If you're looking down from a buttery leather Brooks saddle, the guys tooling around the greenways of Portland on a BMX bike look like someone eating filet mignon with a spork. Sure, it's steak—but it takes forever and they look silly in the process.
Then again, your average bike commuter in Portland has a direct route to work and back. Forget the trails, the rails and the concrete jungle that lies between: Coasting down Mount Tabor is as extreme as it gets. But getting from point A to B is only the beginning for BMXers.
"Think about it as a tool," says Shad Johnson, a 37-year-old native of Prineville. "For a lot of kids, the BMX bike is that first piece of freedom they get when their mom starts letting them ride in a 10-block radius from home. When I was a kid, it was just about going to get Slurpees and nachos at the 7-Eleven, and the tricks were what you did in the middle. You just wanna hang out with your friends, and then you decide to do some tricks in the parking lot, and it takes off from there."
Johnson, owner of Portland's only dedicated BMX shop, Goods BMX, moved to Portland in 1996 after cutting his teeth on homemade ramps in Central Oregon. As it turns out, BMX scenesters consider Portland the promised land for all the same reasons as traditional cyclists: It's a flat, dense bike-positive mecca filled with an abundance of diversions.
"L.A. and New York have big scenes, but those cities are so drawn out that they don't feel as communal," Johnson says. "In this city, it works great. It's a fairly flat city so it's easy to smash around town. BMXers like bars, strip clubs—there's girls and lots of skateparks. It's a perfect mix of what dudes want to ride and do when they're done riding."
When Johnson opened Goods BMX in 2005, brick-and-mortar support for the scene had all but surrendered to shoddy Internet distribution.
Even the Bike Gallery, a luminary in the Northwest BMX scene while under the eye of then-owner Jay Graves, had cleared BMX inventories to make way for more Trek hybrids. What seemed like a no-brainer at the time has been made viable by a second generation of riders—the kids of veterans who got into BMX in the '80s after watching the movie Rad—who in turn roped their dads back in with larger, cruiser-style bikes.
The action-sports boom of the past two decades has left the Portland metro area dotted with enough parks to keep riders of any level stoked. Suburban parks like Tualatin Hills in Beaverton and Reedville Creek in Hillsboro are great for beginners, while the Lumberyard offers a world-class bikes-only solution for ambitious riders who are tired of getting "vibed out" at old-school spots like Burnside Skatepark. BMX riders also have a serious advantage over their bladed-boarded brethren when it comes to bouncing from one park to the next. They're on a bicycle. A tiny bicycle, but a bicycle nonetheless.
"I'll smash 30 miles on my bike on a good day," Johnson says. "For country dudes who grew up on gravel roads, this was your first taste of freedom. If I grew up in the city, I might be skateboarding right now. But with a BMX bike, you can ride on anything. I can go smash down a mountain, I can go ride a skatepark, I can hit up some dirt jumps, I can use it to get to work. It's a tough little tool."