Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Random Thoughts from Portland

Working in a bike shop means that I work on weekends and my days off happen in the middle of what the rest of the world views as its work week. Last week my Dahon and I visited various friends in Portland. Rather than write up some sort of "I did this and this and this" report, I offer instead this collection of blurry snapshots and random observations from some guy on a little red bike.

Speaking of the little red bike, my Dahon totally freekin' rocks. Christine bought me a nice nylon bag for the bike and early Wednesday I rode from Issaquah to the Seattle Amtrak Station. Amtrak also totally rocks as a way to get from Seattle to Portland -- thirty bucks and about three and half hours each way. I unfold the bag, fold up the bike, put the bike in the bag, carry the bag on the train, and settle in for a nice train ride.

Portland is a bike-friendly town, with a huge number of riders and lots of bike-related businesses. It is the kind of town that not only has a bike map, it has a pocket-sized bike map that is easy to carry on your bike. It is a town that has signs everywhere telling you where the bike-friendly streets are. It is a town where biking to work is normal. And it is a town that expends a huge amount of energy and angst wondering if it is bike friendly enough, if its bike infrastructure is only serving white people of privilege, if Minneapolis really is more bike-friendly than Portland and so on. I often suspect that a large number of people in Portland think that people elsewhere think about Portland more than they actually do.

But when I'm in Portland, I do think about Portland and the Portlandia dream, which is very easy to mock. The real city is shaped by dreams of those who chose to move here or keep living here and as I ride down these real streets and talk with these real people, I can't help but be impressed by the ways people really do manage to make a living in this weirdly wonderful city.

Dan and Erik left Planet Bike a few years ago to start a company called Portland Design Works. They make lights and fenders and other bike bits and currently share space in a gigantic tin shed with a company that makes traffic cones and a bunch of other small bike business. I first met Dan via email back when he was at Planet Bike and they helped me get the Bicycle Alliance Get Lit program rolling. They continue to give back to the community while making nifty products. Dan tells me that they are finally at the point where they are hiring a third person and are going to be moving their operation to a bigger space. A space, by the way, big enough to enclose their velodrome. Portland is the kind of town where buying your own velodrome (they did get a hell of a deal) makes sense.

Dan and Erik show me prototypes of the new PDW fenders, which are metal and have a grey finish that will look good on a wide range of bikes. The finish looks identical to that of Shimano's current Ultegra components. The discussion of fenders leads us to one of the other businesses housed in the big tin shed, where I meet Shawn, the chief engineer of Ruckus Components. Shawn does something very few people do, he fixes and modifies carbon fiber frames. He also makes some very cool, very light carbon fenders for bike whose original designers never gave thought to fender clearance.

Portland is a town where a random guy riding down random streets will see three-wheeled electric cars and bike-towed mobile homes parked by the curb. It's a town where Cyclone Bicycle Supply uses a bike cargo service to deliver parts to bike shops. It's a town where if a guy has enough friends, it's virtually impossible for him to pay for a cup of coffee or a meal. It's the town where the egg you had for breakfast came from a chicken with a name and you'll constantly be asked if you're vegan and you may feel guilty that you're not.

Portland is a town where you can completely randomly get into a "how much wool are you wearing?" contest and the guy who wins is the guy who "is not wearing any non-wool." And you may feel guilty that you don't know the name of every sheep that was shorn to give you that wool. That undercurrent of sincere earnestness that lets me visit Portland and enjoy it, but still be very, very certain that I'm much happier living elsewhere.

Portland is a town where there are signs saying "Do Not Enter (Except For Bikes)" and people who will tell you how much bikes are oppressed here. It is a town where 78% of the drivers and 93% of the cyclists roll through stop signs. I tend to be a pretty law-abiding cyclist and I found myself rolling through Portland stop signs because they have about eleventy-billion of the things. It seems like every damn corner in every tiny neighborhood has at least a couple of stop signs. I am reminded of what some folks said about the old Campy Delta brakes "they are not for stopping, they are for modulating your velocity." Now I am not suggesting that Portland remove all its stop signs (I've heard they tried that and people kept running into each other) but I am pointing out that "normal" varies from place to place.

My friends Russ and Laura have made Portland their winter home, despite the rains, but for them Portland is less a home and more of a long campsite. They know perhaps too much about pedaling to ride too long on paths these pedaled and they are plotting routes to places they have yet to see. We speak of making enough to keep moving, of small bikes and big trains, of extension cords and the cost of data plans. We speak of going to empty places to find what it is we need to fill.

Some folks find Portland is the place they grow roots, while others find it odd or gloomy and move on. My friend Scott has been three years in this city and is still uncertain of the rain, still less than in love with the city. Portland is tolerant of many things and many lifestyles, but an immunity to the charms of the Rose City is viewed with the most extreme suspicion. But no place is the place for everyone.

I come here to roll down streets that welcome me and converse with people building up a city of which they're justly proud. But this is not my town, my place. It is a place I wonder at and enjoy. I take pictures and memories of conversations and ideas and I roll away.

I'll probably be back, but for now I have to keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


kfg said...

"a "how much wool are you wearing?" contest"

Protip: Winners are often people who pay fanatical attention to what others think of as small details - change the pockets in your pants.

Gunnar Berg said...

Erik Noren has gotten some bad press recently. I know him and think he is misunderstood, but either way I still like his quote from Bicycling Magazine because it does capture the Minneapolis attitude him:

"F**k Portland!" he opines upon learning I am trying to discover why Minneapolis deserves top status over what would seem the logical choice. "All I ever hear is about how cool Portland is. Who rides through the shit we do? We ride more by accident than they do on purpose."

Anonymous said...

Funny funny stuff. Excellent post

RoadieRyan said...

Thanks for the write up Kent. PDX is my home town in that I lived from from age 8 to 28 and if I wasn't living in the emerald city I would be living there. I chuckle over the fact that when I moved to Seattle back in the early 90's it was THE bike city then Portland went super nova as Bike city USA. Its quirky and weird but that kinda makes me love it all the more.


Anonymous said...

Good to see our friend beth h. Thanks for the pics and the post.

Gene in Tacoma

Erik Hardy said...

Great post Kent. Really like the format of this one and you always serve as an inspiration for the places you can travel on two wheels, train wheels, but no car wheels. No need to plan some epic, cross country, multi-month, quit the job, sell everything and live out of a tent type of thing to get out there. Just throws some books and a bike in a bag and head out the door. The rest will sort itself out.

Mountain Bike Helmets said...

The little red bike looks pretty cool! I'm sure you had a great time visiting your friends at Portland. Glad to hear that Portland is a bike-friendly town. It's literally obvious with the pictures you've posted! I'm looking forward to biking in Portland someday. Thanks for sharing such a great post!

Anonymous said...

I moved to Portland from CA 4yrs ago and it's been great. Sure, the weather can be a drag but so much is right about this place than wrong that it more than makes up for it.

Love Portlandia. Put a bird on it!