Tag Archives: Portland

Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, travel

North by northwest

Playing on the beach is on the agenda.

Tomorrow we are headed north to the Pacific Northwest. And by “we” I mean me and the kids, because my husband is going to China again (something to look forward to: even more bicycles in Beijing!) Whenever I can manage it, I like to visit my mom while he is away, because it keeps the adult: child ratio at 1:1, and because the kids always have a blast at her place. You’re the best, mom!

We had such a good time visiting Family Ride last time we were at my mom’s that we planned a stop in Seattle. Luckily for us, she was already planning a Cargo Bike Roll Call for August 11th, and so now we can attend—our first ever.

Although this is impressive, it is actually the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

And from there, we are going down to Portland to meet Matt after he flies back from China. When I was advised to stop using the Breezer as a kid-hauler, we had a bit of a mental kerfuffle about how to find a new cargo bike. We eventually decided that when Matt returned from China, we would all meet up in Portland, which has not one, not two, but THREE family bike shops that allow the kind of hard-core test riding that we want to do before making a decision. What’s more, after I went to Portland last spring and came back bouncing off the ceiling Matt decided he wanted to visit too. It’s arguably a waste of his frequent flyer miles, which could take us somewhere more exotic, but not changing time zones will be a relief.

The Brompton + IT Chair is a great short-hauler with an almost 2nd grader (but longer trips are a bit much).

Portland in August does not lack for cargo biking adventure. There will be a Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call when we’re in town on August 16th, and a Kidical Mass ride on August 18th. We’ll have just enough time to squeeze both in before heading home for the start of the new school year. We’ve packed our helmets and made our rental reservations. Excitement among the small is at explosive levels.

Updates here are likely to be sporadic at best over the next two weeks. But on our return, I will write up our impressions of the half-dozen or so cargo bikes we plan to ride. See you on the other side!

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Filed under bike shops, family biking, travel

Destinations: Splendid Cycles

Little shop, big idea

I really had no idea what to expect when I visited Splendid Cycles. You can’t tell much about a bike shop will be like from a website (assuming one exists), although you can get a sense of what they sell. And I liked what they were selling. Joel, one of the owners, seemed pretty nice when I emailed him (and turned out to be just as nice in person). Yet visiting the store made it clear how much I have been missing by relying on the internet to learn about cargo bikes.

The average bike shop I have visited tries to have something for everyone, and that often means aiming directly at the market of people who are thinking about getting a bike for the first time. But it is fairly difficult to hit the price point that novices think is reasonable for a new bike (as I’ve mentioned before, based on talking to non-riders, of which there are many up the hill in my neighborhood, that price is: $100). But almost all bike shops seem to have a few bikes near the front door in the $300 range or so, not too overwhelming for the perennially broke college student, but a pretty stripped-down machine by any measure. The other day while chasing down my daughter in a bike shop I overheard a family discussing why two bikes that to their eyes looked identical were priced at $350 and $700 respectively. Like me several months ago, they had no idea.

Ahearne Cycle Truck: not a kid-carrier, but hauls other cargo

However cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes. At their cheapest, new cargo bikes run about $1,000. The price difference reflects the fact that these bikes are capable of doing much more than carrying a student around campus. When you’re hauling real weight, on other places than the seat, everything has to be somewhat higher quality and differently designed, or you end up like my colleagues who tried to put child seats on their bikes and immediately broke all their spokes. And as cargo bikes become more capable, and as you add more accessories, like child seats and cargo bags, their prices rapidly rocket past that $1000 mark even for the least expensive models.

(As with everything else, handy people have more options. People who feel comfortable working on bikes can pick up bikes or trailers or Xtracycle FreeRadicals on craigslist and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts. I admire their skill, but I’m not one of these people. And I would guess that in this I’m like most parents, unless by happy coincidence they happen to be bike mechanics or living with one.)

Big Dummy with BionX: definitely a family-friendly bike (also: seating for visitors, nice touch)

Which brings me to Splendid Cycles, because it is the only bike shop I’ve ever seen that is exclusively selling bikes that replace family cars, but that still retain most of the advantages of ordinary bicycles. For our lives right now, visiting Splendid Cycles was a revelation.  We don’t use our bikes just to noodle around the park on weekends (although that’s fun too), we use them to move ourselves and our stuff and our kids around town. I had always assumed that this required certain compromises: going more slowly, adding after-market accessories to make a Franken-bike, giving up going up and down hills, or being unable to get the bike inside if you live above ground floor. You can get a heavy Dutch bike if you live on the ground floor, in the flats, and don’t mind going slowly. Or you can cobble together family bikes from child seats and odds and ends like we’ve done and maneuver through traffic and actually make it up real hills, slowly, if you’re strong. Or you can go to Splendid Cycles and be blown away by seeing a dozen bikes that don’t require you to make those compromises.

