Sunday, July 01, 2012

Seven ways to work

June was a busy month for me, but I didn't want to miss out on too many early summer days in Portland. I decided to try to ride 10 different routes to campus during the month. My usual route is an embarrassingly idyllic 6 miles, mostly along the Springwater trail that parallels the Willamette River. At the end of the month, I've tallied 7 different routes into downtown, the most challenging being the 10 mile, 1000 ft climb via Council Crest. I think I exhausted my options without including either major detours or trivially minor ones.

All the routes were pleasant rides on nice days--good reminders of just how good many cyclers have it here in PDX. I remembered how much I enjoy climbing through Riverview Cemetary. Terwilliger is always a treat. The new cycle track in South Waterfront is a real improvement, too. We'll see if I keep mixing things up, at least until the rains return and lead me to the comfort of familiar routes.

Where are you, and how many different routes do you all take to work? Does it vary by season?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Spring gravel

A great day of hills and gravel with Ollie around Mt. Richmond.



Ride dump:

I'd be happy if all roads were graded gravel. A vulture gliding a couple feet off a country road takes up almost an entire lane. If snakes had an oral tradition, the wheel would enter as the "great evil." Finding a rhythm on a long climb is one of the best cycling sensations. Boy howdy, people keep tidy little homesteads in the Oregon boondocks. Bare, mossy oak trees on green hills--can't find the words and didn't get a picture.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As bad as it gets

It's 9 o'clock on a dark, stormy night in Portland. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, and the rain is starting to mix with snow. A lone figure strides out into the plaza. If this sounds sounds like a (terrible) movie script, well, apparently it is. A crew member asks if I could wait just a minute before I walk to my bike. They've been trying to get this scene for an hour.

The plaza is a little different than usual for this time of night. There aren't usually giant lights floating around on balloons, for instance. The Benz parked at the top of the stairs is new, too. Just as I'm taking it all in, a MAX train pulls up, unloads a few passengers, and ruins yet another take. Oh well, might as well go on to your bike. I chuckle at the comedy of it all as I fumble with my rain cape and lock, trying to get clear of the plaza before they start another take. Or, before one of those giant zeppelin lights shorts out and crashes down on me.

To bike six miles in weather like this must seem like it would be pretty miserable. I think this because people often tell me on days like this that it seems like it would be pretty miserable. "This must be as bad as it gets, huh?" I heard it earlier today as a matter of fact. Every once in a while people are right about the weather, but most of the time it's actually not so bad. Tonight's not so bad. In fact, it's pretty nice riding weather. This is one of those little cycler secrets I like to keep to myself. Partly to maintain the appearance of sanity. Partly, it's fun to have secrets.

I like weather, on the whole. When you ride the same route a lot--like the 6 miles between here and home--it's mainly weather that distinguishes one ride from the next. As I cross the river and turn off towards the trail, I'm thinking I can't recall riding through a night quite like this one. The bitter cold east wind that was blowing this morning has calmed. It feels much warmer than the 33 degrees flashing on the thermometer. The air has just a hint of that electric smell it gets just as a fresh snow starts. The snow melts a bit as it gathers in the crook of my cape, but it's still slushy as I heave the growing puddle off to the side.

I roll onto the trail at a good clip. The snow's freezing more, falling more slowly, and I start to catch a few flakes in my mouth. The geese that usually scold me give me a pass tonight. Maybe they're thinking this is about as bad as it gets, leave him be fellas. Their golden eyes glint in my headlight. Heading toward the dark, wooded stretch, I slow a little, wondering if the mule deer will be out. In Montana, they'd most likely have bedded down in a nice patch of grass behind some brush on a night like this. But you never know about these city deer.

In this dark stretch, the snow really stands out in my headlight, dancing patterns and casting energetic shadows on the trail ahead. It makes me think of the occasional bug swarms that will be hatching before too long on warm, summer evenings. My hands start to get a little chilled, and I adjust the cape and pick up the pace to warm them. No frog serenade tonight in Oaks Bottom. I hope all those peepers found some warm mud to tuck into during this little spring intermission. I don't see anyone else on the trail tonight, but I'm sure there were plenty before and maybe a few to follow that know these cycler secrets.

