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  • March 19, 2013
  • Courtney Olive
  • Courtney Olive, Alin Dragulin, Jake Metteer, Sean Buchanan
  • 37 Comments

Portland Alley Sweeper Urban Enduro

Nestled behind the garages, chicken coops and backyard organic gardens of Portland, Oregon are 128 miles of unimproved (and largely forgotten) alleys. Every spring the Sang-Froid Riding Club takes to these neglected byways, ranging from gravel to nearly-impassable single-track mudbogs, to host the “Alley Sweeper Urban Enduro” ride. Not your traditional enduro, this is rather a ‘critical mass’ of sorts—with over 250 bikes squeezing, buzzing, smoking, splashing, and whop-whop waaah-ing up and down the alleys making friends and occasional enemies. The ride has become a phenomenon, attracting riders from up to 300 miles away.

To better understand the ride, a brief introduction to the club that created it is in order. The Sang-Froid Riding Club (SFRC) is “dedicated to the sport of motorcycle riding and racing.” As the club’s website explains, “‘Sang-Froid’ comes from the Latin Sanguis Frigidus—’cold blood’—and means ‘cool under pressure.’” Founded in 2002, the SFRC has become the premiere ambassador of grassroots motorcycling in Oregon. It was founded by three good friends who wanted to promote skillful riding and bring creative and alternative motorcycle events to the Portland community. The Alley Sweeper certainly fits that bill.

The alleys of Portland aren’t ordinary roads. Think Third World, cratered out, and sometimes so overgrown that they’re barely passable on foot. SFRC founding member Patrick Leyshock jokes that it’s “like trail riding in the woods, but you can just stop at 7-Eleven to get a Slushie if you get lost.” Given the rugged terrain of some alleys, neighbors are shocked to see anyone traversing them—let alone a parade of riders that would rival the P.T. Barnum circus unloading at the train depot. Yet the alleys are public rights-of-way, and the fact that they are seldom used makes them a perfect canvas for the SFRC’s creative talents.

To orchestrate the ride, the SFRC constructs a map resembling one of those kid’s choose-your-own-adventure books, catering to folks who still get giddy choosing their own adventures. Alleys are marked in ‘stages’ to keep the concentration of bikes moving from one part of town to another. With no order to the alleys or suggested direction of travel, there’s an opportunity to turn at every block.

At the morning rider’s meeting, the SFRC offers little instruction, other than to remind riders that the alleys are public roads with 15 mph speed limits, to have fun, relax, and enjoy the chaotic discovery inherent in the organic “route.” The riders are released with a final suggestion: “remember, strength in numbers!”

Within the first hundred yards a starburst pattern forms. Bikes scatter and snake along in accordion fashion, dodging trash piles and fallen Adventure riders. Some alleys dead end after a few blocks, others stretch for miles. Riders turn left, right, and double back through the especially fun sections: improvised jumps, XR650-swallowing puddles, and mud-rutted hillclimbs. Groups that rode together for hundreds of miles to get to the ride are instantly separated and quickly make new friends, banding together in impromptu packs, then chasing down their buddies when spotted crossing a street several blocks away. Whoever is at the front of a pack at any given moment becomes the Pied Piper and could easily end up with 20 to 200 motorcycles following his ill-advised improvisational route.

And it would be hard to imagine a more eclectic assortment of followers. Among the machines on the ride, a loose interpretation of legality seems to be the predominant trait. Two-strokes come out in force, lights are often inventive, to say nothing of signals and silencers.

The array of models is amazing. How many Honda NX250’s or Urban Expresses do you encounter in a typical week? Three of each were on last year’s Sweeper. Royal Enfields? Two showed up, a factory-custom chrome-tank version and an ammo-case ‘bagger.’ A ’54 BSA Bantam? Check. Homebuilt creations abound: a ’73 Honda CB500 with knobbies and a Renthal bar, flat-tracking Yamaha SR500s, and an ’81 Yamaha IT465 in super-motard trim. Even liter bikes are surprisingly well-represented, and not just the GSTenereAdventurTigerSauruses. Plenty of ZRXs, FZRs, Gixxers, a SuperDuke and even a Sprint 1050 and Ducati 900SS have been spotted.

