by my new comrade's earnestness, it's not quite enough to overcome the memory of that blow to the head from the kid with the yarmulke.
PORTLAND IS EVEN MORE famous for bicycle commuting than it is for bicycle fabrication and recreation; the way the locals embrace practical, everyday cycling earns the city international attention and sets it apart from the rest of North America. So despite having no job, one morning I join the masses of people streaming over the bridges and into the city center on bicycles. I fully expect the peaceful downtown of the weekend to have given way to fuming gridlock, but while there are more cars on the road, nothing really resembles what I'd call heavy traffic, and even in the thick of rush hour I pass over both the Hawthorne and Steel bridges multiple times, unable to provoke a driver to try to kill me.
At no point do my fellow cyclists look at me judgmentally, attempt to race me across the bridge, or speed brakeless off of it, run a light, and scatter a group of schoolchildren—all crucial to cycling in NYC. The Portlanders simply ride, unflappable save for their jackets, which flutter in the autumn breeze.
I can't even manage to get lost, since everywhere I go there are not only bike lanes—some even curbside, buffered from traffic by parking spaces with door zones—but directional signs specifically for cyclists: DOWNTOWN 1.5MI 9MIN.
There's only one uncomfortable moment, as I exit the Hawthorne Bridge without indicating my direction.
"Nice signal!" a woman behind me snaps.
"Sorry!" I call out, though I want to explain that I'm the cycling equivalent of an abused child. I wish I could convey the sensation of being squeezed between a bus and a stretch SUV limo while a pair of cops in a Crown Vic take a coffee break in your bike lane.
So why is Portland so bike-friendly? It came of age in car-centric 20th-century America, not post–World War II Europe, and despite all the blond dreadlocks, I've abandoned my theory that the citizens are space aliens.
"Everything that happened with the auto and urban trends from the twenties through the sixties also happened here," says city transportation official and Oregon historian Scott Cohen. "Things changed in the late sixties and the seventies." He figures a crucial early boon to cycling came in 1974, when a vocal populace and the city council finally defeated the proposed Mount Hood Freeway, which would have bulldozed through southeast Portland, severing the city's readily navigable grid system. "They said, 'We're going to value our neighborhoods,' rejecting the patterns that developed in many places out west." So the freeway plan—like disco, racist sitcom characters, and Sid Vicious—didn't survive the seventies. The funds went to projects like the MAX light-rail system, begun in 1982. Another example of livability prized over the automobile is the 29-acre park along the west bank of the Willamette. (Created after the city removed Harbor Drive in 1974, it's two miles of prime waterfront, and with the East Bank Esplanade across the river, you can ride laps around the Willamette via the Steel and Hawthorne bridges.) Pivotal bike-infrastructure policy came in the nineties.
OK, but this place didn't invent being progressive. There must be something else compelling all these Portlanders to ride in the rain.
AFTER MY COMMUTE to nowhere, I point my bike toward the West Hills—a.k.a. the Tualatin Mountains, the backdrop of downtown—and climb into 5,100-acre Forest Park, where the pavement gives way to gravel and the paths are lined with lush vegetation. This is how I've always imagined the Pacific Northwest: It's moist and full of ferns, a place where you might encounter a brontosaurus, Bigfoot, or a feral eighties grunge band guarding a marijuana crop. Near the top of the climb, I make a left onto a fire road called Leif Erikson; after a 20-minute descent, I find myself right back in the city.
Easily crossed bridges on one side of me, quiet wooded roads on the other, and bike lanes everywhere—this town is indeed like a revolving door of cycling pleasure. Still, I've always been afraid of revolving doors, and I suspect Portland must be like one of those really happy people who, it turns out, is on eight kinds of medication to suppress his suicidal impulses. So, using my real name, I contact Jonathan Maus, editor/writer of the widely read news blog BikePortland.org, and simply tell him I'm an adrift New Yorker seeking a greater understanding of Portland's bike culture. He not only replies but invites me to his office, next door to a coffee shop with a "bike-thru" window.
Maus is tall, friendly, and polite and looks kind of like the actor Eric Stoltz. His bike, which looks Dutch, heavy, and practical, is parked outside, unlocked.
"You know, people are saying you're the Bike Snob," he tells me after greeting me. (It appears I've been popular-search-engined.) I laugh this off and tell him what a relief it is riding here: considerate drivers, protected bike lanes, bike boxes at intersections, separate signals for cyclists..."Really?" he says. "Here in Portland we feel like we're being outdone by New York."
"No kidding?" This seems like Alec Baldwin worrying that little brother Daniel will eclipse him with a stint on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. However, New York has added 200 miles of bike lanes in the past three years, and Portland bike advocates evidently see this growth and fear complacency.