Soon I'm turning off the path, up through the park and along the bluff toward home. I get to look back down at the trail, and all the way back toward where I hope a soggy film crew finally got its scene. From up here, I have to admit it looks like a pretty miserable night for a spin along the river. The best secrets are like that, though.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Second spring

Spring night grocery run

When I decided years ago to drop out of the car game for a while, I thought I sort of knew what I was getting into. But, it turned out to be kind of like marriage. You can think about it in terms of practicalities--there'll be a wedding, then a honeymoon, then we'll be living together, eating meals together, we won't be dating people any more--but you actually don't have any idea what the real experience of will be like. Biking everywhere all the time has been similar in that way. I could wrap my mind around shopping by bike, and that I would get colder and wetter, and that I would get more exercise and not be buying gas any more, but the real experience of being on a bike everyday for normal stuff hasn't been much about those things at all.

My first tastes of the real cycler's life came while doing routine things I had done for years by car. Grocery shopping and fishing, for instance. There was a certain seamlessness to life that kept taking me by surprise. It's like I had expected the scenes themselves to change, but instead it was the scene changes. Years later, it's still the transitions that have changed my world the most. This year it's the seasonal changes that have my attention.

There aren't just four seasons any more, for one thing. And there's more than temperature, daylight, and precipitation in their measure. There are tiny seasons marked by the wind, the smell of the river and plants, the spring peepers and birds and bullfrogs. The shapes and colors of clouds, where they come from, and where they're going. Where the hobo camps are, how many, and how boisterous. I would agree with you if all of that makes me sound like some inarticulate but earnest hippie. But, the funny thing is I'm much more of an average city Joe these days than I ever have been. I haunt coffee shops instead of trout streams, and I'm more likely to see a sunset on my flickr feed than behind the west hills.

I find I'm getting worse and worse at explaining my experiences to others, and that's part of the reason that this blog has floundered. I get stumped when people ask me basic questions about what it's like to bike all year. I've kind of lost the ability to relate it to things. When someone asks a simple question like, "What's it like riding in the rainy season?" I think "Where to begin? There are so many things you should know about the rain, man! There are so many types of rain, to start with." Then I give up and say something brilliant like "Sometimes you get wet." In that way it's a lot like trying to explain being married to single friends. By the time you start to understand it, you can't explain it anymore.

Happy second spring everyone. The one with the swirling winds, the rain that smells like laundry, the nervous frogs, the giggling birds, grey-green river, and the southwestern clouds that have important appointments somewhere northeast of here.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Three friends ramble to the coast


A little past 9 am, I roll up to Pioneer Square in downtown Portland to find my pals Luke and Ollie already waiting. Fifteen minutes later we wheel our loaded bikes onto the MAX train and officially kick off our first tour together. It would be my first multi-night tour and my first tour with a group, having only done a few solo overnights in the past. I watch Luke and Ollie's huge bikes nearly drag the floor as they swing on the bike hooks. Luke toe straps his old Trek to the handrail to reign it in. I think we must be nearing some record for average bike tour height or something. I'm not used to being the runt at 6 feet on my 63cm frame, but Luke and Ollie are both several inches taller with bikes to match!

Our plans are simple and vague--just right for a late summer ramble. Randonneur Ollie will lead us through Yamhill County wine country and over the Coast Range on Nestucca River Road from Carlton to Beaver. Nestucca seems to be one of the least-used routes from Portland to the coast and promises a few miles of gravel and nice camping options. We'll camp somewhere past the summit, and then ride together to Sand Lake Road near the coast. Ollie will head south to meet family near Lincoln City, and Luke and I have a vague plan of looping north to Cape Lookout and home.

About an hour later the train arrives in Hillsboro, saving us a climb over the West Hills and a winding route through the suburbs that I can never get quite right. Luke, who wrenches at a bike shop, demonstrates cobblers' children syndrome for us by installing a new chain (that he'd had me pick up, his shop was out) at the train station. He'd bartered for the old Trek 720 and built it up in the space of a few days. The trip would be his shakedown cruise. At 10:25a, we were back on the road.

Three tall bikes in the Gumwall Gang

After a few miles on the wide-shouldered TV highway, Ollie leads us south through a maze of small roads. For Luke and I, it will be all new ground from here. Subdivisions give way to farm fields, and pretty soon we're on skinny roads with no hint that Portland's just 25 miles behind us. With mountains in the distance, we roll easily past fields of wheat, corn, blueberries, and possibly hops, and we speculate on many others. We pass my digital camera around and try some riding shots. I'm trying out a belt holster for my little digicam, and it works well. Riding solo there isn't much reason to shoot from the bike, but in a group there are always captive subjects around--if you can keep up with them!

