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!”