Monday, November 30, 2009

Hitching My Ride

In America, it is difficult to find evidence of life before the automobile. Our streets are wide and freeways abundant. Yet the bicycle actually "paved the way" for the roads to be built for cars. Early bicycle clubs raised money and demand for paved roads, long before the car was king. Before the roads were paved, the bike was relegated to the cobblestone streets. Imagine riding an early bike with solid metal, wood or even solid rubber tires on such a surface. Early models were nicknamed "bone crushers" for very good reason. It is no wonder it took a while for the bike to be more accessible to the masses. Most people traveled medium distances with the aid of a horse. Here in Portland, if you look close enough you can still see the traces of an equine dominated past.

Scattered across the city right at our feet are contemporary fossils. Steel rings were set into the sidewalk and used as a hitching post for their horses. These sidewalks have been battered around by massive tree roots, home remodels and car tires. Yet they endure and in impressive numbers. Its one of those details that escapes notice in everyday life. Yet, once informed of it, you begin to see them everywhere. It all began about 5 years ago when a local artist began to pay homage to the days of old. He ties up miniature toy horses to the rings and helps bring attention to the connections we seem to have lost with the past ( link ).

Its the little things like this that makes one appreciate people's spark, insight and creativity. Hidden behind a parked car, next to a post office box or parking meter is a little history lesson wrapped in plastic and tethered to a stainless steel cable. Kids seem to gravitate to them and in turn, the parents are left to explain or be perplexed. The link includes some wonderful photos taken by many residents: ( link ).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lock art

There are two kinds of places to lock up your bike. Portland's various establishments offer up more cycle accommodation than I have seen anywhere. Bright yellow pylons bracket the generous area. These spaces are at a premium during peak hours though. After they fill up, one needs to find the improvised places. It is pretty cool the things we will lock our bikes to in this urban world. Gas meters seem to offer a veritable bouquet of pipes and closed angles to secure your ride. Cable locks are handy for trees and even some newspaper stands. Street signs always work the trick provided they are tall or do not predict some terrible omen to the rest of your riding day.

It comes as no surprise that art has begun to mix with bicycle advocacy. Some style has been added to the traditional "U" shaped piece of steel sticking out of the sidewalk. The shapes just in my neighborhood include: eyeglasses, toothbrushes, and stethoscopes. The functionality of such street art / bike security remains to be seen. Sometimes the height is all wrong, or other times the thickness of the metal is a bit difficult for the U-lock. But in general, it is a good trend and certainly more interesting. David Byrne of the Talking Heads is a huge advocate for cycling and opening up people's imaginations. He has spearheaded awareness with his art pieces all over New York City( link ).

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Biking has now replaced walking. I used to 'hoof it' those 3 1/2 blocks to pick up my pizza order but now I ride. Having a bike fully set up for the street is wonderful and oh so much fun. Inclement weather be damned! Fenders and water proof panniers enable you to do business as usual. I call it efficient rather than lazy. Its hardly a work out to pedal a few blocks, but you cover so much ground. The hassle of dealing with a cumbersome "U" lock and long cable is easily worth it, especially when compared to driving and seeking out parking places. I am pretty amazed than even with the "rainy season" upon us in Portland, you still have to search pretty damn hard to find a vacant spot to lock your bike.

Yet just like most activities, cycling is not without its risk. The other day while returning from a spin around the neighborhood, I encountered a nasty hail storm a few blocks from my home. How I envied those who ride with the baseball helmets. . .visibility zero. No place to take shelter. I foolishly pedaled on while looking down and nearly met my end with an oncoming van. This encounter gave me renewed pause and awareness of how quickly things can change.

