: Kate Sappell

My Journey to Long-Distance Cycling

Find joy, a sense of achievement and mind-body nourishment along these Portland-area routes.
Kate Sappell , Guest Author
December 9, 2022

My first bike was an absolute clunker. A turquoise Univega purchased for a hundred bucks in Eugene from someone’s front yard my freshman year of college in 2010. I was adamant about a wire basket in front and a cushy seat, a luxurious set-up giving me everything I needed to live out my beach cruiser fantasy in the Willamette Valley. You could hear me coming from a block away, the basket rattling with a variety of belongings, hanging on by a singular neon green zip tie, with a big ol’ smirk on my face.

My rides at this time of life were short and sweet, a quick pop over to class or the grocery store. There were moments when my bike sat unused for months. I can say that I was a fair-weather rider — growing up in Los Angeles, I had not yet become hardened or accustomed to the wet and brisk winter months in Oregon.

When I moved to Portland after college, I noticed a colleague of mine consistently biked to work. He would walk by my desk styled head to toe in Gore-Tex, a bike bag and helmet in tow. I was in awe, he commuted daily into the office — committed to decreasing his carbon footprint and moving his body. It was hard for me to comprehend where I would even start — from the route finding to the gear needed. I had only leisurely ridden around my neighborhood or to and from class. It never occurred to me that I could do this — it was within the realm of possibility. I could not foresee that it would eventually become a hobby that would bring me so much joy, deep sense of achievement, and nourishment to my mind and body.

bike with lake and blooming purple trees in the background
The trees around Vernonia Lake (at the apex of the Banks-Vernonia Trail) bloom with cherry blossoms in the spring.

Starting Slow and Easy

My first experience bike commuting was in 2017 when I began working at Travel Oregon. It became a daily practice, well, twice daily it turns out. Ten miles a day to start, the longest rides I had ever accomplished, my heavy turquoise companion guiding me to my destination safely. It was tough, there were days that I couldn’t bring myself to bike home — but I knew I’d always feel better once I got moving. One of the immediate impacts of these longer rides was a newfound sense of belonging, to my body and community. Things became more granular. I noticed how certain trees would change from season to season. I would ride by parks I had never seen before, check-in on my favorite gardens and window-dwelling kitties, maybe pop into a local coffee shop. There is a spontaneity to riding bikes that I love, and my long rides allowed me to process whatever emotions were up for me that day. It became a meditative and restorative practice — I never regretted getting on my bike.

Once I had my 10-milers down, I became curious about other areas throughout Portland that were accessible to cyclists. One route that became a constant due to scenic beauty and ease of access was along the Eastbank Esplanade. You can start at OMSI and choose your path from there — biking along the Esplanade and across multiple bridges to the north, crossing over and making the journey along the Southwest Waterfront. Another excellent route or add on in this area is the Springwater Corridor to the south. Meandering along the paved path with river views there’s an opportunity for excellent bird watching through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. You may be lucky enough to see great blue herons patiently hunting in the wetland. If you’re not quite ready for a century ride (100-plus miles), two other rides to try are Sauvie Island (12 miles around the island) and the Bald Peak Ride to the west of Portland (55 miles).

If that isn’t quite enough and you’d like to climb some hills — take the route up to Council Crest through the southwest hills. It is a bit of an epic time, and you’ll want to bring a nice snack (banana and strawberry Gu for me — yum!) in your bike bag for the top where you’ll encounter stunning views of Mount St. Helens and Mt. Hood. Make sure to bring plenty of water, layers for warmth, bike lights, and enjoy the expansive green space while you take a much-needed break. The descent is exhilarating.

person on bicycle riding on shoulder of road
A cyclist rides along the quiet farm roads of Sauvie Island.

Leaning Into the Meditation of Longer Rides

These days, the turquoise beauty sits retired in my basement — a reminder of where I came from and the simplicity of beginnings. It can be overwhelming to know where to start and, at times, has left me frozen from action. Here’s your reminder that you don’t need all the pieces to get moving, and the “not knowing” can be where creativity comes in and the pressure to have it all figured out falls away. You don’t need the bike jersey, the pannier and that Gore-Tex windbreaker (might be nice though!).

My bike looks a little different now, but the feelings that come from riding haven’t changed. Almost five years later, while I may no longer be bike commuting as I work from home, I am riding distances up to 100 miles. With longer distances traveled, the meditative quality to my bike riding practice has enhanced, allowing me to be in the present moment and find a sense of gratitude — in my ability to move my body, do the hard things, and see the beauty Oregon has to offer.

woman in sunglasses and bike helmet holds peace sign
The author takes a break on a city ride
woman wears sunglasses and bike helmet
The author takes a selfie on a sunny Sauvie Island ride

Finding Nature’s Healing Effect

The ability to retreat into the natural environment has a healing effect. On one of my more recent rides on the Banks-Vernonia State Trail, a component of the Tualatin Valley Scenic Bikeway, I was swept away by how easily accessible it is to retreat into nature. Just about 40 miles west of Portland, the ride takes you over multiple wooden bridges along a vibrant and alive green mossy pathway, and through a diversity of landscapes. The 42-mile out-and-back trek can feel easeful — tucked away from cars, you can relax into the freshness of the blooming trillium, stands of Douglas firs and misty cloud cover.

On a ride last spring, I stopped for a much-needed snack break at Vernonia Lake, where I was able to see red-winged black birds perched on cattails along the waterfront, showing off their patches of crimson to potential mates. In iconic Oregon fashion, the pink cherry blossoms were in full bloom. These scenes are easy to come by in Oregon. All that’s needed is the opportunity to get on your bike (or rent at the local bike shop adjacent to the trail) and be present with the surrounding environment.

Trip Ideas

  • Finding Healing Through Bikepacking

    Analise Cleopatra had never ridden a mountain bike before. The 29-year-old Portland filmmaker had never gone camping, either, and she suffers from long-term anxiety. Yet in September 2019, she embarked on a major adventure to...
  • Oregon’s Top Bike Rides

    Whether you’re a recreational biker, a mountain bike shredder or a hardcore cyclist, Oregon’s streets, trails and gravel grinds await! Oregon’s cycle advocates are so committed to two wheels that the state was the first...
  • All Bodies on Bikes in Oregon

    Watching along on social media as other people in larger bodies went on Oregon hiking adventures, I became inspired to start speaking about my own experiences as a fat bike rider. This past spring I...