A Ride to Leach Botanical Gardens via Portland’s Bikeways

Leach Botanical Gardens, in outer Southeast Portland, has been a well-kept secret for many years.  But recently, the park underwent a major transformation featuring aerial walkways amidst towering evergreens, a new “pollinator” garden, and many other upgrades.

The park was originally a residence, and clearly a refuge, built and curated by John and Lilla (Irvin) Leach, he a druggist, she a botanist, both avid naturalists and early members of the Mazamas. Lilla became an award winning botanist, identifying 5 new plant species and over the years developed an amazing array of botanical wonders in their multi-level gardens nestled along the banks and cliffsides of Johnson Creek.  The above photo is their residence, “Manor House”, which they built in 1936 after first residing in a lovely stone cabin on the other side of the creek.  Upon their deaths (John in the early 1970’s and Lilla in 1980), they deeded the property to the City of Portland to be used as a city park and botanical museum, but it took several decades after that for the city to finally recognize and invest in this amazing treasure.

A nice section of Portland’s bikeways – newly paved.

The garden entrance – the ALAN was the perfect bike for this trip.

The route to this destination can be done completely on Portland’s bikeways – an amalgam of neighborhood greenways and streets with bike lanes.  All of the bikeways routes are marked with periodic signage to help you navigate, but fortunately I looked closely at my interactive Portland bike map and plotted my course before venturing out.

My route took me from Mt. Tabor, down Mill Street with a jog over to Market, continuing east until turning south on 130th.  From there, the challenge is crossing the busy and bike unfriendly intersections at Division and Powell, but these crossings have been improved with some safety features.  The route continues south jogging amongst 130th, 129th and 128th, until finally reaching Foster Road, which has no bike safety infrastructure other than perilous bike lanes strewn with parked cars and trash.  So, once I hit Foster I proceeded the few blocks on the sidewalks until the turn off at 122nd which leads to the park.  Other than a few minor hills along the way, the route was completely flat.  Round trip is about 15 miles.  I encountered no cyclists on my way out, and only three on my way back. As it was a beautiful sunny Saturday, the lack of cyclists makes me think that these bikeways are pretty underutilized.  And, as is often the case with Portland’s bikeways, many of the road surfaces were potholed and there was still much winter debris to navigate – downed branches from this winter’s record-breaking ice storm as well as a lot of gravel which made me glad to be riding the ALAN with its micro-knobbies.  Still, any kind of bike would handle this journey just fine.

I’ve visited the gardens many times before, but today I could only stay briefly.  Below are photos from today’s visit and from previous excursions, for your enjoyment.

Alliums in the new pollinator garden.

A view of the Manor House from the aerial walkway.

A walk among the trees on the new aerial walkway.

Johnson Creek bathed in a bit of sunlight.

A deer I spotted on a previous visit.

One of the many botanical wonders you will see.

Trillums reaching for the sun.

If you decide to visit the gardens, be aware that with these new improvements, the city will begin charging an admission fee next year.  For now, they are encouraging “reservations”, but I arrived without one, and that presented no problem.  For those of you who live here or are planning a visit, I hope you have a chance to take in this awe-inspiring experience.

The Many Faces of ALAN

My mid-80’s ALAN bicycle is one of my favorite rides.  For awhile it left my stable to seek accommodation with a small-of-stature family member, as it is a tiny bike with 24 inch wheels.  The bike didn’t work for that rider, so I regretfully (NOT!) accepted the bike back last winter.

For the past months I have happily ridden this bike all over the place.  It’s so little that I can easily transport it inside my Highlander with an internal bike rack.  Weighing in at 19 lbs means it can be lifted and carried just about anywhere, so it’s also a perfect bike for exploring unusual terrain involving a portage or two.  But, as you can see from the above photos, I had set this bike up for my family member with a simple 1×7 indexed drivetrain and a very upright riding position.  I had also used a 152mm crankset to accommodate the bike’s lower 25cm BB height, and that meant a lot of spinning. As I contemplated changes to make the bike more sporty and with better ergonomics for my own enjoyment, I realized that I hadn’t given the bike a complete overhaul since acquiring it 5 years ago.

