I have lots of reasons for why I never did the Bridge Pedal before this year, though none of them are any good. I obviously should have done it before, as I love biking, love Portland’s bridges and the Willamette river, currently bike daily, and used to commute by bike to Milwaukie a few times a week, back when I worked at Dark Horse. But I am a terrible procrastinator, and in the rare years I was aware enough of its imminence, I put off registering too long. More often, I didn’t know it was happening at all, as I have traditionally paid far too little attention to the goings-on in a city I supposedly enjoy so much. One year I learned the Bridge Pedal was happening only when I was biking across the Hawthorne Bridge and suddenly found myself surrounded by a wave of other cyclists, actual participants in the event I was inadvertently stepping on for a few minutes.
(I have also always intended to do the unrelated Naked Bike Ride, and for whatever reason the word of it has always made it to me, but unlike my Bridge Pedal failures, some external circumstance always keeps me away from the naked ride. Some years I’m out of town, some years there’s an obligation I can’t get out of. This year I had four flat tires in three days that weekend, all seemingly unrelated, as the piece of glass someone at my local shop finally pulled out of the tire cannot have been there for the first two flats, one of which necessitated the replacement of the tire. The fourth flat was on the other tire.)
The biggest reason for losing track of my surroundings is that I spent several years prepared to leave at any moment, expecting my career to take me away. As a result, I stopped putting down roots, not getting too attached to places I discovered or too close to new people I met. After I quit my job a year ago, I started working from home in NW Portland and spending a lot more of my time walking and biking around the city. One of 2016’s major themes has been learning how to engage with place again, since those years I wasn’t focused on where I was but also didn’t leave left an emotionally barren stretch in my memory, and while it’s still possible I’ll live somewhere else in a year’s time, I don’t want to spend another year neither here nor there.
So I signed up. I got myself psyched up, reading about the different routes, asking friends’ advice on preparation, and picked up my materials at Providence Health Expo, where I also stopped to listen to some popup opera being sung out a food cart–like truck, because things like that happen in my neighborhood. I settled on the 24-mile 8-bridge ride, which includes the basic six bridges that all the routes cross, with a detour to St. Johns a few miles north. There is also a 10-bridge ride, which adds a southern leg over the Sellwood Bridge, but I worried that, at 33 miles, the 10-bridge might be overly optimistic for my first year. I wished there was an option for the Sellwood Bridge and not the St. Johns Bridge, as I had never been over the Sellwood, and I cross the St. Johns whenever I visit my brother, but apparently my personal biography was not a high priority for the route planners. I made up the difference the weekend before, making a special trip to cross the Sellwood Bridge and visit the just-opened Portland taproom of my beloved Double Mountain Brewing. While not one of the more exciting bridges—and undergoing some construction that had me crossing in the middle rather than the bike lane closer to the water—the ride over, through a meadowy stretch of the waterfront, was new to me and lovely.
On the day, I arrive at the starting line just after 7, impressed immediately by the scope of the operation, with so many streets closed, so many volunteers and police directing people, and so many rest stops and water stations indicated on the maps. The Bridge Pedal, I should stop to explain, is an annual event in which nearly all of the city’s many bridges are opened up to cyclists for a few hours, including the freeway bridges on which a cyclist would normally be instantly run over. This requires shutting down a number of streets and even freeways on both sides of the river and reducing others to one-way crossings for motorists. It takes place early on a Sunday, so it’s presumably not too disruptive, though a server at Hot Lips Pizza told me and my friend Martha on Saturday that it plays hell with their deliveries, and my friend Leah informed me that she’d be allowing herself an extra hour to get to her monthly Bloody Mary and play-reading event.
After about five minutes’ wait, my wave is allowed to go. I’m told the waits can be much longer, so I count myself lucky and set off along Naito Parkway toward our first bridge, the Hawthorne. I don’t know what the attendance is or what it normally is, but I’d expected more people. There is some tight packing of riders at the very beginning and in a few early spots, during which I do my share of bobbing and weaving, wondering how closely it approximates the bike commuting you read about in European and Asian cities, but for the most part there’s plenty of space, and there are a few times, notably on my way to and from St. Johns, where I am alone for stretches of the route. The number of people feels good, enough to feel a part of something larger but not so many that I was spending all my time dodging people or waiting for slower riders.
I’m here by myself, as many of my friends don’t have bikes, and my friend Dylan’s bike was recently stolen. My mom has done the Bridge Pedal with a friend many times, but they opted out this year. Many other people are doing the ride in groups, and there are tons of families, with kids on tiny bikes pedaling as hard as they can while other riders give them plenty of space. Other parents have toddlers in trailers, and as I ascend the Fremont Bridge I pass one man whose trailer has a big dog in it, its head sticking out to look at the river going by. The closest thing I see to any kind of road rage comes early, as the 8-bridge and 10-bridge routes split, sending us to the Ross Island Bridge and the 10-bridgers toward the Sellwood. There’s no sign explaining this, just a volunteer struggling to be heard over all the noise. A man rolls up to her to yell that there should be a sign, but it’s hard to tell whether he’s really that angry or just being loud to be heard, as I try to figure out where I’m going and go past.
