It was the sight of a couple, riding a bicycle built for two, wearing bug eyes and antennas that broke a storm of weeping for the city we’ve come to love. I couldn’t help but laugh, how much more Portland could that have been? It was something straight out of Portlandia, us in the car, her crying at the sight of two weird denizens on their silly bike. Clouds rolled overhead and the wet streets reflected whatever sun was available. It was the worst day of the year.
Check that, it was The Worst Day of the Year Ride, an annual oh-so-Portland bike gathering/fundraiser1The charity beneficiary is the Community Cycling Center which promotes bike riding and fitness in the city. Check them out! that revolves around February 8th, the so-called “Worst Day of the Year” which has had its share of inclement weather, including an 11 foot rise in the Willamette River and a recorded temperature of -54 degrees2Thanks, Willamette Weekly!. These events are not the norm, as any Portlander would tell you – winters generally are mild and not nearly as wet as you might think – and that forms the basis of the “Worst Day of the Year Ride”, a bike ride with tongue firmly in cheek as Portland does what it does best. Make fun of itself, namely, and look silly doing it.
Last year, however, nature had other ideas about being mocked publicly. Snowmageddon, snowpocalypse, SNOMG, whatever you want to call it, happened, and in its 13th year of existence, the Worst Day of the Year ride was cancelled for the first time; because of weather. While it was a relief for two intrepid Californians-come-Portlanders who were trying to figure out how to get a Mini Cooper loaded with two bikes downtown in a foot of snow, the irony was not lost on us either.
However, the event simply just shrugged its shoulders and forwarded everyone’s registrations a year, so, even with time bearing down on a move across the globe, these two Californians loaded up the bikes and made way to do perhaps one last ride around Portland. This is their story.
The crying quickly subsumed. It was a beautiful day, a break within some pretty heavy rain and the promise of a dry race loomed ahead of us. She was doing a 46-mile bruiser of a “challenge” course, and I was doing a 15-mile urban track around inner Portland. As such, she was leaving an hour before I was, and would come in two hours after me. Nerves and the excitement that come before a ride were quieted with some coffee and donuts, as we scanned the crowd for their costumes.
Most of the riders at that hour were going to be joining her on the challenge course, and while many were costumed, none were so much as “Waffle Man”, a rider wearing a sandwich board-style waffle over his shoulders with a helmet that was styled to look as if someone poured a jug of maple syrup over his head, jug still attached. He chuckled when I asked him the chances of the waffle surviving all 46 miles. “Not great, this is hardly the most aerodynamic waffle,” Waffle Man said with a shrug. The waffle shrugged with him.
Also present was Left & Right Shark, a pair of riders wearing blue spandex and shark heads over their helmets. I overheard someone ask which was Right Shark. The shorter, more lean rider, his riding outfit more snuggly fitting his body raised his hand. Left Shark did a terrible dance, drawing a good laugh. Photographers and reporters worked the group mining for quotes and color to grace The Oregonian, Willamette Weekly, etc. It was soon time to start as riders queued up in the starting (and finishing) chute, as volunteers struggled to get the banner hung in time.
The 46-milers took off. I would later find out via Bev that someone was arrested within 5 minutes of her start and another person ate it crossing train tracks within another few minutes. That was, fortunately, all that we saw that was negative.
Waiting around for a race to start, as I mentioned, is nervy. With an hour to kill, I had little to do rather than keep warm, loose and eye the various costumes coming in. It became apparent that many of the costumed riders would be arriving late and that we’d have a very staggered start. That suited me just fine – on some of the tight streets a crowd would only become an obstacle and I’m not great in riding in groups. I decided that maybe starting early and spending my time watching riders come in might be the way to go, so with that in mind, I queued up in the chute near the front, eager to start in the first wave. The starter made mention of the various sponsors & partners and then invoked nature’s wrath by mentioning that this year was the first time that the ride hadn’t been rained on3besides last year, when it, ya know, snowed.. A few people groaned. Most people just rang their bells.
