I’M NOT EVEN close to Mt. Tabor yet when it becomes apparent: This will be unpleasant.
It’s a humid Thursday, threatening rain, and I’ve just gotten leave from Motivate, the City of Portland’s bike-share operator, to have my way with a lumbering, fluorescent orange Biketown bike that—as I ride—won’t be available to Portlanders for more than a week.
Tom at Motivate has taken me through the selling points of the bicycle: the built-in solar-powered computer; the sturdy onboard U-lock; lights that automatically shine as you ride; a shaft drive that takes greasy chains out of the equation; and, most importantly for me, eight speeds.
When I announce my intentions of summiting Tabor on the Biketown rig, the people at Motivate assure me those eight speeds will make it a breeze—slow but easy.
They are incorrect.
Headed east from the Hawthorne Bridge, ascending the gentle grade that precedes looming Mt. Tabor, I feel all 59 pounds of this bike. I am sweating noticeably when a construction flagger calls out appreciatively, “Is that one of those new bikes?” and even harder a very short time later, when her coworker gives me a nod and a “Nice bike!”
It’s true: For all their orange—the hue of which managed to get progressively brighter with each prototype—the swooping Dutch lines and Portland-specific touches make Biketown’s bikes nifty, if corporate. Much of the system was financed by $10 million in sponsorship cash from Nike, and the Great Athletics Monolith to the west doesn’t let you forget it.
Still, Portland’s struggle for bike share has taken nearly a decade and seen plenty of flailing while less-savvy cycling cities around the country seemed to effortlessly set up their own systems. That Portland has finally attained its goal—and with a stout 1,000-bike network, no less—is a big deal, and we’re doing it far more efficiently than most.
Unlike, say, Seattle’s cash-hemorrhaging Pronto system, the “smart bike” you’ll be riding in coming days can be locked up anywhere in town (though there’s a fee if it’s left too far from a designated station, and a steeper charge if it’s parked outside the service area). That gives Portlanders a great deal more flexibility when plotting out the short trips that bike share’s designed for. And it could help the city achieve one of the ambitions of bike share: nudging a skeptical citizenry to better embrace two-wheeled travel.
First, though: the outrage.
Even before Biketown formally launched on July 19, it was taking flak from all sides. Reports emerged of homeowners furious that the public street space in front of their homes had sprouted a bike-share rack, taking up their former parking spot. Some cyclists were incensed that the city removed several bike corrals to plop down Biketown stations. There were concerns over sidewalk access, and corporatization of city neighborhoods.
It has often been like this with bike share in the US. Recall, for instance, the famously rabid screed Wall Street Journal editorial board member Dorothy Rabinowitz unleashed when New York’s Citi Bike launched three years ago (“We now look at a city whose best neighborhoods are absolutely begrimed...” etc.).
Furor has long since died down in NYC. It will here, too. As BikePortland’s Jonathan Maus recently wrote: “Make no mistake about it: Biketown is a new transit system that’s being overlaid onto existing infrastructure. It represents major changes to our city on many levels—both physical and mental.”
But we should return to Mt. Tabor, and me suffering oafishly up its relatively meager face. All of the advantages that Biketown boasts—the on-board computer, U-lock, beefy front basket, and bombproof frame—conspire against swift or nimble movement. The orange bikes are almost certainly the heaviest you’ve ever ridden.
I have to acknowledge that climbing the city’s foremost cinder cone wasn’t any sort of fair test for Biketown. Tabor isn’t even in the system’s service area. But I had to know how the bike would perform, and as I struggled toward the top, I began to curse its short cranks, and the adjustable seat that doesn’t extend quite high enough for my 6’2” frame.
A group of pot-smoking teens on a picnic table pitied me as I inched past. Hikers pointedly ignored me. And when I got to the top, the statue of former Oregonian Editor Harvey W. Scott gazed sternly down on a sweat-soaked and depleted traveler.
Here’s the theory I came away with: Everyone should climb Mt. Tabor on a Biketown bike, if it’s within their capabilities and they plan on using the system. Because not only was the ride down the volcano a pure delight—each of those 59 pounds building into a furious inertia—but the rest of my ride felt swift by comparison. I had seen how sluggish the orange machine could be on a road it wasn’t designed to tackle, and so the roads it is designed to tackle felt smooth.
Or smoother, at least. I won’t lie—getting back on my own bike after the Biketown excursion felt like a revelation. But that bike is set up specifically for me. Bike share is made for thousands of Portlanders. And what that comes to mean in this bike town could be very exciting.
Four Ways to Get Rad on a Biketown Bike
SURE, the 59-pound orange behemoths lining the streets of Inner Portland aren’t going to win you any races, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do sweet shit on them. Here are four ways to make your Biketown experience the best it can possibly be. (All radness herein should be carried out in the safest manner possible.)
At the top of Mt. Tabor, there is a pair of metal plates, bent from years of radditude, that form a perfect launch ramp over a curb and onto the dirt path. We hit it again and again on the Biketown bike until it felt natural. You don't need to ascend Tabor to find these things, of course. Suitable jumps are hiding in every cranny of the city if you're mindful. Best of all, there's no high standard to attain when you're ramping a Biketown rig. Oh, you got two inches off the ground? Impressive.
If you're not already good friends with Saltzman, you're about to be. We're not talking about the moneyed city commissioner, but the amazing road that winds through Forest Park from Highway 30 to Skyline. It's some of the best gravel the city has to offer, and while you'll not be climbing it fast, the Biketown bike's wide, 1.75-inch Kenda tires offer plenty of comfort on bumpy roads. You'll be WAY out of the system's service area if you attempt this, and it's probably a long-enough trek that you can count on getting into 10-cent-per-minute late fee territory. Still: rad.
All you need here is a willingness to get drenched (and look awesome). Wait 'til the summer heat gets cranking, hop on a Biketown bike at one of the many stations near the river, and run a continuous loop up and down Tom McCall Waterfront Park, careening (safely and mindfully) through every fountain you can find. Refreshing.
These bikes have good stability—and a spring ensuring the front wheel doesn't turn too far in either direction. So act like you've been there before by nonchalantly riding with no hands down little-used city streets. Point knowingly at people you pass. Dance if you want to. Play the Star Wars theme on a set of bagpipes. They're your arms, and they're unencumbered. Fresh.