The Backroads of Montana - A two-day bicycle touring trial run

Guest contribution

Written by anthony@xcountrybike.com

real backroad

Index:

Planning Gear Log Conclusions

For the first-timer who is considering setting off on a long bicycle tour (that's me), some questions come to mind:

  • Can I physically handle the long distances and the hills with a fully loaded bike ... and long time in the saddle?
  • Do I have the right gear?
  • Am I going to like being on the road and out in the elements for days and days?

So, to answer these questions and hopefully have a little adventure, I set off on an unsupported 2-day tour with an overnight campout.

Planning a route
Ringling bike route map

There is no place better for this adventure than on some of the low-traffic/high-scenery roads of Montana. I live in Bozeman and as we say here, the nice thing about Bozeman is it's only a twenty minute drive to Montana. So with the input of my friend Gill, who was also going along and also relatively new to touring, we settled on a nice looking loop in the area of White Sulfur Springs (east of Helena, northeast of Bozeman, south of Great Falls, northwest of Billings). We consulted the Gallatin Valley Bicycling Club and the bicycling page on the State of Montana website for information on good roads, low traffic volumes, appropriate distances for a two-day loop, and relatively close driving distance from Bozeman (see map at right [full state map]). Once we had a decent looking route chosen, it was also helpful to “ride” it from the air using Google Earth. That gives a good feel for topography and what is really out there (in this case, not much). So, our route began at the “town” of Ringling about 60 miles northeast of Bozeman on US-89. From there the route proceeded about 4 miles north on US-89, and turned east onto MT-294 for 28 miles to the town of Martinsdale and then a couple more miles to the junction with US-12. Turning west here, the route was 33 miles to White Sulfur Springs. We planned to stop at one of the undeveloped lakeside campgrounds right along the highway about halfway to White Sulfur. From White Sulfur, the route turned south on US-89 to complete the loop back to Ringling. Total mileage = 85.

Gear
bike en route
  • tent and poles
  • ground cloth
  • sleeping bag
  • sleeping pad
  • water filter
  • two water bottles
  • map
  • first aid kit
  • headlamp
  • camera
  • 3-cup cooking pot
  • other rider brought stove, fuel, another pot
  • plastic fork and spoon
  • paper towels
  • swiss army knife
  • trowel
  • T.P.
  • tire pump
  • spare tube and patch kit
  • neckerchief
  • sunscreen
  • ibuprofen
  • ear plugs
  • towel
  • toothbrush
  • soap
  • swimsuit/shorts
  • 1 underwear
  • 1 pr socks
  • 1 t-shirt
  • 1 long sleeve shirt
  • windbreaker
  • knit hat
  • wool socks
  • long/warmup pants
  • no rain gear since no rain in forecast
  • first day lunch (sandwich)
  • first day dinner (tomato sauce and pasta, apple)
  • second day breakfast (granola, powdered milk, orange)
  • snacks (Clif bars, cookies)
  • forgot: Chapstick!
Shaping up

In addition to my regular gym workouts and short riding around town, during the two weeks prior to this trip I did two longer rides to prepare – one of 15 miles and one of 36 miles.

