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3 towns, 2 wheels: urban bike tourism

Maybe we should’ve rented some lighter bikes,” my sweetheart suggests over his shoulder. We’re huffing uphill on Harrison Street in Portland, Ore., pedaling a pair of elegant but heavy three-speeds. Evidently Portland has much steeper streets than our hometown of Minneapolis, and we’re beginning to wonder if our weekend visit might be torpedoed by my insistence on the prettier bikes.

Still, we’re gasping for air that’s perfumed with mint and roses, and we’re inching past bright bungalows up a quiet residential boulevard. It leads directly from downtown Portland and the Willamette River below to the top of an extinct volcano, Mount Tabor, at the edge of the city’s southeast quadrant. The sun is shining. The magnolia trees are in full bloom. And since there is no reason to hurry, we just keep climbing.

Most people want to feel less like tourists and more like travelers when they go on vacation. This distinction is measurable when one rents a bike. As a tourist, I look for big landmarks — the Eiffel Towers and the Taj Mahals. When I get home, I report on the two or three recognizable things I saw. But when I explore a city by bike, I’m not necessarily looking for anything — though I am seeing a lot.

Touring an urban area by car might be easier, but it keeps the experience under glass. Pedaling down an ordinary avenue reveals the intimate details of a city’s life, from plant varieties and porch culture to the way the community handles its trash.

You experience the climate like an everyday commuter; if it rains, you’re getting wet. But there are rewards for risking the elements. Case in point: Returning from Mount Tabor, we pedal down a busy street and are seduced into stopping for lunch by the smells from a turquoise-painted taqueria. We learn later from local friends that this is a local landmark. Yet because we followed our noses rather than a guidebook, we never had to look for its perfect fish tacos; they found us.

Not every American city is as inviting to cyclists as Portland; many are sliced up by freeways or endless parking lots. But this City of Roses, New York City and Minneapolis are three prime places for a two-wheel tour.

1. Minneapolis

Bicycling magazine declared Minneapolis the No. 1 U.S. city for biking in 2010. This honor irked Portlanders, who got bumped from the spot, and mystified almost everyone else, who can be forgiven for wondering what’s so great about biking between snow banks. In fact, this lake-dotted Midwestern city has a full four seasons, three of which do not require the skill to navigate black ice. And it claims an impressive biking infrastructure: 167 miles of bike lanes and paths, 35 of them added in 2011 alone. The number of cyclists has increased by almost 50 percent since 2007, while the crash rate between motorists and bikes has declined by 60 percent since the early 1990s — a good sign that there’s safety in numbers. Other bike-friendly features of Minneapolis:

The Ultimate Urban Trail. The most trafficked of this city’s off-road paths is the Midtown Greenway, a converted railway that runs from east to west through the city’s near south side. Much of the paved trail is below street level, passing beneath a series of bridges and between grassy slopes. Frequent off-ramps lead to neighborhoods like Uptown, with coffee shops and movie theaters, and Nicollet Avenue’s “Eat Street,” where hungry cyclists can refuel on the city’s renowned Vietnamese fare. For those looking for a longer, quieter ride, the Greenway connects to the Southwest LRT trail, which takes cyclists through the western suburbs. Just avoid it after dark, when its isolation from traffic can make it unsafe.

Waterside Riding. The Chain of Lakes, which runs from west of downtown to the southeast corner of the city, offers miles of shady, tree-lined bike paths. The circuit around Lake of the Isles offers a glimpse of some of the city’s handsome old mansions, and connects to Cedar Lake, Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriet and ultimately Lake Nokomis — all with good swimming beaches. At the southeast end of Harriet, riders can hook up with the path along Minnehaha Creek, which leads past the 53-foot-high Minnehaha Falls to the Mississippi River trail.

Bikes for All. Another bragging right for Minneapolis: It’s home to “Nice Ride,” one of the first public bike-share programs in the United States. After purchasing a 24-hour subscription for $6, riders help themselves to any of the green bikes locked at 116 solar-powered stations around town. Trips that take 30 minutes or less incur no additional fees. Fees for longer trips can add up fast, but you can avoid fees by simply returning your bike to a station within 30 minutes, and picking up another one. Bonus: Riding station-to-station is a great way to see the town.

