food from Verde Cocina during the lunch
stop at Banks Elementary School.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Chris King, the man who founded one of the world’s leading bike companies back in 1976, has always been a gourmet. I can recall, as an employee of Chris King Precision Components back in the late 1990s, prepping food for one of King’s “Trail Daze” events in Santa Barbara. On the menu for the mountain bike trail volunteers that day were roasted red pepper sandwiches. As King blackened the peppers in his personal, professional-grade range, myself and several other volunteers were tasked with peeling away the blackened parts and artfully laying the peppers onto artisan rolls as King peered over our shoulders doing quality control.
All the prep was done with an attention to detail and eye for quality that seemed over-the-top for some trailside grub. But to Chris King, food is deserving of the same respect and exacting treatment he gives his eponymous bicycle components.
On Saturday I realized King still has a flair for the culinary arts — the only difference these days is his following has grown. The Gourmet Century (a metric century) has become a hot ticket in recent years. Saturday’s event sold out in a matter of hours. One man I met on the ride said he didn’t get in last year, so he waited by his computer and pounded his “refresh” key repeatedly to make sure he registered this year. “It sells out so fast,” he said, “It’s like a rock concert.”
The ride’s appeal is simple: It offers a powerful combination of fine roads and fine food. I asked one woman what drew her to the ride. She was like, “Duh!”. I felt dumb for asking.
I had heard a lot of good things about the Gourmet Century over the years, but I had never done it myself. This year I was fortunate enough to sneak in under the radar.
I have to confess: I’m not a big “foodie.” I’ll eat just about anything and won’t complain about it. That being said, I know good food when I eat it and this ride definitely delivered. Using miles in the saddle as an appetite boost, we dined on vol au vent salads, gazpacho, paella, candied pork belly, and more — far from your typical bike ride fare. And the coffee! Chris King is a student of coffee and he invited one of its best teachers, Tom Pikaart of the American Barista and Coffee School (and four other local coffee experts), to manage the coffee service throughout the ride.
What sets the Gourmet Century apart is that they don’t simply serve good food, they invite some of the best chefs in the city to prepare their signature dishes at rest stops along the way. The word “catered” somehow doesn’t seem to do it justice.
At a rest stop in Bethany Lake Park (NW West Union 185th Ave) we munched flaky puff pastries topped with chicken and veggies prepared by Chris King Executive Chef Robert McSpadden. Under the roof of the covered playground at Banks Elementary School (about 25 miles west of downtown Portland), Chef Noe Garnica of Verde Cocina treated us to a simple and traditional “Mexican field lunch” of grilled chicken, cheese quesadillas with hand-pressed tortillas and sides of organic eggs and beans. At Chris King’s barn, his private residence off NW Kaiser Road, we ate smoked pork and Asian vegetable sliders from King’s own recipe book while Chef Chris Diminno of Clyde Common whipped up a wild mushroom and goat cheese option. There was also brown butter mousse cake created by Kitchen Cru Chef Jeff McCarthy and much more.
What is it about food and cycling? Clyde Common’s Chris DiMinno, a former downhill mountain bike racer, sported his restaurant’s team kit so I figured he’d be a good person to ask. “Well,” he replied, “You never feel more like eating a good hamburger than after a ride.” With all seriousness, DiMinno said he’s going after any opportunity he gets to combine his two passions. He’s also cooked for a Rapha Continental ride and was a featured chef at the Cielo Salon Brunch Ride held during the Feast Portland celebration.
While the food is what drew many of the 350 (or so) people to this ride, what really struck me about the event was how it weaves together so many threads of our regional bike scene.
As we reported back in May, bicycle tourism is on fire in Oregon. Given the roads we pedaled on Saturday, it’s easy to see why. Washington County (and all of Oregon for that matter) is blessed with thousands of miles of picturesque, low-traffic, country roads. It doesn’t take much pedaling to get outside the urban growth boundary and come face-to-face with active, 100-plus year-old farms. Roads like NW Roy, Zion Church, and Wilkesboro are steeped in pioneer history and they’ve been left relatively unchanged for over a century. Riding on them feels like you’ve been granted access to idyllic homesteads that just happen to have a strip of pavement running through them.
One rider in Saturday’s pack who was impressed with the scenery was none other than U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer. It was Blumenauer’s first time on the Gourmet Century and he looked strong and serene pedaling his Trek up the scenic hills of Washington County.
While Blumenauer was clearly taking the day off, it’s worth noting that Washington County’s bike tourism potential wasn’t the only issue at play on this ride. Chris King Precision Components has become a poster-child for American manufacturing and they’ve been held up as a prime example of one of President Obama’s “insourcing” initiative. King staff have made several trips to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress and they’re on a first-name basis with the Secretary of Commerce.
Chris King employs well over 100 people and they manufacture nearly every piece of their world famous hubs, headsets, bottom-brackets and more recently, Cielo frames and forks.
Cielo is the latest success story from a company with an entire bookshelf of them. The bikes have found a healthy niche and the company says they’re now selling about 300 frames a year. In some ways, the Gourmet Century is like a Cielo owners rally. Every time I turned around on Saturday I saw another one. A former King employee remarked that he used to recognize every Cielo he saw; but now those days are long gone. That’s the sign of a maturing brand.
A major bright spot for Cielo has been the Japanese market. The man that created that market, bicycle importer Shinya Tanaka, was at the ride Saturday, along with a contingent of his staff (they all rode Cielos of course).
In addition to Japan, I met people from Washington D.C., San Francisco, Italy, Vancouver BC and Calgary. The geographic reach of this ride is impressive, especially since it’s marketing is almost entirely word-of-mouth. It also underscores the powerful economic and tourism impact bicycling has on our region.
Back at the Chris King Cafe, dinner was served to hundreds of well-deserving riders. The three course meal (accompanied by carefully selected beer and wine of course), went down wonderfully amid lively conversations, excellent table service, and a three-piece jazz ensemble that played under a projector screen showing vintage Tour de France coverage.
Whether they came for the food or the scenic roads, or the chance to get up close and personal with a beloved bicycle brand, I think everyone who experienced this year’s Gourmet Century has a new standard by which to measure all future rides, and a deeper appreciation for the many ingredients that create such a tasty culture around cycling in Portland.
— Learn more about the Gourmet Century at ChrisKing.com