Photos by Abe Alkhamees
Abe Alkhamees is a name you may have seen in bike news before. The Portlander was profiled in a May 2020 Bicycling magazine feature titled, “Finding the Right Environment Helped This Cyclist Lose 177 Pounds”. There have been many stories of how a bicycle helped people make significant physical transformations, but the words “right environment” really stand out as a unique element to Abe’s journey.
Born and raised in Kuwait, Abe developed a thirst for exploration and adventure from excursions into the wilderness with his father. Higher education brought him to the United States; first to Florida, then Minnesota, and ultimately to Oregon to attend Portland State University. And it was here in Oregon where Abe found that “just-right” environment of riding, community, and, yes, coffee.
Editor’s Note- As we reviewed the final edits on this feature we noticed Abe’s social media from earlier this morning – a ride up to Council Crest and the loveliest photo of Mt Hood emerging in the glow of dawn followed by a quick coffee stop. Abe lives the Oregon bike life through and through and is a wellspring of daily inspiration. You can count on more stories from Abe on this blog as we roll into 2021 and beyond. Until then, follow him on Instagram at @abepdxtaco
Cycle Oregon: Abe, you’ve titled one of your Instagram Stories archives “Home Is Here” and it’s populated with images and videos of Oregon. Your enthusiasm for this part of the world comes through in all you do though you were born and raised in Kuwait. Can you take us through how you begin there and end up here and what it is about Oregon that speaks so strongly to you?
Abe: Oh, where do I even start, the rain? The waterfalls? The Cascades?!
As a kid, my dad used to take me to the north of Kuwait, a vast and sandy part of the country, where we would watch family and friends display their abilities in falconry and hunting with Salukis. I recall how magical that felt to me, especially when everyone gathered around the fire as temperatures plummet after sunset. I would sit there observing and listening to stories about exploring the Arabic Peninsula, North Africa, and even Mauritania. The stories told of ancient ruins, oases, eagle capped dunes, and many other wonders out in the middle of nowhere. That left me with a serious question I kept asking myself as a kid; that question was “How big is the world, really?”.
This theme caught my dad’s attention and soon after that he started bringing me books about different parts of the world, history, geology, and world atlases. Let’s just say that I was blown away by the sweeping difference and diversity in the world.
My interest grew by the minute, and my dad kept up with it. Fast forward to the early 2000’s as “Digital Satellite”, as we referred to the TV programming back home, became widely available. Both my dad and I got hooked on documentaries and nature shows, shows with Steve Irwin, National Geographic, and local nature shows. Out of the many docu-series we watched together, the one that stood out the most was “The Eruption of Mount St. Helens” from 1980. I was blown away by that documentary, no pun intended. This is when I first heard about Washington and Oregon and being the type I am I got on my computer and started gathering whatever information I could about the Pacific Northwest.
I dreamt about the mountains, the waterfalls, and the rain. I dreamt about exploring the endless trails that took you to the surreal overlooks of this amazing part of the world. After graduating high school I landed a full-ride scholarship to pursue higher education in the United States. I remember vividly that the first thing I thought about when I got the news was that I would soon have the opportunity to visit the Pacific Northwest and see it with my own eyes. I felt that my soul was exploding with joy and excitement.
Not to make too much of your personal transformation story since you’ve said the bike was never about changing your body so much as it was discovery of the world but what is it about the bike for you?
I have been referred to as a “maximizer” by people who know me well. As you might be able to tell by how much I ride and how often I tend to be outside, there might be some truth to that.
When I moved to Portland from Minnesota in 2015 I knew that if I wanted to truly understand Portland and Oregon for what it is I had to get a bike, so I did. I went to Sellwood Cycle Repair the same week I moved into my first apartment. My first bike was a used Iron Horse hybrid bike with GripShift 9-speed triple chainring gearing and 26” wheels; I loved that bike. It took me everywhere I needed to go but, mind you, I weighed over 350 pounds back then.
I started by simply commuting to school, Portland State University, for the first few months. Next, I started to reward myself with the abundance of culinary outlets in Portland but by bike only. I only ate out if I biked to the restaurant that I wanted to try. This rule applied to coffee shops for me, too. The reason behind this “rule” was to encourage myself to explore Portland with the reward being more than a delicious meal, the reward would also be the journey. Those rides were a highlight in the early days. As time went by I explored further and farther away from my place. For example, I recall exploring the greenways in the metro area, and the many parks such as Tabor, Laurelhurst, and Forest Park. I guess I can say that the bike was my way of satisfying my everlasting curiosity about whatever I wanted to know; I never stopped trying to see what is around the corner, and the next after that and so on.
I truly felt that my bike was one of the very few things that helped me maintain my sense of freedom. I cannot really describe that feeling, but I just felt carefree, light, and focused on enjoying the moment.
I decided to donate my Iron Horse as part of the upgrade process to a drop bar Giant OCR 2 road bike. This new bike felt like a rocket ship compared to my older bike, I felt like I could go farther and faster than before, and, of course, I did.