I had been told the next bridge, the Marquam, would be a highlight. There’s a good reason for this: it’s a freeway bridge that otherwise has no bike access of any kind. The bridge itself is a rush, providing a view of the city you normally only get from a car window as Taiko drummers chant “Bike! Bike! Bike!” at us, but coming off of it onto I-5 is another experience altogether. A multilane freeway open only to bicycles is a strange, exhilarating sight, and as I come off the ramp and drift into lanes that would normally hold oncoming traffic, I can’t help laughing. I’m no bicycle utopian, and I’m well aware that my carless lifestyle is supported by spending time with my car-owning friends, as on my trip to the Columbia River Gorge to hike the weekend before and to the Sandy River to swim the weekend before that. Still, the different city that exists when cars vanish and cyclists fill the freeways is a thrilling place to visit, and I’m all for living in that city at least once a year. Taking full advantage of our rare freedom of motion, I stay as close to the center of roads as I can, correcting myself whenever I absentmindedly revert to bike lanes.
The next leg takes us over the Burnside Bridge and through the city center to the Broadway Bridge, passing within a few blocks of my home before we cross what I think of as my bridge. Heading north away from downtown, we begin the climb to the Fremont, the massive, double-deck I-405/US 30 bridge. Volunteers are more frequent here, and one braves the traffic to hand me a banana as I pass. The apex of the bridge has a street-fair quality to it, with more musicians, stands giving away Kind bars and water, and many riders stopping to take pictures. I had wanted to stop as little as possible to see what my endurance would be like, but I do stop here to eat the banana, refill my water bottle, and enjoy the highest view of the city you can get from this close while standing on the ground.
From here is the longest stretch, taking NW Saint Helens Rd. out to St. Johns. I wasn’t looking forward to this part so much, as St. Helens isn’t particularly exciting, inland from the river and spotted with industrial buildings and warehouses. Its west side is bright green with trees, more so than I realized, since it’s always dark when I bike through here on my way home from visiting my brother and his family, but the combination of these two environments facing each other across a wide road gives it an identity that’s neither fish nor fowl, not wild feeling or citylike. My years of living in Portland after growing up in Hood River and Sandy have made it clear to me I am a city person at heart, and I’ve been lucky enough to live downtown for over a decade, but this last year has also reawakened the joys of wilderness for me. It’s somehow disconcerting to travel through an area that isn’t really either one.
The climb to the St. Johns Bridge is easily the most difficult part, and I pass several people who have stopped for a break or decided to walk it. A year ago I’m sure I’d have been one of them. One of the pleasures of daily biking is discovering just how quickly a hill that used to destroy you becomes no big deal, and you move on to the next one, changing up routes as what was once an ordeal becomes simply a bump in the road. Unlike the other bridges on my route, which all go through the city, by the time we get to the St. Johns, we are out in the country almost, St. Helens Rd. having given way to actual woods. The bridge is gorgeous, a Gothic suspension bridge surrounded by trees on both sides and leading to the cute suburbs of St. Johns on the east side. The next few miles are all suburbs until the route returns to the city for the final bridge.
All along the way there are volunteers. I don’t know who these people are, but there are a lot of them, spending their morning greeting cyclists from folding chairs, letting riders know where to go, and manning rest stops. It seems pretty thankless, but they’re all cheerful, and though I have a map, the well-marked turns and ever-present volunteers mean I never look at it. Being an add-on and so long, the road to and from the St. Johns has considerably fewer riders, and they are more serious cyclists, going faster, ringing bells, occasionally riding with no hands. I see this several times. (I taught myself to do this on 9/11, needing something to occupy my mind and my deserted college campus providing the chance to do it without worrying about hitting or falling on anyone, but I’ve never had the courage to go hands free in a busy area.) As we reenter the city center on the Pacific Highway, a man in front of me spreads his arms wide, savoring the last mile or two of freedom before the world goes back to normal. I don’t follow suit, but I bust into a big grin until it’s time for him to steer again.
Unfortunately, we don’t cross the top deck of the Steel Bridge, which I once got onto by accident, plunging down the vertiginous descent alongside speeding cars. It felt like a rollercoaster. Today, maybe for safety or not to disrupt the trains or just because it fits the route better, we cross the lower deck, which is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians already and marks both the beginning of the Eastbank Esplanade and my old commute to Dark Horse. On the other side is Waterfront Park and the end of ride. Checking my phone, I see that the whole thing was just under two hours. I’m sweaty but amped and realize I could easily have gone the extra nine miles of the 10-bridge ride, which I will have to do next year, if I am still here. Even if I’m not, maybe I’ll have to visit. There’s a small feeling of regret that I didn’t take it a little slower, savor it a little more, but also pride at my time. On the way home I run into Leah, who is walking out to her reading on the East Side. As she said, she’s given herself an hour to get there, and she has a moment to stop so I can gush about the experience I’ve just had. Then it’s home to shower and veg before heading back out.
My Bridge Pedal fare gets me free admission to the Bite of Oregon, a festival on the waterfront bringing food and drink from all over the state—though mostly Portland—together so attendees can sample. I made myself bacon and eggs before the ride, but of course now I’m famished, having not eaten when I got home in anticipation of going to the Bite. I don’t usually bother, since the combination of the entrance fee and then paying for food inside makes it an expensive option for eating the same food available at local restaurants. But with no entrance fee, it’s a pleasant couple of hours, eating free samples of pasta and Greek yogurt, trying dollar three-ounce tastes of 10 Barrel Brewing beer before settling on pork ribs and malt liquor as my reward for biking 24 miles. In every way it feels like summer.
Earlier, as I tore the Bite of Oregon coupon out of my Bridge Pedal packet, I noticed the words Mark your calendar for Providence Bridge Pedal 2017: Sunday, August 13. I immediately did so.