Gorgeous roads south of Forest Grove

A charming lady in a BMW rolls down her window to chastise us, "Single file!", though at that point we were bunched up in a left turn lane while she was turning right at a tee. I guess she'd seen us from a ways back. I'm always amazed at how cyclers bring out the mothering instinct in everyone. "Where's your helmet?" "It's too cold to be riding!" "Your child should be strapped in!" "Single file!" I can't imagine these same people leaning out the window to yell at other motorists: "No texting!" "Mind the speed limits!" "That child should be in a car seat!"

Me on Romulus

Ah well, we leave the silly encounter behind the first rolling hills of the day. Without really saying anything, we all sort of roll to a stop in a perfectly shaded little grove and lean our bikes against a barbed wire fence. It's wonderful to be free of the background hum of the city. It's so quiet we can hear the skinny-tired whir of an approaching road biker out for a training ride from far down the road. We take a minute to look over each other's loads and bikes, as bikies do, and then we head out from our little grove and on to Yamhill.

The Yamhill General Store is a treat. It feels like it's been in continuous operation for a century at least. There are layers of stock that look as though what doesn't sell just gets pushed to the back and into corners. The oldest stock just gets relabeled as antiques! I down a V8 and grab a bag of Fritos, thinking we're about to hit the day's big climb. We linger just a little, then pedal out of town along the highway.

A neat thing about bike touring, I'm beginning to learn, is that it leaves time to linger a little. On a day ride, one really only has half the day to spend before turning the bars back toward home. On an overnight, I always seem to be racing darkness to my camp spot. Without the usual constraints, there's time to have a little fun and launch a scheme or two. One of our schemes is to find a decent bottle of Yamhill County wine to carry over the mountain to camp. Ollie leads us down a dirt lane to a "winemakers' studio" which lives up to its name. That is, we don't understand what goes on here at all. The bottles don't have prices, and the separate price list we're handed doesn't look promising, so we enjoy the cool stone building a few minutes and hit the road again.

Still on the hunt for the elusive $20 Oregon red, we pull off of the main drag in Carlton, and Ollie ducks in to a tasting room to do some reconnaissance. While Luke and I are noticing that
everything that once was is now a tasting room--movie theaters, banks, the train station, a grain mill--a similarly out of place dude yells from across the street, "Joe?!?" As he heads across the street toward us, I recognize cyclotourist extraordinaire and friend Arne from Portland! Arne's gal Lyndi soon joins us and introductions are made all around. It turns out they're in Carlton looking for a bottle of wine to take up Nestucca River Road! Portland can seem a very small place sometimes. Joining forces, we soon find a couple of bottles for the evening ahead. Our trio decides to linger and eat lunch in Carlton, but we promise to check in at Arne and Lyndi's camp if we don't catch them on the climb.

I grab a coke to supplement my PBJ and fritos, and Luke and Ollie get sandwiches from a little deli. We eat and top off our bottles, and then point the bars toward the hills. Soon we're on Nestucca River Road, spinning up the first false climbs of the foothills. After a few ups and downs, we start a gradual climb up a beautiful, narrow valley. We see Arne and Lyndi up ahead, stopped on the roadside deciding whether they really want to do some "extra credit" climbing on a smaller road parallel to Nestucca. Arne is on a recumbent with BOB trailer behind, a new setup for him.

Recumbent & B.O.B. trailer

Having only seen a car or two to this point, the five of us hadn't tried too hard to get fully clear of the road when we stopped. So, when the vintage white Ford pickup swerves around us and stops quickly in the middle of the road ahead, we all brace for the lecture to come. Afterwards, we would each admit to making a mental list of what the spry, white-haired farmer who hopped down from the cab was likely to say. As he starts in with "You young people..." I cringe a little. Suffice to say not one of us was ready for the rest of his speech, "You young people who are able to travel this way, well I think it's great! I'll park my pickup at the end of our driveway about three miles up, and you all stop by and fill your bottles before the BIG climb." Bacteria-free water from 500 feet down, on account of his wife, he goes on to say. As he pulls off we all look at each other a little dumbfounded, laugh, and agree we surely must have picked the right road! Ollie, Luke and I have full bottles and decide to pass on the kind fellow's offer, but Arne and Lyndi would stop off and not be disappointed.