Metrofiets cargo bikes

Splendid Cycles carries Metrofiets cargo bikes, which I had heard of but never seen in person before. As cool as they are, I realized immediately when I saw them that a Metrofiets would never fit through our narrow basement door. (Less than one minute in the shop and I’d already justified a trip across Portland.) The Winther Wallaroo looked even better for carrying kids, with outstanding seating, but had the same problem from my perspective: unlikely to make it into our basement. They carry Ahearne Cycle Trucks, which look pretty clever for carrying cargo but are not really designed to carry kids, so those aren’t our bikes either.

They had a Big Dummy, which is designed to haul kids, among other things, and another one of which I used to carry my own kids across Seattle a week later.

Bullitts, both with and without child seat

And rounding out the kid carriers, they had a bike I’d never seen before, the Bullitt. From the perspective of a city rider, this is probably the most interesting bike they sell. The Bullitt is narrow and lightweight; even with the child seat on it could probably be carried it up a flight of stairs. It can make it through traffic pinch points and climb hills. It is not perfect for our needs; the narrow child compartment probably limits its capacity to one of our (now older) kids. On the other hand, you could put a trailer-bike on the back (Joel’s great idea, not mine, he was full of them). It could be a great dad bike, but I can’t imagine riding it while pregnant; it does not have a step-through frame. But if you’re done having kids it would be something to consider.

Wallaroos, rigged for all-weather riding

Walking into Splendid Cycles opened an incredible sense of possibility; there were so many bikes we’d never imagined that could do what we wanted them to do. Our kids would have loved this shop; getting them out of a Wallaroo, once spotted, would be almost impossible. And to top it off, at Splendid Cycles they know a lot about electric assists, which make these bikes reasonable options for people who live on hills. I didn’t understand the strengths and limitations of the BionX and whether it could handle San Francisco elevations when I walked into Splendid Cycles. Now I do, and yes it can. Overall I learned more about both cargo bikes and electric assists in person at Splendid Cycles than I’d learned in hours of reading reviews. It was amazing to be able to talk to Joel, who wasn’t figuring this out as he went along like we’ve been; he’d already thought about what was involved in riding with kids or cargo in traffic and on hills and had put together a half-dozen bikes, which were sitting right there, with electric assists, to solve our kinds of problems.

This kind of expertise and fit for our needs comes at a price. And at one point that kind of price left me in shock, but I now realize that these bikes are worth it. They cost as much as the first car I drove, but that car was a junker, whereas these bikes are as reliable as bicycles can be.  Furthermore, the bikes are more practical for moving around the city than that car. These are true car replacements, except we’d never have to worry about parking again.

Thanks to Matt’s bike maintenance class, we’ve recently learned more about the compromises manufacturers have to make to get the price of cargo bikes down around $1,000 (crappy brakes, tires more likely to get flats, etc.), and we’re now spending money to upgrade the MinUte to become more like the bike we want. So in many cases it’s a choice between paying up front for quality or paying later for repairs and upgrades. There are legitimate reasons to choose one or the other, but it wasn’t a choice we realized we were making at the time.

From my perspective, Splendid Cycles isn’t a Portland destination so much as a destination in its own right. It would justify a trip to Portland by itself for the right family. I met a father from Eugene visiting the shop who’d decided just that. It was definitely worth visiting given that I was already in Portland.

Worth the trip

Joel pointed out that Oregon has no sales tax, and that having Splendid Cycles ship a bike somewhere would cost less than the sales tax in less enlightened locales. I am an employee of the state of California and thus feel guilty for even mentioning such a thing, but for less tormented souls, this is yet another reason to talk to Splendid Cycles about cargo bikes.

There are lots of reasons to be impressed by Portland’s bike culture, but its breadth still amazes me. I never imagined a bike shop like this could exist. Splendid Cycles has put all its chips on our kind of bicycles. It is a bet that the world will change to make space for many families like ours, and that one day hauling kids on bikes will be as unremarkable here in the US as it is in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I don’t think this will happen here while our kids are young enough to ride on our bikes, and I am envious that Portland can support a shop like this. I wish there was a Splendid Cycles in every city.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking

It is in no way an overstatement to call Portland the bicycling capital of North America

Watching the Hawthorne bridge go up

Technically I was in Portland to attend a professional conference, but in case it wasn’t obvious, I blew off some of the part that involved sitting in windowless hotel rooms listening to other people talk.

