The Worst Day of the Year Ride is February 11th

Riding along with Justin Gast from Kenton to Hillsboro

Posted by on December 10th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

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Justin Gast, illuminated by his bike light,
in front of his home in Kenton.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Welcome to the latest installment in our Ride Along series. I have an exciting announcement: MetroMile is now the presenting sponsor of this column. Thanks guys! Now onto your regularly scheduled programming…

Last week I joined 36-year-old Justin Gast for his 25 mile (one-way) commute into work. Justin lives in Kenton (near Posies Cafe on N. Denver) and he rides to the Washington County Public Services building in downtown Hillsboro where he works in the solid waste recycling division. This was my first Ride Along that went into Washington County and it was also multi-modal. Sit back and join Justin and I on his pre-dawn commute…

“I always say that summer time rewards the year-round commuters for everything they endure.”

Justin gets on his bike at about 5:30 am each morning to make it into work by about 7:30. When I rolled up to his house in north Portland, the only light in the front of his house was the bright red rear blinkie on his Felt road bike. It was hours before sunrise and cloudy skies (and the threat of rain) darkened things even further. Justin told me he rides year-round, and he’s got a mantra to help keep him going: “I always say that summer time rewards the year-round commuters for everything they endure.”

As we rolled south N Fenwick, I noticed the street had recently gotten some bike boulevard treatments like speed bumps and sharrows. Fenwick makes for a nice and calm north-south alternative to N. Interstate, which can be narrow and stressful. But what I quickly realized while riding along with Just is that almost every street in Portland is a neighborhood greenway during the pre-dawn hours. Before 6:00 am, the streets were mostly deserted.

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Once on N Interstate, we rode on a dedicated bike lane as we made our way south to the Broadway Bridge. As we rolled, Justin told me he rides to work for a lot of reasons. Exercise is a big one. His 45-50 mile per day commute gives him the chance to get a good workout without having to go to the gym.

He and his wife used to each have a car; but he sold his back in 2006. “I used to ride around Eugene when I was a UO student,” he shared, “But I got to the point a few years ago where I got sick of driving. I actually sold my graduation gift, a two year old BMW… I sold it for a Diamond Back [bike] and just started riding all the time.”

“When we got rid of our car, I was like, I don’t know why we didn’t do this sooner.”

Now he feels a twinge of delight as he ride over bridges and overpasses and sees the bumper-to-bumper gridlock below. “I look at all that traffic and think, I don’t have to sit in that.”

As we pedaled up onto the Broadway Bridge, Justin explained that he recently changed his route to avoid having to cross NW Broadway from Couch. Back in July he was riding west on NW Couch, when he went through the intersection with Broadway (after stopping) and was sideswiped by someone driving a car. It was a month of recovery and haggling with an insurance company before he was biking again. “It freaked my wife out. She worries about me,” he said.

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Now Justin comes south on Broadway and makes a right onto Couch, to head up into the Pearl near Powell’s. (We were headed to the Goose Hollow MAX stop where we’d catch the train for a lift up to Washington Park.) When I asked Justin why he rides up through northwest Portland instead of continuing on Broadway into downtown. “Streets in the Pearl are cleaner,” he said, “and I get to smell the Pearl Bakery every morning.”

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At Goose Hollow, we had no problem finding space for our bikes on the MAX. It was nearly empty.

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At the top, Justin warned me that there would be a lot of leaves and storm debris in the bike lanes as we headed west, down the hill into Beaverton. He was right.

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It was still dark, and fog had settled in as we approached the Sylvan overpass via the path along Highway 26. Once we crossed over the highway, we found the south side of the path just off of SW Pointer Road. The path is a vital connection for people biking between Portland and Beaverton; but I’m still baffled at why it doesn’t have better signage.

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Eventually we crossed over Highway 217 (oh, the gridlock!) and made our way onto SW Park. Justin tried to warn me it’d be dark; but I had no idea it would be pitch black! Between Cedar Hills Blvd and SW Butner Rd, SW Park has some sections without any streetlights at all. To make matters worse, the lanes are relatively narrow and there’s no dedicated bike space. I’m just glad we both had rear lights.

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About to enter the abyss that is SW Park.

Another issue Justin said he experiences on the west side is the lack of bicycle sensor loops at intersections to trigger traffic signals. He said, if there’s no other traffic around, he’s often forced to dismount and push walk buttons or use crosswalks to get across major intersections.

Once on Cedar Hills Blvd, Justin shared a common west side bike safety trick. Instead of risking our lives on two multi-lane arterials adjacent to big shopping centers, I followed Justin’s wheel into a parking lot to avoid the Cedar Hills/Walker Rd intersection.

