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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Death Defying Feats of Urban Cycle Commuting: A Retrospective


My experiences cycle commuting in Portland, OR can be summed up in one word: terrifying. And I realize that this city is one of the premier in the US with regards to bike commuting infrastructure, awareness, and all round bicycle friendliness. However, as a rider one is still utterly exposed; a bike rolls on two skinny wheels and one must still share the road with large, highly lethal vehicles operated by people with varying degrees of general alertness, consideration and tolerance (or intolerance) for cyclists.

And I loved it. Unlike the real and immediate dangers to my physical well being posed by riding my bike in rush hour traffic over twelve miles of urban streets* twice daily, dangers that never seemed to cross my mind in the saddle, I felt the car commute was actually killing me. Slowly. I felt tired, stressed, and angry every time I exited my car after my commute to or from work. I was having trouble sleeping, and getting sick more often than ever.

My job involves sitting in front of a computer screen in a dusty warehouse for eight hours a day. It occurred to me that adding daily physical activity might be part of the solution to my stress and sleeping problems. Bike commuting was a daunting possibility (I had no experience with urban bike commuting), but it seemed the most convenient way to garauntee regular physical activity during the work week. And it worked. After a day of working and riding, I'd be physically exhausted, but not nearly as psychologically sapped. I was less stressed, less sick and sleeping solid. It was a magical panacea. And I was suprised to find that my twenty-four mile round trip commute was only about thirty to forty minutes longer by bike than in my car.

I cycled to work using two main routes. One took me down the Springwater Corridor (a multi-use path) from I-205 to Sellwood, the other kept me on or just north of Burnside until around 39th where it cut south and eventually sent me over the Hawthorne Bridge. The latter was my preferred route, and it looked like this:


I was riding from my apartment on SE 133rd just south of Burnside to my workplace on SW Macadam Ave near the OPB building all through the spring and summer of 2013. I rode my bike to work as often as I could (three or four times a week). I saw almost no other cyclist for the first leg of my commute, from my apartment to just past 71st. I think it's safe to assume that it's an extremely rare individual who bikes to work from Gresham.

Possibly due to the limited amount of time I spent bike commuting, I only had a few close calls with cars. The most frightening were probably on Macadam Ave. When I was cycling the Springwater Corridor route, I would cross the Sellwood Bridge and ride north on Macadam a half mile or so. That was the most treacherous half mile of riding I've ever done. The bridge was (and still is, as I write this) under construction and traffic can back up for miles on Macadam, South of the bridge, in the morning rush. When car traffic finally gets past the congestion, people are not in the frame of mind to slow down or make room for a cyclist in the road. That stretch of road also has a gnarly gutter with big drain grates that are positioned pretty far out into the lane, so to avoid the risk of dropping a skinny tire into the drain, I had to ride well out into the lane, far enough that a car wouldn't be able to pass without changing lanes. Or so I thought. I was nearly clipped by side-view mirrors on multiple occasions only to pull up alongside the driver at the next red light. I always smiled and waved at the driver in an attempt to share my immeasurable joy that through their supremely precise driving maneuvers (or blind luck) they had not accidentally flattened me.

The only other close call that stands out in my mind occurred on the Burnside route. I was in the bike lane on Burnside on my way to work, somewhere around 74th, and traffic was starting to back up from the light at the top of the hill at 69th. So I was riding along beside stopped cars for several blocks. I was very alert to the possibility that anyone might suddenly decide to take a right down one of the cross streets to get out of traffic and I was careful while passing those streets. Still, as I approached my turn at 71st that sends the bike route up into the neighborhoods just north of Burnside, someone in a little black four door something-or-the-other decided to pass all the stopped cars by moving into the parking lane in order to make a right turn on 71st. Apparently she was absolutely certain that no one behind her had the same idea because she never looked back. She just pulled out into the bike lane right as I was passing her and forced me into the parking lane. I shouted, "Hey, hey!" at her closed window (not in an aggressive way; imagine the upbeat and jovial tones of Fat Albert) and thankfully was able to get her attention before she creamed me.

I was still cycle commuting to work late into September. I bought a pair of bike lights as the sun was starting to set by the time I clocked out at six. Night riding was possibly the most dangerous feat of urban cycle commuting that I participated in. I found it strangely exhilarating. With no enclosure, nothing immediately surrounding me but the air rushing past as I sped along, and limited visibility, the road kind of disappeared into the darkness a few feet ahead, it felt a bit like dream-flying.


Near the end of September, after the first heavy rainfall, I was on my way to work when I had my first real wreck on a road bike. No car was involved, just my own poor judgment. I was probably riding far too fast for the road conditions. It was slick. I was racing down the hill where Sandy turns into 7th, and as I approached the intersection with Morrison, the light turned yellow. Without thinking I applied the brakes, decided to stop rather than risk running a red at a busy intersection, and before I'd even started to slow down much, my tires lost traction and I fish tailed and dropped, sliding right up to the crosswalk. Probably cracked out on adrenaline, I just picked up my bike and finished my commute to work. I couldn't tell that my entire right leg was severely sprained; the half dollar sized patch of deep road rash on my knee was bleeding, but hadn't even started to sting. And I gave no thought to checking my bike for damage, making sure it was still safe to ride, until after I'd ridden several more miles, well across Hawthorne Bridge.

Since that wreck I haven't done any cycle commuting. We moved to new lodgings in Lake Oswego before I'd completely recovered from my injuries. I've barely been back on the bike at all, excluding indoor trainer time. I'm ashamed to admit that I've been much more timid on my bike, especially riding down hills. I feel heart racing anxiety at times. I have no faith in my brakes, no confidence in my ability to stop. I guess I'm not much of daredevil after all.

*To be honest I stuck mainly to bike routes that were very low or no car traffic and only crossed or rode down busy streets occasionally. But that doesn't sound as death-defyingly heroic.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Traditions, New & Old

 Our holiday hearth was quite literal this year.

I'm no media fool. I know the holidays were old news by December 1. However, as I take down my holiday decorations today, I crave some reflection. This season was so ripe with family and tradition. Gus and I are slowly creating our own rituals. I am stilled thrilled to delve deeper into his family's celebrations. And there is nothing like my own home, the delicious familiarity. To me, this is the season of Peter Pan, where I get to be an eternal child, following Christmas stars.

Our celebration started on the solstice. We celebrated with a traditional-ish smörgåsbord far too large for two people (as is our way. We did this again on New Year's Eve for Gus's sister & her fiance). We also exchanged our gifts to each other. I hope we do this every year.

May there never be a Christmas without homemade almond roca. 

 We made our way up to my family on Christmas eve with a pine & berry crown in tow. I took exactly 0 pictures while celebrating with my parents and siblings. It was perfect.



Next we visited Gus' family, where the exciting present for the children was a small bow. Gus' niece and nephew are clearly naturals. 

 The old Johnson family's way of saying Merry Christmas.