“Bike fun” is a colloquialism often used here in Portland to describe that thing where people get together to socialize and ride bikes, often with a theme in mind. Pedalpalooza (now in its third spectacular month with hundreds of rides logged) is a cornucopia bike fun. If you see people dressed up in various costumes or in matching colors riding around together with a mobile sound system or two leading the way, that’s bike fun.
What we had never seen, was a group ride led by someone who relies on an adaptive bicycle. That is, until this past Friday when Boring, Oregon resident Cassie Wilson led a Harry Styles-themed ride along the Willamette Riverfront in southeast Portland. It had all the trappings of any other Pedalpalooza ride, except several of the bikes looked a bit different. It was also the first ride I’ve ever been on where one of the participants rode a wheelchair.
Adaptive bikes is a catch-all term for bikes that have special designs and/or components that make them possible to ride for people unable to pilot a standard, two-wheeled rig. They can run the gamut — from the highly customized one that armless, aspiring politician Michael Trimble rides daily around Portland; to having just one extra wheel for balance. Even a tandem is an adaptive bike. It’s similar to “cargo bikes” in that we create a special label for it, but just like every bike is a cargo bike if it’s carrying something, any bike that has an adaptation that makes it easier to ride could be called an adaptive bike.
Some of you might recall when I rode a handcycle in 2007. But it would be nine years later before adaptive bikes made major headlines. In June 2016, just as the City of Portland was about to launch its long-awaiting bike share system, a disability rights activist posed a very uncomfortable question: Would the new system be accessible for everyone? Would there be adaptive bikes to rent?
That simple question was heard by the Portland Bureau of Transportation and they responded. Big time. Six days later they hosted an adaptive bike clinic and 13 months later they launched the Nike-sponsored Adaptive Biketown program.
Friday’s ride was an amazing display of this continued trajectory of acceptance of adaptive bikes and their riders into Portland’s cycling community.
“Because I need an adaptive bike and I’m not strong enough to go very far,” said Wilson before Friday’s ride. “I had never really looked into attending group rides. I never thought those rides were accessible to me.”
As we shared in a Q & A with Wilson earlier this month, she has a form of dwarfism and stands 3-feet, 7-inches tall. Thanks to Adaptive Biketown she’s able to rent a hand-cycle that fits her to a tee. As she and other riders got settled into their bikes, a supportive crowd of a few dozen — several dressed in their Harry Styles best — milled around the big, red Albertina Kerr building on the Eastbank Esplanade between OMSI and the Hawthorne Bridge.
When it was time to roll, Wilson pumped her arms, rolled to the front and the group headed south to the Springwater Corridor. We rode about 1.5 miles to a lookout point where Wilson led the group into a dirt singletrack trail. All the riders embraced the off-road challenge, and with a little push from supportive friends, everyone made it back onto the smooth Springwater path.
As Harry Styles hits boomed from a massive speaker strapped to the back of a bike trailer, everyone rode together back to the starting point. New perspectives were gained by all.
I was struck by what had happened: It takes a very special cycling and civic ecosystem to create something like this. It filled me with joy as I packed up my gear for the ride home and thought of something Wilson had said to me. What’s with the Harry Styles theme? I asked. “Why not?” she replied. “Music makes everything more fun. I really wanted to show people that group rides can be accessible, include everyone, and still have a fun theme.”