For as many people that do cycle in this city, there are a surprisingly low amount of fatal accidents. Most riders I know have a crash story--and it usually involves a lapse of attention or being in a hurry. Usually a few scrapes and bruises teach valuable lessons (or a car's horn in my most recent case). Last year in Portland there were zero bike fatalities. This year, sadly, there have been several. Scattered around town are haunting memorials of the few who were killed. Each incident is different, some wearing helmets some not. Right of way disputes or drunk drivers, the memorials do not dwell on those details. It is always an immobile and ghostly white bike chained up as a sobering reminder. Flowers and personal tributes adorn the bikes.

I have experienced my fare share of scrapes, bruises and close encounters. One old bike helmet was cracked after a front tire blowout while bombing down a steep hill on a busy street. That encounter alone was enough for me to always ride with head protection. Passing memorials like these will hopefully provide solace to those who ride. Please ride safe.

Monday, November 16, 2009


Rain usually tends to put a damper on the adventurous spirit of most "sane" people. Then there are the few here in the Pacific Northwest who actually await the rainy season. These people are the Cyclocross riders and they are a different breed, all together. This fall, hundreds of riders descended upon Portland for the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships (SSCSWC09). Needless to say it was a very exciting and eye-opening cycling experience.

Cyclocross is much older and more established than I imagined. Its origins hark back to the early 1900's. Road riders in Europe would race each other between towns, cutting across fields and mixing up riding with running. This enabled riders training for the Tour De France to stay in shape and even hone their riding skills during Autumn and Winter.

Fortunately for all the participants, it rained over an inch in the 24 hours before the big race. The entire day hosted various categories of Cyclocross races but the main event was for the single speed crown. The final race was a mixed bag of fun, competition and creativity. Basically, it resembled a combination of mud football, a bike race and a costume party with a "Mad Max" movie theme. There was certainly a gonzo category and pretty much anything with wheels was allowed in. The costumes and bikes were truly unique, fun and entertaining.

The start of the race resembled a Medieval battle, with 250 riders divided in two and lined up facing each other from across the field. In the center were the all of the bikes. The first one to the top of the hill won a custom bike. Mayhem ensued. Lycra and spiked shoulder pads were all over the place. I am pretty sure Bigfoot even came out from the wilderness to participate as well.

The aftermath was glorious. Every rider was absolutely covered in mud. 45 minutes of agony followed by 4 hours of beer drinking and revelry. The winners were Drew MacKenzie of Canada and Kari Studley from Seattle. Thanks to Ms. Studley's victory at the race and a tie-breaking mud wrestling contest, next year's championship will take place in Seattle. After viewing this spectacle I have been truly inspired to give this sport a shot.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Portland thrives in the shadow of Seattle. The larger town to the north seems to garner all the attention with Grunge, Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks. Mr. Cobain ushered out that music scene with a bang, Microsoft is downright evil, Boeing is desperately clinging to its industry and Starbucks is really just in the milk-delivery business.

Perched along the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, Portland originally started out as a shipping location. WWI and WWII soon demanded an insatiable thirst for timber. And so it has held. No other industry really rose up and took its place. As a result,"Stumptown" was left to fend for its self. This "neglect" has in effect enabled the city to flourish as a modern success story in urban planning (with bicycle's and public transportation leading the charge). Portland is a series of classic neighborhoods, bisected by the Willamette river. Blocks and blocks of old, late Victorian and classic craftsman homes roll on through the grid of narrow streets and giant trees. Portland learned long ago to rely on the locals, seek support inward, become self-sufficient and innovate.

One local business that has thrived in this environment is Stumptown Coffee. A cup of coffee is something entirely different in Portland and this local coffee roaster has become somewhat of an institution. Every day, twice a day this company offers free "tastings" at the their Annex. These tastings are akin to what people would experience from a visit to a posh winery. One is soon consumed in aromas and educated in the different brewing stages, flavors and techniques that true coffee aficionados require. They encourage you to sip the coffee as loud as you possibly can. It all seems rather silly until you stop to recognize that coffee is the world's second largest (legal) commodity after oil. . .and you really can smell and taste the subtle, fruity and sometimes earthy differences from one bean's offerings to another.