Log
Ringling valley overlook

On July 12-13, I did an 85-mile bicycle tour with my friend Gill. I used my mountain bike mounted with 1.5 inch width road tires and rear panniers only which I borrowed from my brother, Alan. We left my house in Gill's Vanagon at about 9 AM and parked our vehicle in front of the Ringling post office (el. 5300'). Coincidentally, a group of cyclists from the Gallatin Valley Bicycle Club also were doing a one-day trip from Ringling to Martinsdale and back and there were several other cars parked at the post office when we arrived. Didn't seem to be much life in Ringling although there were about a dozen houses here on the open range. We departed about 11:15 and rode north on US-89 for 4 miles to the junction with route 294. It was taking a little getting used to the heavily loaded backend on the bike - especially in a crosswind. We headed east up a long, mild hill towards Martinsdale under the bright sun and with a gentle tailwind. The surrounding land was open range with tree covered hills in the distance to the north and the tall Crazy Mountains to the southeast. Very little traffic on this road - felt almost like a bike path. At the pass (el. 5800'), we saw an old, dilapidated, brick power station with a new, operational steel version on the other side of the road. As we began our descent along the S. Fork of the Musselshell River we began to see some bicycle riders returning from Martinsdale - presumably with the Bozeman group - nobody hauling any panniers. It was a nice long fast descent and we began to see more trees and green, irrigated ranches. We stopped for a bite to eat and a water refill at the Crazy Mountain Inn in Martinsdale (el. 4800', 32 miles from Ringling) - famous for its pies. Not much to look at from the outside but pretty nice inside - ie., simple rustic western character. We also got confirmation that there were campsites at Bair Reservoir, our planned destination for the day. Martinsdale looks like it has seen better days. "Downtown" had a very wide street ... and no traffic. We departed about 3 PM, passed the Bair Family Museum on the shores of the S. Fork Musselshell River which seemed nicely maintained and had a few visitors. Two miles from Martinsdale was the junction with US-12. East was Harlowton and we turned west which began a moderate rolling uphill and we now encountered a mild headwind. Some wind turbines on the nearby hillside were taking advantage of the wind. Route 294 was a much smoother surface than this road and there was not much of a shoulder. Since there was also more Bair Reservoir significant traffic, I had to pay attention to cycling safely. Gill pulled away on the uphill terrain and about once an hour he would stop and wait and we'd have a quick break. We traveled through more ranchs, open range, and now followed the N. Fork of the Musselshell River. We eventually passed what looked like an RV park, also known as Checkerboard, which looked like a metropolis compared to what we had seen over the last two hours. Shortly thereafter (about 5:30 PM) we arrived at Bair Reservoir, a welcome oasis on the treeless open range (el. about 5300', 15 miles from Martinsdale). There were two widely spaced, covered picnic tables and we grabbed the nearest, just off the road. The only other facilities here were two outhouses. No fee either ... my type of camping. There were some other folks camped at the other campsite and at makeshift campsites on the lake. After setting up the tent we took a quick dip in the lake to rinse off the day's grime. We made some dinner of pasta&tomato sauce and a prepackaged noodle mix. Gill had brought basic fishing gear and fished for about an hour as there was a prolific trico hatch in progress and numerous fish rising. He had some strikes from smaller fish although I could tell that there were some sizable fish rising also - well within casting distance. It was painful not being able to fish myself. As the sun went down, the air rapidly cooled. We hit the sack by 9:30 PM. I had only brought a lightweight fleece "sleeping bag" so I put on lots of layers including a short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece sweater, nylon windbreaker, knit hat, shorts, longjohns, warmup pants, cotton socks, and wool socks - everything I could put on! Still I was cold for most of the night as the temp got to 39 deg F inside the tent. We got up at 7:30 AM after the sun had started to warm our tent. Quick breakfast and on our way at 9:30. Just as we departed we noted the wind starting to blow from the west. campsite at Bair Reservoir It was about 5 miles through beautiful high mountain open range to Lake Sutherlin. Took about an hour due to moderate wind and rolling hills. The pass was at 5800', however we continued to encounter more rolling hills with a net descent and then one long downhill into the White Sulfur Springs/Smith River valley. I was pretty whipped as we pulled into town at noon (el. 5000', 18 miles from Bair Res) probably from fighting the headwind all morning. Again we found a pretty nice restaurant on the west end of town that didn't look much from the outside. I gradually got my strength back and by 1 PM we continued through WSS and made the turn south onto US-12/US-89. Between here and the US-12 split-off was the most traffic of the trip, but still nothing bad. We enjoyed having a northwest breeze giving a partial tailwind. Pretty flat for the first 7 miles at which point US-12 split off to the west and we followed US-89 on a mild uphill to the southwest and now enjoyed the full effect of the mild tailwind. Still, I was feeling the effects of the trip as a sore butt and triceps, tired legs, and a bad case of chapped lips. Rolled into Ringling (21 miles from WSS at about 3 PM). Overall, a good workout and everything went according to plan! We topped off the trip with a Bozone Amber Ale at the Filling Station back in Bozeman.

Conclusions

Did I answer my initial questions? Yes, I could handle it physically, although I think another one or two long rides to better prepare would have really made a difference on day two.

Am I ready for something bigger? I did enjoy being on the road for two days and camping along the way. I'm ready to try something bigger .... maybe a week. That should be the next level of difficulty.

Gear – sufficient or too much? I think I had just the right amount of gear, except for two things – needed an actual sleeping bag to handle a genuinely cold night like we had (Montana in July!), and chapstick. ... Okay, also maybe a 6-piece flyfishing rod and tackle.