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Once onto Walker, we had a bike lane to ride in nearly the entire length of the trip. However, a strip of paint and 4-5 feet of space isn’t very reassuring when you’re on road where people are driving 50 mph. It also makes the quality of the bike lane very important. In other words, if the lane is full of leaves (as shown below at 158th and Jenkins) or has other hazards, it can be scary to enter into the adjacent lane.

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But even with these pitfalls, neither of us ever felt in danger during the ride (of course we’re both experienced and confident riders). As we got closer to downtown Hillsboro, I asked Justin why, besides getting exercise, he doesn’t just hop on the MAX. After all, he could take the train nearly door-to-door (with a transfer). “You get to see the city,” he said, “You don’t get to see a lot of the city going by at 25-30 miles in a car.” (Not to mention the fact that he’d only save about 15-20 minutes by taking MAX.)

As we approached the empty bike rack at the Washington County building, Justin was in great spirits and was ready to tackle his day. “I hope this inspires people and reminds them that it’s possible to ride to work. It’s a great lifestyle. I love it.”

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Thank for letting me tag along Justin. I know I slowed you down a lot!

— The BikePortland Ride Alongs are sponsored by MetroMile which is offering the country’s first true pay per mile car insurance. So if you drive less, you pay less. Check out past Ride Alongs here.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you — Jonathan

  • Joe December 10, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    This is awesome coverage! I ride just 7 miles from NE up to OHSU. The dedicated bicyclists who manage the west hills and riding in the cluster of Beaverton/Hillsboro are an inspiration.

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  • Kat December 10, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    I know Portland has a great (and most importantly, responsive) phone number you can call if a bikelane needs sweeping asap (leaves, broken glass etc).

    Do Gresham / Beaverton / Hillsboro et al have similar hotline numbers? I feel like some of the bikelanes out in these areas are just death-traps full of debris trying to kill you.

    Any leads?

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    • Chad December 13, 2012 at 7:50 am

      I do believe that Hillsboro has such a hotline, however at this time of year it won’t do any good. With leaf pickup services scheduled in 2 week blocks, the rules require residents to fill the bike lane with leaves in order to have the city take them away. That’s where the city says they belong and they could be there for up to two weeks before finally getting hauled away.

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  • Allan December 10, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    I ride most of that route home once or twice a week but I can’t imagine doing it both ways every day. The MAX is so cozy in the morning its hard to say no, and those 15-20 minutes matter sometimes- but I’m just not a morning person

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  • Sunny December 10, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    The last bit is important. You feel socially connected to your city when it’s not “outside” of your vehicle — socially connected means better mental health. That’s not to say that drivers are all whack jobs or anything — just a little like restless caged animals. Mental health.

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    • 9watts December 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm

      It is refreshing to hear someone upend the all too familiar (and unhelpful) hierarchy of assumed transport preferences: car first, mass transit second, bike/walk third.

      I am starting to hear this quite a bit: why would I go back to driving?

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  • Esther December 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Great article! I think you meant N. Concord, which is the greenway alternative to Interstate. the greenway is on Fenwick north of Lombard, but is Concord south of that.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks Esther. Actually, I meant Fenwick. We took it to just south of Lombard, and then took Interstate the rest of the way.

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      • Nate December 10, 2012 at 3:26 pm

        Interestingly then, you rode the one section of Interstate that does NOT have a dedicated bike lane – from N. Dekum to N. Willamette (N to S). Any idea why they left the bike lane off that chunk of Interstate?

        I tend to take Concord down (I start S of Lombard) to N. Humboldt going S, but stay on Interstate going N. Seems to be the most efficient way to go, and on the Northbound side there is more room, even where there isn’t a marked bike lane.

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        • Champs December 10, 2012 at 4:16 pm

          Two words: “no room”.

          Personally, I’d use Denver over Concord.

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  • ScottG December 10, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    I really enjoy reading about people’s individual commutes. In this situation, I’d be really interested to see a map of this route on something like MapMyRide or RideWithGPS, as it seems like quite an involved route. (I also live in NE Portland and work in Hillsboro, so I’m curious what the best route is to get there by bike).

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

      Hey Scott. You’re not the first person to ask. I’ll make one up and post the link ASAP.

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      • Captn' Haddock December 11, 2012 at 9:31 am

        Johnathan, I’d be glad to share my GPS track that I take from my house into Beaverton – over by Nike. However my ride does involve riding over the hill rather than taking the max.

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  • Jim Lee December 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    Let’s see–he could just ride to the Rose Quarter Transit Center and grab a Blue Line train to Hillsboro…but then he would not get to ride the elevator at the Zoo!