Due to a rare convergence of travel schedules, my kids were in Washington with my mom while Matt was flying to China. But I had a pretty non-negotiable commitment to give a talk on Saturday morning in Portland, so I wasn’t going anywhere until then. So on Thursday and Friday, for the first time that I can remember, I had minimal work obligations and zero responsibility for my kids. And I was in a city filled with awesome bike shops and a bunch of friends from graduate school that happened to be experiencing a freak early spring. The result was that most of the time I bounced around Portland feeling as giddy as a dental patient on nitrous oxide, without any of the painful drilling.

Jackie has green hair (pics or it didn't happen? no problem)

My friend Todd, who lives in Portland, got conscripted to be the cargo on a cargo bike, but my friend Jackie, who also lives in Portland, actually rides a bike of her own. This is something of an understatement, as she regularly rides Cycle Oregon. She has a road bike like a real racer and wears lycra. In fact she has three bikes. When she told me she was impressed that I commuted on my bicycle, my reaction was complete disbelief. I’m pretty pleased with myself if I cover 5 miles; she sends us updates on her long rides every ten miles or so. Sometimes there are several of these in a single day.

Anyway given that I had a rental bike in Portland it seemed like it would be fun to ride it to meet her somewhere, and so that’s what I did. She picked a restaurant between her house and my hotel and gave me what seemed to be pretty implausible directions, which I summarized mentally as, “It’s complicated, so do what the other bicycles are doing.” It seemed kind of optimistic to assume that there would be enough other riders around to make the route obvious, but boy, was I wrong.

Follow those bicycles (or barring that, the 15 others behind me)

I am used to riding in car traffic, but rarely ride in bicycle traffic. Even in the Panhandle, which I used to consider a busy route, the bikes are pretty spread out. But riding in Portland during commute hours was actually a little unnerving, because there were dozens of bicycles in the lane. At more than one point during my ride I wanted to stop and get a picture of one of Portland’s many weird and wonderful bike lane markers, which include disembodied riders without bicycles, riders wearing helmets and riders not wearing helmets without any apparent rhyme or reason, riders with the heads of dogs, riders flying off their bicycles jauntily, etc. But I couldn’t figure out how to politely stop to snap a photo. That never happens to me in San Francisco.

Full bike corrals on every corner, 40 acres, and a mule

Jackie picked an amazing restaurant, of course. And its bathrooms were in a hallway shared with a yoga studio featuring a row of inside bike parking against the wall. And those bathrooms had showers. Really, Portland? Really? It is rare that I have the occasion to feel like a yokel after living in San Francisco for several years. But I might as well have been barefoot and wearing a straw hat and overalls with all the gaping I did when I saw things like this. Portland has ripped out street parking for cars to put in bike corrals. And it’s not just a demonstration project, it’s all over the place. And those bike corrals are full.

What better advertisement for your bike shop than a beer bike?

After dinner Jackie proposed that we ride over to see another grad school friend she sees regularly but I hadn’t seen in years. Steve lives in a pretty neighborhood with his lovely wife and two charming little girls, and was making dinner for them when we appeared unannounced on his front porch. They are in the school lottery for a Japanese bilingual program for the girls, and so we had lots to talk about. Jackie, who speaks excellent Japanese, thought it wasn’t such a hard language. I, who can speak just enough Japanese that I might be able to find a bathroom and not starve if air-dropped into Tokyo, disagreed, as did Steve. Steve offered us beers. Everyone offered me beer constantly while I was in Portland, it’s even more of a thing than the bikes. These twin obsessions were perfectly merged in a bike I saw at Clever Cycles rigged to carry two growlers. I’m not a huge beer fan and people always seemed vaguely disbelieving when I declined their offers, like I’d just belched in their faces but they were too polite to comment.

I asked Steve what he’d been up to for the last few years; I hadn’t seen him since before we’d had kids. “Oh, nothing much,” he said.

“He won a Pulitzer and was a finalist for a second one,” said Jackie.

This is why I don’t get to live in Portland. I am insufficiently awesome.

Modified Portland bike lane marker

I rode back to my hotel that night buzzing on all of it. Even late in the evening there were many other riders on the trip back, and we all expressed disbelief at the amazing weather. We could do this because like me, those riders all stopped at traffic signals. On the trip back across Portland’s Steel Bridge I passed three pedicab drivers, who urged me politely to pass. I got back to the hotel and checked my bike into the bell room (“of course we have bicycle parking here!”)

I realize that living in one place long enough can make a city’s charms less obvious, and people in Portland complain that there is still a lot of work to do. But to my outside eyes, it looks like paradise.