The road finally tips up for good and treats us to a picture perfect climb. Four miles at 7% takes us slowly to the top with stops for blackberry picking and a few photos. Luke has packed along an old Russian Lubitel medium format film camera in addition to my little digicam. I miss the ritual of shooting film and the delayed gratification of prints. It's fun to try our hand with Luke's camera. I don't have high hopes for my shots!


P1000637

The day has warmed up enough that it's a relief to hit the shady stretches between Oregon's famed clear cuts. I take my helmet off as we ride and strap it to the tent pile on my front rack. I had been a little worried about keeping up on the climb, and I definitely spend the most time of anyone hanging off the back, but I'm able to hold on and whoop my way over the top with the other two.


Climbing through the trees

The descent seems to have been designed by cyclers. Cool shade, the Nestucca River on the left, smooth pavement, and curves that sweep just enough to challenge but not so much that we even have to touch the brakes often. This is about as good as it gets on a bike. We stop off at Dovre campground, our friends' planned destination, and leave a note for them. Luke and Ollie decide to swap bikes for a bit. Ollie's Kogswell is unusual, with steering geometry designed to carry most of the weight up front.

Soon we hit the promised gravel section, and our moderately wide 700x32 tires keep us rolling pretty well. On this quiet gravel road on the coast side of the mountains, it's beginning to get chilly, and Pioneer Square in Portland seems like a distant memory. We check out our free campsite option, Elk Bend, but it feels cramped and buggy, so we decide to roll on to Alder Glen. The light is just beginning to fade when Ollie flats, and suddenly the promise of warm food and a campfire starts to sound very nice indeed. Tube changed, we quickly reach the site and claim a spot in the very back next to the river and our own private waterfall.

Camp cooking

Luke and I pitch our tents, and Ollie--traveling light--spreads out his bedroll. The woolens come out, and we set to the task of dinner. I quickly realize another big advantage of touring with others--much better meals! Between the three of us, we had packed a real feast. Seasoned as it was by the miles in our legs and a day of fresh air, the food and wine disappear quickly. Firewood is gathered and before long we're passing a flask and stories around a roaring fire.

In the morning we eat a quick breakfast and break camp as the day warms quickly. We've left ourselves nearly 20 miles of gradual descent down to Beaver and the junction with 101. The miles pass too quickly, and soon we're at a Shell station downing "breakfast" pizza and chocolate milk to fuel the day. From here, we have to ride a short, unpleasant stretch of 101 to get to Sandlake Rd, which will take us to the ocean. From there, Ollie is heading south past Lincoln City to join his family on the coast, and Luke and I are planning to camp to the north at Cape Lookout on our way to Tillamook. We decide to pedal south with Ollie as far as Pacific City where the brewery promises beer and warm food.

Once we hit Sandlake Rd, the riding is peaceful again, although a bit busier than Nestucca River Rd had been. It also kept the beach just out of sight for a comically long time. Eventually, we reached the ocean. Mission accomplished!

Ollie and the Pacific

At Pelican Brewery, we grab a spot on the beachfront deck and loiter over some mean clam chowder and decent beer. We chat with a couple of guys en route from Seattle to San Francisco on classy bikes. Reluctantly, we leave our perch and roll off in our respective directions. Luke and I stop at perhaps the coast's tiniest grocery store and pack off some beer for camp.

We turn up Cape Lookout Rd and stop to check out the dunes at the "RA", once a military test site and now a dune buggy free for all. We hit the bottom of the climb on a crystal clear, hot summer day. A few miles later, we crest in a cloud of fog, shivering in all of our wool layers. Such is summer on the Oregon Coast. The chilly descent is refreshing but has us talking about hot chocolate instead of beer when we reach the campground at Cape Lookout. The hiker/biker camp there has apparently won awards, and well-deserved!

Luke near the top of the Cape Lookout climb

After tucking our tents into dense old forest near the beach, we meet up with Arne and Lyndi again just a few sites away! We share a fire and tell stories from the road. Nursing the fire well into night, we enjoy the stars and company before finally calling it a day. The next morning, Luke and I have an easy pedal into Tillamook, eat a second breakfast, and put our bikes on the bus back to Portland.

We had considered biking back over Hwy 6, but after such perfect roads, we weren't that excited to share the hot road with all the summer beach traffic. The bus ride was quick, and we were back in Portland by early afternoon. It was shaping up to be the hottest day of the year in the city, and I could only shake my head as I pedaled the few miles home, thinking of chilly descents, campfires and hot chocolate only the day before.

