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Portland's Bike Culture Creates Market

Recently, Portland's bicycle culture has gotten more media attention than it wants - or needs. The fandom reached an apex in November, when the New York Times profiled the city as “Bike City, U.S.A”.

The city's cyclists say they're flattered by the attention but say it's missing the real story: the story of how Portland is poised to become the center of the country's $6 billion-a-year bicycling industry. Ethan Lindsey reports.

Zoo Bomb Ambi: “Okay, for all you who've never done this before, when you see a car, yell car, when you pass someone on the left, yell 'passing on your left', 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1…zoobomb!”

At the top of the hill in Washington Park, the TriMet Max elevator screen tells you its 710 feet above see level.

On this Sunday night, it's snowing in Oregon above 500 feet.

So the gathering of about 40 hobbyists and cyclists here is a little excited about tonight's 'zoobomb'.

This is the Sunday night ritual where bikers gather with all sorts of contraptions, mostly mini bikes you'd expect toddlers to be on. Then they race to downtown - or 'bomb' the hill.

Tonight's snowy 'zoobomb' will take us from the top of Washington Park, and down to the Max stop.

Zoo Bomb Ambi: “CAR! Woohoo!”

Zoobombers are just one small niche of Portland's famed bicycle culture. The community is made up of equal parts commuter, racer, mountain biker, jouster, and everything in between.

Cyclists say there are now traffic jams on Portland's Hawthorne Bridge. Bicycle traffic jams.

Bicycling Magazine estimates the city has the highest number of pedal commuters in the U.S. 3.5 percent of workers.

Jonathan Maus edits the blog ' '. He says the city's progressive politics helped build a less car-centric city.

Jonathan Maus: “So, once infrastructure that made biking safe and feasible and possible was there, people started doing it in greater numbers, and that created a big snowball. Now people move here because its safe for bikes and possible to live without a car. And out of that you create markets and cottage industries to serve that.”

Maus knows about the business market.

He began writing about biking for fun on the Oregonian newspaper's website.

Soon his blog became so popular he was able to spin it off, and now he helps support himself and his family with advertising revenue from the site.

In a report for the city last year, a planning firm estimated the bike industry employs 600 to 800 people, at about 125 individual businesses.

Maus says Portland's bike market could be the city's ticket into the big time.

Jonathan Maus: “It could definitely be a major sector. We're already listed by the Portland Development Commission alongside athletic shoe and apparel, which is a big sector here. Nike, Adidas, it goes down the line. And if we lose the ability to operate cars as much as we do now, cities all over the country are gonna see major shifts and we're in a good position because we're already set up for that. We're a bike city, if and when it happens, we're the first ones.”

But is this dream a reality? Could Portland become to bikes what Detroit was once for cars?

Some cyclists say they are worried about a car-culture backlash. Where automobiles and politicians push back against a city teeming with more bikes than ever before.

Others are worried the mainstreaming of the bike scene will drive hardcore purists away.

And many doubters, including politicians and business experts, worry about building a market based around a small, niche industry like bicycles.

Chris Sauder is a developer with Beaverton-based Yakima Products, which builds bike racks.

Sauder points to Yakima itself. The company started in northern California but outgrew its small-town roots and needed a new home.

Portland, with its bike culture seemed an ideal fit.

Chris Sauder: “There's a large number of people and companies here that know about bikes.  And if they don't know, they know somebody who does. Its more about the knowledge base that the physical limitations here. We're building critical mass here, we might already be a couple years into that, which is pretty exciting.”

But Sauder says the city's bike dreamers may need to reel in their hopes a little bit.

Chris Sauder: “There's a globalization of manufacturing and if you dug into it, you'd find out that all the bike-related manufacturers around here source worldwide. But the creation happens here. Again, there's a knowledge base."

So, Portland may never become the Detroit of the bicycle age.

And Sauder points out, American towns will never be as bike-friendly as European cities, like Amsterdam.

But he says if the American bike market continues to grow, Portland is well-suited to benefit more than most other cities.

Which is why many businesses and business leaders hope bicycling could become a small, but important subsector of a new economy.

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