In the early 1990s, San Francisco was the epicenter for radical bike activism in America. In 1992 riders came together to take over streets dominated by car drivers for the first Critical Mass, a ride that would spark a global movement that reverberates today.
Seven years later, perhaps burned out on heavy-handed policing, infighting and politicization of the ride, some of these activists moved onto something different: An event that would, “celebrate the glories of the bicycle” in the mold of the 1960s Freedom Summer or Summer of Love.
They called it BikeSummer.
After a month-long run in San Francisco, BikeSummer was passed to like-minded activists in Chicago and then to Vancouver, British Columbia. New York City was supposed to host in 2002, but pulled out at the last minute, giving Portland its long-awaited big break. We were ready for the national cycling spotlight. What we lacked in the size or stature of those four other cities, we made up for in street cred. With a foundation built in the 1980s and 90s by people like our bike-commuting former mayor Bud Clark and pioneering city staffers like former city bike coordinator Mia Birk, Portland was named “Best Bike City” by Bicycling Magazine in 2001.
BikeSummer slid into a city with simmering cycling culture and turned the heat way up. The 2002 BikeSummer calendar included a mix of rides — from wonky planning-focused forays to freak-bike building workshops. And the initial crew of activists, artists and bureaucrats that organized it liked the idea so much they brought it back the following year. Portland hosted Mini BikeSummer in 2003, adopted the Pedalpalooza moniker in 2004, and the rest is history.
No other city has continued the BikeSummer ethos for this long. And no other city in the world has anything quite like Portland’s Pedalpalooza — a 100% free, community-led cultural phenomenon that plays host to hundreds of bike rides and thousands of participants over the course of three months.
Last year’s celebration was the largest ever with more than 600 events and the 20th anniversary edition is shaping up to be bigger and better.
Pedalpalooza organizer Meghan Sinnott has been around the festival since the beginning. She’s proud of the past, but prefers to look to the future. “I want to know what this will look like 20 years from now,” she shared during a chat yesterday, as she laid out the many changes she’s working on. Sinnott is well aware that, even with all its success, Pedalpalooza doesn’t reach as many people in the region as it could. And the people it does reach are mostly older, white, and live close to the central city.
Sinnott, and social media contributor William Hsu (right), are laser-focused on bringing the benefits of free bike fun to an even broader base of people. Historically very white and inner-Portland focused, the new Pedalpalooza Bike Summer (Sinnott also wants to bring back the original name) is looking to broaden its demographic.
“We’ve always said Pedalpalooza is ‘open to everyone,’ but it’s not that simple.”
— Meghan Sinnott, organizer
Of the 150 or so respondents to a 2021 participant survey, about 77% identified themselves as white. The crowd also skewed older, with 64% being over the age of 35, one in 10 being over 55, and just 1% under 24.
“We’ve always said Pedalpalooza is ‘open to everyone,’ but it’s not that simple. It’s still not easy for everyone to take part and feel welcome,” Sinnott said. She wants a more diverse pool of participants to see more of themselves reflected in the event’s marketing. This year’s official poster, for example, was created by Mexican-American artist Molly Mendoza and prominently features Black and other people of color. The co-leader of this year’s Kickoff Ride, which is traditionally one of the largest rides of the entire festival, will be Armando Luna.
Hsu, who hails from Taiwan, said he’s found Portland’s bike scene to be welcoming, even though he’s often the only Asian person on a ride. “We’re just having fun on bikes and getting around on bicycles. So much so, sometimes I pause and think, ‘Wait, all my bike friends are white’.” Hsu says he’d love to have more “bike friends” that are people of color and feels Pedalpalooza has made progress making that happen. One way is through rides like one last year that toured Asian food restaurants along 82nd. Hsu hopes to lead a ride himself this year. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Ukraine and Taiwan and how it relates to Russia and China. I just bought some Taiwanese flags, so maybe I’ll lead a ride above sovereignty. It might not be very popular though,” he said with a chuckle.
To expand geographically, Sinnott has found volunteers to put up posters as far east as Gresham and this year’s Kickoff Ride (June 1st) will include an option swing into Beaverton to pick up west-siders. The rides are the festival, so Sinnott spends a lot of time encouraging people from well beyond the central city to lead one.
There are also plans for a ride open that will be open only to Pedalpalooza newcomers, since Sinnott said she often hears feedback that first-timers show up and feel like they’re on the outside looking in.
If you’re new to Portland or to biking, Pedalpalooza is a tailor-made entry point into a wonderful community. Check it out on Instagram for the latest updates.
If you want to lead a ride, check out the calendar for inspiration and make sure to submit your ride details before May 20th if you’d like it to be included in the printed calendar.