Monday, August 13, 2007

A bridge too far...

I swore I wouldn't do it again this year.
I swore if Hell froze over and I did do it again, I would train first.
By the time I was 3/4 of the way through, I was just plain swearing.

The Portland Providence Bridge Pedal is a chance to ride across all 10 of Portland's bridges. Traffic-wise it's a nightmare for motorists: the city shuts down part of I-5, restricts traffic or completely closes all of the city's bridges, and everywhere you look there are people on bicycles who normally don't ride. (Picture a freeway filled with cars, all of them being driven by people who not only don't know how to drive but have never seen anyone else drive.) This year 20,000 people went for the bridge rides. At its most crowded, it's not so much a bicycle ride as it is a movable party on wheels.

The ride is divided into three groups: a 6-bridge ride (14 miles), an 8-bridge ride (24) and the full 10-bridge ride (36 bloody miles). I had done the 24-mile ride last year, and it wasn't much fun because it was packed, we're talking packed like sardines, with people who didn't know how to ride a bicycle. Don't get me started on this topic, but the words "clueless" and "dangerous" sum up my feelings toward this group. So this year I determined that if I did the ride at all I would get up early and do the full 10-bridge ride.

I started out with good intentions and caffeine. Up at 5:30... in the morning... yes, that's what I thought too. But as a reward, I was treated to a Portland sunrise. This picture shows the sun rising over the Willamette, silhouetting the Hawthorne bridge.

The start time for the 10-bridge ride was at 7 a.m., but people were already lining up at 6:30. This was a wise move. By 7:15, the line stretched back hundreds of feet. (They stagger the riders at the beginning of the ride to keep people spaced out.)

I spent about 15 minutes edging my way up to the start, which was the beginning of the onramp to the Morrison bridge. A bit of a steepish climb to do while virtually at a standstill -- even staggered, there were a lot of people climbing with me. But the early group were experienced cyclists. For example, if they wanted to move over, they'd check to see if someone was already in that space. (Inexperienced cyclists tend to move over and then look surprised when they get into an accident. It's okay, I'm not obsessing on this topic. Well, not too much. Really. I'm much better now.)

The first part of the ride I went much faster than usual. I'd forgotten the energy you get from being in a group, especially such a large group as this one. The excitement and general feeling of enjoyment was contagious, and I went at a much faster cadence than my plodding going-to-work speed. Fun!

The 2nd bridge was waaay to the south of all the others. Only the 10-bridge cyclists include it on their route, it's so far out of the way. The Sellwood bridge is about 80 years old; there is talk of it being torn down. I'm glad I got a chance to ride it on this occasion, 'cause there's no way in Hell I'm going to ride down that road when it's open. (I told a friend "This is not a good bridge for cyclists." Her reply was, "Hell, it's not a good bridge for cars!") I think cars were narrower 80 years ago.

I had my picture taken on the bridge as proof that I made it this far.

The trouble with trying to photograph bicycle rides is that when I'm actually riding, I don't want to stop unless I'm about to perish from thirst or exploding-bladder-syndrome, so I don't take too many pictures. When I'm riding, I want to go! So I'm making up for the later dearth of pictures by throwing two in at one stop. This is a view of the Portland skyline from the Sellwood bridge.

Sadly, by the time we turned back northward, I was starting to feel the ride. We'd probably only done seven or eight miles, for pity's sake. I began to slow down and think about pacing myself, which I should have been doing all along. I think this was also the point when I began to regret my inability to eat breakfast at 6 in the morning. You need fuel if you're going to ride a bicycle.
A brain wouldn't hurt either. I knew better, and still I didn't force myself to eat.

About 12 miles into the ride, we were back in the central bridge-crowded section of Portland, crossing the Hawthorne bridge (from the sunrise shot). The roadway was covered with plywood planks. Presumably this was meant to make it easier for people to cross, rather than the iron gridwork that's on the road itself. But in practice when one cyclist was getting off a section of plywood, the other end would tilt up, making it a challenge for the next person to get onto the plywood. It worked out okay when people were spaced out, but I'm told that people later on had to end up walking across this bridge instead of pedaling.

So far things had gone pretty smoothly. But not any longer. For what faced us next was the Ross Island bridge.

I'm going to take a moment to say a good word about the sponsors. This ride must have been a logistical nightmare to plan, and by and large it went very well. The routes were well-marked, the volunteers were plentiful and helpful, the rest stops had lots of food, water, and port-a-potties.

