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.