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Filed under commuting, traffic, travel

Electric assist: BionX PL350

Portland's bike shops make me want to gut myself in envy

I am not usually good at getting to the point, so let me try here: I am so buying the BionX.

Despite the fact that I have speculated about electric assist a lot, until this week I had never tried one. I knew enough to know that I wanted a pedelec system (which works only when you’re pedaling) rather than an off-on throttle (where pedaling is irrelevant). Otherwise I might as well just buy a scooter. I just want to be a little stronger, so that going uphill is less of a Bataan death march at the end of a long day, or to ride with my daughter to preschool.

Surly Big Dummy with BionX

So before I went to Portland I wrote to Splendid Cycles, knowing that they carried cargo bikes with electric assists. Joel, one of the owners, said I was welcome to take one of their bikes up a hill in Portland (and they do have some hills there). They could not have been nicer, all their bikes are amazing, and most of them would be appropriate for hauling kids and/or cargo up the side of a mountain. I ended up riding a Big Dummy with the BionX PL350, a system widely praised in reviews, apparently the most responsive of pedelec systems. It adds about 17 pounds to the bike, counting both the motor and the battery. (BionX also has a 15 pound version with comparable power and a longer battery life. It costs more.)

Todd on the Bullitt (I took this picture for his wife)

Joel rode an assisted Bullitt, which is very cool in its own right; it was the first box bike I’ve ever seen in person that I have thought would be practical in San Francisco, as it is lightweight and narrow (and fast). Because my kids were already in up in Washington with my mom, I was cargo-less. So I brought my friend Todd along. Todd and I went to grad school together and although we are both pretty junior he’s now the chair of his department at Lewis & Clark. Guess which one of us makes our advisers proud? But he remains a relentlessly good sport about the crazy things that I propose. At 145 pounds, Todd is cargo overkill, the equivalent of almost four kids. But better too much weight than too little; my kids are growing.

Todd doesn’t really ride bikes, so Joel carried him in the Bullitt while I was figuring out how to use the BionX on the way to the hills. And I carried him back to the shop on the Big Dummy.

Most of Portland, to my mind, is pretty flat. The neighborhood streets we first rode on certainly were; on those streets, on an unloaded Big Dummy, turning on the BionX was wildly entertaining, but hardly seemed necessary. You turn it up and you go a little faster. It’s like magically getting stronger without the bother of having to train. There are four levels on the way up, which are activated by pushing the + button. I perceived them as ranging from “I barely notice anything” to “I barely need to pedal.” There are also four levels in the other direction (push the – button), for regenerative braking to charge the battery a little; this was fun, because it meant that I barely needed to use the brakes.

And then we got to the first hill. Todd hopped off the Bullitt and onto the Dummy. From a dead start on an incline, I could barely move the bike. With the assist on level 1, we were moving slowly. And with it ramped up to level 4, getting both of us up the hill was like going up a slight incline with an unloaded bike. It was unbelievable. On the way down, the regenerative brakes slowed us to a crawl even though together with the bike we weighed ~350 pounds.

On the second, steeper, longer hill, still with Todd on board, I was already moving on the way up, and managed to make it about 100 (very painful) feet before I switched on the assist. Near the top of that hill I was back at level 4, moving pretty quickly, and laughing so hard I couldn’t speak. And it was at that point that I realized that I would, if necessary, give up almost anything else I owned to have this assist.

Although there are hills in Portland, the city has built switchback ramps to make the climbing easier. Let us take a moment and contemplate this.

The BionX doesn’t take the experience of hills away; it was still work to get up that second hill. But even with a person who weighs more than I do on the back, on a heavy bike, going up was manageable, and it didn’t make me want to die. It made we want to find an even bigger hill and storm up that one too. I didn’t want Todd to get back in the Bullitt; it was more fun to talk with him on the Dummy. He commented that the motor was completely silent. “If I didn’t know it was there,” he said, “I’d just think you had really strong legs.”

With Todd on board I ended up keeping the assist on level 1 or 2 for the stop signs, even on the flatter ride back. Starting a bike loaded with kids has always been slow for me; it takes time to get that much weight moving. But with the extra boost of the assist, we took off at the intersections at the pace of a racer.

The BionX has some quirks. Some of them are counter-intuitive. It is responsive to pressure on the pedals, so to get more assist on the way uphill, I learned to shift up to a higher gear. The harder I pushed, the harder the motor worked. This happens automatically at intersections, but on the hills sometimes I geared down low enough that I wasn’t getting as much help. I suspect gearing down to reduce the assist would actually be a useful way to train to ride hills unassisted if one were so inclined.

