It's a well-known fact that Portland - PDX, Portlandia, Rose City - is the cycling mecca of the US. And it is, owing in equal parts to great shops and abundant amazing roads, an enviable cycling infrastructure within the city, and the relentless collective self-promotional approach of those that make up the cycling community there. But you know what? No. Not going there. This is about the OTHER Portland. And this isn't going to be a comparison piece, so get that out of your mind. I was just saying, because there's been a lot of PDX-centric content here on Embro over the past few years, and this won't be. This is about the first Portland; the one founded in the 1700's as a fishing community and currently inhabited by the genetic and cultural descendants of these original north Atlantic hard men; crusty New Englanders, some of whom happen to be bike racers.
This weekend was the first unequivocally summer weekend of the year. Clear sky, warm (hot even) weather and sunlight from 4:30AM to 9PM was the setting for a weekend of amazing riding by just about everyone I know. For me, it was the first time I've ridden in Portland, Maine and I did so by rolling into a surprisingly well-attended group ride hosted by Portland Velo Club. I met teammate and Portland dweller Jurgen at his house well before any sane person should be awake on a Saturday. We did a brisk and all-too-brief warmup ride for the 2 miles it took to get from his house to the seat of the group ride at shop Cyclemania in downtown Portland. There's an interesting and very satisfying thing about downtown Portland early in the morning: This working port town, with main streets, shops, restaurants and houses all abutting the ocean, smells strongly of fish in the early dawn hours - an olfactory artifact of one of the oldest and most vibrant sources of commerce in northern New England - the fishing trade, alive, always struggling, always a hard, hard way to make a living and greatly appreciated, revered even, amongst all New Englanders. At 7AM the smell of raw, freshly hauled fish fills the air as Jurgen and I ride past brick buildings, over brick roads to meet our fellow crazies to ride.
It's an odd experience, doing a well-established, well-known group ride for the first time. There's a dynamic at play and I don't know it, because I don't know these guys. I mean, I sort of know this crew, but not really. There will be a handful of guys I race with at the larger regional events. They're the known quantity. Unknown remains the local fellows, the masters of the group rides, the dudes who live to go super hard every Saturday morning - lay it all on the line before they return home to their families for the weekend's domestic events. These are the guys that concern me because it's their ride on their turf and they know every crack in the road, every sprint point, and all the sneaky little tricks.
Most surprising to me is the size of this ride. For such a small city, Portland brings the numbers with a group around 60 strong. We arrive mere seconds before rollout and I'm a little miffed at Jurgen for getting us there with no time to spare - no time for me to look around and gauge the riders. Also surprising to me is that 30 seconds into this ride we're doing 28 miles per hour - tearing through downtown Portland, mostly ignoring traffic signals, which is forgivable since it's too early for anyone other than a random herd of cyclists to be on the roads. This is like the start of a crit, or a cross race, except for me it's totally unexpected. There's no casual roll-out, no warm-up period, no easing in while we get ourselves out of the city. It's just full gas and my cold, sleepy body is ill-prepared for the effort.
This is a 30ish mile loop, out of the city and around Cape Elizabeth then back in. No hills to speak of, just some small rollers and about 4 sprint points throughout the ride. I say "about" because I don't know where they are. All I see are guys attacking and sprinting seemingly at random - going for a crosswalk, a fire hydrant or a Hurricane Evacuation Route sign - some road-side article that long ago became the agreed-upon finish line for a mid point sprint - an excuse to go harder. No need to belabor the details of the ride. It's a group ride but it's a race - for most of these guys it's an entire week's effort crammed into an hour, for Jurgen, me and a few others, it's the kickoff to a big weekend in the saddle and a good whack in the ass for me that my fitness has been on the decline.
A return to downtown and the fish smell has been replaced by that of food preparation. The restaurants and coffee shops are fired up, breakfast is ready to go for Portlanders and visitors to enjoy. For us, though, it's a quick stop in where the ride began; a confab with others who fancy themselves bike racers to determine what's next. More miles are called for and a small crew elects to go north, into this hills and rolling farmlands of inland Maine.
And now, a question of protocol, or etiquette, or something else entirely: Cyclists who were not on the group ride emerge from somewhere. Tourists maybe? Visitors looking for some camaraderie on unfamiliar roads perhaps? I'm not sure, but what I do know is that they're not group ride sorts, not racers, not even the wily weekend warriors who just schooled me the previous hour. Let's be honest - these are the Freds. And like moths to the flame, they've been drawn in by the site of cyclists milling about, forming into groups to head out on the road in search of more miles?
"You mind if I ride with you guys?" Well, this is not as simple a yes or no question as one might think. No, I don't mind if you ride with us. I'm in the bicycle business, after all, and butts in saddles are good for business. Plus, you seem like a nice, easy-going guy. Come one, come all. Yes, I do mind you riding very close to me in city traffic because a) I don't know you and b) you've decided to use your aerobars today. Also, Fred, your question is flawed from the start, because we're going to go for another 60 miles, with copious hills, and we're going to do it hard… like, really hard, like we're training or something. So, sure you can ride with us, but with us won't be with us for very long. I don't say any of this. Not this time. I pretend to see something interesting that requires closer inspection and I ride away, leaving Jurgen to do the diplomacy. It's a tough thing. How do you say, "sure, you can ride with us, but we're going to drop your ass really, really fast," and not sound like a complete asshole? You can't, but Jurgen acquits himself well and explains to our new friend that we're going to ride for a long time and we're going to do it at a high rate of speed. This either doesn't matter or it doesn't sink in, because we find ourselves rolling through the outskirts of Portland, 3 elite amateur bike racers and a dude wearing a tee shirt. We decide the best course of action is to go as hard as we can, as soon as we can, so on the first uphill pitch, we dig in, full gas for a solid 5 minutes uphill. As we crest the top, we turn around to find we're only 3 now - our friend is gone, completely out of site. It's a mercy killing and there's nothing personal in it. He's still close to the city and it's a beautiful day… and we did warn him. With clear consciences, and open legs and lungs, we do a fast 60 mile loop - never slowing, stopping only once for some much-needed sustenance.
And so it was, a solid day of riding, in a city that I've come to discover is underrated both for the riding opportunities it offers and the general culture of the place. Plus, amazing food. I've yet to have a bad meal there, but that's a story for another time, I think…