The bike went through a number of iterations during that time, including several setups with drop bars and city style bars, but even after all that fun experimentation, the hubs, bottom bracket and headset hadn’t been touched since 2013.

ALAN frames are built with aluminum tubes screwed and glued into steel lugs.  When I stripped the bike down for an overhaul, I wanted to also examine all the lugs to make sure the frame was holding together after over 3 decades of use.  The bottom bracket shell provided my first look at how ALAN bikes are constructed. The main tubes appear to have flutes, which I can only imagine were installed after the straight portion of the tubes were screwed and glued into the BB shell.  You can see from the 2nd photo above that the BB shell was also threaded to accept the chainstays, but those tubes do not have flutes, but are simply the straight tubes threading into the shell.

As part of the overhaul I used my torque wrench to check the bolts joining the stays and brake bridges to the frame and lugs.  I haven’t been able to locate the torque setting recommendations for these bolts, so I intended to adjust any bolt with a lower torque to its corresponding bolt with a higher torque.  However, all the bolts were adjusted evenly so no changes were necessary.  As I examined the frame I noted the SN on the bottom bracket:  D26173, and wondered if this was a date code.  Based on my research, the BB number is not a date code, and it appears that some ALAN frames had a date code on the seat tube or on the seat tube lug.  This bike had a frame dimension code on the seat tube lug:  46 x 48, but no other SN.  And, its ALAN “headbadge” is on the seat tube. Fortunately, it is also possible to date a bike by its components.  The Shimano Dura Ace brake calipers were marked with a “KK” code, which means the brakes were manufactured in November of 1986.  So, I would surmise that this ALAN is a 1986 or 1987 model.

Once I overhauled the BB, headset, hubs, and pedals, it was time to think about the changes I wanted to make.  I swapped out the tall dirt drop stem for a less tall Nitto Technomic stem paired to a Nitto flat bar that I cut down (5 cm off each end) to make the bar more suited to this little bike.  But the real Tour de Force was installing Simplex Retrofriction shifters on Velo-Orange thumbies.  I hadn’t used these much praised shifters before, and was kind of skeptical about how they would perform.  How could they really be better than SunTour’s ratcheting shifters?  Simplex Retrofriction shifters are not a ratcheting mechanism, but instead have an internal spring acting as a directional clutch.  Using them was eye opening.  These shifters are far more subtle and precise that any others I have used.  The only downside is the ridiculous amount of travel when used with an 8 speed drive train, as you can see from the 2nd photo above.  That’s a small price to pay for the silence and precision of this amazing component.

I wanted to use a crankset with longer arms to provide for a more comfortable cadence, but not too long given the bike’s low BB height.  I sourced these NOS TA 160mm cranks from eBay, with 48/38 rings.  I was worried that the T.A. cranks would sit too far inboard on the Dura Ace 115 mm spindle.  They worked out well in this case, but with only a tiny bit of clearance from the drive side chainstay.  The bike’s very short chain stays means that one must not cross-chain this drive-train, but that is also sometimes true of bikes with longer chainstays.  In practice, this crankset was just right for this bike, although I had to get used to having the extra larger chainring for shifting to bigger gears!

Hailing from the 80’s, this bike’s wheelset is Shimano 600 tricolor hubs laced to 24 inch Mavic Open 4 rims.  The seatpost is the ALAN spec’d 25.0 American Classic that most early ALAN bicycles were equipped with.  I’m using MK3 Vee Rubber micro knobby tires, which have performed perfectly and with never a flat in the last five years.  My no longer available Detours seatpost bag serves as a de facto rear fender, blocking mud and debris from my backside.

