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Riding in Big Sky Country

Words/images: Heidi Swift

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Gue’s legs are fresh. The sky is bright and towering. The morning is giddy with the possibility of the day. The road has been rolling downhill for more than 15 miles. On a long, open section we have to touch the brakes while Alan or Bob or maybe David holler and wave arms. Cattle crossing. The big-eyed, four-legged future hamburgers lumber and stare and lumber some more until they eventually clear the road.

Sal looks sideways at me and smiles and we pedal harder and get a little gap on the boys. It is an accident. No one is riding to get a gap. We are all riding from that deep, weightless place inside of us where bliss lives—the same place where big earnest belly laughs are born. I sit up for a second, pull my camera out of my back pocket and make a picture. The mechanical sound of film winding forward is the only noise for miles.

Until we hear the truck. That’s the thing about these old country roads—no cars for hours and hours, but when you finally do see one there’s a 95% chance that it’s going to be a truck. Not just any truck, a proper country rig, a dually, most likely hauling a trailer full of horses or a stack of hay. This time the truck we hear is our own, part of the support crew blowing by us to get to the next campsite before we do. A maroon-and-tan Power Ram 250 Turbo Diesel pulling the catering trailer that serves as our kitchen. Chef Drew is driving.

He screams by us, leaving plenty of room but hauling ass. I’m wondering what the hurry is as I raise my hand to wave hello and then I figure it out: Owen Gue is pedaling his Ritchey breakaway, glued to the bumper of the trailer, tucked into the vortex of the slipstream. The two shoot on ahead and someone behind me hollers in excitement. Then Gue sits up and floats backward and smiles this crazy, disarming smile that only a 20-something-year-old kid on a bicycle riding on his favorite hometown roads can smile.

We’re all here because of him, because sometime in the past we’d been to one of the training camps that his company, The Cycling House, hosts. We’d listened to him talk about Montana riding. We’d listened to him describe the valleys and the wildlife and the mountain passes and the big empty feeling of quiet that comes with riding through a state that only has 6.8 people per square mile. We’re here because after years of us asking him to take us to that magic land, he’d finally put together a tour. The inaugural Tour de Montana, a five-day, point-to-point, 400-mile trip around Western Montana, starting and ending at his parents’ farm in Missoula. There are 16 of us on the trip ranging in age from 16 to 65, and in three days we have already become like a family.

Gue rolls up beside me with that smile, curly brown hair sticking out from his helmet. He is lit up from the inside out. His glee is sincere and childlike. I reach out and touch his right shoulder lightly with my left hand as if to say, “I’m so glad I’m here with you right now.”

Gue’s legs are fresh. The sky is bright and towering. In my head all the days are running into one another—lakes and cabins and mountains and meals and headwinds and beers all swapping locations and chronology into one delirious blur.

Tuesday. Stage one. Bike paths for 40 miles leaving Missoula. Long highways and conversation. Strangers becoming familiar, mile-by-mile. Sal feels good and does his diesel engine thing. I feel bad and do my barely-surviving wheel-sucking thing. Bob and Sal trade pulls and we sail along in a WHOOSH while Maureen sits on back after bridging to our group with the kind of heroics that will later prompt me to begin calling her “The Machine.” Twenty-four mph. Twenty-five mph. I forget to look up at Trapper’s Peak. I forget that I’m in Montana.

Only the big horn sheep eventually make us sit up. Six of them just off to the left, lying majestically and calmly under a stand of trees. We’re still looking back over our shoulder at them when two deer leap across the guard rail and dart across the highway in front of us. Montana is yanking us out of our roadie-hammer pain caves. Montana says, “Slow down. Look up.”

We spend the night in Sula where Veronica, a triathlete schoolteacher from Chicago, and I take blankets into the cool shade of the low trees and rest on our backs because it is too hot to nap in the tents. When I wake up, Veronica is gone and the sky is getting dark. The breeze that felt refreshing when I laid down is now aggressive and insistent. I stand up and look around. Brooding clouds, bruised gray-purple.

“Thunderstorms maybe,” Drew tells me when I ask. He is sitting in the catering trailer, which is called “Fun Cakes,” shirtless except for his apron which has “Chef Drew” embroidered across the front. He’s prepping vegetables for dinner.

“I bet it doesn’t even rain,” Lizzy says. She’s standing in a bikini holding a plastic cup full of cheap red wine. The others are clustered in camp chairs or sacked out in their tents. The air is warm and thick. The flag at the entrance of the campsite stands stiff at attention in the wind. When the first drop falls, fat and round, we scatter in an eruption of shrieks and laughter and scurry for the nearest cover—a pop-up tent over a picnic table. The space fills quickly and just as I’m about to be edged out into the downpour, I make a break for Fun Cakes. Drew opens the back door and I wedge my way into the small space and find myself a seat on a cooler and then lean out the front window to get a better look at the storm.

Staffers Brendan and Shawn are just outside, huddled under the awning of the trailer, laughing. Gue runs by on his way to the van and shouts, “Camp Director Shawn, what do we do??”

