By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life
“Maybe we should’ve rented some lighter bikes,” my sweetheart suggests over his shoulder. We’re huffing uphill on Harrison Street in Portland, Ore., pedaling a pair of elegant but heavy three-speeds. Evidently Portland has much steeper streets than our hometown of Minneapolis, and we’re beginning to wonder if our weekend visit might be torpedoed by my insistence on the prettier bikes.
Still, we’re gasping for air that’s perfumed with mint and roses, and we’re inching past bright bungalows up a quiet residential boulevard. It leads directly from downtown Portland and the Willamette River below to the top of an extinct volcano, Mount Tabor, at the edge of the city’s southeast quadrant. The sun is shining. The magnolia trees are in full bloom. And since there is no reason to hurry, we just keep climbing.
Most people want to feel less like tourists and more like travelers when they go on vacation. This distinction is measurable when one rents a bike. As a tourist, I look for big landmarks — the Eiffel Towers and the Taj Mahals. When I get home, I report on the two or three recognizable things I saw. But when I explore a city by bike, I’m not necessarily looking for anything — though I am seeing a lot.
Touring an urban area by car might be easier, but it keeps the experience under glass. Pedaling down an ordinary avenue reveals the intimate details of a city’s life, from plant varieties and porch culture to the way the community handles its trash.
You experience the climate like an everyday commuter; if it rains, you’re getting wet. But there are rewards for risking the elements. Case in point: returning from Mount Tabor, we pedal down a busy street and are seduced into stopping for lunch by the smells from a turquoise-painted taqueria. We learn later from local friends that this is a local landmark. Yet because we followed our noses rather than a guidebook, we never had to look for its perfect fish tacos; they found us.
Not every American city is as inviting to cyclists as Portland; many are sliced up by freeways or endless parking lots. But the City of Roses, New York City and Minneapolis are three prime places for a two-wheel tour.