Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fire roads

I crested the rounded spine of Miller Divide and suddenly felt a sensation not unlike sliding my tongue across one of those giant, swirly lollipops. A vast network of rugged roads rippled along the mountains to all sides, and I had just tasted the sweet surface of the expansive bike candy in front of me. I pulled out my map, tried to orient myself and looked back up, entirely bewildered by the possibilities. I had made turns on numbered Forest Service roads that weren’t even on the map, and in turn made more turns on overgrown roads that weren’t even numbered. I left Missoula with aspirations to ride a loop, but realized that if I didn’t turn around and retrace my exact route to this spot, I would be entirely lost. I was going to have to come back here with my GPS and an entire day to burn, maybe days, and I still wouldn’t be able to scrape the surface of possibility in this region, this simple cross-section of Lolo National Forest. And even if I tried, the result probably wouldn’t be unlike trying to finish one of those giant, swirly lollipops — I’d be tired and more than a little sick to my stomach, but satisfied.

Whenever I tell Montana cyclists that I moved here from Alaska, I often get the same response — “Oh, wow, the biking there must have been incredible.” People just assume that because Alaska is big, everything that takes place there must be big. “Well,” I’d reply. “Actually, no. It was pretty limited.” Alaska is incredible for the same reasons the biking is actually quite terrible — it’s largely untouched, almost completely undeveloped wilderness. With a few notable exceptions (such as beach biking), bikes need developed surfaces to function — snow bikes need snowmobile trails, mountain bikes need cleared dirt surfaces, and road bikes need pavement. Alaska is refreshingly lacking in all of these surfaces, even snowmobile trails (although snowmobile trails are by far the most extensive of the off-road options, thus the growing popularity of winter biking in that state.) I grew my passion for cycling in Alaska — specifically mainland Southeast Alaska, which incorporates a tiny sliver of impossibly steep mountains wedged between an icefield and the sea — so the region's limitations didn’t bother me. However, I am only now starting to realize just how limited it really was.

Western Montana is, by contrast, uber-developed (at least relative to Alaska.) As an avid cyclist, this is both a good and bad thing. The road cuts in the mountainsides aren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but they do offer seemingly endless possibilities in terms of access. Instead of slogging for days over tussocks and across raging streams on foot to access the backcountry in Alaska, I can race up rocky logging roads at 8 mph and find myself fairly deep in the high country within an evening. And that’s just an evening. If I had a good reserve of energy to tap and enough time to burn, I could travel miles and miles into the “wilderness,” come across lots of wildlife and soak in vast views, and the only sign of humanity I’d even see are the logging roads on which I travel, and possibly the occasional moto (although I have yet to see a gas-powered rider on these roads.)

And though mountain bikers often decry the boringness of doubletrack, I rather enjoy it myself. It’s a more peaceful, reflective sort of riding than singletrack, it tends to offer more real travel possibilities (rather than just riding loops around a small area), and can still be technically challenging in spots. And interesting! Just before I took this photo, I saw a flash of brown fur race across the trail about 100 feet front of me. It was too small to be a bear, too big to be a rabbit, but too fast to be a beaver (and too high up on the ridge for the third possibility to be likely.) My first thought was “wolverine!” but I’m pretty sure there are no wolverines in this area. I’m still a little flabbergasted about that animal, but it’s experiences like that — small but transcendent in their own ways — that really make this kind of “training” worth it.

As far as my Tuesday training ride, I ended up with four hours and fifteen minutes of pedaling, I’m not sure how many miles and about 3,800 to 4,000 feet of climbing, based on my map and some up-and-down explorations I did along the ridge. Good day, and my legs are starting to feel it already, but I’m hoping to rally at Blue Mountain tonight. Maybe this time, I’ll even bring my GPS.


  1. Could have been a wolf or a coyote. Or a fox? I *think* there are wolverines around too actually.

    Be careful, I have gotten completely lost on logging roads (running) -- they can go on for miles and end -- and you may have taken 4 turns to get to the dead end and find that all 4 of those seem to dead end and you can't ever leave the maze. . . until by a miracle you finally make your way out after doing triple your intended mileage. Just remember to pack a light just in case.