But in this case, they screwed up royally.

The road leading to the Ross Island bridge was the section where people from all three rides (6,8, and 10-bridge routes) all converged. And the bridge was restricted to one cycling lane. 20,000 people, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, all trying to get across a bridge lane that was two-cyclists wide.

I think I waited in line about ten, fifteen minutes. I was lucky. A friend who was farther back in the ride waited half an hour. I'm told the people who started the ride later on had to wait an hour or so before they could cross. A nice thing about Portland -- even though people were clearly not happy with waiting, they made the best of it. I understand the hour-long crowd turned it into a standing party. They did the Wave and things like that.

Not that everybody was a happy camper.

Once I finally got on the Ross Island bridge, things quickly went back to the normal pace. I'd managed to scarf down a meal bar while in the line for the bridge, so I figured between the food and the rest I would quickly be feeling like Speed Racer again. Or so I hoped.

We started circling back up hills to get to the onramp to the Marquam bridge. This bridge is where the I-5 freeway crosses the river. This is the part that I thought was the coolest thing about the whole ride. I just get a kick out of this visual of cyclists taking over the I-5 freeway.

This shot was a bit blurry because I was coasting down the onramp myself at the time. (Yes, it was a ride-by shooting.) In case you've never tried it, I can thoroughly recommend riding a bicycle down a car-free freeway. Very smooth, no potholes or cracks, no worries about broken glass or intersections. At this point, life was blissful, even if my muscles were reminding me of their existence in a mild, polite manner.

Next we crossed over the Burnside and Steel bridges. One thing about doing these bridges by bicycle, I felt that I was starting to tell them apart finally. You really notice things when you're cycling, things that you're oblivious to when you're in a car, closed off from the world around you.

By this point I was also starting to worry a bit about time. To do all 10 bridges, you have to maintain a certain speed. Closing down these bridges is a hassle, traffic-wise, so the authorities are understandably anxious to minimize the time they're closed, or even partially closed, to traffic. (Luckily this ride occurs on a Sunday morning, when traffic downtown is relatively light.) I'd had to slow down my pace so I could keep to a steady speed without getting too tired. And thanks to the Ross Island snarl, I was now behind schedule. The farthest bridge, the St. John's bridge, was due to close at 11, and it was already after 10. I would have to hurry.

The Fremont bridge was the one most people were anxious to cross. Apparently it's closed to cyclists the rest of the year. When I got there it was practically closed to cyclists now as well. Almost the whole bridge was covered with people standing around: talking, taking pictures, phoning friends. ("Hey Joe, guess what? I'm standing on the Fremont bridge!") It took a great deal of care to slowly wend my way through the packs of people without actually dismounting. I was going about 2 miles an hour, but I was on the bicycle. The rest stops had bands playing cheerful music; this bridge had men playing the bagpipes. I wish now that I had stopped for a picture. Just beyond the bagpipe players was a sign about Suicide Counseling. Coincidence? You decide.

With the keening of bagpipes fading away in the distance, I sped north to make it to the St. John's bridge before it closed. This was by far the worst part of the ride. This stretch of the route wasn't the nicest. For the most part the surroundings were warehouses and heavy industries. There was a headwind slowing down the pace. It was getting cold (unusual since I'd been riding for a couple of hours now) and it was starting to sprinkle rain. And I was running out of energy.

There's a phenomenon in cycling knowing as the Bonk. The name sounds funny, but the experience is not. Physiologically your body has run out of glucose and is burning fat. The trouble is that your brain needs glucose to function; it doesn't burn fat. So while this might sound like a great way to lose weight, you feel like crap. Believe me, it's not worth it. Eat first, then cycle.

I wasn't quite at the Bonk stage yet, but I was getting there. I could feel my pace getting slower... and slower... people were passing me all the time now. I kept waiting to see a little old lady on her walker hobble past me, so slow I was going. Time was ticking away, the bridge wasn't getting any nearer, and my muscles were seriously complaining now. The hell with being polite, they were screaming. And I knew that the worst part was yet to come. The road up to the St. John's bridge is the steepest section of the whole ride. I found it a bit challenging last year, when I was in shape. This year, with no energy reserves and no training, the thought was daunting.

