Kyle Carlson was a couple hundred feet up the hills of Northwest Portland when he mentioned he used to ride all the way home without switching out of his biggest front gear.
“I compromised,” he said. “Now I just never use my smallest gear.”
Carlson, an electrical engineer for Daimler Trucks North America, might have the most intense bike commute in the country’s bikingest state. After rising at 4 a.m. on summer mornings in his family’s Hillsboro subdivision, this single father of three bikes 26 miles to work on his Marin 29er hybrid. Then he bikes 26 miles home.
He tries to get six hours of sleep each night, he says.
During the rainy months, he takes it easier on himself, rides only three days a week, and sticks to a 19-mile route — though that one heads directly over the West Hills.
“I like my heart beating,” he says.
Carlson is not, in general, a wordy man. His habits tend to speak for themselves.
Another of his habits: As part of his “5:2 diet,” on two days a week he eats only 600 calories total. He currently does this on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These are also days that Carlson bikes to work, a task that he says requires about 2,500 calories.
It’s easier than you’d think, he says.
This year, a whole month of 52-mile daily round-trip commutes were enough to net him the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s annual prize for the most miles of any participant in the statewide Bike Commute Challenge. Here’s a map of his summer commute, which he takes every weekday of September in honor of the BCC:
And here’s his winter route:
On a Tuesday last month, I joined Carlson for the shorter of those two. We started at 4 p.m. at the secure bike parking area that Daimler added to its parking lot last year. Carlson said the quality and visibility of the structure has been a big factor in the rapid growth of biking at Daimler.
“In September, it was all full,” he said.
A bike had been Carlson’s main transportation when he was a teen in small-town Idaho. He rediscovered bike commuting as an adult while working for Boeing in Seattle.
“Only 16 round trip,” he said, “no big deal.”
Still, it was enough exercise for him to lose some weight at the time. That caught his attention. He moved to Wichita for a while, then back to the Northwest for the job at Daimler Trucks’ North American headquarters in Portland.
“When I started getting overweight again, I was like, you know, riding a bike worked last time,” he recalled. “And then the Bike Commute Challenge happened and it all just kind of clicked together.”
“The first day I rode, I rode a mile to the MAX,” Carlson said. “The next day I said, ‘I bet I could ride my bike from the Rose Quarter to Swan Island.'”
Each week, Carlson would get off the MAX one stop further from Swan Island.
The turning point came a few Septembers ago. Daimler, working with the Swan Island Business Association, had set up a map for employees to indicate where they lived in order to share commutes. Carlson decided to see if he could find a biking buddy for the long ride.
“I put my pin in,” Carlson said. “And a couple days later, I got an email that was like, ‘Howdy, neighbor.'”
The email was from Steve Taylor, a stranger who happened to live less than a mile from his house and had the same yen to ride. It was after the two started biking in together that Carlson was able to get religious about his commute.
Taylor’s company helped most, he said, when he was lying in bed in the dark, early in the morning.
“If I don’t get up, I’ve got to call him, got to let him know,” Carlson would tell himself. “We just started inspiring each other.”
Taylor and Carlson still ride together sometimes. They’ve taken bike tours together, too, and shown “three or four” other people the way to bike in from Hillsboro.
“When people are looking for something to do and they see people riding, it just kind of clicks sometimes,” Carlson said.
Carlson said Daimler’s rapid growth in biking — last year, the company led the state in new Bike Commute Challenge participants — has been driven by heavy staff turnover that followed a buyout during the recent recession.
“That brought in a much younger crowd, and it just fueled the surge in riding,” he said. “46 new riders. That’s crazy. In one year!”
Carlson’s own homeward commute from Swan Island involves navigating a couple of the industrial area’s parking lots…
…and up Going Street’s wide sidewalk, which was greatly improved in 2010.
Carlson said he used to illicitly ride the private Cement Road to Swan Island but stopped after taking a spill and realizing it’d be safer to avoid. He also switched, at some point, from taking the mixed uphill traffic lane on Going, shared with semi trucks, to taking the sidepath.
“I just thought, I’m a single parent,” he said.
At the top of the hill, Carlson likes to vary his route a bit. We took the Michigan Avenue neighborhood greenway down to Interstate…
…and over the flyover to the Broadway Bridge.
I asked Carlson for his advice on extreme commuting. Some tips from his experience:
Get a bike fitting. Carlson got one during the most recent Bike Commute Challenge. “That was amazing,” he said. “You may think you’re comfortable. A bike fitting is the best way to check.”
Choose where to put the cushion. “You either get the padded shorts or the padded seat. You don’t do both.” Carlson opts for the seat.
Gear up. Carlson wears Showers Pass rain pants and jacket in the winter. He always rides with water, a spare tube, a glueless tube patch kit, a bike multitool, a general Gerber multitool, brake pads, a shifter cable, a brake cable, a small pump and tire levers.
Keep building the music collection. Carlson listens to his Zune music player most of the way. He’s used a series of “10 free songs” cards to build a library of 300 to 400 songs — “everything but classical” — which he said is enough for his needs.
Teach the kids to cook. Carlson’s youngest is 14, something he says has been important to his ability to bike-commute. He’s got each of the three cooking the family one meal a week.
Over the West Hills and through the multi-use paths along Sunset Highway and onto the bike lanes that line Washington County’s wide roads, Carlson sees few others riding, at least during the rainy months.
It’s a long ride, but Carlson is in good spirits as he nears his neighborhood. Next year, he’s thinking he’ll finally buy a new bike, possibly a Surly Long Haul Trucker or maybe a cargo bike, and head on the longest trip of his life: seven weeks across the country.
He’s also thinking next summer will be the time he hits his target weight, 200 pounds. That’s down from 320 before he started to ride.
“I made kind of this deal with myself,” he said. “If I get myself to 200 pounds, I’ll get a tattoo.”
A few years after that, his kids will be out of high school and he’ll start thinking about moving. I told him I assumed he’d finally move closer to Swan Island at that point.
Carlson shook his head slightly.
“I’m not sure I’ll move closer,” he said. “I’m thinking I might move a little farther out.”
“Who knows?” he said. “I might go on a trip and say, ‘I’m done with this.’ I might walk to work.”
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.