Learning to Ride in Portland

When I first moved to Portland four years ago I reserved words like “bike boulevard” or “sharrow” for the cyclists in my life. I didn’t know what a green bike box was, and I certainly didn’t want to put myself in front of all of those cars. I didn’t consider myself someone who rode a bike. I just happened to have one.  I first lived in NW Portland, up on Glisan and 22nd. It was a horrible place to own a car – as many places in Portland are becoming – and as a student at Portland State… riding a bike just made sense. At this point the bike shop had just begun (then called Kinetic Performance) in a little micro gym called Empower Fitness. I had every reason to take Justin up on his offer to build me a more commuter friendly bicycle – ditch my fixie, and hit the pavement. But I was stubborn.

The excuse doesn’t really matter. I didn’t want to carry my bike down the stairs every day, I didn’t have a good bag, I’d never be able to carry all of my things with me, what if I got a flat? I don’t have a bike pump! It costs a lot of money to get a bike. Well, what if it gets stolen? I’d have to get a bike lock too, a good one at that. But most importantly, above all else, I do not want to ride in traffic. 
You could find me an inexpensive bike lock, show me how to carry my bike, get me the nicest pannier in the world, and even do the maintenance on my bike for me. At the end of the day I was faced with the reality that I had all the gear, and all that was left was facing my anxiety of the streets. I couldn’t let my new beauty (fuji cambridge, above) sit around all day. I knew I had to learn to deal with my fear.
If you’re new to commuting my first piece of advice would be to not go out riding with someone who is already carefree in the streets. Riding with Justin at the very beginning was chaos. Every car we passed, every car that passed us, every fast paced turn or giant pothole that I flew into, I felt like I was going to lose it. Just one wrong move and I’d eat it. The streetcar tracks, the max is coming, the light is turning yellow, why are you going so fast? Where are we going? Can we ride here? How much longer is it? The city has never seemed so big! Isn’t there a bike lane here? Where is the next bike lane? It wasn’t that he wasn’t patient, but it was clear to me that his anxiety had long been shed, if it had ever been there at all. Despite his willingness to show me the ropes, I knew I was going to have to take some initiative to become more comfortable on my own.
After learning some of the major bike streets (SE Ankeney, for instance) and some quieter riding lanes, I could officially get around. At least a little bit. At least where I needed to go. After a lot of riding around to and from very specific locations, I started to branch out. I’d look at the bike map and catch bike friendly streets. I’d stick to the bike lane as much as I could and stay on low car traffic streets. And, eventually, I started putting myself on busier streets.
You know, I wasn’t riding down Burnside or anything, but the freedom to ride my bike anywhere I needed to go was a good freedom indeed. I’d finally learned my place as a cyclist – or at least a place where I felt comfortable. Sticking to the sharrows, the bike lanes, the quiet streets, and sharing the lane when I had to.
My second piece of advice is to not feel like you have to jump into riding your bicycle everywhere. Especially if it’s very new to you. Pick a place to go, and find a bike friendly way to get there. If you find yourself lost or if you find yourself getting nervous of the cars behind you, hop off your bike and walk on the sidewalk until you get your bearings again. Do this same route a few more times until you get it down.
I’ve commuted to school by bike full time for the past three years now. Trust me – if I can do it, so can you. I get places more quickly than in my car, I don’t have to pay for parking, and there is a certain freedom in being able to go anywhere I want, anytime I want. You just have to know the way.
This was the second post in a series of three for those who are new to commuting. Check back soon for the third post to hear the Crank men talk about their commuting stories, and about what commuting means to them!
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