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Another Portland Blog

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


A night with the Zoobombers

I recently wrote a retrospective on the Zoobombers and spent an evening with the mini-bike gang last month. Before I headed downtown that night I had a few reservations, among them:

1. I hadn't been on a bicycle in over four years.

2. I hadn't ridden down a very large hill on a bike in over ten years.

3. As with most sports (extreme or otherwise) and activities that involve any level of physical exertion, I suck at bike riding.

I met up with a few members at their usual rendezvous point on Burnside. If you're not familiar with the Zoobombers, they're a loose assemblage of speed demons that all go by codenames and enjoy blazing down the West Hills on Sunday nights, usually astride modified kiddie bikes. Their weekly runs began three years ago and almost immediately resulted in headbutting between them, Tri-Met, local residents and PPD. Over time, they hammered out their differences and the Zoobombers now freely roam the hills with little intervention from The Man.

After making the rounds I asked to borrow a loaner "pile bike" since the gears on mountain bike back home are shot. Overlooking an array of boy's bikes, a Zoobomber dragged out this one out of the pile:

Yup. A tiny, bright pink girl's bike. Another newbie that arrived just before me had been given a testosterone-fueled bike modified with growling "Hulk Hands."

A regular had an even smaller and more effeminate ride so I bit the bullet and went with the flow. I jumped on the bike and followed them over to the nearest MAX stop with my knees up to my elbows. It should also be noted that I was wearing a bright orange NASCAR helmet with racing stripes, the cheapest one I could find at GI Joe's.

I missed the train while trying to get a ticket machine to accept a wadded-up dollar bill. Now the only rider left at the stop, I tried to look nonchalant as possible among a scattered gathering of Sunday night commuters and downtown's usual array of methheads, crackheads, crazies, etc. Soon enough, other riders showed up, among them a pair of transplanted Californians in tiny Hustler t-shirts. One of the regulars was taking them on their first ever Zoobomb.

At one stop on the ride up a group of Japanese exchange students piled on. Immediately entranced by these girls and their, um, bikes, they couldn't stop staring. Unwilling to disappoint, the Californians wandered over and started chatting. One student begged for a picture. He smiled as his friend fumbled with a camera, completely oblivious to what was about to happen. Right before the shutter snapped, one turned to him and surprised him with a sloppy kiss. After thanking them a million times, the students jumped off at the last stop before the train headed up the hill.

At the Washington Park station I found myself riding on the elevator with a teenager and a dreadlocked guy in a black trenchcoat. In a basket on his bike was a doll wrapped in chains with "ZOOBOMB!" written on its diaper. Attached to the handlebars was a boombox cranking out surf tunes. As the doors opened, they disappeared, leaving me to navigate the park's pitch black hills.

Within a minute I was lost and close to kicking the story to the curb. The night was obviously going to end with either serious injury, further humiliation or both. As I turned back, I heard "Surfin' Safari" coming up the hill.

Not quite willing to throw in the towel, I followed the rasta-goth to a meadow filled with roughly a hundred Zoobombers. Many of them were eager to show off their scars, anecdotes and bikes. One led me to what he called an "Assacre," a modified scooter with a hidden compartment in the base. The rider sits on the bottom of the contraption with their butt roughly two inches from the pavement. A poorly maneuvered turn would inevitably result in an awkward trip to an emergency ward, thus the name. Another "double decker" bike featured two bike frames welded together.

One member told me a story about the time he foiled a mugging while dressed in a salmon costume. Another threw out an anecdote about the time he flew over his handlebars and skidded, on his head, a few feet down Jefferson Street before finally coming to a bloody halt. Later that night several of the Zoobombers were planning to go on a "Hellbomb" down US 26. They tried to coax me into going along, guaranteeing that the run would make me piss my pants. Ride a kiddie bike down a freeway? A hard opportunity to pass up.

Eventually, it came time to Zoobomb and everyone jumped on their bikes and blazed down to the starting line on a nearby street. I took a few photos as they headed off, only to later realize I didn't know the route down. Within minutes I was lost again with the occasional car buzzing by along the hills' blind curves. I was no doubt going to die of something up there, be it embarrassment or otherwise.

If I hadn't been lost, in the dark, on a tiny girl's bike, this might have been fun. The bike handled fairly well, despite the size and the brakes worked great. All in all, things weren't going so bad. I would be last rider to cross the finish line but at least I hadn't broken anything. Yet. Then as I buzzed by four yuppies heading back to their cars near the Sacajawea Fountain, my bike light hit the pavement. I pulled over and wandered back up the hill for its various pieces as they stopped to stare. The broken light would later set me back $30.

Wildly off course, I wound back to the rendezvous MAX stop by the Goose Hollow. It should have taken me less than five minutes to make it down there. Instead it took over twenty. I figured the other riders were already heading up for the second run so I decided to kill time at the Goose Hollow Tavern with a PBR. Two minutes later they were back down, already lining up for the next train and I'd barely touched the beer. I started chugging as one pulled up and it was gone by the time I made it across the street. The next MAX wouldn't be by for another twenty minutes.

The time was easy to kill. Someone had mysteriously abandoned a big-screen TV at stop. Within a few minutes, a white Tri-Met pickup appeared on the scene. The driver hopped out and scratched his head. I tried to help him move it but the thing must have weighed a few hundred pounds. Exhausted at the end of his workday he considered leaving it for someone else to deal with. "It'll be gone by morning," he reasoned. Before he could jump back in, two Zoobombers rolled up and offered to help.

He drove off with the TV in the back and one told me I had already missed the freeway run (not that I was cut out for it) and a "pile-up caused by two new girls that didn't know what they were doing." By the time I made it up the hill the Zoobombers would be heading down on their third run. I decided to call it a night.

After a near collision with an opening car door, I made it back to Burnside and left the bike next to the pile. While I'd missed out on a suicide run down Us-26 the night taught me all sorts of fantastic life lessons worthy of a "Chicken Soup for the Soul" book or at least an episode of "Inspector Gadget."

OK, not really. The night only taught me one thing: that I ain't cut out for riding tiny bikes down a very large hill. Any future attempts at extreme sports will be conducted via an Xbox.

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