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.