There is an awful lot going on at the right handlebar grip on a BionXed bike; occasionally I found myself changing the assist level when I meant to shift gears, or shifting gears when I’d intended to brake. I’m guessing that this kind of thing is temporary.

Finally, the motor cut out once. We were on a flat street, fortunately, and when I asked Joel what happened he said the sensor had jogged loose. He nudged it and the assist starting working again. There is a reason it is so twitchy, evidently, but I didn’t understand the explanation. However it is also apparently possible to set up the control so that it doesn’t cut out like that.

Todd drove me back downtown after our ride, patiently listening to me babble gibberish, which was something along the lines of “OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD!!!” I couldn’t stop grinning, not even when I was sideswiped by a jogger on the walk back to the hotel. I found myself laughing randomly when I tried to explain what riding with the BionX was like to other people. I’m laughing now.

The BionX would change our lives. A lot of our remaining driving miles are, “No way am I riding up THAT hill” trips. Joel said he’d taken a fully loaded Bullitt+BionX up a 25% grade. We have a hill like that near home and we find alternative routes even when we’re driving. He noted that the BionX could get overheated on steep, extended climbs (>20 minutes) in hot weather, at which point it would reduce the assist level to protect the motor from overheating. But our hills are short and broken-up with stop lights, and it never gets hot in San Francisco. With really serious cargo loads an EcoSpeed would be better, but two kids and groceries are evidently not what people have in mind when they talk about serious cargo.

How much do I love this assist? I would have bought one on the spot if it would work on the Breezer, even if I had had to talk Splendid Cycles into prying one off of a bike in the shop. But I will have to give up my Breezer to use a BionX; it won’t work with an internally geared hub. That’s not going to happen right away—there’s the non-trivial issue of figuring out what bike to ride instead—but it is most assuredly going to happen.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, electric assist, family biking

Hello, Portland

Hello, stranger

I went to Portland to present a conference paper. Stacy at A Simple Six suggested once that I take advantage of my professional travel to write about riding bikes in multiple cities, which is an excellent idea but seemed like way too much work for me to do consistently. And my trip to Atlanta did not swell my ambition on this front. But I figured I could manage to rent a bike in Portland, especially since it turned out Clever Cycles was about 10 blocks away from my conference hotel.

They rented me a Breezer Uptown 8 (ha ha!) It was both familiar and unfamiliar. They put the seat up higher than I’m used to—I have kept my seat low because I like to be able to get a foot down flat with a kid on the back. But I found I liked the new height, and I will move my seat up when I get home. They also had a nifty Axa lock with an integrated chain, which made locking up the bike very easy. And finally, I have to admit that their bike is significantly better maintained. Overall their Breezer was a pleasure to ride, and I should take better care of mine.

My co-author Todd picked me up at the airport, because he lives in Portland and because he’s that kind of guy. Thanks to some professional meet-and-greet obligations, we had to squeeze the trip to pick up the rental between a reception and dinner, which meant shoving the bike in the back of his car for a few hours.  It felt a little stupid to rent a bike and then drive it around, but oh well. I’ve done stranger things.

Guess who's coming to Portland?

After dinner he dropped me off at Powell’s Books, with its expansive bike racks and world-renowned selection of reading material. I was sure they’d have a city bicycle route map somewhere. But despite the four bicycles locked up immediately outside the cash register, the guy staffing the information desk was completely mystified as to where I might find a bike map. Eventually a co-worker stopped by to investigate. “In the bicycling section, of course,” she said. With that hint he could point me in the right direction, but it turned out that there were copies of the map strewn through every room. He could have sent me anywhere.

These bikes evidently know where they're going

I left Powell’s after browsing for a while with two books and a bike map. I would have left sooner, but it felt very intimidating to ride out into a strange city after dark, on a sort-of-strange bike, with only a limited sense of where I was going. However I decided a few years back to stop making choices based on fear, and feel like overall this decision has made my life better, at least on the occasions when I follow through. And I certainly wasn’t going to walk that bike back to the hotel.

The river path by day (my camera is too cheap for a night shot)

In the first few minutes of the ride back, I realized that despite my nervousness, riding a bike in Portland was going to be okay. Drivers in Portland are clearly used to bicycles, and were predictable and courteous. Eventually I ended up riding along the river, where I wished that I had thought to wear my winter gloves. I saw a crowd of people, some with bicycles, along the way, mixed in with shopping carts; it turned out they were there to meet a homeless services van. I passed other riders and pedestrians and looked over the city and the lights on the bridges. Portland is pretty, and it is flat; I can’t remember the last time I rode in San Francisco for over ten minutes without having to shift gears. Maybe never.

By the time I got to the hotel, I decided that riding a bike in Portland was much better than okay.

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