More photos here.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

The one-way bike commute

I've discovered a new way to spice up the daily trip downtown--the one-way bike commute! I'd heard of the OWBC before but only in the context of crazy long-distance cyclo-commuters. They might ride in, say 20-30 miles then get a ride or transit home. The bike stays at the office until they feel up to riding it home again.

Since my commute is only 5 to 6 miles each way, I'm pretty much always up to the return trip, and there is no faster way home for me. Also, I remember hearing from one seasoned OWBCer that things can get a little complicated. He once ended up with both bikes and his car at the office and had to bum a ride one evening to retrieve his gear. I sort of tricked myself into it, though.

I was loaning out a bike to a PSU exchange student, and I needed to get it downtown to make the handoff. I could have pulled it on the trailer or done some epic ghost riding, but I was lazy and just rode in on the loaner bike. I think I had a vague plan to ride the bus home--vague enough that I didn't bring a bus ticket or any cash along. Or my wallet, actually. Hmmm. One of those weird carfree moments of Zen.

The weather was nice enough, and nothing was pressing, so I decided to walk the five miles home. It turned out to be a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half of my evening. The next morning I was really ready to get back on my bike, too. Hmmm.

I sort of shelved the thought through the worst of winter, since I'd much rather be on a bike than on foot in cold and rain. This spring, I've been experimenting more with the OWBC, though, and I'm really enjoying it. Walking home's fun because I can take weird "urban explorer" type paths that would be a pain or impossible on the bike. I've made all sorts of fun right-of-way discoveries in the southwest hills. I've also run home twice. The distance is a little out of my comfortable running range, but it's still fun as an occasional challenge. My usual OWBC plan of attack is to ride in, walk or run home, and then bus in the next day. It really makes me appreciate the bike trip in, too, since I know I'm going to have two trips off the bike.

I'd love to add some new commute modes to the mix. I may try kicking in on Rachel's little scooter some day. I wish I knew how to skateboard--those longboards look like a relaxing way to get around. Or kayak. I'm lucky I can leave the bike in my office, since a sketchy lockup spot would kill the OWBC. If you can make one work, though, I highly recommend it!

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Monday, February 02, 2009

DC Smart Bikes

January in Portland was a decent month for cycler-ing around, and I feel like my year's off to a good start. We had an unusual string of clear, calm nights in Portland, and they made for some great night commutes home. I love the almost total silence on late, cold nights under the stars, whisking along by the Willamette. It's hard to believe that in another month or so, the spring peepers will make Oaks Bottom loud as a highway, if a bit more pleasant.

Only 153 miles left me off pace for my ten a day goal, but some nice extended commutes in the west hills made it feel like more. Also, I was gone to a conference and visiting family for 2 weeks around DC.

I'm a big casual fan of bike sharing, and I was looking forward to seeing the DC Smartbike fleet up close. Unfortunately (but probably for the best), the system is not meant for us gawking tourists. I had heard snickers in Portland that the DC system seemed awfully small to cover the city. In my week hoofing it in and around Dupont Circle, I was surprised to stumble on 3 separate Smartbike stations. It seems like DC made the most of the initial installment by concentrating the stations.

Despite some seriously blustery weather, I saw a lot of turnover at the stations. Dupont Circle metro station to the Whole Foods about 3/4 mile away seemed to be a popular trip and struck me as a "killer app" for the shared bikes. The bikes themselves are super smart. I snapped a few cell phone pics at the Dupont rack.

Plenty of bikes on a weekday afternoon. On the weekend, the rack was down to 3

The front rack is sized for a paper grocery sack and has a bungee to secure the load. The rack has pins that lock the bike into the return rack. It's released electronically when a user logs in at the checkout terminal at the end of the rack.

Super smart bike design for regular clothes and minimal maintenance. Internal 3-speed hub with rear roller brake and front v-brake, full chain and skirt/coat guards, fenders, lights. The seat post is quick release for adjustment but won't pull out all the way for obvious reasons.

I like the twin top tube design. Why not have a little flair? The rear light's clamped onto the seat tube and well protected. I couldn't figure out how the lights are powered or turned on. There's no generator or obvious switches. Do they charge from the rack contacts? Turn on automatically?

All in all, I left pretty impressed. I'm sure in the summer they'd need a lot more bikes, but it seems like a nice system to build on, and it's definitely getting used, even mid-winter. Way to go DC!