Bike Commuting in Portland

By Coach Mel

In light of National Bike-to-Work Month, I bring to the blog this week a post on bike commuting.

Arguably one of the most intimidating “scenes” to break into in Portland is the world of bicycling and, more specifically, bike commuting. On the outside, it appears to be a secret society of black pant-wearing, chiseled calve-bearing, traffic law-avoiding, death sentence-seeking criminals. But once you take the leap and enter the two-wheeled world you will find bike commuting to be not unlike the pre-approved TSA line at the airport. Instead of breezing through the security line you breeze by all the traffic in your own little lane equipped with a picture of a happy bicycle painted every 20 feet or so, gently letting you know you’re on the right track. And, like not having to pull a bunch of things out of your bag for the security scanner, you don’t have to pull your wallet out to pay for gas. And, instead of getting a nice knowing nod from the agent as he checks your license and puts a highlighter mark on your boarding pass, for God knows what reason, you get to give a knowing smirk to everyone circling the block for parking as you pull up right in front of the door.

All of this is not to say that bike commuting comes without its challenges. You will, at some point (especially in Portland), arrive at your destination soaking wet. You will, at some point on most days, get the middle finger thrown your way for no apparent reason. You will, at some point, have a very close call with a moving vehicle, pedestrian, fellow commuter, or if you’re me; all of the above. You might find yourself accidentally on a very frowned upon expressway in which case you might experience all of the above in a matter of minutes. But we commuters forget these events almost as soon as they happen, or within a week, and we saddle up again and again.

Back to being intimidated. There are reasons why people are intimidated by Portland’s bike scene. One being that if you ride a bike or want to ride a bike then it is inevitable you will need to go to a bike shop at some point. It is my opinion that some of the bike shops in town can be a bit judgmental of your ride and not take newbies seriously; this can be a huge deterrent. I will recommend a couple favorite shops at the end of this post. Another reason is that people think you need to drop a bunch of money on gear and bikes. My stance is this: own what you got. It does not matter what you wear, what bike you ride, if you only ride when it’s sunny, how tall your socks are, or if you rock (or try to rock) one of those little bike caps that I don’t know the official name for despite having been riding and racing bikes for quite awhile now. The point is, it is just super cool that you are riding a bike at all whether for health, happiness, environmental, or other reasons.

I bought my first bike in Portland around six years ago. I heard about Sellwood Cycle (oops just gave away one of the shops I was going to recommend) and I looked on their website and saw an orange bike for a few hundred dollars. I went to the shop and the people working there immediately came up to me to help. I did not look like a cyclist or someone who was going to drop a bunch of money; they are just stoked that anyone is excited to ride bikes. I asked about the orange one. They brought it out and it was gorgeous. I said I’d take it. They asked, a little confused, what size I ride; I had no idea. They asked what kind of bike I wanted; I wanted one with two functioning wheels. They asked if I wanted a beer while I waited; I did. Just happened that the bike would fit me with some minor tweaks and I was out the door with it a week later as it was on consignment. I still couldn’t tell you a lot of things about the bike that some people who “know bikes” would ask and I’ve been riding it for 6 years. But I do know that the orange bike and the people who helped me have it are a lot of the reason I love cycling. I have ridden that thing in many cyclocross races, on many road rides, on tours down the California coast, and now it has one job and that is commuting.

The point is to find what works for you. Don’t go getting the fanciest bike because someone told you that’s all that will work. Get the fanciest bike only if that’s what will get you riding. Wear what you want but always wear a helmet. Only wear clipless shoes if you have before or if you practice in a grassy field first. If you don’t know what clipless shoes are then dont worry about it; wear what’s comfortable. If you are confused why they are called clipless but too afraid to ask, so am I. Most importantly get yourself a free map at any cycling shop that shows you what roads are bike boulevards, not recommended etc., and if you live with someone who doesn’t mind then, do what I do, and deem that thing art and hang it on your wall. When you get out of bed in the morning the first thing you might think, especially in certain weather, is that you don’t want to ride to work. But I promise, once you have some rain gear on and are breezing by traffic and get to work with some endorphins happening, you’ll be happy you did.

While Portland bike commuting may seem scary, it is one of the friendliest places to ride. I mean, there is a new bridge ONLY for bikes. Okay, walkers and public transit get to use it too…but still. There are roads recommended for primarily bike use where the stop signs are in your favor and speed bumps are more frequent to get drivers to slow down. There is often more bike parking than car parking. The city loves us. Take advantage of it – improve your well-being; save some money; save some earth; and ride any bike you can get your hands on.

Sellwood Cycle Repair: – A SE based bike shop specializing in cyclocross, mtn bikes, new/used bikes, repair, and general awesomeness.
Gladys Bikes: – A NE based shop. This newer bike shop and it’s saddle library is a must see! Gladys is a women focused shop (but not women only!).