In the four years I've lived in Portland, I have ridden a Razor scooter more often than I've ridden a bike. That is to say, I have never ridden a bike in Portland. Like a good, native Southern Californian, I've clung to my car. Here's the weird thing: I hate cars. I hate being in them. I don't know how they work, nor do I care to learn. I treat mine with the level of respect befitting an old, sickly cat, inherited from a particularly spiteful ex-girlfriend, that I just don't have the heart to put down.
It's not that I harbor any particular antipathy toward bikes. Like joining a gym or learning woodworking—or trying anything new, really—the reason I've never mounted a Schwinn (or whatever) is intimidation. I'm not just nervous about biking in a major city. Portland's bike culture intimidates me. It's so deeply ingrained in the fiber of this city that entering as a novice is a frightening prospect. And let's be honest: Cyclists can be elitist assholes. When I still had out-of-state plates on my car, guys in full bike-nerd regalia would scream at me to "go back to California!"
Closing in on a half-decade as a Portlander, though, I figured it was finally time to leap into the world of biking. Wait, that's not true: My editor made me do it. Well, you've got to start somewhere.
I'm in the lobby of Everybody's Bike Rentals, awaiting my steed. More accurately, I'm in the Northeast Portland kitchen of a guy named Dan, waiting for him to get off the phone so I can get down to the basement where he keeps his rental bikes. I let on that I don't quite know what I'm doing. I tell him I haven't been on a bike in at least six years. It's like I've told him I've never seen a rainbow.
Dan leads me into his basement. He grabs a basic-looking commuter bike from a fleet of a few dozen—most of which he's built from donated frames—and takes me outside, past his goat pen and chicken coop, into the street. Dan wants to see me go down to the end of the block and back, like a concerned father who just took off his kid's training wheels. I get on my new ride. As it turns out, riding a bike isn't quite like riding a bike. I'm like a baby deer learning to walk, insecure and wobbly. In my first minutes as a cyclist, I feel infantilized and self-conscious.
I make it home without fracturing anything.
It's a beautiful morning. You couldn't ask for a better day to begin communion with the outside world. I strap on my XXXL helmet—I was indeed born with a head the size of a medicine ball—and carry the bike, somewhat awkwardly, down the stairs of the apartment complex I moved into only two days before. I shove off with enthusiasm. I round the corner, heading toward Broadway, futzing a bit with the gears…and the chain falls off.
It's an easy fix, I know, but I'm worried about making it worse. I get in my car and drive to work with the windows rolled up. My girlfriend texts me later to say she put the chain back on for me.
After yesterday's false start, I'm slightly deflated, but it's another nice day, so I'm ready to give it another go. I take Broadway, and it's proving remarkably easy. "You've gotta be a pro to bike in the city," a pedestrian remarks at a stoplight as large, industrial vehicles pass within inches. I tell him it's my first time. He seems impressed. Or scared for me. Hard to tell.
I arrive at work in Northwest Portland about 25 minutes after leaving my apartment on the other side of the river, a bit sweatier than I'm used to but otherwise feeling good. The ardent cyclists in the office offer high-fives, which I find slightly condescending, though it's better than my editor's reaction. "That's the sissiest bike I've ever seen!" he cackles.
I take the Eastbank Esplanade to OMSI, where WW staffers are going on a morning ride to the Cartlandia pod on Southeast 82nd Avenue (see here). We take the Springwater Corridor, past Ross Island and Oaks Park and a surprising number of weekday riders on recumbent bikes, hand-pedaled bikes and one bizarre conjoined version of the two. I'm taking up the rear, though that's mostly because I'm talking to our music calendar editor. Everyone ahead stops, concerned with how I'm holding up, and asks me to act as "the pace car." I didn't know we were training for the Tour de France.
On the way home, everything goes to shit. Having logged about 15 miles, and now loaded up on a pan-global stew of Filipino adobo, a steak wrap, Russian pastries and a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog, I learn what it means to be out of "bike shape." My ass hurts when it's on the seat, so I stand to pedal, which burns my quads. I am now legitimately dragging down the rest of the group.
"Hey Matt, want to play a game of who can get back to the office the fastest?" my editor asks. I know what he's getting at. I tell everyone I'll meet them back at the office. I'm quickly ditched, like a lame gazelle left behind to get torn apart by hyenas.
I arrive about 20 minutes after the rest. Apparently, I was being timed. Considering I stopped back at OMSI and stared at the river for a while, I don't feel too bad about that result.
I'm asleep by 10 that night.
My ass has apparently callused over, because I can actually sit down, and the ride to work is even easier than before. Is this what "bike shape" feels like?
I stay at work until dark. I decide that night riding is too big a gamble for a novice, so I opt for the bus. That brings up other difficulties, as I've never loaded a bike onto the front of a bus before. Like fixing the chain, I know it's easy. But what if it's not? What if I can't find the handle? What if the driver has to come out and assist me, and the other passengers are annoyed and rolling their eyes because I'm making them late for dinner or their underground hobo knife-fighting league or something?
Turns out, it's no more challenging than opening a glove box. No one will miss their knife fight on account of me tonight.
Another gorgeous day. I really lucked out this week, though I realize getting pelted by hail would make this piece more interesting.
I ride to Velo Cult in the Hollywood District to meet our photographer, Cameron. Hardcore cyclists in spandex sip craft beers at picnic tables while the bike shop's employees fill tires with air. It feels not unlike walking into a "biker bar"—not that the people are unfriendly, but I can tell the stench of poseur wafts off me.
Cameron and I ride down Broadway, the route I've now become intimately familiar with. He aims a camera at me as we cross the bridge. I try to look stoic.
Time to return my bike. I head north from my apartment, toward Northeast Alberta Street, where a few blocks south sits Everybody's Bike Rentals. I dismount around 21st Avenue and Ridgewood Drive and walk the bike up the massively steep hill. At the top, I share a glance with a kid on a tricycle. He sees me huffing and puffing, and I can tell he pities me. He probably doesn't know what "pity" means yet, but he feels it. He doesn't want to be that gray-flecked 30-year-old man struggling just to push a bike up the street. He won't ever go six years without riding a bike. Heck, he might never go anywhere without a bike.
I pull into Dan's backyard and lock the bike to a pole, where several other bikes are clustered. I glance back at it longingly a few times. My girlfriend picks me up in my car to go to Easter brunch. I let her drive.