Here is the ALAN as reconfigured, with a double TA 160mm crank, lower and flatter Nitto bars, and Simplex Retrofriction shifters mounted to Velo Orange thumbies.  I’m happy with this configuration, and hope to keep riding this one of a kind bike for years to come.

Goodbye, Little ALAN

1980's ALAN Cyclocross

I have enjoyed riding around on this tiny ALAN cyclocross bike.  I originally purchased it several years ago for a family member who is about 5′ tall on a good day.  She had been riding a small framed newer Trek with 700c wheels, and while the Trek has nice components, the geometry is pretty awful.  But, many shorter riders have never experienced anything different, because the cycling industry has not met their needs.

Enter the ALAN.  It was designed around 24 ” wheels, with a 48 x 48 cm frame.  When I spotted it on eBay it looked like this:

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Those are 170 mm Dura Ace cranks – on a bike with a 24 cm bottom bracket height.  Needless to say, there is no way that you would pedal through corners on this configuration.  So, I began the process of modifying the bike,  and at first I tried this configuration:

I changed out the crankset for a single 152 mm 52T vintage crank.  Unfortunately, this just did not provide the right gearing for the bike.  So, I reconsidered the whole build.  The deep drop Cinelli bars made no sense for a small rider with short arms.  The downtube shifters were also a bit of a reach.  That made me think that a city-type build might be best for this bike.  So, I came up with this set-up using a double 152 mm 50/39 Sugino crankset.  I replaced the rear Dura Ace derailleur with a Shimano Deore XT long cage, but kept the Dura Ace front derailleur, Dura Ace headset, and Dura Ace bottom bracket.  I used some vintage upright bars with a Shimano 7 speed index system.

ALAN in city mode

And this is how I rode around on this bike for the last 2 years (test riding is very time-consuming).  Finally though, my thoroughly enjoyable test riding has come to an end.  So, I needed to really rethink how the new rider would use this bike, as well as how her small size would effect the choices I made.  Since she is used to a road bike configuration, I decided to replace the city bars and shifters with a narrow SR Randonneur bar, bar end shifters (for an easy reach), and these beautiful Modelo drilled levers, which have very small hoods and a short reach to the levers.

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I kept the rest of the bike pretty much the same – here are some photos of its features:

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Dura Ace calipers

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ALAN logo

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Beautiful engraving on the ALAN head lugs, Dura Ace headset

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Shimano Deore XT rear derailleur

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American Classic 25mm seatpost

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Sugino 50/39 crankset with 152 mm arms

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Dura Ace front derailleur

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Shimano 600 tri-color front and rear hubs on Mavic 24″ Open 4 CD rims

If you haven’t ridden an ALAN before, you are in for a treat.  The frame is very comfortable, and hill climbing is a breeze.  The aluminum tubes are screwed and glued into beautiful stainless steel lugs.  This little bike weighs in at 19 lbs!  I used this bike often for my daily Pdx commutes – what a joy.  The tiny wheels make for quick acceleration.  It has been one of the best city bikes I have ridden.

There were some challenges in setting up the bike.  The very short chainstays mean that it is not possible to select certain gearing configurations – namely the biggest ring on the biggest cog and vice versa.  But that is a normal limitation on many bikes.  Also, while I agree with most of the frame geometry decisions on this bike, I am puzzled by the amount of bottom bracket drop selected.  It would have been easy to build the bike with less drop, and that would make it more feasible to use a longer crankset without worrying about pedal strikes while cornering.

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Here is the bike now, ready for its transport to Central Oregon where I hope it will be well-loved and well-ridden.  The seat post and stem height are still set up for my size, showing how small this bike really is, given that I am 5’4″.  I’ll be test-riding it for a few more weeks to make sure everything is just right, and then it will be time to say good-bye to this wonderful machine.  It is a rare bike, and a great testament to the ALAN company’s frame building skills.  Thank you for building this little bike – it is a treasure.

1980's ALAN Cyclocross