2. New York City

When one first thinks of New York City, biking may be as likely to come to mind as downhill skiing. Still, half a million New Yorkers routinely pedal its busy streets. “I ride my bike almost every day here in New York,” writes David Byrne, singer for the Talking Heads and author of the ode to urban cycling, Bicycle Diaries (Penguin, 2010), who frequently dons a suit while taking his three-speed on errands. The city is getting more bike-friendly each year. Under transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, New York has added more than 250 miles of bike lanes since 2007. Several are designed so a lane of parked cars stands between cyclists and car traffic. The city has an additional 100-plus miles of car-free greenways, and in July 2012 launched its own public bike-share program with 600 stations and 10,000 bikes. Three other reasons to join the half-million cycling New Yorkers:

Biking Excitement. Horns honk, buildings tower, pedestrians hustle through crosswalks wearing impossibly high heels. Traffic in Manhattan and much of the outer boroughs is usually dense, so anticipate an invigorating ride. On the bright side, cars can’t pick up much speed on clogged streets, and New York drivers are accustomed to sharing the road with non-cars (pedestrians, loose dogs, hot-dog carts), so they generally make room. The wise rider will display equal measures of confidence and caution. And if you encounter a honk or a shout, keep in mind that this is a customary local greeting.

Waterfront Wonders. Driving the length of Manhattan typically involves the use of the north-south thoroughfares, populated largely by taxicabs whose terrifying idea of service involves hurtling through small openings at high speeds. Bikers have the much calmer option of the Waterfront Greenway. Cruise north or south on this paved path and avoid traffic for almost the entire length of the island’s west side. It also runs uninterrupted up to 34th Street along the East River. A nice break from navigating crowded streets, with good views of funky Brooklyn factories on the east side.

Beautiful Brooklyn. While the island confines of Manhattan are easily explored on foot, Brooklyn is spread out, which makes uncovering its riches more of a challenge to visitors — unless they have bikes. A good map can lead you to breakfast and coffee in pretty Park Slope, followed by a fried-clam lunch with a stroll on the beach at Coney Island in the afternoon. The ride between will take you through Brooklyn’s own Chinatown, past the Hasidic groceries and bakeries of Borough Park, and across the ever-evolving Italian neighborhood of Bay Ridge. Almost any ride through Brooklyn can feel like a mini-world tour.

3. Portland

Despite its rainy climate, Portland, Ore., lays claim to a higher percentage of bike commuters than any large U.S. city. Six percent of the city’s employed citizens biked to work in 2011; the numbers increase every year. A delightfully bike-friendly infrastructure explains the collective willingness to endure precipitation. This lush city boasts 318 miles of bikeways. At many intersections, the front of the lane is painted out, giving cyclists the right of way before right-turning vehicles. Street signs for cyclists abound, with directions, distances and time to destination to help riders stay oriented. Like Minneapolis and New York, Portland will soon host a public bike-share program, expected to be operating in April 2013. “Portland bike share will make our already accessible, walkable, bikeable city even more so,” says Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesman Dan Anderson. Cycling offers prime access to many of the city’s finest offerings:

Local Treasures. A streak of Old West autonomy informs Portland’s progressive civic policies, and the city harbors very few chain stores. As such, local businesses typically have something especially “Portland” about them, whether it’s sandwiches with Tillamook cheddar or purses made from felted Oregon wool. One storefront that was selling nothing but alkaline water had a line out the door.

Neighborhood Charm. While downtown Portland is a feast of early 20th-century architecture and hosts a waterfront park along the Willamette River, much of the city’s appeal lies in the residential neighborhoods. The metropolis is divided into quadrants by the river and bridges. Residences range from sizable shacks with solar panels to grandiose mansions; almost all have sprawling gardens and flowering trees. With an annual average of 37 inches of rain, Portland is a plant-lover’s paradise. From a bike, one can smell the roses the city is known for — along with the cherry blossoms, forsythia and nutmeg-scented daphne.

Street Eats. More than 500 different food trucks are parked around town, serving cuisines that span the globe, from Korean barbecue to Norwegian comfort food. Some operate from fixed locations, while others move daily, to be tracked via Twitter. While cycling, you might happen upon a gaggle of trucks or encounter a single one on a lonely street. Either way, don’t be surprised if a fragrant plume of steam escapes the truck and curls toward you in the shape of a beckoning finger: Pedaling those hills keeps the appetite stoked.


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