Portland is a city filled with neighborhoods that (mostly) blend together in invisible lines. The route that I rode demonstrated that in ways I hadn’t expected, even though I’ve done a similar ride. It was immediate to me that what I wanted most to write of was the city, not of the riders. In fact, I saw very few of my fellows, starting out in the first group and finishing likewise. Those that I did see were for the most part, dressed tamely in bike gear with a few accessories. But there was time to enjoy the costumes after the ride – at that moment, all I could take in was Portland, as it dawned on me, this really is the last hurrah.
The route started by zig-zagging down the rapidly decaying Morrison Bridge, whose trials and repairs made for interesting (and hair-raising) reading in this week’s Portland Mercury. There it all was, plain to see at 10 miles per hour, something I used to drive over every day. Thoughts of civil disorganization and contracted tomfoolery left my mind as I rode along Waterfront Park, with its joggers and homeless gatherings, the geese and ducks and crows picking at the replanted sod. The waterfront gives way into the north Pearl District, where yuppies walked their dogs in jogging clothes and unmarked coffee cups. I rode past a do-it-yourself wine making and bagel pizza place4Keep Portland Weird, y’all. that Bev & I went to once.
The Broadway bridge is, to me at least, a beautiful orange-red steel girder bridge, painted “Golden Gate” red. It is not a majestic bridge like the Golden Gate, but rather to me has always looked like an industrial, working-class version of the famous landmark. Given Portland’s history as a steel town, it’s fitting to think of it in that manner. The west span of it acts as a viaduct where I could see into the decks and patios of the nearby apartments. On the worst day of the year, the western neighborhoods were quiet.
For those that don’t know, Portland is divided into five “quadrants”5Yes, it makes no sense. This is Portland.. North-south is divided by Burnside St, and east-west is divided by the Willamette river, except since there is no such thing as a straight river, north of where the river bends to the west in its confluence with the Columbia is simply called “North Portland.” North & Northeast are bordered by North Williams Avenue, which is where we turned after crossing Broadway, the
Rose GardenModa Center dulled and grey, a painful reminder of the Blazers’ loss the night before.
North Williams is outrageously, deliriously, overwhelmingly gentrified6Seriously, it is so fucking polished, it gleams.. It’s also designed to be one of the city’s major bike arteries. It attempts this by having a bike-only lane on the left (it is a one-way avenue) but there are often, but not always, left-hand turning lanes intersecting with the bike lane. Add in the constant construction and I can see it being a disheveled mess during busier hours. It was with some pleasure that we turned off to NE Skidmore, into our fifth and final quadrant.
East Portland is truly a city of neighborhoods. The larger half of the city, it follows an urban grid pattern for the most part, bisected by the Banfield freeway, carrying I-84, which winds its way north of Burnside, allowing for neighborhoods to span the North-South division. Skidmore gave way to NE Going Street, one of the best streets for bicycling in the city.
Wide, with low traffic, Going St. is a staple for bike routes, a popular bike fare for Sunday Parkways, and I found myself immediately wishing Bev was riding with me. Here I slowed down, took in the victorians and colonials, side by side, until I reached our second rest stop. Here too was the Community Cycling Center, along funky Alberta Street. Alberta is also a fairly gentrified street, but at least some of its history has been preserved, evidenced by the mural of Malcolm X on the corner of NE 17th & Alberta. Another rider came in, dressed as Luke Skywalker in his X-Wing pilot’s uniform. Someone joked that hopefully he wasn’t one of the pilots lost in the Battle of Yavin IV. “Not with my trusty droid at my side!” he responded. A woman, presumedly his significant other, rode in, dressed of course as R2-D2.
As we wound our way down 24th towards the incredibly well-off neighborhood of Alameda, the rain began to start. Drips at first but then a bit harder, colder, bit by bit. A few of nervously joked that the starter did us no favors by invoking the gods’ wrath but it never got so much harder than just a steady rain for a few minutes. Alameda breaks from the grid by traversing south-east along a ridge-line that offers to the residents of that neighborhood what must be an incredible view of the city from their backyards. We travelled along the ridge, through a majority of that well-to-do neighborhood, dripping wet.
As the route approached the major artery Sandy Blvd, there were two Catholic churches, St. Rose and Our Lady of Lavang, the latter having all its signage in Vietnamese. There was also a German-American cultural center on the same block. Mass was just getting out, and a good number of Southeast Asian-American parishioners were getting into their cars, perhaps their praying did the trick, as the rain all but stopped, allowing a number of sharply-dressed churchgoers to get to their cars with dry clothes.
