Welcome to the latest installment of our Ride Along series, which is sponsored by MetroMile.
When it comes to riding a bike, It takes a lot to strike fear into the heart of 36-year-old Branden Shelby. Shelby grew up in Woodland, Washington, about 20 miles north of downtown Vancouver. His childhood home was up a gravel road and his first experiences on a bike came via the logging roads that criss-crossed his neighborhood. It wasn’t until he moved to downtown Vancouver in 2000 and started biking over the I-5 bridge when he got a real scare on two wheels. “It’s hairy,” is how he explained riding across the bridge when I met up with him at Torque Coffee (in the shadows of the Interstate Bridge) earlier this month.
Branden said he grew up in a car-centric community, with dirt roads and long distances between destinations. “I was always the kid people would see out riding on the Lewis River Highway into town or out to the lakes.” But once he moved to Vancouver, he traded his mountain bike for a road bike. “With all these roads everywhere,” he said, “it didn’t make sense to have a fat tire bike.” When he got a job just three miles away from his house, he thought riding to work was “kind of weird.”
But he’s taken to bicycles and now he commutes year-round. After hearing about it on BikePortland, Branden got involved with Portland’s bike culture and has even led a Midnight Mystery Ride. “I don’t want to get into the daytime, spandex, hi-vis crowd… like the guys you see on the weekends. I don’t want to be involved in that,” he explained. “So, riding at night and sometimes doing things pseudo-clandestinely, a little under the radar, appeals to me a lot.”
For the past five years Branden worked at a warehouse and forklift operator job in St. Johns, so he’s a veteran of countless commutes over the I-5 bridge. He’s currently out of work, and when I joined him earlier this month he was riding into northwest Portland to follow-up on some resumes.
We began our ride from Torque Coffee at SW Columbia and 5th St. As we approached the I-5 bridge Branden shared stories of how he was scared riding over it at first. “I have mountain biking experience, but I wasn’t used to having metal and freeway speeds on one side of me and concrete and a river on the other side.” He wondered what it must be like to ride on one of the tall bikes he’s seen on rides in Portland. “You feel the wind up on the bridge, it’s definitely possible to topple over the rail.”
Branden prefers the southbound side of the bridge, since it’s a bit wider than the other side (which isn’t saying much). When it comes to path-sharing etiquette, he says he has no problem getting over for people who need to pass. Branden’s theory about the narrow path that’s notorious among bike riders is that the original designers of the bridge had not intention of people biking on it. “I think it was just built only for maintenance people.”
As for the looming Columbia River Crossing project, Branden says, “Yes, the project is a huge behemoth; but the interchanges are designed horribly and from a bicyclists standpoint, it would be nice to have a little breathing room on the bridge.”
As we continued south, we stopped for a moment to take in the view of the major demolition project going on at the Red Lion at Jantzen Beach. As we made our way down the corkscrew path and under the I-5 tunnel, we came up on yet another annoying part of Branden’s commute: The circuitous crosswalk and sidewalk bike route to get from North Hayden Island Drive to the continuation of the I-5 path. “It’s a really bad set-up,” Branden said as we waited for a light to change.
When we came to the intersection of N. Tomahawk Island Drive, Branden said he’s almost been hit numerous times at the crosswalk that’s part of the designated bike route. “People coming off the freeway come flying around the corner.” Not only that, but Branden pointed out that one of the two yellow caution signs warning people of the crossing is almost completely obscured by tree branches.
Once we were finally back on the path and headed toward Delta Park (near Hooters), Branden pointed out another hazard: Uneven pavement. Thankfully, ODOT recently smoothed out a major crack in the path after a woman was seriously injured from falling on it a few months ago. Cindy Bernert-Coppola was riding with the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club on January 31st when she fell and sustained a bilateral fracture of her jaw, a shoulder fracture, and a damaged artery. Branden had seen other people fall in the past and said the cracks were very tricky to navigate: “If you’re running skinny tires you could easily go down.”
When Branden worked in St. Johns, he’d follow the path to Marine Drive and then head south on Portland Road. Before he ever looked at a bike-specific map, he shared that he used to stay on Portland Rd all the way to Fessenden, a route that took him over a dangerous bridge over the Columbia Slough. “I would ride that bad pinch point for several years. You have to go with truck traffic screaming along, or get up on this narrow and high sidewalk thing.” That experience is what convinced Branden to purchase lights for his bike. “My former philosophy,” he explained, “Was if they can’t see you they can’t hit you. But I don’t do that now.”
As we approached Delta Park, we decided to ride through the park toward Whitaker Rd. There are several options you can take at this juncture: N. Union Ct. to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd; through the park then to Whitaker and west to Denver and then Interstate; or the option we chose which was through the park to Whitaker Rd, south to Schmeer and then across the Columbia Slough via the Vancouver Bridge. As we rode through the park, we both appreciated the smooth pavement. It used to be full of bike-sized potholes.
Whitaker Rd provides great access to the Hayden Meadows shopping center; but there’s not much of a shoulder. The same thing goes for Schmeer Rd as it winds past Hayden Meadows horse racing track. Branden said he prefers the Denver (near Portland International Raceway) to Interstate route and pointed out that the Metro Bike There map suggests the MLK JR. Blvd route.
Eventually we made it to N. Vancouver Ave. The new Vancouver Bridge, with its raised biking and walking path, is a warm welcome into the Portland bike network. Vancouver also offers a straight shot on a wide bike lane all the way to the Rose Quarter. As we got closer into Portland proper, Branden shared how strange it was — as a kid from the country roads of Woodland — to adjust to all the bike traffic.
Thanks for letting me tag along Branden!
If you’d like to see our route, I mapped it on Ride With GPS.
— BikePortland Ride Alongs are sponsored by MetroMile which is offering the country’s first true pay per mile car insurance. So if you drive less, you pay less. Read more Ride Alongs here. If you’d like your commute to be considered, please get in touch.