But the day belongs to tiny bikes. As if drawn by an international homing beacon, a huge number of 90cc lay-down cylinder Honda/China Lifan bikes inevitably appear. These tiddlers wield a tremendous manageability advantage in the cramped, greasy grass-mud of the alleys. And besides, tiny bikes possess superior comedic value. A struggling burnout of a 10-inch tire on a 90cc Chappy bouncing on blown-out shocks is almost as hilarious as two grown men on a Trail 55.

The ride was the brainchild of SFRC member Zac Christensen, who told me with a sly smile that “the Sweeper serves as a form of public service announcement for the start of the motorcycle riding season, alerting the citizenry.” Meaning, what better way to promote springtime Motorcyclist Awareness than to send 250-plus bikes swarming through the backyards of Portland? Christensen noted it really brings home the “motorcycles are everywhere” message; “in fact, there might be one doing a wheelie right behind you as you mow your lawn.”

Though tongue-in-cheek, his point is compelling. The ride has an intimacy like no other. Until the ride was conceived in 2009, many of the alleys hadn’t seen motorized traffic since steam power lost out to internal combustion. In short, the bikes get noticed. After the first few volleys pass thru, neighbors flock to their backyards, lining the fences and standing atop compost piles for better viewing. For some riders the Sweeper means jumps, block-long wheelies and burnouts ‘til a plug fouls out. Dogs run alongside bikes; cats become a blur of fur; and cage-free, grass-fed urban chickens desperately scramble to re-learn flight.

As you might imagine, spectator reactions are mixed. “I can see how residents might be confused when 200-plus bikes roll down alleys like these,” Christensen observes. Many have appointed “their” alleys with garden beds, goat runs, laundry lines, solar-powered experimental aluminum smelters, aboriginal art, brush piles, castaway carpet, car carcasses, crab pots, and any imaginable object of the out-of-sight out-of-mind variety. Thus, good or bad, the ride enters an intimate space which homeowners are not accustomed to sharing.

The event provides a psychological study of sorts. Kids universally love it—running, shouting, jumping up and down with excitement, and hoisting their hands in the international sign for ‘wheelies!’ Some adults exhibit similar reactions, with ear-to-ear grins and, what I like to think is a look of ‘atta boy’ longing and a go-get-em rebel fist-pump. In contrast, a few succumb to rage, brandishing yard tools and parking pickup trucks to block passage. But then they encounter a quiet KLR with hardbags, carrying a middle-aged math teacher with glasses and a high-vis vest. Or maybe a Ural sidecarist wearing a tutu. Or a big guy with a beaming smile sitting six-foot-six atop a tiny CT70. Such riders usually bring Mr. Hopping-mad to his senses. And, to most onlookers, the good-clean-fun factor is obvious. Waves and smiles carry the day, kids are hoist atop Dads’ shoulders to see, and one rider even caught a bright-red bra—a souvenir offering from its owner, tossed fresh off the laundry line.

As for police, the response is swift. Yet the stops are invariably friendly, typically consisting of a befuddled exchange between an officer and a pack of stopped riders (while other packs putter past and wave) of “what the heck are you guys doing?” and “do you have any idea how many calls we’ve been getting?” But when the stopped riders politely explain they’re exploring public roadways, the officers are left to shake their heads and let things continue with a “well, I guess that’s okay, just go the speed limit.” By the time neighborhood patience runs thin, the ride moves on to another part of town and a fresh cluster of alleys. A citation has yet to be issued. Again, Christensen sums it up pretty well: “Most law enforcement officers I have encountered seem equally baffled and jealous.”

