It's more than a bike ride

More than once this week I got a standing, whistling, full-throated ovation from a crowd of admirers as I rolled into their small towns on my bicycle. So did 2,200 other cyclists. Pretty much the same thing has happened every September for the last 20 years.

Most of these riders come from the Portland metro area, Eugene or Seattle. Some have spent thousands of dollars on slick slim bikes, and hundreds on the carefully accessorized gear they're wearing. And the people of Oregon's smallest towns are greeting them like heroes. If you're having a little trouble believing this, that means you've paid attention to our state's moods and attitudes for a while.

But it's true. It's Cycle Oregon, and it passed through Ashland last Sunday morning like a crowded carnival on wheels. Even if you didn't see the riders, you probably picked up something from the wave of media coverage. Newspaper articles accurately credited the founding vision of Ashlander Jim Beaver and the promotional enthusiasm of state government. But even all the hoopla understated what this bike ride does. CO is good medicine, maybe the best yet found, for an ailment that's sapped Oregon's greatness for decades.

Most often it's called the "rural/urban split," and every governor I can remember back to Tom McCall has tried to heal it. Neil Goldschmidt (1986-1990) may have devoted the most energy to it, pouring more resources east of the mountains and south of the Willamette Valley than anyone before him. We can't know how well his "regional strategies" might have worked, because in 1989 the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species and Oregon's timber economy, the fulcrum of rural prosperity, collapsed. The coast's fishing industry and ranching in Eastern Oregon took their own hits, so that if you were prospering in the 1990s, you were living on the I-5 corridor, where newer industries like high tech, health care and tourism filled the void. We had two Oregons. For the most part we still do. The split's plain to see in the wake of statewide elections, when time and again metro Portland's votes prevail over the rest of the state.

Rural Oregon hasn't enjoyed this. People outside the Willamette Valley will tell you that greenies from Portland and Eugene (and, yes, Ashland, too) have managed to lock up their resources without suffering any of the economy-choking consequences. It doesn't leave them open to an extended hand from urban Oregon, no matter how well-intentioned. "I'm from Salem (or Portland) and I'm here to help," doesn't work well for them. And while they haven't enough juice in Salem to get the policies they want, they've had enough to kill progressive change in the crib. So our state's been stuck.

Cycle Oregon grew up in this setting. It didn't offer up big new policy ideas or lofty speeches about our common heritage as proud Oregonians. It just gave touring urban cyclists a chance to meet people fighting to survive outside the I-5 corridor. And in little cafes, in town squares where CO sets up rest stops, on high school football fields and fairgrounds where CO camps for the night, on the front porches of general stores and second-hand shops, people talked. Sometimes the talk turned to improvements that could make big differences for these communities, if modest amounts of seed money could be found. The CO organizers started charging riders a bit extra each year to fund rural grants; today, in addition to the spontaneous spending of cyclists and their friends during the week of the ride, CO gives more than $100,000 each year to communities it rides through.

This is brilliant. It's not enough money to turn around rural economies, but it's plenty to shift attitudes that have thwarted a succession of multi-million dollar projects aimed at healing the split. Because these grants come from conversations where good people listen carefully to each other, because nobody thinks they're rooted in political motives and because they're part of an exchange of value, they're accepted with appreciation. The value exchange is one that goes to the center of the resentment rural folks have felt: Here, finally, urban Oregonians do have a real-life stake in a rural resource they've insisted on protecting — natural, undeveloped scenery — and they're paying for the privilege of using it.

In a phrase that might make these rural folks gag, I think CO has some of them feeling seen and appreciated by urban Oregonians in ways they never have before. That will pay off for our state. It already has for me, whenever I cruise into a small town amidst a Cycle Oregon pack of riders and get cheered like Lance Armstrong rolling up to the Arc De Triomphe.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at

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