"Portland has the richest bike culture in the world," Maus continues. "We're very proud of that. But because Portland is a smaller city and it's such a popular subject here, it's easy for some organizations to associate themselves with it in order to get press. Did you read about the bike chapel in the paper today? Front-page news." He goes on to explain that St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, downtown, has dedicated a shrine to the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of cycling, possibly because bikes are more popular than God in Portland and the church thinks they can use them to fill some pews.
Being a cycling pilgrim, I head over there in search of spiritual guidance.
A REPURPOSED HANDICAP ramp serves as the chapel's bicycle entrance, and there's a piece of paper that reads BIKE SHRINE taped to the door. The chapel is bereft of souls as I enter and lean my bike against a pew. On the north wall is a painting: It's of a mountain bike standing alone in a desert; the baby Jesus hovers over it amid some heavenly smog while suckling on the Madonna del Ghisallo and flashing the peace sign. The bike appears to have been copied from a manufacturer photo, since the cranks are at a 90-degree angle and don't include pedals, but it also has a freakishly long head tube.
It's difficult to be contemplative in front of such a distracting image. Why a mountain bike? Does Jehovah ride off-road? It seems like something more abstract and universal would've been a better idea—a penny farthing or classic road bike, perhaps? Then again, Chris DiStefano, of Chris King Precision Components, says that Portland's dirty little secret is that, for all its cycling awesomeness, there's very little singletrack open to riding around here, so maybe this is a prayer for mountain-bike trails. But, really, is a bike chapel a true gift to the community, fulfilling a need for members of the bicycle culture, or is it just a slapdash attempt by the church to seem "with it," like when my ninth-grade math teacher wore a Van Halen shirt?
And this isn't even the only place in town where religion and cycling collide. I cross the river to visit the Bike Temple, "a non-profit, pan-faith movement that seeks to heal the world by having fun and deepening people's relationship with their venerated transportation form." It's dark when I reach the address, an ashram in northeast Portland. I find it empty save for two people doing yoga and one spectrally attractive belly-dancing instructor who's never heard of any Bike Temple. I begin to think I'm in the wrong place but wander outside and discover a rickety door with a logo. Beyond it I find four men and one woman in a musty basement filled with crappy bike parts and an old mountain bike on a repair stand. (What is it with God and mountain bikes?) The templars look up from what appears to be takeout chicken.
"Is this the Bike Temple?" I ask.
"Yes," says the guy working on the bike. "I'm Moses." Of course.
"So what do you guys do here?"
"It's not about worshiping God so much as a way of expressing love for the bike and its environmental friendliness," explains Moses. "We also do theater." I cringe a bit.
"What kind of theater?" I ask. Moses says that during their grand opening he preached from a pulpit.
"Do you believe in bicycles?" he asked those gathered.
"Yes, I believe in bicycles," they'd reply. Then he'd anoint their bike chain with a drop of lube.
OH, WELL. I SUPPOSE I secretly hoped Portland "bike culture" was so highly evolved that people were actually using cycling as the basis for spiritual and metaphysical discussion in the same way that the psychedelic scene of the sixties inspired some to explore Buddhism and alternative philosophy. Instead, the "collabo" between bikes and religion seems to be only a PR tool or an excuse to hang out in a basement and (judging from the general vibe, anyway) get baked.
Depressed by the shrine and temple, I ride mopily about, but I just can't seem to shake this glumness. It's going to take the catharsis of intense physical effort. Fortunately, it's a big cyclocross weekend, and I've signed up for tomorrow's Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships, which will follow the day's series races.
The next morning, I swap out my slick tires for knobbies, flip my fixed rear wheel around to the freewheel side, and hop on the MAX train. The novelty of taking public transportation to a cyclocross race is exceeded only by its ease. The MAX costs only two bucks and is outfitted with convenient bike hooks.
Cyclocross is like freebasing competitive cycling. The races are short but intense and distill the sport to its essence. But what propels me through the peanut-buttery mud more than anything is the noise of the crowd. And though there are plenty of serious riders competing today, many wear costumes. (One rider has at least nine stuffed monkeys on his back, and another races a tiny folding bike and wears formal office attire.)
Bike-world celebrities like 2008 U.S. national cyclocross champion Ryan Trebon, teammate Barry Wicks (dispensing cans of beer to the crowd), and fellow blogger Stevil Kinevil are here. We're routed through a giant "Thunderdome," complete with mutants suspended from the latticework, fire jugglers, and a nearby Black Sabbath cover band providing soundtrack. For the price of a dollar, you can skip a section of the course and run your bike through a school bus full of strippers.
I lose track of the lap count and eventually finish in a sprint against Stevil for what must be a high-double-digit placing, thoroughly exhausted but happy.
"Was that the end?" we ask each other afterwards—not that either of us really cares. The sun is setting, the band is winding down, and, no matter the count, we both decide that it is.