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  • Spiffy December 10, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    I take the bus/MAX for my 20 miles into Hillsboro… I don’t want to ride over that huge hill on the way there and I don’t want to pay $100/month just to go one stop on the max each day… economics…

    that’s why I’m looking for a local job…

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  • Taras December 10, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    This is similar to my commute. I avoid the nasty CedarHills/Walker intersection by taking SW Park Way by Harbor Freight, it joins up with Walker later. It reduces stress levels of this ride by a LOT 🙂

    Great to see a long commute in the series.

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  • patrickz December 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Fine reporting, Jonathan (as usual) and high fives to Justin. Great job, both of you, gentlemen. (Merry gentlemen, yes!)

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  • stephry December 10, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Inspiring. Next time i wake up and don’t feel like my 4 mile, mostly downhill ride into downtown, I’ll remember this article.

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  • Rol December 10, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Everybody: it’s just a hill. For years I scrupulously avoided it. Had myself cooped up in a nice tidy little box bounded by the hill. Turns out it’s fairly inspiring up there. On the other hand my knee went out from doing it too much.

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    • spare_wheel December 10, 2012 at 6:50 pm

      altitudinal crack is very addictive.

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    • Paul Souders December 10, 2012 at 9:12 pm

      Every time I hear about westside commuters taking the Max through the hill I think “geez you’re skipping the best part…”

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      • A.K. December 11, 2012 at 8:55 am

        I love riding up that hill, but I can sympathize – I don’t have showers or anything at my work, so I need to try and remain as sweat-free as possible during my commute. Lucky for me I work the opposite (mostly flat) direction of town, so I can save the sweaty hillclimbs for fun rides…

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      • stasia December 11, 2012 at 10:49 am

        Totally agree! That hill is my absolute favorite part of my commute!:)

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  • Mark Allyn December 10, 2012 at 7:31 pm

    Thank you for the great article!

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  • Mitch December 10, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    I commute between 20 and 30 miles/day all year long, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s such an experience to have every day. Its sometimes the most excitement I get all day! Still, this guy has me beat!

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  • ME Fitz December 10, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Great series Jonathan!

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  • Aaron December 10, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    I ride NE to Hillsboro (Tanasbourne area) for about 5 weeks, usually 1 week every couple months, per year.

    I really think the hill is the best part. Having panniers helps me not get so sweaty. Every time I pass Goose Hollow I consider stopping but $2 to avoid some awesome training seems silly!

    SW Park IS scary going uphill at night! Downhill you can just bomb it, but I have actually started riding the sidewalk from Cedar Hills to Butner. The sidewalk seams suck, but people drive way too fast on that street and it is way too curvy for me to be really comfortable.

    At least from Park->Walker->THPRD->158th->Cornell->Evergreen and reverse (but skipping THPRD and just doing 158th->Walker) I have had only positive interactions with traffic. The lights seem timed just perfectly so that the times I need to turn left all of the cars from the last light are already past me and the ones from behind haven’t caught up yet. It’s really empowering to take the lane on 158th, and never feels sketchy!

    One time I didn’t leave work until after midnight and ended up having to jump the fence in Washington Park because I was very much not in the mood to find an alternate route. I think it usually closes at 10pm or so.

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  • Sally Hunt December 10, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Great article–kudos to Justin!

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  • Ken Wetherell December 11, 2012 at 7:16 am

    Very nice story. Love the play by play commute action. Nice commitment, Justin!

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  • Doug Reid December 11, 2012 at 7:46 am

    I bike back and forth from Sylvan to my work at OHSU five days a week year around. It’s a nice commute with very little traffic and in the mornings I can make as many circuits around Marquam Hill on Fairmont Blvd as my energy and need for additional exercise permits then the awsome run down Marquam Hill Road. The only hazards on this route are lady walkers and joggers who persist in taking up the whole right lane with their backs to the traffic. This time of year their stroll is in the dark of course. Well…there are occasional moments of terror and aggrivation when getting accross Hwy 26 on the Sylvan overpass/interchange too, but that’s not every day. Kudos to Justin for his daily commute – what a guy!

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  • Mike Fish December 11, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Thanks, I really enjoy these commuter profiles!

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  • Mike Quigley December 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

    This sounds like a dangerous commute to me, and a good argument for dedicated bike paths.

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    • spare_wheel December 11, 2012 at 11:05 am

      even in glorious denmark this suburban route would largely rely on bike lanes. yes…they still have bike lanes in denmark.

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  • Jace Thompson December 11, 2012 at 10:01 am

    I’ve been doing the daily Eastside to Beaverton/Hillsboro shuffle for the better part of 2 decades…..still remember the pre-MAX days, pre bike lanes, pre Hawthorne bridge deck widening, pre-HWY 26 widening….in fact, the safest route back then used to be the HWY 26 shoulder for a good stretch out to deep Hillsboro and back….and the ride was pretty lonely back then. Awesome to read about how the long haul truckers community has grown so large, and that there are so many ways to tackle the trip these days in safe(r) route options, public transport assistance, visibility with other riders. It’s easy to always think “things need to get better in X, Y, Z factors…” but it’s good to also celebrate how far things have come. Thanks for the great read.