The ride typically winds down at one of the most astonishing areas of the day, known as the “Hobo Zone,” an abandoned stretch of riverfront industrial wasteland spanning dozens of acres. Not all riders find their way to it, but those who do are rewarded with dirt trails, some of the finest puddle-jumping of the ride, and amazing riverside views. Many just park their bikes and lay in the weeds, sharing refreshments with new-found friends, and watching others buzz around a homemade mini-track. An atmosphere akin to the “Party at the Moontower” scene in the film Dazed and Confused comes to mind.

Though the ride doesn’t cover herculean distances or reach tremendous speeds, the appeal of SFRC’s Alley Sweeper is overwhelming. It’s been known to pick up bikes along the way—a KLR rider told me he heard the pack in his backyard, threw on rubber galoshes, and told his wife “honey watch the kids, I’m going to ride the alleys!” Put simply, the Sweeper seems to channel many of the essential elements of motorcycling: adventure, exploration, amusement, anti-conformity, camaraderie, and of course a little rebellion—with the childhood joy of splashing in mud puddles thrown in.

Courtney Olive makes his home in Portland, Oregon and has ridden each year of the Alley Sweeper, including once as an “embedded journalist” catching rides on everything from a sissy-bar’d CB350, to a Ural sidecar, to the luggage rack of a Trail 55. This year’s Alley Sweeper is coming up in April.

37 Comments

  1. Rchptch says:

    What a hoot! I’m from SLC, and only wish we had something like this here.

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  2. 2013 edition of the SFRC Urban Enduro

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  3. Great rain-soaked event for 2013, video here: http://vimeo.com/64040270

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  4. What the H? says:

    What a waste of gas, time and air quality. I appreciate the idea, but there are better places to ride just up off of hwy 30. You all looked like a bunch of lost fools who can’t tune a bike, nor really ride one. What an epic hipster ride!

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  5. LOVED having all of you drop by the cafe- If you are up for it next year we would love to have you back! Mahalo nui loa
    Sarah and Bryant Anderson
    Anna Bannanas

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  6. ingri says:

    I’m sad your members drive recklessly and too fast through the alleys. Alley speed limit is 15 mph because people use them to load/unload, low sight lines, people wandering down them. I find it annoying and rude.

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    • Alicia says:

      Sorry, but were you there? How do you know how fast someone was going exactly? I find your judgement annoying and rude. I was actually on the ride and while there may have been some wheelies, people are very respecful of private and public property.

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  7. grrlpup says:

    I wondered what was going on when all you guys came through in a previous year! My veggie garden is technically in the alley because that’s the only place that gets full sun. No one messed with it. Hope I’m home to see you go by on Sunday.

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  8. Rico Swavay says:

    The idea to promote skillful riding and bring creative and alternative motorcycle events to the Portland community is a great idea.
    The idea of running a large group of riders through the neighborhood alley ways is a bad idea. I grew up in Portland,Oregon and this is the best way to upset the neighbors who reside by the alley way.
    Please don’t send the image Portland dirt/enduro riders are rude!

    Rico

  9. Lowell says:

    I rode the first year of this, made a day ride up to be there. It was an amazing event, equally amazing was the like mindedness of those riders on some extremely eclectic and varied motos. Seemed like anyone who was riding a small bike had a big advantage in route selection and ease of stopping to watch everyone else. Like was said in the SFRC official vid about this, if you’re trying to ride all the alleyways in the mapped routes, you’re doing it wrong. Slow down and enjoy the trip, stop for a snack, loop around, follow someone who doesn’t know where their going, stop for pictures and chatting with folks. It’s springtime in Portland, what could be better?

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  10. zuki says:

    This could also be a fun treasure hunt to spy an old bike (or car) sitting neglected in some random backyard.

    Yeah, the noise in the video sucks. If it had to be overlaid with music why not ‘Motorcycle’ by Love and Rockets.