I probably should have packed it in at this point. It was almost 30 miles into the ride; if I'd turned back I still could have claimed that I'd done a 36 mile ride. But I wouldn't have crossed all ten bridges in a day. I don't know why I kept going, but I did; slow as molasses, I pedaled my way steadily to the damn hill and then I kept -- on -- going -- until -- I -- made -- it.

It's a funny thing, climbing hills. I remember hills back in California that I could only manage to climb if I didn't look at the hill while I was climbing. I'd fix my eyes on the pavement, or a few feet in front of me, but I would not look at the steep hill. If I did, my brain would tell my legs that the thing was clearly impossible, and so I would fail. I used that technique here as well. It works.

When I got to the top I was too tired to stop. That sounds like a paradox, but the best thing to do is to keep going if you can. Momentum and habit are the best ways to get where you need to go. And it was a marvelous feeling to know that the worst was over. I'd made it to the bridge despite everything. It was downhill from now on. My legs still felt like hell, but it was easier to keep pedaling.

The road led me back south, along steep bluffs overlooking the river and through neighborhoods with interesting houses. I tried to keep interested in the view and the architecture because I was really starting to fade at this point. Even chocolate wasn't helping.

It seemed like eternity (but if so eternity is only about five or six miles long), before I was going downhill again, blessed relief to be going downhill, and then across the last bridge, the Broadway bridge. Then winding my way through a couple more streets toward the finish.

I made it.

I got off the bike and sat down on the curb to watch the world pedal past. Technically I was waiting for my friend, who was 30 minutes or so behind me in the pack, but there was a lot of World pedaling past my view. And it was pure bliss to be off the bicycle, to know that I'd made it. I didn't have to do anything any more.

Watching the riders file past the finish line gave me a chance to see the ride from its Moveable Party aspect. There were a lot of riders with decorated helmets and also a lot of creative-looking bicycles.

This picture is a little confusing at first. This is a tricycle with three add-on cycles added on one after another (redundancy, I know) so that all four of those children are on what amounts to an extended tandem bicycle. What makes it confusing is that the black bicycle in the foreground is actually another add-on cycle, making this a five-seater bicycle. According to their vests, these children were on the 24-mile bike route. I think it must take a family that reeeeally gets along to pull that off.

People who finished the ride chained their bikes up to any available surface, or sometimes just clumped their bikes all together and chained the clump, and went off to the party. At the end of the ride, at Waterfront park, the annual Bite of Oregon was being held. Restaurants from all over Oregon set up booths and offer food. If you've been on the Bridge Pedal you get into the Bite for free, so basically it serves as an end-of-ride party, with food and music and contentedly tired cyclists.

I went home happy.

Exercise note: I think it must have been the lack of food that made me feel so awful towards the end of the ride. After chowing down at the Bite, I had to get back on my bicycle to make it back to the car. At one point I rounded a corner and saw a steep hill. My only reaction was "Oh, this looks interesting," and then I charged up the hill like it was a fun challenge. Damn but I could have used some of that energy on the St. John's hill. Oh well. Next time I'll do it better.

Um... not that I'm going to do this again next year, I swear.


Lori said...


Anonymous said...

Ah-a, now i can comment. Before it wasn;t offering the "other" option. (Somehow my Blogger ID no llonger works, or maybe I jsut forgot what it is.) Anyway...I'm very impressed with your determination and stamina! And your hair!

Keziah Fenton said...

Double wow. Next year - eat first. And get one of those cameras that requires little from you so that we can have a record of every bridge,complete with pipers. What tune were they playing?

Scope Dope Cherrybomb said...

I didn't know you were related to Jane Russell. Wow. What an endeavor. Good for you.

Didn't you see me (no this me)walking with my walker? I was the little old lady with the walker on the hilliest bridge. I can't remember the name. They say the mind goes first.

The Merry said...

Scope! That was you? You showed a great turn of speed; I was impressed. I thought I heard you snigger as you went past.

Crabby McSlacker said...

I'm with "wow" too. And the fact that you managed to take pictures, as well as remember enough to chronicle the ride so entertainingly is also very impressive.

When I exercise, no matter how interesting or spectacular the journey, I just tend to remember that I was exercising. Were I to post about this, it would have been "Yeah, it was nice. Parts were hard. I think there might have been some bridges."

orangehands said...

woo-hoo! (it's an exclamation of joy, amazement, proudness, and wow)