Somehow, I missed seeing NE Broadway, but as we crossed NE Halsey, I knew I was in the homestretch. Here were the streets near where I work, the final few before Burnside and where the street signs would show “SE” once again. Clackamas, Waco, Multnomah, and then, Irving and the Banfield overpass.
We had entered Laurelhurst.
Of all of Portland’s neighborhoods, Laurelhurst is my favorite. A mix of modern/post-war and turn-of-the-century arts & crafts style, the neighborhood of Laurelhurst sits like a crown jewel dead-center in the city. It straddles Burnside like a queen, rolling hills and oak-tree lined streets; my heart sang out in joy for riding once more through, so much so, I missed a turn on the route! Oh well, I took the scenic route instead, heading down Couch for a while before having to double back to Everett. There the streets were bike-primary, with non-local traffic discouraged by means of narrow streets and wide sidewalks. We crossed Burnside on 41st, passing near a house Bev & I had visited once. Robin & John, the owners, hosted a garden party last summer7I was honored as well – that was a shock. and their house was so exquisite, modern but with so many flawless classic details, that I couldn’t help but feel the small green winged monster gnawing at my soul.
It wasn’t long before I entered the Sunnyside neighborhood on SE Salmon, knowing that it was only a matter of counting down numbers. 40th, Cesar Chavez (39th), 35th. Turn of the century, victorian, apartment, they blended together in a happy rush as I reentered Buckman, the neighborhood where I’ve spent most my days as of late, taking the turn on 9th at a sharp angle, finishing, as I am wont to do, in a dead sprint.
“The bike lane goes through parking spots and left-hand lanes…” This was Chaz, one of my fellow riders whom I stayed with most of the time. We were sitting on a picnic table in the beer garden at Lucky Lab relaxing. One beer had turned into a few as I waited for Bev to finish her ride. The conversation had meandered, much like the ride, through one topic to the next, with nary a border or a marker. At that point, we were discussing N Williams, the gentrification of which neither of us really cared for. His argument was perhaps a bit more pragmatic, the meandering bike lane and the confusion of which side of vehicle traffic it was supposed to be on. But he agreed, the street hadn’t much of a soul any more, at least between Fremont and Skidmore.
I was reminded of the Tour de Lab, another around-the-city ride that went a bit deeper into North Portland. There, as N Ainsworth crossed I-5, church was in session, on a glorious Sunday summer day, and its attendees in full voice as gospel filled the air. What a sound to hear in Portland, Oregon! But the conversation changed
neighborh topics again, and we were speaking of riding hills in Tuscany, to which I listened enraptured of any new experiences.
Around us, the rest of the field came in. Chaz & I were one of the first 50 in, which offered no prizes other than an empty beer line and first stab at the chili being offered by the ride sponsors. Prize enough for us, as we drank our fine, fine IPA and watched Captain America come in, with Thing 1 and Thing 2 not far behind. A whole raiding party of Vikings landed, foil axes and spears at the ready. At one point, Bev had texted me. 20 miles in and Waffle Man was holding it together. I saw Right Shark ride in, completing the challenge course in fine time (but, disturbingly, not Left Shark…) and after about two hours, I bid Chaz goodbye, stretched my legs with a walk, and saw Waffle Man’s unmistakable shape coming down Salmon.
Bev would not be far behind.
We spoke about the five quadrants and how our rides went through the entire city. Her 46 mile ride went out to a suburb named Hillsboro, past her work, and over the hills of Forest Park in Northwest Portland to cross the St Johns8not a typo, it’s not St. John’s. Bridge. There, she stopped to take a picture of Mt. Hood’s base poking through the clouds, where, even on the worst day of the year, Wy’East stopped to say goodbye. The storms came later that day, thunder and lightning into the late hours of the night; perhaps the weather gods had granted mercy after punishing us last year by allowing us our silly celebration. Regardless, the storm of tears that started the day would not return.
Not that day. Not on the worst day. We’ll save the tears for the next day, or the day after, perhaps the last day. We’ll hold this one dear for quite a while.