The last five years in Spokane’s bike scene have been like a gushing torrent. Where once there was barren desert, now there are new organizations, rides and riders springing up everywhere, flooding the city.
This last year, though, has been more like a slowly rising tide, with the newly established bike groups keeping steady at their work, and more and more riders slowly taking to the streets. Bike racks are going up quietly, and more bikes are seen chained to them.
But though the civic bike culture’s growth has been quieter this year, it ought to come to a rolling boil this weekend, as organizers of the second annual Spokefest ride are expecting upwards of 3,000 cyclists to take to the streets downtown.
“That would be spectacular,” says Bill Bender, a neurologist, bike nut and the founder of Spokefest. “I don’t know if we’re dreaming or not.”
They might not be. Ten days away from last year’s inaugural ride, between 100 and 200 people had registered. Come the big day, over 1,200 people turned out. At press time this year, Bender was already looking at 1,100 registrations.
You can hear the confidence in his voice. Last year at this time, Bender was a basket case. During a preview ride of the 21-mile loop out along the Spokane River last year, he remarked to The Inlander, “I’m a doctor and a cyclist. What do I know about PR, and organizing events?” But success in its first year has brought strength to the organization. They’ve picked up several big new sponsors as well as a legion of volunteers to help pull the thing off.
Bender says he met with the heads of the various committees (food, entertainment, course, PR, education) last week to check in. “We went around the table. Everything on course for food? Yep. Entertainment? Yep,” he says. “I kind of pinched myself when I could feel the evolution of this thing. We’re there.”
Of course, with projected growth come new realities.
The intention last year was to do the ride without closing any streets (hiring the police department to make that happen can be expensive). But as the number of riders swelled over 1,200, clogging entire roads, police were forced to step in to keep the situation under control. Bender says the department showed no hard feelings (nor did they send a bill for their services). In fact, he says, Sgt. Jason Hartman showed up and showed them exactly how to do it this year: “He guided us through something that was fresh to all of us.”
Thus, a few changes. Rather than beginning in the cramped confines of Riverfront Park, where from the wobbly beginning riders had to navigate several curves and a bridge, waves of riders will be led out by the Gonzaga cycling club along Spokane Falls Boulevard. From there, they’ll shoot roughly straight down into Peaceful Valley under police escort, before chugging up to Government Way. The route remains the same through Riverside State Park, with rest and snack stops on either side of the Bowl and Pitcher area (at miles seven and 14), but will return to downtown via College Avenue this time — not Broadway.
These aren’t the only changes for the new organization. Not only has Spokefest become the biggest organized ride in the area, but it’s also quickly becoming one of the biggest bike organizations. Back in April, as we reported, representatives from several smaller, disparate bike organizations met to discuss forming a larger meta-group to help put on events, process registrations, advocate for cycling, etc. While those meetings more or less petered out, one of the results seems to have been that Spokefest absorbed the Bike to Work group and has now become the go-to group for civic bike events. “We’re really happy about that,” says Bender. “This bike coalition we’ve been talking about — that’s probably all gonna fall under Spokefest.”
That could possibly include working with the city to establish a ciclovia — a phenomenon begun in Bogota, Colombia, where the city closed its downtown streets to motor traffic on Sundays and holidays. Some two million people flood the streets to walk, bike, shop, listen to music, do yoga. Suggestions for possible Spokane versions have been circulating for two or three years. But Bender thinks that Spokefest might be able to make it happen.
Particularly since the city of Spokane this year hired its first full-time bike and pedestrian coordinator in Grant Wencel and — at the same City Council meeting in which Wencel’s position was approved — passed a long-awaited bicycle master plan.
“I think this is going to be a pivotal year,” says Bender.