The Ronde - No questions, just follow the Lions © Emiliano Jordan,

The Ronde - No questions, just follow the Lions © Emiliano Jordan,

The Ronde van Portlandia has only been around for a few years, but it’s already become the stuff of legends. It’s not a race, or really even a sanctioned event—which is precisely what makes it special. It’s an annual group ride that has swelled to as many as 600 riders over low-traffic, super-steep roads that encircle the center of Portland, but you feel like you’re miles from any city, and you’d never know those godforsaken hills were there without the ride’s telltale Lions to show you the way.

by Robert Carver

You’re f@&*ing kidding me. Forgive my French but there’s no other way to begin any sort of piece about De Ronde van Oeste Portlandia. The ride itself, in its entirety, certainly warrants such an expression, but I’m not even referring to its entirety. I’m referring to the collective exclamation, over a hundred riders strong, when they make the sharp ninety-degree corner onto Brynwood Lane and slam into a 24 percent wall that rises demonically for over a quarter mile, the summit hidden behind two corners with a 31 percent finale and the single lane littered with the fallen, the walking, the track-standing cyclist utterly bewildered as his legs refuse to push him another inch. This is a group ride? You’re f@&*ing kidding me.

But again, forgive me. I seem to have gotten ahead of myself.

Every now and then an email pops up on my team’s listserv asking if anyone wants to ‘ride some lions.’ Even as the requisite climber of our group, I cringe whenever I see that phrase. To ride some lions means to hurt, badly, as you trace the yellow, spray-painted Lion of Flanders graffitied across the length and breadth of Portland’s sharp west hills, a secret cyclist’s code that, if cracked, guarantees vertical pain. But to ride some lions isn’t anything compared to what happens once a year, in commemoration of the Tour de Flanders, when hundreds of Portland’s most masochistic riders gather to ride all the Lions, in the annual De Ronde West Portland, which scales over 7700 you’re-f@&*ing-kidding-me-feet in a paltry 47 miles.

Before I go further, let me point out the embarrassingly obvious—this is a road ride. I’m all too aware that this is a cyclocross readership, and the challenges and travesties of us skinny tired folk is thought to pale in comparison to the blood, the mud, the anaerobic torture of a Hell-cursed ‘cross race. And, as one who dabbles in the knobby-tired hurdle-world, I generally would agree. But this is different. Because on this particular road ride, riders ascended over 1000 vertical feet of dirt, navigated two sections of stone-littered single track, attacked climbs so steep they forced dismounts for over half the riders, and sported more compacts swiped off their ’cross rigs than they did traditional gearing. If ever a road event deserved to be detailed on this site, the Ronde is it.

While I’ve often trained on the Lions, this was my first year to participate in the official unofficial ride, put on by locals Hugh Givens and Cross Crusades and Bend Nationals promoter Brad Ross. Due to a turnout of over 600 riders in 2009 (compared to its maiden 100, in 2007), the ride was announced only at the last minute to mitigate the danger of so many cyclists clogging open roads. As can happen on pirate rides of this size, a cyclist made an ambulance-worthy impact with a truck last year, prompting the promoters to err on the side of caution. As it was, approximately 150 riders still got the memo, meeting at the announced start mid-morning on Saturday. Though in years past the ride has been a rainy, muddy slog typical of April in the northwest, this year the weather gods were kind enough to offer a perfect sixty degrees and just enough cloud cover to offer many a pale-white northwestern leg its first contact with the sun.

With so much elevation gain in so short a distance, let’s just say this ride doesn’t screw around. Less than two miles from the start we began climbing the long, snaking Saltzman road, unpaved and soft from the previous day’s rain. While not difficult, the climb served to spread out the riders, with those utterly bent on destroying themselves racing to the front, and those happy to spend a full day in the saddle—spinning their 28×34 and stopping at each of the many spouse-and-child-run Gatorade and cookie stands—settling into the back. For our part, my team and I had chosen the middle ground, hitting the climbs as hard as we individually cared to, and regrouping at the summit before continuing on to the next demoralizing climb.

Far too soon—not even ten miles into the ride—loomed Brynwood. You’ll pardon an analogy written in poor taste, but as I climbed—dodging riders zigzagging the single-lane road, riders falling over from lack of momentum, riders whipping out of driveways where they had sheltered to gain speed, only to plant a foot right in front of me—I couldn’t help comparing the experience to a soldier desperately pushing past his comrades, ignoring the fallen and wounded, answering only to his adrenaline and obeying the singular goal of reaching the beach alive. If cannons had burst against the houses around me, I doubt I would have even flinched. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but I suggest you try it and then let me know if I exaggerate. At the top, eviscerated and gasping, I met locals and neighbors and cyclists who had paused to pick up their lungs off the asphalt, each cheering and clapping and goading the valiant and the vanquished alike.

We hobbled on, my team and I and the multiple dozens of others we leap-frogged with, racing down steep descents and inching up steeper inclines, dodging traffic, eating cookies, and chasing Lions as if we were Moses following the pillar of fire, believing it would lead us to a land of milk and honey but suspicious we were being led in circles. I’ll not drag you up each of the eighteen-odd climbs—neither you nor I need to relive such leg-numbing pain—but we still had yet to face the second steepest (albeit shorter) climb of College, at 26 percent, and the insanity-inducing final twenty miles, in which we scaled and descended a single peak along its myriad of roads, the radio tower which marked the finish always in view and yet never reached, following Lions down grades of over ten percent only to see the riders ahead of us scaling the very roads we were careening down. Roads, I might add, so neglected as to barely earn the title of paved and which you, my knobby friends, would have found deliciously jarring.

In the end, exhausted and waving the flag of Flanders at the summit of Council Crest, we found what one tends to find after enduring such epic travails—camaraderie born of enduring; jokes that were hysterical on the road but make no sense now; a deep, satisfying pain in the legs that will linger far beyond what you feel your fitness should allow; and beer. Lots, and lots of beer.

And the best part? Once you finish, it’s all downhill.

From the Ronde van Portlandia website:

It’s just a ride:
No Prize but Honor
No Fee but Sweat
No Support but Lycra
No Sponsor but Yourself
No Rules but the Lawful kind
No Sanction but from the Madonna del Ghisallo

Watch for the Lion of Flanders to guide your way.

Check out the feature news story Oregon Public Broadcasting did on last year’s Ronde and check out the map of the circuitous route around the heart of Portland.