This post was made possible by Portland Design Works, a local company that designs beautiful and functional parts and accessories for everyday cycling. Ben is one of three winners of our Ride Along Contest we held last March.
A 20-mile pre-dawn bicycle commute might sound horrible to some people; but if anyone can enjoy such a long haul it’s Vancouver resident Ben Sanders.
Sanders is a 37-year old firefighter who rides 20 miles each way from his home on Columbia Street in Vancouver to Fire Station 214 in Lake Oswego. Since he works a 24-hour shift he doesn’t have to ride home until the next morning and since he has all the comforts of home at the station he doesn’t have to carry anything with him on the bike.
I met Sanders just after sunrise and tagged along on his commute. Like all the long-distance rides I’ve done in this Ride Along series over the years, I experienced an incredible array of conditions — from truly sublime to downright scary.
My first impression as we rolled out of the driveway and headed down Columbia Street (a main north-south street that connects directly to downtown Vancouver and its marquee gathering place, Esther Short Park) was how nice the inner neighborhoods felt. Vancouver has changed a lot in the past decade. Sanders told me he since he and his family (his wife Kelly and their three kids ages 2, 4, and 6) moved back here in 2008 he’s noticed a lot of young people have moved in and put down roots in the neighborhood.
Columbia is a small road with sharrows and bicycle-specific way finding signs (including one of my favorites, “Bicycles May Use Full Lane”). During the morning rush it felt a bit uncomfortable with so many people driving on it and we dodged quite a few bumps and cracks. “It’s a bike street,” Sanders said, “But it’s also a car street.”
Fortunately it’s downhill in the southbound direction so our speeds made it easy to take the full lane and people drove at reasonable speeds.
From Columbia it’s an easy connection to the I-5 bridge (except for that big-rig blocking the bike lane outside the Red Lion). I was happy to see some new paths installed as part of a construction project along the Columbia riverfront.
While scary for many people, Sanders and I are are experienced riders so crossing the bridge itself wasn’t a big deal.
Connecting to the paths on the south side of the bridge was relatively smooth; but that’s only because we’ve both done it many times and have come to expect its requirements for zig-zags, beg buttons, sidewalk riding and other annoyances.
After riding through the smooth and tree-lined path in Delta Park, Sanders opted to take Whitaker Road toward the Columbia Slough instead of N Denver Avenue to avoid an ongoing ODOT construction project on that street. Whitaker doesn’t have much of a bikeway at all and when the adjacent shopping center is crowded this can be a hectic route, but it was fine early in the morning.
Whitaker makes a nice connection to the Columbia Slough path — or what Sanders calls “Goose Shit Highway.”
Between the slough and downtown Portland Sanders joins the throngs of other people commuting by bike on N Vancouver Avenue, then goes over the Broadway Bridge into downtown. Forced to observe the situation as a photographer I was ever more amazed at how terrible Broadway is — and how it much better it should be. Merges with trucks, a narrow bridge crossing, door-zone bike lanes with lots of clueless behavior, and so on on.
Then, in an impressive display of confidence, Sanders opted to take the lane on Broadway/Hwy 26 and connect to SW Barbur via 4th rather than take the 6th/Sheridan connection. That put him in the path of a few right-turning TriMet buses that he capably avoided.
The inner part of Barbur, controlled by the City of Portland, felt fine with its buffered bike lanes; but as we rolled further south to the State of Oregon portions, the buffer went away and driving speeds shot up. High-speed traffic and a narrow, often debris-filled bike lane was enough to spook even accomplished riders like Sanders.
“This is the worst part of my commute because of the speeds,” Sanders yelled so I could hear him over car engines rumbling mere feet away.
We left Barbur and continued south on Terwilliger. That intersection is not for the faint of heart.
Then, just a few minutes later (south is the easy direction for Terwilliger in this area because it’s downhill) we finally left the Broadway/Barbur/Terwilliger chaos and tucked into Tryon Creek State Park. This place is such a gem. It’s a State Park right in Portland! I’ve hiked it before, but this was the first time I’d ridden on its path. The path perfectly follows Terwilliger for about three miles and it dropped us off right in Lake Oswego.
After coasting through that serenely forested path through Tryon Park, we rode sidewalks a few blocks to B Street in Lake Oswego which has an uphill bike lane. We pulled into the fire station just as Sanders’ crew was rolling up the doors.
And yes, Sanders is aware of the irony of biking to work and then hopping in a fire truck that gets seven miles to the gallon.
Thanks for letting us tag along Ben. And thanks for being a firefighter.