In 2000, shortly after I started commuting by bike regularly, I attended the Mid-Valley Bicycle Club’s annual Covered Bridge Bicycle Tour. That day I biked 45 miles, which was a bit of a stretch for me at the time.
Until just a few weeks ago, this was the longest distance I had ever knowingly biked in one day. After all, over the years my daily commute has been up to 28 miles round trip—who would be motivated to ride even longer distances on the weekends?
While I’ve been roaming the northwest over the past year I’ve been living about a mile away from my work or school. I’ve also been jealous of people I know who regularly ride 50, 70, sometimes even 100 miles in a day with ease. So one Adventure Saturday, I decided to don the spandex and explore a lengthy multi-use path in the Bitterroot Valley I had heard about, which reportedly offered great views of the Bitterroot Mountains. Eyewitnesses offered differing opinions on the details, but as a round trip ride it sounded like a good challenge.
Instead of adding another 26 round-trip miles to my ride, I started from the community center in Lolo where path users are invited to park their cars. I hadn’t showered that morning, and my bag was abundantly stuffed with food, my bike jacket (the forecast called for showers), sunscreen, water, and more.
The first half of the journey was mostly sunny. The further south I traveled, the hotter it got and the less shade was available. As I had forgotten my bike lock, in Florence I went inside a fire station to ask if I could use their restroom (the logic being that an unlocked bike would be safer outside a fire station than in front of the local gas station-mini mart on the main strip). Turned out that the doors were wide open, but nobody heard me halloo them. They were all in the garage area. I used the restroom and proceeded on my merry way, tempted to pinch a cinnamon roll from the kitchen in the process.
As I traveled south, the mountains became dramatically craggy, and I hoped the path would lead all the way to Hamilton, a town I had heard good things about. Right before Victor though, the multi-use path dumped me out onto the highway, which was an active construction zone. And it turns out that the only businesses open in Victor on Saturday afternoon almost exclusively sell liquor. Neither of the two eating establishments was open, nor was there a mini-mart in which to find refreshment. Even the city park lacked a water fountain! Streams along the trail had been accessible in Missoula County, but were blocked off by fascist fences in Ravalli County, meaning no cooling off or backup water source was available. If that wasn’t disappointing enough, turning around to get back to the multi-use path for my return trip required navigating about a half-mile of traffic jammed construction zone.
During the return trip I stopped and got ice cream in Stevensville. As I ate my cone, an elderly woman with a charmingly shaved English sheepdog got out of her car and struck up a conversation with me. When I told her I’d have done my personal best bike ride when I was done today, she exclaimed, “Good for you!” (Montanans are so nice!)
It was about the time I left Stevensville that I noticed the sky had become noticeably overcast. As I moved north I looked behind my shoulder and noticed some serious rain was chasing me. Pedaling as hard as I could, I tried to outpace the storm, but soon the sky was black and there was thunder reverberating between the two mountain ranges beside the Bitterroot Valley. Cars on the highway had their headlights on. Just past Florence, I started feeling large water drops on my skin, and the lightning storm started.
Sitting on a steel bike in the middle of a lightning storm—that can’t be good, can it? As a Pacific Northwester, I’ve never really needed to know safety procedures for lightning, but was filing through my brain to recall any helpful advice. (There was none.) I kept pedaling as fast as I could in an attempt to make the last nine miles back to my car before getting drenched and/or electrocuted. Eventually I approached a minuscule shelter on the side of the path—a bench with a tin roof normally intended as shade. Two people were already huddled under it.
As I approached them, I asked if they knew what to do. The man, it turned out, worked for the local power company. He and the woman, another random cyclist, had both called rides to pick them up. The woman offered a lift back to my car, but I said it was important for me to complete this ride by myself. Her ride came and she was gone. The man said to sit on the bench with my feet off the ground (now that there was room on the bench) and I’d be fine. Then his ride came and he was gone. There was pouring rain, with enormous drops that almost sting when they hit you. And despite the shelter, plenty of drops hit my hand while I was conversing with my mother via text message. The rain only lasted about 10 minutes though, and after about 15 minutes the storm had passed north. The sky was beginning to return to an eerie yellow, so I decided it was safe for me to proceed.
It was still a few miles back to Lolo, but I made it! And when I mapped the route out, even though I didn’t get all the way to Hamilton, I still biked 50 miles. Of course, many people I know could do much better, but this was a personal best and served as a thermometer of what I am truly capable of without much work (remember, my current commute is currently two miles round trip). Experiences like this severely curb one’s anxiety about attempting the unconquered.
After getting home from my ride, I ate one metric ton of food. While I was eating, I excitedly started making plans for the next long bike ride, hopefully to happen before leaving Montana. Ideas included using an Adventure Cycling Association map for a long ride to get some experience using the maps in the field. Doing a century. Tackling some mountains. After hearing of my success, my friend and well-matched riding partner Sarah suggested the two of us do a long ride together before I leave. We have tentative plans to make it happen next weekend.
Wish us luck!