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  • Brandon December 11, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Great column!

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  • john December 11, 2012 at 11:39 am

    -Definitely HWy 26 from the Zoo exit to the Jefferson St exit or vice versa is the safest and fastest way over the hill.

    -I run two lights front and two lights back. Keep them low on the bike! in a well lit area, lights up high blend into the sky or with background street lights. Yes for this reason Helmet lights are extremely dangerous and can make you “invisible”.

    -Breathable jackets are mainly breathable because they have venting. Thus they are worthless if you have a backpack on…

    – St john’s bridge and a night hike up through springville road would probably be as fast 🙂 But very very dark!

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  • Joe December 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

    awesome I ride some of the same routes to Wilsonville from PDX, except I go hall RD after Beaverton TC.

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  • Joe December 11, 2012 at 11:53 am

    BTW I love to see other ppls bike routes, don’t feel so along after 9-5 local riding, its puts things into a more global scale riding

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  • Cece December 11, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I ADORE my early-morning (pre-6am) commute. My ride is only 4.5 miles to downtown from SE, but I love those quiet, peaceful miles every morning so, so much. Seriously better than coffee. Good job Justin!

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  • Lynne December 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    This is my area; I commute from (vaguely) the west end of the Sunset MUP to Hillsboro, also do lots of rides between here and there. I have found this route safe and except for the left turn across SW Walker at SW 107th, not at all scary.
    The left turn is key – don’t turn right and expect to be able to turn left onto SW 108th. Not a good place for a bicycle.

    An alternative route to Jenkins/Baseline, which preserves the AWESOME SW Park Way drop is:

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  • Ted Buehler December 11, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Nice work, Justin. Clever combo to take MAX for elevation gain, but pedal the rest of the way.

    For many of your route maintenance problems, you can email in maintenance requests and the local public works department will get on them pretty quickly. Take an extra 10 mins one morning and shoot photos of the worst offenders, then send them in. Such as
    * no magnetic sensor for bikes at traffic lights (one email per intersection)
    * debris on shoulder
    * cars exceeding the speed limit (one email per section of street, include time of day)
    * lack of wayfinding on bike paths

    Portland’s email transportation hotline is
    ODOT is
    Beaverton and Hillsboro will have email addresses on their public works or department of transportation hotlinks.

    Send in those requests, its the best way to get minor improvements and maintenance done.

    Ted Buehler

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  • Brian December 11, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    The city of Beaverton likes to use cameras instead of ground loops for vehicle detection at most intersections. The best way to trigger those is to ride down the middle of the lane or in the bike lane. Unfortunately, there is no way to know if the camera really saw you.

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    • El Biciclero December 11, 2012 at 11:09 pm

      Also, shining a headlight directly at the camera (I have to lift my handlebars up to aim mine at some of these cameras) can alert it to your presence.

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  • Mike December 12, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    I know it is longer, but staying North of 26 as much as possible has major benefits I think. Hit Lovejoy to Thompson, Laidlaw and pick a way down and across. If at Intel, I’d do West Union out to Brookwood. To me, anything to avoid the nasty strip mall around Cedar Mill. SW Park is a gem if you have to though.

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  • Mike December 12, 2012 at 4:27 pm

    Huh, it’s NOT longer. I compared to riding up instead of the MAX though.

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  • julie December 13, 2012 at 8:25 am

    It’s always great to hear of a couple who is sharing one car. It seems too rare these days, and yet a fantastic way to save money and use the bike as a mobile gym. I hope his wife is also able to ride, and not too fearful of some of the dangers (real and perceived) of city riding.

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    • Terra Gast December 14, 2012 at 12:30 pm

      You’re so right Julie, we save tons only having the one car. Between, maintenance, gas and insurance we have save so much money. Justin is also lucky that he gets a deeply discounted rate on his Max fare allowing him to use that as an additional form of transportation. I’m a fair-weather weekend rider with Justin, that’s how I like it!

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  • rrroubaix December 13, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Enjoyed the article! Parts of this commute are very similar to mine gong to Freightliner from Bethany (before I moved away.. 🙁
    I agree w/ the one poster who pointed out that yes, while the West Hills are a blast to ride, riding them *into* work would really be dependent on what sort of shower facilities your work has. No showers= no hills.

    I’ve always been utterly baffled by the whole “push your leaves into the street” BS. VERY un-bike-friendly. Wash Co needs to revisit that bit of ridiculousness.

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