Inspired by Cycling Utah, Layne Packer Becomes a Bike Commuter

Layne Packer on his Surly Long Haul Trucker commuter bike.
Layne Packer on his Surly Long Haul Trucker commuter bike. Photo: David Packer

By Lou Melini

Driving a 12-MPG truck for 20 minutes each way to his job at Hill Air Force Base from Kaysville didn’t seem right to Layne Packer. He decided to take his recreational cycling to the next level. He has been a student of the commuter column in Cycling Utah and figured that he could start bike commuting. Layne now rides to his job year-round in all the elements that bike commuters face. He now leaves his Cannondale hanging in the garage, commuting to work on his Surly Long Haul Trucker (LHT). He read about the LHT in the commuter column. He describes it as “a fantastic bike”.

Cycling Utah: First of all I have to acknowledge that you have commuted in other locales, but it seems that you’ve caught the dedicated bike commuter bug here in Utah. Tell me about some of the other places that you have commuted by bike.

Layne Packer: Well my first utilitarian use of a bike was, like a lot of us born in the early 60’s, my paper route. I used the 10-speed Schwinn I received for Christmas when I was in Jr. High. I used a “city bike” on my mission in California. When I did pilot training in Lubbock, Texas, my wife and I only had one car. Out of necessity I commuted on my bike to the base. It was only two miles so it was not a big deal.

We moved to North Dakota where I just didn’t ride much. However I picked up bike commuting again out of necessity when I went to graduate school at the University of Illinois. There wasn’t anyplace to park my car. Again it was only a couple of miles. I could ride in regular clothing since I didn’t even work up a sweat.

After grad school we moved to Colorado Springs with another move taking us to Altus, Oklahoma. I didn’t commute by bike much in Oklahoma until 9/11. It was almost impossible to get a car on the Air Force base so I just rode a bike and let them search my backpack. I slacked off again as security loosened. We again moved to Colorado. I had the perfect bike commute staring me in the face, 8 miles with a locker and shower, but I didn’t take advantage of it.

After retiring from the Air Force, I moved to Utah. I first worked downtown. I did on several occasions ride to the bus stop and took the bus into town. I would then do the 25-mile commute home entirely by bike. Mostly I just rode the express bus into Salt Lake and home every day. My total commute time was about 45 minutes each way. While I sat on the bus I kept thinking about how much time I was wasting every day sitting on the bus. I really wanted to cycle more, but my commute time was killing my ride miles. I made a commitment to myself that if I ever got a job where I could commute to work that I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity. Since I started working at Hill AFB I have been able to keep that commitment and started bike commuting more seriously.

C.U.: You said you had some early influences in your life that kept you thinking about bike commuting. I really liked the “Heidi” story.

L.P.: Yes, Heidi! I worked with her in Colorado Springs 4-6 years ago. She would ride every day, without fail to and from work. Her commute was 12 miles each way and it was a tough uphill climb the last couple of miles. I was always amazed at her tenacity. One day it was snowing hard and there was about 6” of snow on the road. She rode her bike in. When she got on the Air Force base the security forces stopped her and told her she couldn’t ride in the snow and that she had to get in the truck with them. She refused. So they arrested her. I still don’t know for sure what the charge was. They made something up about her being a danger to herself and other motorists. We all got a laugh at her expense, but I really admired her for sticking with it. I have thought several times since we moved to Utah that if Heidi could ride her bike to work on a day like this, then so could I.

C.U.: How did Cycling Utah influence you to become a dedicated bike commuter?

L.P.: When I changed jobs in January 2010, I started doing a lot of research on bike commuting. A friend of mine gave me my first copy of Cycling Utah about 3 years ago. I loved it and immediately subscribed. One of my favorite articles is the bike commuter column. It gave me confidence that I could ride year around in Utah when I read about how others were doing it.