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  11. ben says:

    hey now. that looks like fun!

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  12. mickey says:

    Could only take 1:13 before I had to mute the racket

    Looks like a fun time though!

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  13. Ted says:

    My ZRX not likely invited.

    Maybe the Sym scooter. And a thick skin.

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  14. Norm G. says:

    have XR100, will travel.

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  15. kirk66 says:

    That looks like tons of fun. Just sayin.

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  16. bikerrandy says:

    It’s good to see old bikes still being ridden….tho this isn’t my cup of tea.

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  17. Jeremy in TX says:

    Me likey.

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  18. James Pratt says:

    Cool! We have been doing these in Oklahoma City since 2004. Usually an annual event, we include not only alleyways but all kinds of industrial areas. Great fun. Just make sure you are respectful of people’s property and keep the noise down.

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  19. Vrooom says:

    I’ve ridden in this previously. It’s pretty chaotic but fun.

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  20. Raven says:

    Very cool! I enjoyed the video, but would have enjoyed it more if you could just hear the BIKES rather than that… music.

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    • Provologna says:

      Why would anyone interested in motorcycles prefer the sound of real motorcycles (rare ones at that) instead of this pathetic, synthesized metal/heavy rock sound track?

      /sarc off

      Another tasteless sound track producer brainwashed by watching too many MTV videos since birth.

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      • DaytonaJames says:

        /sarc off… you slay me. lmao
        Agreed. 100% of us here like bikes… smell, sound, look. 1% of us here like THAT music. Produce for your intended audience. Other than that, cool concept. Would be a riot to take part.

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    • Gary says:

      I suppose they could of had some bike sound in this, but to have it all through the video would have been very boring to say the least. They may not have had the equipment set up for sound either. Regardless, a good video anyway!

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  21. paul246 says:

    Great idea!!

    As with all good things, it will only take a few to ruin it for everyone else, over time. A fine example is the idiot with the helmet cam in the video clearly violating the alley way speed limit of 15mph. The problem with alleys is the poor sightlines, buildings and fences crowd the edges, hence the 15mph law. Just a matter of time before a tradgedy occurs with idiots behaving that way.

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  22. MGNorge says:

    I was immediately reminded of my youth and the many pre-license days of riding on power line trails and logging roads. Everyone who showed up was welcome and it didn’t matter one bit what you rode. It was all about fun, adventure and camaraderie. As mentioned previously, I could just see the Alley Sweeper sparking interest in kids and motivating them to get off their duffs and do something fun “outside”. Great story!

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  23. Chuck Chrome says:

    About as cool as it gets. People promoting bikes in a friendly way and taking a creative approach that gets around some of the land closure issues off-road is dealing with.

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  24. Bryan Bagwell says:

    Last year was my first time, it has now became an annual event for me and several of my friends!

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  25. HotDog says:

    Way Cool! Were the Poseurs able to leave their bike on trailers and pull them all of the way to the end?

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  26. todd says:

    I betcha this does more to promote motorcycling than any advertising campaign. I can just picture all the kids that can’t wait to get their own bikes after seeing this.

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  27. Scott says:

    It’s tremendous fun if you ride something ill suited to tearing up what someone thought was a little extra space for a garden. Ratty vespa, nearly broken down old CB350, KTM Super Duke, etc.

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  28. RAD says:

    That looks like to much fun .
    What motorcycling is all about.

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  29. Dave Kent says:

    We used to do the same kinda thing two or three times a year in the 60′s in western Pennsylvania, but on about 40 miles of railroad tracks. And it wasn’t exactly legal, since the tracks were private property and we rode ON the tracks, not beside them. The sight of 50 or so riders on the railroad trestle 200 feet above Mingo Creek was something to behold. It’s where I learned the value of forward speed over the whoops…skipping over the railroad ties at 50+ mph was definitiely more comfortable than dropping your front wheel in front of each one at 20.

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