Following months of way too many cold and wet days, people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, cultures and clubs rolled into southeast Portland Saturday to ride 500 laps (100 miles) around a traffic circle in the Ladd’s Addition neighborhood of southeast Portland.
The sixth edition of the Ladds 500 relay was absolutely massive and a huge success by all accounts. The team area inside the traffic circle (which is Ladd Circle Park, an official City of Portland park), was so packed that for the first time ever, people set up encampments on front yards of adjacent residential buildings. There was almost no break in traffic as the entire street around the circle was full with riders, rollers, and even runners. I estimated about 100 different team names scrawled onto small pieces of paper on the lapboard where riders tallied how many circles they had cycled.
David Robinson hosted the first Ladds 500 in 2016 and remains its ringleader. He says it builds on the proud Portland tradition of grassroots, free, bike fun where everyone is welcome. And this year, it seemed to take a major leap into the pantheon of local rides that have become pillars that hold up our colorful bike culture. “I got an official page on the Shift website, not just the calendar listing,” Robinson told me as he tried to navigate thick human traffic near the start/finish line of Saturday’s event. “So I think I finally made it.”
Another sign that Ladds 500 has gone to the next level? He’s gotten inquiries from other cities on how to replicate it elsewhere. Regardless of what status the ride reaches, it’s impossible to get Robinson to say anything serious about it. “This is the Ladds 500,” he replied, when to describe his event, “We make people do 500 laps of a traffic circle — because life is meaningless, but it’s also whimsical.”
The event’s slogan of “It’s spring, let’s do something stupid!” has been tightly embraced by all who participate.
Take Team Unbearables: They showed up with teddy bears on their heads with the tummies cut out for eye and mouth holes. It was more creepy than cuddly. “I don’t understand it either… I think it was inspired by a picture on the internet,” said Brock Dittus, a member of the team who was also wearing what appeared to be a suit of a Mormon missionary with “Elder Dittus” on the nametag.
Team Tie Dye donned homemade tie-dye shirts and passed out homemade vegan cake pops made with tie-dye swirled white chocolote made by Daniela Lais. Asked why she came to the event, Lais said, “We just wanted to do something really, really stupid and have a lot of fun.”
There was a team wearing all pink and ballet tutus called Super Best Pals Forever. They were riding one of those circular, conference bikes where everyone faces each other. I talked to one of their members, Monelle, who said it only goes 5 mph no matter how hard you pedal. She’s a recent transplant from Los Angeles who said events like this are one reason she loves Portland. “I used to live in L.A. and this would have been shut down. We’re standing in the middle of a public park, we’re blocking traffic, there’s like 2,000 people here, there’s amplified music. I can’t tell if the Parks people don’t know about it, or they just let us do whatever we want. They either don’t know what’s happening, or they just turn a blind eye. That’s what’s great about Portland.”
There’s so much about this event that is a testament to what is “great about Portland.”
From families to freak bikes, and every dang thing in between, the Ladds 500 has it. There were people who looked like they were just picking up their kids on their bikes from day care, and there were costumed people riding tall bikes right next to each other. I saw guys playing according and juggling backwards while riding a unicycle. And all the roller skaters! That was new this year. The cross-pollination of Secret Roller Disco fans and bike fun fans is happening!
There were even a few runners this year, including Robert O’Farrell, who ran all 500 laps by himself. Yes all 500. He started Friday afternoon so he could finish with everyone else. He’d completed 400 laps by sunrise on Saturday and was celebrated with a special prize when he finished. Asked what he’d do now that he was done, O’Farrell replied, “Drink a fucking beer.”
O’Farrell might just want to walk around the circle a few times and snatch up freebies. Passing out snacks to riders as they come by has become a fun part of the Ladds 500 tradition. In addition to the cake pops, there were hot dogs and ice cream cones. Jason from Team Cream stood inches from the street with an open cooler and two large cartons of spumoni and cotton candy-flavored ice cream.
Physical therapist Maggie Min said, “I got many many hand-ups. I stole someone’s entire bag of family-sized potato chips, and the next time around they were like, ‘There she is!’ and I stole the White Claw out of their hands!”
The looping is what makes this event so magic. If you see someone or something you love, you only have to wait a minute for it to come around again. Joan Petit put it this way, “The thing that is amazing about this event is it achieves what seems impossible: It is a bike event where you don’t go anywhere. So you both get to ride your bike and hang out in one place.”
And that place is where almost anyone can find their people and feel at home.
Petit says her team’s goal is to welcome folks who are new to the scene. “If you don’t know anyone, we’ll talk to you,” she said. “We’re friendly, we like meeting new people.”
And who doesn’t like friendly places where you can ride your bike for free on a carfree street as you gawk and smile at odd, beautiful and often indescribable scenes while being handed free snacks?
See you next year. (And stay tuned for the Live from Ladds 500 podcast episode!)
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