The best thing about your column is that you go out and find regular people who have made the decision to commute on a bike. It seems like most of them are commuting in and around Salt Lake, so I appreciate when I get to read about someone who is riding to work in a location with no bike lanes and outside the Salt Lake City bike culture. I have really appreciated the commuting gear reviews in the magazine as well. It helps me figure out what I need to buy to be successful. I’m a gear guy, so I tend to focus on things like what bike are they riding, how do they carry their stuff, what lights are they using, what clothing do they wear, what are the best tires/tubes to prevent flats? There are other challenges that I like to hear addressed. For example, where do other riders keep their bikes? How many have a shower and locker at work? What’s the backup plan, if any, for other riders?

C.U.: How did you end up with the Long Haul Trucker as a commuter bike?

L.P.: When I first decided to start commuting in Utah I thought that I could do it on my road bike. I quickly realized that there are some significant problems with that idea. 1. A road bike has thin tires that are not compatible with some of the challenges you run into on a commute. No one has time for a flat on the way to work. 2. I needed the ability to haul more than I could fit in my backpack. Also, I didn’t like wearing a backpack on a bike. It raised my center of gravity, was hot, and had limited capacity. By the time I got a change of clothing and my lunch in the backpack there wasn’t any room for books or a computer. A bike rack with panniers was a much more elegant solution. 3. I wanted a comfortable bike that is equipped specifically for the commute and use my road bike for rides with the Wasatch Wheelmen on weekends.

I looked at a couple of really great bike shops (The Bike Shoppe in Ogden and Biker’s Edge in Kaysville) but nothing jumped out at me. It wasn’t until a read an article in Cycling Utah that the idea of the Surly LHT started to materialize. I am very interested in what bikes people ride during their commute. One of your articles mentioned the LHT and so I went online and checked it out. The thought of using a touring bike for a commuting bike never really occurred to me, but the more research I did, the more it made complete sense.

I went to Saturday Cycles now located in SLC and talked to Mark Kennedy. He has a great bike shop. His shop is just cool in way that is hard to describe. As I looked around I realized that I had missed a whole class of bikes that the big shops don’t carry. I told him what I needed and he showed me several options. We put on fenders, a rear rack, bottle racks, panniers, lights, and an awesome Brooks saddle. I replaced the tubes with thicker thorn proof tubes after my one and only flat. He also put a pair of pedals on it that have SPD on one side and a platform on the other. Perfect! I wear mountain bike shoes as my commuter shoes. I would rather be clipped in, but it is nice not to have to clip in all the time. It is comfortable, smooth, and maneuverable. By the time I get it loaded up with about 15 pounds of stuff to haul to work plus my 200 pounds all layered up, I don’t mind the extra weight of the bike as I won’t be breaking any records. After all, I am riding for exercise! I have been riding the LHT for a year and a half and have zero complaints. All I’ve done to it is lube the chain and put air in the tires.

C.U.: Tell me about your commute? What are your limits or “comfort zone”?

L.P.: If I go the most direct route to work it is 8.2 miles. Typically I take the shortest way to work because it seems like I am always pushing it. On the way home I have a route that I like that is about 11-12 miles. It is mostly up-hill on the way to work so I like to lengthen the downhill part of the trip home and it is a quieter ride with the majority of the route on the new bike path that runs the length of Davis County.

When I decided that I was going to be a bike commuter I committed that I would try to ride all year around. My only caveat was that if it was bitter cold or if the road was too slick for safety. I don’t mind riding down into the mid 20s, but when it gets colder than that, I really have to work to make myself get on the bike. Riding at night is not as big of a deal as most people make it out to be. Get a good headlight and tail light. Buy some reflective clothing, and then act like you are invisible. Also, leave on those cheap reflectors that came with the bike. I even added a couple of strips of reflective tape to my bike. I’m not trying to win a beauty contest; I’m trying to be seen and the more reflective material the better.

C.U.: Commuters sometimes need to take roads that recreational cyclists avoid in order to get to work. What comments do you have about your new riding skills and about traffic in general? Does bike commuting seem as dangerous as people make it out to be?

