To the uninitiated, Zoobomb might seem like just a quirky sidebar of Portland’s vaunted bike cultural legacy, but there was a time when it was much more than that. At its peak from around 2007 to 2012, Zoobomb was something of a religion for hundreds of Portlanders who’d gather every Sunday night at the “Pyle” (a.k.a. the “Holy Rack” or People’s Bike Library of Portland) to meet with friends then roll to a MAX station where they’d ride light rail up to the Zoo in Washington Park, then climb a bit further to the peak of the West Hills, before bombing down the windy, steep streets in total darkness.
It became such a big thing that in 2009, former Portland Mayor Sam Adams shook Zoobomber’s hands at the opening of a city-funded public art sculpture on West Burnside and 13th where their mini-bikes could be secured and displayed for all to see. And in 2011, the venerable BBC rolled into town to cover it.
But in recent years Zoobomb went dark. First held in 2002, this free, DIY cultural phenomenon had run its course. That is, until last Sunday when we saw the largest turnout in many years for the celebration of Zoobomb’s 20th anniversary.
Val Patton organized several events last week to mark the occasion. She discovered Zoobomb nine years ago and is very active with other Portland bike rides. “I’m organizing this because I don’t want to see it die,” she told me Sunday night as we waited for our ride up the hill at the Providence Park MAX station. “I know how much joy it brings me and how I found a fun community when I first found it nine years ago. Just because other people aren’t doing it doesn’t mean that no one should.”
It was sort of a perfect storm that allowed Zoobomb to flourish. Back then, Portland was full of young people without much money but with a lot of energy to create art and community. Living was cheaper, Portland was a political oasis for cycling, the MAX was an easy ride up the hill, the cops were (mostly) friendly (at least when it came to Zoobomb — who remembers the police summit in 2007?!), and the Goodwill bins had an endless amount of cheap kids bikes (“minis”).
Those factors are much different now; but there’s a whole new guard of bike culture organizers in Portland today. And there’s a chance last Sunday’s spark could reignite Zoobomb.
“The hill is still here. It’s still free fun,” said Thomas de Almeida, a 39-year-old Zoobomb veteran who did his first run in 2003 and told me a tale of how he once flew down W Burnside at 45 mph — on a mini-bike! The key to speed was what de Almeida calls the “quintessential Zoobomb tuck.” “You tuck your elbows into your knees and create an easily maneuverable silver bullet in the wind.”
On Sunday night we all gathered at a covered picnic area near Hoyt Arboretum. There was music, pizza, lots of hugs, bike club vests, and a mix of Zoobomb vets and newbies.
Laura Webster was just 18 when she did her first run. “I barely knew how to ride a bike and I crashed on my very first Zoobomb. I wrecked on my face and had all this road rash,” she shared as she moved her palm down one side of her face. Why on earth would you keep coming back? I asked her. “It was that [the crash]. The reality of it. You don’t get that in other parts of your life. You don’t have extremely adrenaline-fueled moments. It felt really good.”
Webster and everyone else I talked to said it was just as much about the people they met as the thrill of speed.
For Phil Sano (aka Rev Phil) a cornerstone of Portland’s bike scene, devout Zoobomber, and bike fun dealer, Sunday’s anniversary event was a golden recruitment opportunity. “It can be like this again!” he shouted to the assembled crowd from atop a picnic bench. “We built it before and I’m excited about the possibility that this new blood will come and give us the great bicycle culture our city deserves!”
We’ve been here for a while right? A lot of us your first time which is very exciting. And for those of you it’s not always amazing. Sometimes it’s hard. There’s only a few people. But here’s the thing. It’s it can be like this again.. We’ve done it before and I’m so excited about the possibility this new blood will come and give us the great bicycle culture our city deserves!”
A few minutes later, we all rolled up to SW Fairview Blvd. Straddling our bikes in the darkness, we listened to an O.G. Zoobomber rattle off the safety rules, then Val led the countdown:
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Zoo-BOMB!”
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I’ve been in this neighborhood, watching people bomb down the hills, and it’s frankly terrifying. I don’t live in this neighborhood but I imagine it was also terrifying for the people who live there and really impacted their quality of life when it was going on. Can you imagine trying to walk on your street when people are flying at you at 45 mph on bikes that are not built to handle these speeds, or long boards with no braking of any kind?
Sorry to be a killjoy, but I try really hard to use the roads safely and I want BP to embrace that ethos also.
“BP” doesn’t embrace anything because BP isn’t a person. It has no agency. It is a news operation with multiple platforms. We share opinions and stories from a wide variety of viewpoints and sources and we are certainly not some sort of bike advocacy role model. Just wanted to clear that up so folks have proper expectations.
Hmm – sorry to hear you are not a person. 😉
I lived along the route in the early years. There was a range of opinions in the neighborhood from strong support to hate, with most in between those. I didn’t know anyone who found it terrifying.
Not many people were out walking close to midnight on Sundays when it took place, and there are sidewalks so nobody was “flying at you”. A much bigger issue for most people was cars speeding down Fairview and running the stop signs at Kingston every day, or park events clogging Fairview and blocking emergency access.
I liked the spirit, creativity, weirdness and inclusiveness, and I wasn’t the only neighbor with that opinion at all. For a few minutes per week, at a time when the roads were virtually empty, they transformed the street into a playground. I’m guessing some of my neighbors who didn’t like it had cruised Broadway in their teenage summers, criticized similarly. Sunday nights, hardly anyone had a reason to be driving through Arlington Heights unless they were driving home, and residents knew to expect Zoobombers. If you happened to be driving home then, you could just pull over for a minute while they went by.
That article on the police – ZooBomb ‘summit’ in 2007 is a real blast from the past!
I had one disturbing experience (but only one!) with ZooBombers maybe 10 years ago. While driving east downhill on Hwy 26 after work at 11:30pm, a bunch of them were flying down the shoulder of the freeway. One wiped out right in front of me and luckily slid toward the shoulder instead of into the travel lane. If that person would have wiped out in front of me while I was going 55 mph, most likely he/she wouldn’t have survived. Otherwise I admit it would be fun…at a slower speed
Don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it or maybe you just want to be a killjoy?
On the flip side I realize ZooBomb is not for everyone; but if you’re not interested that doesn’t exactly give you license (or require you) to criticize. Quite possibly it would be better to either just keep quiet or tacitly acknowledge that some of your fellow cyclists like doing this sort of thing every once in a while, eh?