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Oregon’s bike-riding Republican senator changes gears

State senator Jason Atkinson calls himself Oregon’s, “Most hardcore cycling fan who is a registered Republican.”
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

After a 14-year ride in the Oregon state legislature and one serious attempt to become governor, Republican Senator Jason Atkinson announced last week that he won’t seek re-election. For Oregonians that care about bicycling, this isn’t good news. Or is it?

“People would say, ‘You know, you were going to be a great statewide candidate until you went all liberal and got with the bicycles.'”
— Jason Atkinson

In the past few years Atkinson — whose now dormant gubernatorial campaign website features photos of him suited up in spandex at the 2009 Oregon Bike Summit — has distinguished himself for his support of several bike bills. And not just any bike bills. Atkinson unabashedly threw his weight behind a bill to amend the bicycle equipment requirement so it would specifically legalize fixed gear bicycles without hand-brakes, he supported a bill that would have used State Lottery funds to build several velodromes throughout the state, and he was an early sponsor of an attempt to pass an Idaho-style stop law.

Speaking via phone from his home office in Central Point this morning, Atkinson told me his support of bike issues came at a cost: Both his constituents and colleagues bristled at his bike-focused forays.

Jason Atkinson (in his “Ride a Fixed Gear, Go to Jail” t-shirt) testifying in favor of the fixed-gear brake bill in front of a Senate committee in 2007.

“I got a tremendous amount of angry email from all over Oregon every time I involved myself with a bike issue,” he recalled, “People would say, ‘You know, you were going to be a great statewide candidate until you went all liberal and got with the bicycles.'”

But to his credit, Atkinson doesn’t cower at the criticisms. Instead, he worked hard to burnish his bike-cred during our conversation this morning. “The fact is,” he said, “I’ve been a cyclist a lot longer than I’ve been in politics.” As a competitive racer, Atkinson says he used to train on fixed-gear bikes. “I was into fixies before fixies were cool.” He also recounted being hit by a car, learning how to ride defensively, and understanding what it’s like “to have people do bad things to you on the road.”

Unfortunately, not only did all three of the aforementioned bills eventually sputter out and fail, but Atkinson also distinguished himself in other ways that don’t evoke such happy memories for bike and transportation safety advocates. He voted against Oregon’s ban on cell phone use while driving (which went on to pass) and he was behind a push to raise the speed limit on Oregon highways last session.

Atkinson and fellow legislator, Portland Democrat Jackie Dingfelder,
near the capitol steps in 2009.

Those blips aside, Atkinson’s record and rhetoric around bicycles could do wonders to help Oregon bridge the urban/rural divide that often dominates our transportation politics. To do that, Atkinson advises, we shouldn’t forget to talk about bicycling’s potential as a sport and an economic development tool — especially around tourism and handmade bicycle manufacturing (which flourishes in his southern Oregon district).

“Too often, when you talk about bicycles in Salem, you get into this weird, urban/rural, Portland-centric transportation sphere… People, I don’t think, have an appreciation for how much broader cycling is… Cycling is more than Portland transportation issues.”

Atkinson talks about cycling like some sports fans talk about football or baseball. After sharing that the wall above his desk in his home office has three framed pictures — one of the Fausto Coppi winning the Tour de France in 1952, that famous old photo of a group of Tour de France riders smoking cigarettes while racing, and a “random picture of three guys in a breakaway at Paris-Nice” — he said he wants to see Oregon produce more Olympic cycling athletes.

A spokesman for cycling?

“My contention has always been, outside of Belgium, Oregon is the greatest cycling state… We should have Olympic athletes on the track coming out of our state.” One of those athletes might be Atkinson’s young son, who apparently does a mean Phil Liggett impersonation. “I have a nine-year-old who knows who the ‘God of Thunder’ is!,” referring to Liggett’s nickname for pro racer Thor Hushovd.

It’s clear Atkinson loves cycling (“I am without question the most hardcore cycling fan who is a registered Republican,” he says); but without his Senate seat, his ability to influence major bike policy might be diminished. Or maybe, free from the shackles of party politics, he might be able to do even more.

When I suggested he would make a great spokesman for cycling in Oregon, he perked up. “I’m currently available and looking at all offers. I can show up on my cruiser bike anywhere I’m needed.”

Something tells me we haven’t heard the last of Mr. Atkinson.

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