A group of bikers in Portland, Oregon, share the most unusual love of children’s bicycles. Several riders take to the hills of Washington Park every Sunday with a single mission – to speed downhill on tiny kids’ bicycles, after the sun goes down. Seasoned bikers ride at the front of the pack, while beginners follow their lead. They all take off at the same time, at the countdown ‘Three, two, one – Zoobomb!’
The unusual hobby is called ‘Zoobombing’, and it was born in Portland, one of America’s most bike-friendly cities. The ‘zoo’ denotes the fact that participants start at a spot near the Oregon Zoo, from where they speed downhill, while ‘bomb’ is a term used to describe biking downhill at very high speeds.
In zoobombing, the most glorious riders have the smallest wheels. The ideal size is the 12-inch, designed for use by three-year-olds. Those who aren’t comfortable with wheels so small prefer to ride 16 and 20-inch wheels. “On a tiny bike, you feel like you’re going faster,” said April Cox, a 16-incher who has been zoobombing for the past nine years.
Most zoobombers can reach speeds of 35 to 50 miles an hour, depending on the road and equipment used. While traditionally only child-size bicycles were used in zoobombing, in recent times, some riders have broken the mold – they’ve brought in gravity bikes without pedals or chains, skateboards, rollerblades and seated scooters. Of course, everything is still kiddy size.
Zoobombers are generally thrill-seeking bikers aged between 20 and 40 years old, but even older riders sometimes take part in the action. All zoobombers claim to feel much younger when they ride: “When I’m at zoobomb, I’m 12,” said Jonah Dunbar, a three-year veteran.
“We’re kind of the most badass thing you can be without having any discernible talent,” said Dave Terry, self-proclaimed caretaker of zoobombing. “It’s the original open source bike club. To our knowledge it’s the biggest bike club in the world. It’s open to anyone over 18 who is ready to have fun, be safe, be responsible and just have an unbelievable downhill bicycle ride that is rivalled by few, few places in the world.”
When zoobombing first started, the city didn’t really know what to make of it. This, in spite of the fact that bikes are used for over 6 percent of all the commutation in Portland. There used to be some tension with the owners of businesses near a rack where the zoobombers parked their bikes. But everything changed five years ago, when the Mayor erected a monument in the city honoring zoobombers – a structure that doubles as an official storage unit for little bikes.
The official storage is called ‘The People’s Bike Library of Portland’, or simply ‘the Pile’. Kiddy bicycles remain locked at the Pile all week until Sunday, which is zoobombing day. Terry, the official ‘librarian’ tends to the bikes and lends them out to bikers. While regulars prefer to bring their own, he has supplied bikes over 5,000 times to novice zoobombers. “I like to think of myself as the caretaker and guide for this activity that I love so much,” he said.
“There’s no routine, it’s absolutely chaos,” he added. “You know, we don’t have a uniform like all the other bike clubs. The agenda is – grab bikes, go to the top of the biggest hill anywhere that we can find, and ride down at very appropriate speeds.”
The rules for zoobomb are really quite simple – no violence, no alienating women, and no riding that puts others at higher risk. The riding starts at 11:00 pm, and the zoobombers get to choose between different routes like the ‘Newbomb’, the ‘Mid Burnside’, the ‘Big Burnside’, ‘Hellway’ and, the most treacherous, ‘K2’.
There are a few safety protocols in place while zoobombing as a group. “If you see a car on a blind turn, yell, ‘Car!’ If you see a police officer, yell, ‘Pepper!’” said Terry. Even so, there’s generally a medic riding at the back of the group; as Terry puts it: “Seasonally, you’re going to get hurt.”
But zoobombing is actually pretty safe, according to Sgt. Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau. He has never come across any serious incidents of people getting hurt or property being damaged by the bikers, and he said that the participants pretty much police themselves.
April Cox said that zoobombing has changed her life. “I’ve stayed in shape,” she said. “It’s been a very grounding thing.”
“It’s the funnest thing to do in Portland,” agreed medical expert Katie who rides at the back. “Actually, anywhere,” she added as an afterthought.