By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The idea seems as obvious as Mount Hood on a clear, spring day: Beer, bicycles and tours celebrating both.
But the obvious sometimes takes time to get rolling. In this case, it took a trip to Belgium seven years ago by an IT guy looking to reboot his work life.
It’s a sunny Memorial Day in Hood River. As a light breeze comes off the Columbia River, Claire Cohan is setting up bottles of beer and the makings for sandwiches on picnic tables in Port Marina Park. Soon, a group of riders with tour company Beercycling will arrive and devour the spread.
Claire says this tour began in Portland, where the group met and test rode bikes rented from The Bike Concierge in Oregon City. “We stayed at the Jupiter Hotel, and from there we rode across the Tilikum and Steel bridges to get warmed up. That was the first day. Then we got a tour at Hair of the Dog, which, of course, is amazing.”
During the five-day tour, riders pedal 20-32 miles per day. The route from Portland east to Hood River is mostly flat with the 900-foot climb to Vista House overlooking the Columbia River Gorge being the most breathtaking — both in terms of the view and the oxygen-sucking effort.
On day two, the group rides to Troutdale where they’ll spend the night at McMenamins Edgefield. Day three has the big climb and a stop at Thunder Island Brewing Co. in Cascade Locks. On day four, the group pedals the finished part of the Historic Columbia River Highway, then loads into a van to hop the gap along the unfinished section. A picnic lunch in Hood River is followed by visits to Full Sail Brewing Company and pFriem Family Brewers.
As Claire is running down the itinerary, 12 riders and Evan Cohan coast into the park; the riders are quickly off their bikes and moving toward the beer and food.
Evan comes over for the interview. But he first asks, “Can I have a beer while I answer questions? I’ll answer better that way.”
So, why did Beercycling start in Europe? Taking a sip from a special, non-breakable tasting glass Evan explains, “I’d been there once with friends. Flanders has a dedicated bike infrastructure that goes that entire part of the country and into Holland. You can get between points pretty much traffic free. The whole country is the size of Maryland, and when you focus on a couple of provinces you can really get anywhere really quickly.”
Evan likes beer, likes cycling, but what he wasn’t so happy with back then was his job. “I was having my, kind of, ‘I’m-done-with-my-day-job crisis’ in my mid-20s. Earlier than most. I thought, ‘What would the dream job be?’”
He found the answer on the road through Flanders. “It was a magical trip when you get into Belgian beer and you hear the stories about the Trappist monasteries. We just went for fun on a spontaneous trip, but I learned a lot.”
And he wanted to share what he learned — not as some sort of elaborate pub crawl, but as a lesson about the cultures surrounding beer. “You go along these canals and through farms, and it was amazing. And we got a couple of tours there. The Flemish people are really generous. And I thought this would be the ideal place for a bike tour. It has all the ingredients for logistics to make it happen safely. It would be like doing bike tours in Belgium visiting breweries.”
Stan Bashaw came from North Carolina for the debut Oregon tour. With a beer in one hand and a sizable sandwich in the other, he says he’s participated in a Beercycling event before. “I happened to see a Facebook post Evan put up about Beercycling and from day one I said, ‘Someday I’m doing that.’”
Stan then convinced friends to go with him. “We had the best time. Cycling in Belgium, the Belgians are used to bikes being everywhere. At least back in North Carolina, folks are used to bikes being annoyances. It’s been really great here [Oregon].”
The Beercycling European tours include mini-seminars on brewing, rides through hop fields and visits to ancient breweries. But Stan has one particularly fond memory: “The part of the tour that is really appealing in Belgium is all the food. Oh my gosh, we had such great food. The picnics we had alongside a bike path, Belgian bread — fresh made that day. Oh my God, it is just amazing.”
The food was especially welcome when “we biked out to the North Sea on a really cold day. I think that was really one of our favorite days. We were cold. We were wet. We found a coffee shop because we were so cold. We got warmed up, then rode past World War II artillery fortifications that go on for miles. We had a 20-knot wind behind us, and we barely had to pedal.”
Bashaw and his friends liked Oregon’s attitude toward cyclists but are anxious to do another European tour next year.
It took Evan and Claire about two years to work out the Oregon tour logistics, but they’ll hold three this year and perhaps more next year.
In Europe, Beercycling has grown to six tours: three in Flanders in northern Belgium, one in the Ardennes in southeastern Belgium, another around Milan in northwest Italy and a loop around Amsterdam in Holland.
The tours run from five to ten days with prices ranging from $1,475 in Oregon to $2,850 for one of the Flanders tours. Visit beercycling.com for dates, itineraries and bios of the guides.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.