Another local delight that Portland offers are food carts (link). Scores of them are distributed all over the city that are easily accessible by bicycle. On this beautiful fall day, we decided to do a little "cart crawl" in the downtown area. These carts are run by some fantastic, vibrant and talented cooks that are garnering national attention from food magazines and the NY Times (link). The result is some of the best street food at affordable prices. Young chefs and cooks get to concentrate on the food, not wait staff, the high rent, liquor licenses and snarky diners.

The first destination was located adjacent to a gas station parking lot and offered the finest fusion of Korean BBQ and Mexican cuisine. For this cart Koi Fusion, you have to follow it's changing location on Twitter. Who knew a Korean / Mexican taco could be so good for $3? Just up the road between the high rises was the second delight. Ziba's Pitas, situated among 20 other carts in a downtown parking lot offered a potpourri of home cooked-Bosnian cuisine. I doubt you could match the flavors and authenticity this side of the Atlantic. And there is something to be said to look the owner, cook, and server in the eye, talk about what is new, fresh and seasonal and watch their face light up and say, "I know just what you will enjoy."

Friday, November 6, 2009

November 6th Ciderbike

Autumn has always been my favorite season. Moving to Portland has only reinforced this view. All around the neighborhood are brilliant yellows, orange and red leaves. Nature seems to be rationing the foliage even after a few good storms. A quick Saturday ride down the street leads me to the Hollywood farmer's market where some of my other fall delights await.. . .mmmm Brussels sprouts. Yet it is not all familiar. I recently was given the opportunity to attend a very unique, cycle-centric fall festival.

A very creative and inventive new friend has devised a cider press using a bicycle as the power source. He has used all FSC certified wood and recycled parts. I'm no expert on Cider Presses, but his design is both elegant and effective ( l i n k ). He has attached the rear skewer of the bike to a stationary bolt that keeps the cycle stable and allows the rear axle to keep moving. After propping up the front, you are off to the races. A large, custom-made concrete fly wheel makes contact with the top of the rear tire and it in turn powers the spike-laden cider masher. The apples are loaded into the funnel shaped box and smashed down with the help of a stick.

Being new to this kind of process, I was pleasantly surprised at how much beer is involved in the making of Apple Cider. . ..its sort of like fuel for the "riders." Simultaneously drinking beer and biking is amazingly simple when you eliminate the whole need to balance and pay attention. I now have a whole new level of respect for water bottle cages and can assure the readers that NO WATER BOTTLES were injured or even USED in this cider party. After adjusting the seat height and opening my beer, I was off and spinning. It feels kind of strange at first, especially when a lot of apples are being pinned by the stick and suddenly offer up some resistance.

Once enough pulp was produced with the pedaling, the apple mash is transferred to the cider barrel with a large, threaded rod that compacts the pulp (pomace) and lets the juice flow. We constantly had jars, pots and pans down to catch the precious liquid. Different apples yielded different tastes and the ideal (I am told) is 1/2 tart (Winesap, Jonathon, MacIntosh) Apples, 1/2 sweet (Delicious, Fuji, Cortland) Apples. Riders were encouraged to wear rain jackets for the occasional and sometimes Vesuvian Cider Press blowout. It can get rather nasty with all that downward pressure. Although science can't explain it, Halloween costumes enhanced the cider's flavor throughout the entire the process.

This kind of inventiveness and creativity serves cycling well, for it intrigues people who would not normally climb onto a bike. Twice that day I heard the same comment from happy participants who said, "I have not been on a bike for at least a year." By simply giving the rider a purpose and making it fun, people take interest and really get into it. It still amazes me how much energy is wasted at the gyms who host spin classes. Why not power the building with it? Or devise a way to charge your phone or iPod while pedaling to work. Those pedal-powered lights have been around for years, why not lead it back to your pannier or bag with a USB cable? The innovative spirit and constant drive forward has served our society very well--and the bicycle is no exception to this.