  2. Good advice, Danni. I can see how that would easily happen. It's actually rare for me to venture out without my GPS, but I thought I was on a straightforward route. Even still, I did take one wrong turn on my way out and had to regain about 300 feet in elevation.

    Next time I'm running the GPS for sure, so I can at least follow my own dotted line back. Lights and warm clothing are a good idea as well.

  3. Fascinating, I think wilderness is best viewed from a bicycle.

  4. I love to read about all of your adventures exploring the country side of Montana. I used to live in Alaska and Montana, but am now residing on the east coast. I do hope to make it back home someday. Your writing takes me back to a time when I would spend hours walking or riding my horse in the country.
    If I may suggest a wonderful place for you to explor, it would be Sandpoint Idaho, its about 2 1/2 hr. drive from Kalispell. Even though my heart belongs in Montana, Sandpoint Idaho is a very close second, check it out, you'll see why!
    Happy Travels. I look forward to more of your writings.
    Oh by the way, have you ever been to North Pole Alaska?

  5. I love forest roads, fire trails, logging roads, etc. I'm heading back up to northern Minnesota next week for several days of riding. We have endless miles of forest roads to ride through some very nice country. All the beauty, but unfortunately no altitude.

    It appears that you and Montana are quickly developing a very close relationship.

    Best of luck with your training.

  6. Amazing photos! You have done some inspirational rides I must say! Hopefully I can get some endurance up and eventually start competing myself! Do you have any advice or know any local (beginner) bike clubs back here in Anchorage?

    Thx for any advice and enjoy your rides!

  7. so sad how all of the beautiful mountains get ravaged by hundreds of miles of dirt roads and your pointless drivel about how great that is is even sadder. why don't you apply your great mind and journalistic skills to saving what little is left

  8. I love fire roads. A lot of mountain bikers turn a nose up at them, but not me.

  9. Anon, if you have a problem with Montana forest management, you should probably take it up with the U.S. Forest Service. I'm just a cyclist with a blog.

  10. ^Anon sounds grumpy.

    Don't take Montana for granted, even the regular dirt roads can get you lost out there. About 10 years ago me and my dad got lost some place between Big Timber and Bozeman. Took a wrong tern and spent 30 minutes trying to find our way out of the mountains. I love Montana! :-)

  11. Very cool headed response to anon.
    NICE ! They are 'fire roads' now regardless of their initial use.
    Love your pics and writing. Makes me want to revisit Montana soon.

  12. Amen, agree completely. Single track is as overrated as double track is under.

    To the comlainer: there are hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin public land left; you haven't gotten out much if don't know this. That and no one is stopping you from buying up overdeveloped public land and putting it in your private trust. Put your $$$ where you mouth is!

  13. Even though many of those roads appear to lead somewhere a lot of them lead nowhere. Which of course nowhere is somewhere, but most of us don't want to be in that situation.

    I've been there (lost) and it can be somewhat entertaining, but it's mostly just nerve racking and sometimes embarrassing.

    Anon #1 does seem to be experiencing some angst. I think they need to go for a long bike ride on some lonely forest road.

  14. I hope Anon #1 lives in a city and doesn't venture out and participate in the "ravaging" of the wilderness. Of course he probably doesn't if he has nothing better to do than to sit infront of an energy-consuming computer and read "drivel."

    My apologies for the rant.

  15. wow, Anon... if you knew what you were talking about then you would realize just how big Montana and Alaska are. You would also realize that for every tree that is "taken down" one or more is planted. You might also know that we have more trees in the USA today than we did in the 1920's. Maybe you should take a little bike ride, walk or whatever on one of those roads and enjoy the view, it might just cure your grumpy butt!

  16. The scenery there is amazing! It certainly gives Alaska a run for its money! It looks like you are enjoying your new home thoroughly, and I love seeing all of the beautiful pictures you take, so keep up the good work :)

    Creative Nothings: Try the Arctic Bicycle Club -
    They have a road racing division and a mtn. racing division, as well as a touring division for the beginners and non-competitive.

  17. Whitney, thx for the advice. I've heard of them before but very little. Once I get my bike fixed (again!!) I'll be sure to look into them some more and hopefully get back to biking. My feet hurt from all the running! lol


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