L.P.: Everything has risks. It would be great if there were more cyclists on the road so that people got used to seeing us. It would be great if there were more bike lanes and bike friendly businesses. It would be great if there were a safe way to get from the west side of I-15 to the east side of I-15 in Northern Davis County, but none of those thing will happen without people who are willing to venture out on their bikes. What comes first, the bike lanes or the bicyclists? I don’t know. I don’t really get involved in bike advocacy, I ride simply because I like it. Sure, people would be healthier, we would save some of our natural resources if more people rode to work, but I realize that most people can’t or simply don’t want to ride a bike. They are missing out, but it is not a big deal to me as long as they don’t mind if I do.

Most of the people on the road don’t really care if you are there or not. They are just trying to get to work or to Wal-Mart to get a case of Pepsi, or take their kid to piano lessons. When someone doesn’t give me any room, cuts in front of me, does something else that I didn’t anticipate, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the didn’t see me and if they got out of their car they would be a fairly normal person.

I absolutely believe that when you ride a bike on the road it makes you a better driver. You become more alert, you begin to see things that you never noticed before and you are more cautious. In addition to cycling I have a dual-sport motorcycle. Like cycling, riding a motorcycle on the road makes you a better driver. People who have never driven anything but a car on the road don’t understand what I’m talking about and I don’t think there is any way to explain it to them. You just become a more alert and defensive driver after you spend some time riding on the road with 2 wheels instead of 4.

C.U.: Overall where did you enjoy as a commuter or recreational cyclist?

L.P.: I have fond memories of Oklahoma, mostly because it was the place that I started riding a road bike seriously. It was my first experience with a cycling club, my first pull in a pace line and it was where I did my first century. The only problem was that it was stinking hot in the summer and it still got quite cold in the winter. I liked the fact that there was a cycling event every weekend during the summer within driving distance of where we lived.

My favorite mountain biking place was when I worked at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. They have some fantastic trails. I could leave my office, change my clothes, go for a quick ride and be back to work all during lunch hour.

Champaign, Illinois was very bike friendly. The city had some great routes to get around. Also, the bus system was the best I have seen.

I have to admit I really like riding in Utah. There are some excellent events for cyclists. There are plenty of flat rides as well as fantastic climbs. One of my favorites is to start at Peterson and ride up to East Canyon Dam. From there you can go over to Henefer or up to Big Mountain. Both are great. My favorite century in Utah has got to be the Cache Valley Century. It is a nice size, well supported and run by great people. I’ve done it three times and really enjoy it each year.

I enjoy my current commute. I get to ride a good portion of it on the railway trail. If I could change a couple of things, I would ask Layton and Clearfield cities to create a few bike lanes from the rail trail that feed Hill AFB as well as the major shopping center areas, and try to improve the safety for cyclists to get under/over the freeway.

C.U.: As a relatively new bike commuter what have you learned that you can now pass onto others who, like you, may want to try commuting by bike?

L.P.: The most important thing is to start. Overcoming the inertia of the driving habit takes a lot of effort. There are a dozen reasons to not ride so you have to commit that you will get on the bike and ride. Most people have a bike of some kind hanging in the garage, so pump up the tires and give it a try. You will quickly learn what you need to do. You can easily put some 1.5” tires on your mountain bike, just throw in an extra tube, a small pump and load up your old backpack with a change of clothes. Get out and do it a few times. After that first ride home in a rainstorm you will start to understand what you need to do to make your commute more enjoyable. You will learn the importance of fenders, rain gear, lights and the right layers of clothing as you gain experience.

The second thing is to examine your motives for riding. Whether it is to save the environment, save gas, or to save yourself from the consequences of obesity, you need to know why you are riding. For me I ride because I like it. I like the solitude I experience each morning that gives me time to plan and prepare for the day. I like the ride home to spin off the stress of the day. I like being “that guy” who walks into work dripping wet from a rainstorm knowing that I had what it took to conquer Mother Nature one more time. Yes, I’m still pulling on the spandex, strapping on a styrofoam hat, and loving a great pace line on the weekend, but Monday through Friday I’m a bike commuter.

C.U.: Thanks Layne. I’m glad Cycling Utah was helpful to your bike commute.

If you have a suggestion for a commuter profile, have a commuter question, or other comments, please send it to [email protected].

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