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.
Great story. Inspiring and makes me totally miss my bike commute from St. Johns to Beaverton. I have it easy now and feel guilty for it.
Very inspiring story!
“Carlson said he used to illicitly ride the private Cement Road to Swan Island but stopped after taking a spill and realizing.” realizing what?
Whoops – sorry about that. Realizing he was safer on Going.
Kudos!!! I do a 20 mile each way commute; my hats off to you!
The “I’m a single parent” quote stuck out to me, especially in light of all of the Vision Zero talk of late. It’s easy to forget the impacts safety (or lack thereof) can have on folks that aren’t directly in harms way.
I’m curious to know why he doesn’t go through Washington Park on his winter route.
I used to take Washington park, but I don’t like the lack of lighting and all the leaves on the roadway. My current route has a more gradual slope as well.
Congrats Kyle! Your example was an inspiration to all of us who worked to make bike commuting to Swan Island a viable option.
Dude puts in the miles I’d like to and I don’t even have children. Props.
Does anyone else see the absurdity in eating 600 calories a day when doing endurance type exercise? Ruined metabolism anyone? Other than a seriously poor diet choice, props to this guy.
Wow. Come on. Everybody has their own theory on how to drop pounds. As I read the article, he only does this on two days out of the week. Serious fat burn anyone?
As someone who has not been able to find engineering work in portland and therefore unfortunately works in the burbs, this is great but really you should just move to Portland and shorten the commute.
Bike Portland commenters showing great restraint by waiting 10 whole comments before telling the guy to move.
Yeah, I mean come on. You’d think here of all places we could just appreciate the beauty of a seriously long bike commute, no?
If he prefers to spend the time on the bike every day, more power to him. I’d rather spend that time with my family.
Move? Why not a whole career change? Not everybody can just up and move when they get a new job. Sounds like his kids are of high school age and I’ll bet he’s making the sacrifice so they can avoid changing schools for the last couple of years before graduation.
Absolute badass. Inspiring.
Don’t underestimate the power of a riding partner. I had the same situation when I was lifting weights in college. My workout partner was already on his way when my alarm went off. And he left before my alarm went off. Neither of us every wanted to cancel or flake on the other one (I think we do that too easily for ourselves).
Looking at that commute route map I can’t help but think of some of El Biciclero’s comments here about the routes we who bike get to take; having to remember, you know, 43 right turns and 39 lefts, when those who drive get a straight shot.
Heh. That’s the first thing I thought of, too. But then I actually did the Google maps route and the default highway route was 19.2 miles, about the same as Kyle’s winter route. But that’s assuming that drivers want to backtrack a little if it means getting onto a 60-mph freeway. On surface streets, the shortest route I could get Google to pick for driving was 16.5 miles, but that would take a driver a lot longer than the freeway.
However, the freeway driving route takes you from Cornelius Pass road to 26 to 405 to Going street, so like, 5 turns and some lane changes; I’d hate to count turns and stop signs along the bike route.
wow, 320 pounds to 200, way to go dude!
Great job Kyle! Inspirational and amazing….
Rad! Canyon Road and Hall Blvd need improvements.
So awesome. I was looking at work in Hillsboro – it would have been 40 miles RT on a nice route past the zoo.
Looks like he could shorten the winter route a couple more miles, if it was a priority. My current commute is 30 miles round trip, and with the family at home, I try to keep it at 60 minutes each way, max. This involves finding the fastest way, usually. Hard to have patience for the endless red lights on N. Interstate, and hard to like the city’s ideas to signalize everything. But, it’s almost always better than driving. When you have a family established in school and in the neighborhood, it’s not always easy to simply move closer to your work for your own convenience. So, I can relate. Keep it up, and enjoy the ride, I will look for you out there, since we share some routes!
The Zune still exists? 🙂
Mad props for the hardcore commute!
Kyle is an amazing, determined, iron-man of a rider!
During the BCC he was cranking out these huge mile days, and when I met him on-site for his bike fitting, I was surprised at how much daily pain and numbness issues he was having, yet STILL consistently riding in. — I was especially stoked to help him out after I heard he was the #1 mileage guy, not only at Daimler, but for the whole BCC this year!
Does anyone have a cuesheet or Googlemaps of his winter route? He takes a different way up to the Hwy 26 bike path than me, and I could probably use some variety come spring.
I’m going to send this to everyone who thinks my little 21mile rd. trip commute is nuts 🙂
Wow… I used to work w/ Kyle at DTNA- I didn’t even know he was a cyclist! My wife Tina and I would carpool into work and then one of us would ride home to Bethany- just a 18-20ish mile ride thru the zoo and Wash Park. Back then there certainly weren’t many west side bike commuters at Freightliner, to say the least. (Much more enjoyable than my current bike commute to Boeing Everett).
I’m impressed w/ Kyle’s diligence in his commute- Kudos, brother!
Also congrats on the weight loss! Keep up the good work.