A pivotal riding experience for me was having a riding mentor. I first met Evan Barbier through a 4×4 off-roading group, we had similar trucks and formed a quick friendship over that and the outdoors. Evan was a biker too, so he invited me to go on a ride with him. I show up on my OCR 2, with a u-lock on the frame, flat pedals, shorts, and a shirt. He showed up wearing tights, (as I called them back then), and I thought to myself “this guy is too serious about bikes”. Evan took note of the potential I had because of how much I was riding back then, (nothing compared to now, but still significant), and started influencing me to get a better bike and gear as any good riding friend does! So I got another new bike that would open even more riding opportunities for me. I bought a Specialized Diverge from River City Bicycles in 2018 and that was when I really started to get into cycling the way I am today. (ed.- That year Abe rode from Bend to Portland in one day and he now, too, was “too serious about bikes”)
What started as an exploration of the city and neighborhoods turned into exploring the classics- Council Crest, Rock Creek Road, excursions to Boring, etc.- and honestly, I just never stopped. The idea that I can get out of town and into the farmlands in about 15-20 miles from where I live sounded great to me. I started to build routes on Strava and that quickly turned into some sort of a game for me. I used Google maps to find places that looked interesting and I just built routes that would take me places I wanted to see for myself.
A second pivotal moment came when Evan introduced me to Our Mother The Mountain (OMTM). He talked about folks that explored the woods and forgotten roads in the middle of nowhere by bike. I was hooked immediately! I started following them on social media and rode a handful of the routes that were available on their website. (ed.- Check out the amazing routes and ride reports at omtm.cc)
To sum this up, two things helped me grow- friends and curiosity. What keeps me in the saddle these days is the same thing that kept me there all along, which is “the journey is better than the destination”.
You have a Master’s in Linguistics, correct? Are there any words in the languages you speak that stand out to you and your feelings for the bicycle? Are there any local/regional words or sayings that stand out to you?
Yup! I graduated from Portland State in June 2020 with an MA in Applied Linguistics/TESOL. You know, that is a great question, I’ve been thinking about it for days now, and the interesting thing is that I don’t think I have any words that do stand out, perhaps I can’t recall them at this moment. However, one saying that stood out to me was “rain or shine”, I just found that to be a great description of the mental state that biking provides; because it takes a lot of discipline to get up before the sunrise, kit up and bike in the freezing cold just to get in 20 miles before you start your day. That helped me overcome a lot of hurdles throughout my life here. I believed that if I can leave my warm bed to ride in any kind of weather, then why can’t I accomplish whatever I need to do? So, rain or shine it is.
Where is your favorite place to ride in Oregon?
Anywhere I can get to from my house, whether that is 50, 100, or 200 miles. It is really hard for me to pinpoint a single place that I love to ride around. Every place I biked in Oregon had something special about it that always made me want to go back. For example, the Grande Ronde Valley is one of the most peaceful places I biked around in Oregon, it’s quiet, the drivers are friendly and there are no shortage of great views wherever you look! Another place is McKenzie Pass and the surrounding areas. The change in the topography and vegetation is mind blowing. You start around Ponderosas and as you climb into the cooler higher elevation it changes into lush Douglas Fir, just remembering this gives me goosebumps.
A shorter answer would be, anywhere, as long as I am in Oregon.
Where haven’t you ridden in Oregon that you’d like to?
I have not had the chance to ride in southern Oregon much, such as Klamath Falls, Ashland and Lakeview. The only ride I did was up the Steens from Frenchglen, that was a day that I will never forget.
Food is an important part of your life, what are the foods you enjoy the most for riding? What regional foods stand out for you?
Oh man, food is life, It can be summed up by a jersey I saw someone wearing in Portland that reads “Riding to Eat, Eating to Ride”. When I started building routes I’d build them with a handful of food stops in mind. And I still do! I went through a lot of “favorite” types of food to carry with me on my bike rides; the most prominent were homemade burritos and fritters, aside from the occasional taco stop here and there. I have built an intimate relationship with southeast Asian food but my rule of thumb is, “When in doubt, burrito”.
Coffee! We’ve heard you enjoy coffee; what stands out to you about coffee in Oregon?
Coffee has a special place in my heart as I grew up shadowing my grandpa roasting and brewing coffee at his house in Kuwait. He spent decades perfecting his roasting skills, and I didn’t realize at that time how good his coffee actually is. He prefers lighter roasts over darker ones, and If I recall correctly, the two main regions he got his beans from were Yamen and India. Kuwaiti Coffee is similar to Yamani coffee, but roasted slightly darker. The way we brew coffee is by boiling the grinds in water with saffron and cardamom pods, and then it’s sifted before being transferred into a thermos.
I’ve been all over and I don’t think I’ve had anything better than the coffee we have here in Portland.
Please tell us about your favorite bike.
My favorite bike has to be the one I ride now, from Breadwinner Cycles. It’s their B-Road model, built in February of 2020. As of this writing, I have put more than 8,000 miles in the saddle aboard it and it only keeps getting better. My Breadwinner is an homage to Portland and my love of cycling and the journey of building a custom bike was inspired by my situation as an international student living in the US. I knew that I might likely be leaving Portland after getting my degree so I simply asked myself, “If I had to buy one thing to remember Portland through, what would that be?”. The obvious answer was to get myself a custom-built bike here in Portland by some of the best folks in the business.
Thank you, Abe, we are happy that you and your Breadwinner are still here in Oregon riding with us. Let’s get to some of those Southern Oregon rides together as soon as we can. Thank you for reminding us of the beauty of riding and Oregon. Wishing you Oregon tailwinds always…