Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Alley Sweeper!

A couple years back I moved from my home in Seattle down to cozy little Portland.  One of the main reasons I made the move was for "Free Bike Fun". There's much fun to be had on two wheels and Portland has somehow found a way to bottle and sell if for... er free. I mean FREE! Call me what you will, but I originally moved here for the the pedal bike brand of fun. So imagine my amazement when I found out the moto culture in PDX was also all about the free bike fun movement.

Let me paint a little picture for you. See, Portland is filled with lots of signs like this:

These signs mark the entryway to over 140 miles of unimproved public roadways inside the city limits. Often these are back alleys and many could just as easily be mistaken for part of someone's yard. In fact many people treat these roads as if they're private property (more on that in a bit... Gotta wait for the juicy bits) but they're public roadways nevertheless.


Typically they look as thus:

Prime dualsport double-track. Two blocks north? The coffee shops and cafes of Alberta St.

Enter the Sang-Froid Riding Club and the "Alley Sweeper Urban Enduro". Some time ago a brilliant idea was hatched to compile maps of many of these unimproved roads in Portland, and unleash a slew of dualsport/enduro riders on the city in a "choose your own adventure" type ride. The ride is now in its Fifth year, and still fuggin' free! A bunch of riders pouring their heart, soul, and hard-earned gas money into organizing a ride just for the love of riding. Brilliant.

I missed last year's ride... sort of. I mean I didn't "miss" it per se. Last year was a glorious day in Portland. The sun was out, it was warm and wonderful and almost made everyone think that summer was here early. But there I was, stuck in my studio, with a deadline to meet. I had the big door up to enjoy the sun, but wept silently at the sound of every dualsport in the city ripping by.

Having learned my lesson, and cleared my calendar, I pulled the ammo cans off the KLR, and let some air out of the tires. I headed out on a damp overcast April 14th. morning for some urban exploration of the "BRAAAAP" variety. Rough counts were in excess of 300 bikes present. Everything from GPS-powered BMWs, to ugly purple and tan KLRs, to KTM adventuremobiles, and a slew of suuuuper non-street legal dirt bikes. Motocross boots and scratched up goggles abound. After so many group rides with my friends where no one wanted to ride early, in the rain, or off-road I knew I had finally found my people. 



In my experience most dualsport riders are solitary folks. So much time is spent riding single-track that we don't often find ourselves riding 2-abreast and 16 deep down a highway together for miles (occasionally it happens, and I've done it, but not often). It's tough to carry on conversation when you're staying a decent pace back on dusty logging roads. Riding my bike is what I like to call "alone time". So when you get this many loners together, and promise lots of fun, things tend to get a little rowdy.


We picked up our FREE maps, coffee, and pancakes (donations accepted. Don't be a mooch for fuq sake) and received a brief, yet brilliant, pep-talk from the SFRC crew. They had reminders like "the speed limit is 15 mph in all alleys", "these are PUBLIC right of ways", "you might find things in places that you can jump", and "You might encounter people who don't want you there. Enlighten them".

The maps themselves weren't your typical ride route. They were a collection of detailed areas of the city highlighting only portions of the rideable dirt roads portland has to offer. There was a lunch stop, and a final beer stop. When it was all said and done my route looked something like this:


With a bunch of smoke and burnouts we were off. An exodus of knobby tires into the streets. The first turn seemed like something out of a movie. Our growling exhaust sounding like a pack of wolves ready to tear apart acres of unlicensed herb gardens... Ok, the analogy only goes so far, but we did slaughter some mud puddles!


At some point I remember stopping in the middle of an intersection and for 8 city blocks I could see bikes criss-crossing the the street through alleys. That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

I started out by heading off into St. Johns to drop down into an area called "the Hobo Loop" on the map. It's a no-man's land of abandoned industrial area along the river. I've explored it by bicycle in the past, and so I was stoked to rally around on the KLR. At some point I got a little carried away (not far from where the photo below was taken) and headed down a narrow trail between a chainlink fence and the slope of rock along the train tracks. I think I got wrapped up in that "I'm dirt-biking" mentality and didn't realize I'd made a bad decision until my knuckle guards were scraping fence on one side and my right leg was tucked up on the back rack to clear the rocks on the other. Definitely well beyond the point of no return I kept going and luckily made it out the other side. To be clear a small two-stroke dirt bike would've shredded that path, but the KLR ("Kant Leave Road") was bulky and out of it's element. Still nice to know it'll go where I need it to in a pinch... I mean, I already knew that, but I appreciate the ol' girl reminding me she's still got it going on.


From here I thought I couldn't get into too much more trouble, but I failed to anticipate the human element. Headed down a back alley in NE Portland I approached a mini-van parked in the middle of an alley (a suburban road block, if you will). The closer I got I watched a mom run across the alley, grab her children from the yard they were playing in and quickly drag them both out into the alley, and in front of my bike. She was using her children as a barricade to show me that she didn't think I should be riding there. Remember that bit about it being a PUBLIC roadway? Paid for with taxpayer dollars? Realistically we're not a far cry from her putting her children in front of moving cars because she doesn't like people driving up the street. Marinate on that for a moment...

So after her son smiled and waved, and I smiled, nodded, and said "pardon me" she.... painfully.... slowly... moved... her... kids... back... out... of... the alley and away I rode.

Dont get me wrong. I understand her frustration. With the sheer number of bikes threading through the city her point was valid, "my children play here". But the reality is pretty stark: She willfully placed her children in harms way because she disapproved of a completely legal activity. Not everyone likes free fun, I guess, but the joke will be on her in a few years when that boy starts obsessing over getting his first dirt bike. Boom!



Eventually I wound up in the Foster Powell neighborhood at Dustys for a lunch break (in truth I stopped off at home en route and walked the dog, but I mean how often can you do THAT on a motorcycle ride?). So good to see so many dualsports out and about. Not too long thereafter the sun came out too, for an added bonus.


Mere blocks after leaving the lunch spot I ran into human element number two. A man wielding a baseball bat and a german shepherd came out from behind a garage at me in the standard "come at me bro" pose. When he saw the pack of bikes 30 yards behind me he lowered the bat and let me pass. Another fun thing I don't often get to do on an average motorcycle ride... Ah yeah... But hey, no harm no foul, right?

The ride finished up at Apex in Southeast just blocks from my studio. Really, every ride should wrap up in a good storytelling spot. Some of the better stories came from my friends who had done the ride in an older Ural with a sidecar. Something about having it on one wheel at one point... You'd have to let them tell you. And regarding the "get out my yard you damn kids" folks: that was made well by a couple partying in the back of their truck drinking beers and cheering on riders. Some folks were making a day of simply spectating the event. Also props to the lady outside of Cafe Vita in NE who stopped me to tell me riding around the back alleys looked like the best idea she'd witnessed in years.

She's right. Good work to the SFRC for putting it all together and sharing the free fun movement. If anyone got "enlightened" on the ride I'd say it was me. All this fun and technical riding to be had right here in my city limits. Looking forward to next year when I hope to have a more nimble toy to play on. Until then I'm hoping to get the eff OUT of town as much as possible.

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