Winter Commutes & Fat Bike Adventures

It’s December 1st and I’m on my first snow commute of the year. I’m delighted to hit the snowy streets and hear the purr of gravel tires in fresh snow on the side of the back streets through the industrial area east of downtown, and already the day’s terror from work is sloughing from my shoulders like snow off a Newfoundland’s back. I had gotten a semi stuck on the South Hill and seriously considered leaving it in the middle of Maple Street until July. But that hardly matters now, because I’ve just received a text from a friend. We’re going fat biking in Riverside State Park later tonight to enjoy some fresh tracks before the rain comes tomorrow to ruin everything.

For now, I hope I get to Riverfront Park before the snow has been too tracked up by pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers and holiday revelers. I guess correctly that I’m too late as I go bumping across packed footprints on the U District bridge, rattling a few fillings loose in the process. It’s white knuckles over the “snow cobbles” all the way to Division street where the city has begun snow removal on the Centennial Trail into the heart of Riverfront. More snow cobbles and herds of deer await as the Centennial wraps around West Central, and I bump my way homeward at a snail’s pace.

At this point in my cycling career, I’m well known for seeking out the worst, almost impassable, trails and dirt roads leading to mountain vistas across multiple state lines in terrible weather, so my gripe about a few miles of foot-tracked snow on my 10-mile commute may seem a bit out of character. There’s a growing community of goofballs I join for those misadventures, but I’m writing this article in an attempt to goad normal people into commuting to work all through the winter.

I’ll say it’s a fun challenge and I’ll cite all kinds of statistics that say bike commuting is good for our health, our local economy, and our environment. It is. Nevertheless, by the time you’re reading this, the dog days of winter should be in full crescendo: the bike paths may be barely passable on anything but a fat bike, while the shoulders and bike lanes on the city’s streets might have long since been buried in mounds of snow, never to melt off until mid-March at the earliest. Since the bike paths in Spokane tend to dead end into terrible intersections, or meander in some direction other than your destination, you’re stuck riding in wagon wheel ruts out in the lane when the snow falls.

The realities of bike commuting through the winter in Spokane are pretty terrible, especially if you’re hitting the road during peak traffic hours. And it’s a bit unrealistic to expect that our fair city can provide safe winter bike routes, when it is only in the beginning stages of creating fair-weather bike infrastructure. Now I’m getting all stressed out, so maybe this is a good point to segue back into that Riverside fat bike ride with my friend . . .

Anthony and I zoomed down that bluff trail from Northwest Blvd., passing the poop plant and arriving at the bridge in Bowl & Pitcher a mere 1.9 miles from my door. The roar of our huge tires was hushed by fresh snow. At 4-5 inches deep, it was fast rolling for fresh tracks, which can be a real grind in deeper, heavier snow. Heading toward 7 Mile Airstrip, we veered off into the woods following a set of tire tracks I then recognized as prints belonging to the one and only Melinda Dupree and her dog Rusty. (I confirmed this later on Strava.) Ah, it’s good to ride with friends. It’s in favorable conditions such as these that the idea of bikepacking in the snow begins to feel like a good idea.

And if that sounds like a better idea than duking it out with traffic in the snowy streets, then maybe you’d like to attend the Winter Cycling Seminar on Friday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m. at Two Wheeler Dealer in Hayden, Idaho. 45NRTH brand ambassador Jeremy Whitman, Iditarod and Fat Pursuit finisher Ethan Harrison, and bikepacking nerd Eric Deady will cover such topics as:

  • Choosing a campsite
  • How to not die
  • Layering essentials
  • Safety considerations
  • Yeti awareness, and all manner of other things you need to know to confidently ride off into the great frozen yonder.

There will be drawings and product giveaways from 45NRTH, as well as fizzy beverages from Brewscape Beer Co. For more information, contact Two Wheeler Dealer at (208) 772-8179.

Now that I’ve conned you into camping in the snow on a bike—trust me, it will be fun— then I suppose biking across town to and from work will be a nice way to acclimate yourself to the cold and test out your equipment and layering strategies.

There are safe ways to go about winter commuting, and they often involve longer routes to avoid trouble spots. Also, we can experiment with the 311 tip line to alert the city to mountains of snow in the bike lane to see if there is any response. If we’re lucky, they’ll remove snow from the bike lane and we can ride through smashed beer bottles like we did all summer. //

Out There writer Justin Short is not the brightest bulb, and he will be out there commuting through rain, hail, sleet and snow, as well as camping on the cold, cold ground with Eric Deady, and will not run away to Florida like he did the last two winters.

Cover photo courtesy Justin Short

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