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Cycle Oregon Turns 20

Every summer for the past 20 years, an enormous group of cyclists get on their bikes for seven full days of riding, camping, and camaraderie.

The ride is Cycle Oregon — a fully supported, rolling summer camp for cyclists. But it's more than a bike ride; since it began 20 years ago, it's evolved into an Oregon institution. Not to mention the state's most spandex-clad charitable foundation, awarding over $1.7 million in grants.

Casey Negreiff taped his microphone to his handlebars and went for a spin with the man behind that first ride, Jonathan Nicholas.

Cycle OregonTake note, dear listeners: This might be the world's first on-bike interview…

But for Cycle Oregon founder Jonathan Nicholas, surprisingly, it's not really about the bike.

Jonathan Nicholas: "Twenty years ago, if somebody at the table had said, you know, 'Why don't we do something called 'walk oregon,' I would probably have agreed with that, too. I mean, I grew up in Wales and rode a bicycle as a kid, but then I did not ride a bicycle for something like, twenty or more years. And when Cycle Oregon started, I didn't own a bike."

Back when he was on assignment for the Oregonian newspaper, where he's now an associate editor. He was traveling around eastern Oregon for a series of columns.

Jonathan Nicholas: "And I was struck, in part, by the economic crisis, of course, that was going on in Oregon in the late 80s. The timber industry was going through its great shudder of readjustment, with a reduced cut, and that was having huge economic and social implications on so many of those former mill towns and the small rural communities."

When he got back to Portland, Nicholas and a few friends got to thinking about what could be done to lend a hand to those hurting rural communities. What they came up with was a simple bike ride — nothing fancy — just some folks getting together and riding to some of their favorite small towns, and spending as much money as they could.

(Bike sound)

He floated the idea to readers in a column. He was hoping for 50 responses. To his surprise, more than a thousand people signed up. That put Nicholas and his crew on the hot seat to organize that first ride.  Nowadays, Cycle Oregon riders  get three meals a day for all seven days. But back then, Nicholas says, riders were expected to forage for food.

Jonathan Nicholas: "We would pull into these small towns and set upon them like locusts."
Casey Negreiff: "Sounds more like pillaging than foraging."
Jonathan Nicholas: "Yeah, it was it was a lot like pillaging, more like pillaging than foraging, that's right. First people who would get into town, you know, would rush to the grocery store or the mom-and-pop store and they'd buy everything that they could."

Barbara Larrain was one of those pillagers. She's a Cycle Oregon veteran who's been on every ride since the beginning. She remembers hot dogs. Lots and lots of hot dogs.

Barbara Larrain: "So you'd go into these little communities and usually they were the Grange or the church group or something, and it was just humorous, because you'd roll into a town, and they would think, 'This is easy to do — let's cook hot dogs.' So everywhere we went, there were hot dogs."

Despite the stress of a thousand unannounced guests in a town of 200 people, reaction to that first ride was positive. And the good feelings were contagious.

Cycle OregonWhen the ride ended in Brookings, the bicyclists passed the hat and emptied their pockets. They took half the money they collected and gave it to the communities who welcomed, fed, and entertained them that first year. The other half went to establish what would later become the Cycle Oregon Fund, maintained by the Oregon Community foundation.

(Bike sound.)

20 years later, nearly $2 million of the Cycle Oregon Fund has gone to all sort of projects throughout Oregon.  Money for Halfway, Oregon to help the town purchase its fairgrounds. A grant for the Wallowa Band Nez Perce Trail Interpretive center. And money for the City of Haines to build bike paths.

But it's nothing, Nicholas says, compared with the support individual communities provide.

Jonathan Nicholas: "It takes a lot to welcome 2,000 people, and to feed them, and house them, and entertain them, pack them up the next morning and send them down the road, feeling good. And to see what these communities are willing to do in that, is just, it's really inspiring."

Not to mention the 100 Cycle Oregon volunteers who travel and mark the day's route. They set up water and rest stops, and serve meals to hordes of hungry riders. The volunteers never get to get on a bike themselves, but by all accounts, they're the ones who really make the ride possible.

And you know, sometimes it actually IS about the bike.  Although Jonathan Nicholas says he would have "walked Oregon," you can tell he thinks the bicycle is where it's at.

Jonathan Nicholas: "Every bicyclist is smiling. See as she comes over the bridge? The city looks so beautiful, the river looks so inviting… and there's free donuts!"

On the Web: 

Cycle Oregon's official website
Cycle Oregon History site

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