09 August 2008

Is this heaven? No, it's Portland

Twice this summer I have found cycling clubs to ride with in other cities. Back in June I joined an exhilarating rural club ride, managed to hang with the riders up front (well, they may have managed to keep in mind that if they dropped me I was lost, alone, in rural Michigan!), and finished a 36-mile ride with an average speed of 20mph. OK, so that's not Tour speed, but it was the longest ride for me at that average speed. The Grand Rapids Rapid Wheelmen proved to be a friendly club, and their rides have 2 interesting aspects that were new to me: 1) they purposely have a faster and a slower pace group for the same ride, so the fast riders don't have to hold back and the slower riders don't worry about being dropped; 2) ride leaders have printed cue sheets because even though the start location is the same, the ride isn't the same each time.

I don't get around all that much, but my experience this summer has definitely made me committed to scouting out cycling clubs and organized rides when I travel to other cites. A group ride with locals will introduce me to routes that I would not naturally discover in a short visit; a club ride will always seem safer riding in an area where I do not know what to expect from auto drivers, dogs, etc.; and cyclists are generally just such friendly people. I've seen that in ABD, the club I ride with.

A week ago I returned from a week in Portland. Why I was there for a week is another story, and it, too, is an awesome adventure. This was my 4th summer to travel to Portland with my wife, who goes there for a work-related conference. My first trip out, 3 years ago, I found an excellent shop that rented high quality mountain and road bikes. Waterfront Bicycles is truly a great find in a bike friendly city. (They've just changed locations; they are still along the water front - Willamette River - but they no longer rent Felt bikes. Oh well ...) This year I arranged for a 3-day rental, took my own pedals and shoes, arranged to keep the bike at the hotel at nights, and prepared to enjoy this beautiful city, and cycling where when you look up you can see snow-capped mountains. Ummm ... we don't get that in Illinois!

I found online a local club with an amazing weekly ride schedule. Portland Wheelmen Touring Club has several big rides a year, but 2 - 3 rides every day of the week all summer long, including morning rides. So on Tuesday I rode from the hotel, about 11 miles to the start point. There I met a group of about 8 men who were trying to decide who were going to ride which distance/loop. It was pretty easy for me to agree that as a newbie, as a flat-lander, and as the unknown quantity on a rented bike, I would go with the short group. It would be a ride of some 32 miles, crossing the Columbia river into Washington, circling Lacamas Lake in Camas, WA, and stopping somewhere (in Vancouver?) for an excellent cup of coffee and a pastry at a local Italian coffee shop. One could get used to riding with a group like this! These guys were all easily 10-15 years older than my early 50's - their experience riding this terrain (which, granted on this ride was hardly mountainous) was ameliorated by their age, so I could pretty well keep up with them. And it was a beautiful ride, even the light rainy bits, with good camaraderie. And that great cup of coffee.

In 3 days of riding - trail (paved), bike lane, bike route - I covered 175 miles. I crossed countless intersections, rode on all kinds of surfaces - residential, arterial, bike/pedestrian lanes on an expressway bridge, downtown streets, etc. All but 32 of those miles were ridden solo. I was completely impressed with the "shared road" attitude of drivers and cyclists alike. I never saw a cyclist jump a red light. Not once did a car fail to stop at a striped cross-walk when I was there on a bike or on foot. Not once in 3 days, 175 miles of riding. That can hardly be coincidental.

Yesterday, back here at home, I took a ride on my touring bike. I didn't feel up to riding solo on the roads, so I decided to get on the Prairie Path from my neighborhood, and ride as far towards Wisconsin as my available time would allow. From where I get on the path, it just starts to get "rural." The path may go 2.5 miles or more between street crossings. Along the Fox River, the Trail gets more urban/suburban again, then after about Carpentersville there are again some longer stretches of path. It was a lovely day for a long ride, and parts of the path are newly paved and the river and other natural features make this route as good as it gets.

But I found myself longing for the Portland experience. I am a native Midwesterner, so I can get over not seeing mountains on my rides. Sure, it would be nice, but it just isn't here. No, what I missed was the sense that drivers give a rip about courtesy to pedestrians or cyclists. By contrast to my 175 miles without a single cross-walk failure, in yesterday's 86 miles only once (1 time, out of uncountable crossings) did a car stop at a striped crossing. I am convinced that this driver stopped only because the group in front of me consisted of Mom/Dad/Child. And of course, the driver of the large expensive vehicle from the other direction did not even slow down, so it was good that the father ahead of me seemed kind of confused about what to do with someone properly yielding to his family!

What created the Portland cycling ethic? Is that even possible in suburban, metro Chicago? If I entered a striped cross-walk to timidly exercise my Rules of the Road right, would I lose my life, or just suffer the glares, honks, and gestures of motorists wondering where I get off?

Several years ago I pretty much gave up on riding the Prairie Path, for any number of reasons, none of them the Path itself. Yesterday I was sad to realize that here is yet another reason to stay on the road and off the path: a cyclist can't even get a break sticking to the relative safety of that route. So, give me the streeet and road, and a group of any size, and I'll happily roll anywhere.


Christopher Charles Horatio Xavier King III, Esq. said...

In my opinion, the Portland cycling ethic is at least partly explained by their public decision decades ago to devote a fraction of all road money to cycling infrastructure. This solved the chicken and egg dilemma between getting people to ride and justifying cycling capacity. "We shape our cities, and then they shape us." More bike lanes and signals leads to more riders, which adds visibility, which adds awareness, which adds political capital for continuing improvements, which makes cycling easier so even more people do it. When a city makes it easy for people to quickly and legally get around, they'll do so, increasing goodwill for both rides and drivers. I think Portland is a great model for other cities to follow as we begin to contemplate life with expensive oil.

Chuck King said...

Well, there's good perspective for you. Thanks! Yes, that makes perfect sense. I wonder if Daley's efforts along these lines could ever move Chicago closer to that kind of environment.