As a former Category One racer and advertising salesman, my friend John Kodin is no stranger to pain, so his response to an invitation to participate in the annual Seattle to Portland ride long ago was telling. “If I want to be miserable,” he said, “all I have to do is put a piece of sandpaper in my shorts, have my wife squirt me with the hose, and ride around the block a few times.”
I was never a racer, but my years selling advertising have left me with little tolerance for self-inflicted pain, so I recently missed my 32nd consecutive STP ride. A few weeks earlier, however, I rode the train to Portland with my bike in the baggage car. Between spring showers, it was a pleasant twelve mile ride from home to the Amtrak station, followed by a beautiful three hour train trip. No traffic, no parking hassles and spectacular views of south Puget Sound, the Olympics and the odd bald eagle. As pleasant as the journey was, the destination was even better.
Portland is the best city for cycling in America. Davis, Berkeley, Madison and Minneapolis all have their charms, but none of them can touch Portland on a sunny day, or even a gloomy one.
It’s not just that Portland has an incredible network of bike lanes and trails that open up every corner of the city, including the four major bridges over the Willamette, to cyclists. It’s not only that bicycles have been fully and respectfully integrated into the traffic mix. It’s not just the number of beautiful women who rode past your laboring correspondent with effortless grace. It’s all of that, plus the bakeries.
The three pillars upon which a civilized existence rests are bakeries, bike shops and book stores. Portland is unsurpassed in all three categories. Bike shops provide something to ride, bakeries provide the reason to ride, and book stores provide something to read while pulling apart a tender brioche and sipping a cappuccino.
My culinary giro through Portland included the Pearl Bakery, The St. Honore Bakery, and the Alder Bakery. For the sake of symmetry, I paired up bike shops and bakeries. Powell’s Books by itself could satisfy a literary browser for a lifetime.
The Pearl Bakery matches up well with the Bike Gallery. Both are Portland institutions... big, successful businesses thriving in prominent downtown locations. Situated on prominent corners, each offers inviting views of tempting wares through big, picture windows. The Bike Gallery is aptly named, offering the window shopper a spellbinding view of the entire Electra bicycle line in the front window.
The Pearl Bakery tempts the olfactory senses, as well as the visual. It’s impossible to resist the aroma of croissants and sourdough loaves wafting out the front door. I chose a classic, plain croissant and wasn’t disappointed.
Bike shops can exude a captivating smell, as well. John’s Bicycles on Rosemead Blvd. in Pasadena in the sixties gave off an aroma that was a heady amalgam of tires, Brooks leather, sew-up glue and other mysterious adhesives and solvents. Even now I’ll occasionally step into a store and a familiar whiff will turn me into a fourteen year old kid again, ogling the shimmering Allegro Specials high on a rack against the back wall of John’s, forever out of reach.
Great bike towns can’t exist without great bike dealers. Second generation Bike Gallery proprietor Jay Graves has been a tireless advocate for cycling for decades. Jay and the managers and employees of his six stores have done as much as anyone to make Portland an earthly paradise for cyclists.
The St. Honore Bakery pairs well with West End Bikes. Both are unabashedly high end establishments offering pricey products that are worth every penny. West End Bikes carries the most alluring array of tandems I’ve ever seen in one store. Co-owners Mark Ontiveros and Mike France fearlessly stock an inventory of stunning Santanas and Calfees in various combinations of steel, titanium, and carbon composite, many of which are equipped with S&S couplers. A half hour with Mike had me almost convinced that I need a thirteen thousand dollar carbon and titanium tandem. My wife will be a harder sell.
The yeasty brioche from St. Honore was a more affordable indulgence, but also tops in its class and could be enjoyed without spousal approval.
As newer additions to the Eastside retail landscape, the Alder Bakery and Splendid Cycles go together well. The bacon and cheese quiche I enjoyed at Alder, cradled in a flaky crust, would set a man up for a day’s work.... something I’ve managed to avoid for a number of years.
Nevertheless, a visit to Splendid Cycles could make a lazy man eager to work. Joel Grover has been selling and servicing cargo bikes at Splendid Cycles for just over a year. “This is my fifty-third week,” he noted as he cheerfully set aside his lunch to answer my questions. Judging by the number of Dutch style “Metrofiets” cargo bikes I saw plying Portland streets with kids and groceries aboard, he’s off to a great start.
Joel is a good-natured evangelist for efficient urban mobility. After an hour in his store and a couple of test rides, I’m a believer. It wouldn’t work in every town, but Portland is perfect for a pedal powered delivery enterprise. During working hours, a bike is often the quickest conveyance between almost any two points in Portland.
Filing cabinets and furniture will always need to be delivered by truck and documents can be delivered by skinny young urban guerillas on fixies, but there’s a whole lot of merchandise in between that could be delivered on a Danish Bullit or a Kona Ute.
The Kona Ute, with an electric assist unit in the front hub powered by a battery tucked beneath the extended rear cargo platform, provokes contradictory urges. Its utilitarian design appeals to my long dormant industrious side, while the booster motor corrupts with seductive power.
“Don’t worry, you’ll still get a workout hauling a load on the Ute,” Joel assures. “But the power assist will get you up hills that you couldn’t make otherwise. You can choose between three levels of power assist. The lowest setting is good for fifty or sixty miles and recharging the battery overnight will add about eight cents to your electric bill.”
Riding up a gradual incline, the first level of boost was welcome in the heat of a June afternoon. Level two brought a silent but satisfying surge of power that could quickly become addictive. I didn’t try level three, fearing it would deprive me of any remaining rationalization for a visit to the Sugar Cube, farther up the street.
Portland is a seductive city and I fall in love too easily. A summer afternoon there can make a man forget that there are more miles behind him than ahead. Riding back to the station along the riverfront among the young and beautiful, high on caffeine and sugar, I’m overcome with longing. “I want to move here,” I say to myself. “Buy a house here, start a family and get a job here, so I can commute on my bike here.”
Later, as I lift my bike up into the baggage car for the return trip, a more realistic and consoling thought hits me. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot....I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. I’m going home.”