by Dan Shryock
It’s becoming a familiar sight. Lycra-clad cyclists park their bikes outside the Brew Coffee and Taphouse in downtown Independence, Oregon, and walk in for a morning coffee. They return hours later for a post-ride beer on the restaurant patio.
“We have a lot of (cycling) people who come through,” says Brew manager Bri Dinan. “That’s a very common thing with us and it’s pretty cool. They’re mellow people.”
This wasn’t always the case in this quiet, Polk County farm community west of Salem. Main Street is changing; this is now a tourism destination. Cycle tourism.
“It’s a good vibe,” Dinan says. “And it’s great for business. We know we’re going to get a lot of people.”
The change started more than a decade ago when the state of Oregon created the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and drew the route along the east side of the Willamette River. Independence officials realized they could encourage cyclists to turn west over a short bridge and steer them a mere mile for a bite to eat, a cold drink and a little rest downtown.
Now, bikes are everywhere. The Independence, a new 75-room boutique hotel specifically designed to cater to cyclists, opened in 2019. Gilgamesh, a Salem-based brewery, opened a restaurant, and several food and drink locations offer discounts to attract riders.
Independence has transformed itself. This is now “Bike Indy Oregon.”
“There are so many special things here,” says Sondra Storm, chief executive officer of Portland-based Embarcadero Hospitality Group. “You have the river, the cycling, wine country and a very charming historic downtown.”
Sondra’s hotel (theindependencehotel.com), located next to the city’s Riverview Park and the Willamette River, is emblematic of the city’s cycling synergy.
“The hotel was the first business to really go all-in for bikes, and it’s been a long, upward trajectory ever since,” says city spokesperson Shawn Irvine. “You can see it in the steady increase in bicyclists coming through town.”
Bike riders retracing the mile back toward the bridge quickly find themselves with options. They can choose to follow a flat, easy road south to the Buena Vista Ferry, pay the $1 toll to cross the river, and then pedal east to the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge. Those looking for a more challenging ride can follow the scenic bikeway north or south, head west into the vineyards, or even create a 35-mile loop that leads to downtown Salem and back.
“Having a ferry crossing is a unique touch,” says Ramon Martinez, the city’s cycling coordinator. “You cross the river at such a tranquil speed, and you can’t help but appreciate the natural beauty around you.”
Ospreys nesting near the river fly overhead. Roads lead past vineyards and local wineries, through hop fields vital to the local brewery industry and alongside countless hazelnut trees and sprawling blueberry, strawberry and fragrant mint fields.
Independence and Polk County have been popular destinations for cycling events for years. The Cycle Oregon organization regularly brings weekend rides to Independence and nearby Monmouth. Large-scale fundraising rides also visit these twin cities each summer. The longest-running local event is Bike Oregon Wine Country, for more than 20 years a series of bike rides each Sunday in August at nearby Eola Hills Wine Cellars. Rides include varied distances to suit endurance, small tastings at area wineries and a salmon bake at Eola Hills once the day is done.
Now the city of Independence stages its own events. Bike Indy Oregon (bikeindyoregon.com) invites cyclists to Riverview Park on selected weekends for what it calls “Drop the Hammer” rides. These are casual affairs until riders reach a predetermined place along the road. Then, if they choose, they can “drop the hammer” and ride as fast as they can for about two miles. Times for those using the popular cycling app Strava are recorded and the fastest earn bragging rights.
“I thought Drop the Hammer would be a fun way to get others out and try a featured route in an event setting,” Martinez says. “These are not traditional races. If you have a Strava account, you can drop the hammer on the marked segment (of the route).”
Riders also can pick up a free Bike Indy Pass at participating businesses and receive food and drink discounts.
“Local businesses are noticing the effort,” Martinez says. “And it’s not just the riders coming in but also their friends as well. There’s more foot traffic in our community post ride.”