“Trip’s over!” Shawn replies, “Every man for himself!”

Which is when I realize I’m out of beer. And the beer cooler is over with the rowdy mob under the pop-up tent.

“SEND BEER!” Brendan screams over the rain. They can’t hear us over the storm.

“BEER!!!” The three of us in unison now. And then I think again and yell, “IPA!!!!” in my college softball voice. They’ve lowered the front of the pop-up tent against the wind, but 30 seconds later it tilts up and an arm appears.

“Fire in the hole!” The first launch is short. The can lands on a piece of gravel and begins to gush and, in a moment of thirst disguised as bravery, Shawn leaves the relative dryness of the trailer awning and rushes to grab the can, draining it into his mouth as he returns. “Leave no beer behind!”

The second launch is good, but it’s a wheat ale. Brendan looks at the desperate, Big-Sky-IPA-longing in my eyes, throws a red tarp over his head and darts out across the gap that separates us from the provisions. He comes back with three orange cans cradled like babies in the crook of his arm. We kill them while we watch the rest of the storm and talk about the pork tenderloin that Drew is making for dinner, how long tomorrow’s opening climb will be and whether Miles or Jeff will take the KOM.

Chef Drew turns the radio up until it mixes with the sound of rain and the smell of thunder. John Denver, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Reckless Kelly. Most everyone drinks just a little too much which is, of course, just the perfect amount after an 86-mile day. We sleep with the rain and wind battering the tent walls in gusts but by the time the Jura espresso machine starts kicking out perfect shots at 5 a.m., the storm has blown over and the sky looks big and friendly again.

Big Hole Valley
Stage two. Lost Trail Pass for breakfast. A six-mile climb that tops out around 7,000 feet. Wide shoulder, gentle grade, lots of shade, early morning sunlight piercing through intermittently in long, dramatic rays. A few miles into the climb Sal says, “I don’t know about today.” And from the square shapes he’s making with his feet, I can tell he doesn’t feel good.

It’s a bad day to have a bad day, and it’s early yet. More than 85 miles left with three significant climbs and long, exposed roads. At the top of Lost Trail Pass we meet the support van to top off bottles and take a feed then we make a left just before the sign that says, “Welcome to Idaho.”

Ten miles later, our eight-man train turns a corner and Big Hole Valley greets us like a long lost friend—arms wide open and glowing—a road as straight as an arrow, shooting off into forever. A horizon so wide it’s almost bending at the edges, mountain ranges on either side sitting just beyond the expanse of green. Blue sky, little fluffy clouds. When the sun moves behind them, it spills over the edges in fat rays—Jesus clouds, we used to call them … the kind of sky that makes you think he might just come walking straight down from heaven.

We sit up in unison without speaking and spread out across the road, looking up, looking around. Then Jeff says, “Oh my god” and Maureen is stuck at “WOW.” I sit back and put my arms out to my sides as if by exposing more surface area I might be able to somehow absorb more of the atmospheric awesome.

Big Hole Valley is the kind of payoff that cyclists dream of—the road in the middle of nowhere with a horizon like a Hollywood backdrop. The kind of road that makes it worth it to suffer through 93 miles on bad legs. But by the time we get to Elkhorn Hot Springs hours later, Sal is trashed. We clear the steep gravel climb that leads into camp and stumble into the cabin we’ve been assigned, where he removes his jersey but doesn’t manage to get his cycling shoes off before collapsing into the bed.

Wild Bill
Twenty minutes and two pieces of grilled pizza later, Sal is back from the dead, but it takes a little magic to pull him out of the depths—electrostimulation magic. Which is how I find myself talking in hushed voices with Wild Bill, the resident recovery dealer in camp. Wild Bill is a feisty white-haired son-of-a-gun specializing in ultra-distance shenanigans like the Race Across Oregon (somewhere around 550 miles with 50,000-ish feet of elevation gain, depending on the exact route) and the infamous California Death Ride. He has one of the smoothest aero positions I’ve ever seen and spends his non-cycling spare time flying little tiny airplanes to remote locations for picnics or impromptu camping trips. He also happens to work with Hammer Nutrition and word on the street is that he’s got the good stuff: a fully charged Compex machine. I close the deal with a few whispers while we’re in the dinner line and Wild Bill shows up at my cabin 30 minutes later, Compex in hand.

These handy little electrostimulation machines deliver electrical pulses the motor nerves that control muscles, causing them to contract. Basically, you adhere a bunch of sticky nodes to key points, connect some wires, press a few buttons and then sit back and watch your legs twitch for 20 or 30 minutes. You can set the units for strength training, endurance and even a warm-up mode, but the real gold is in the recovery protocol, which helps to flush big leg muscles out to reduce soreness much the way a good leg rub would. We plug Sal in and watch his quads fire while Wild Bill tells us more about the machine and the way he’s used it to manage muscle soreness during big endurance events over the years.

“The first hit is free,” he says with a wink when he’s done. Then he packs up the wires and nodes, tucks the unit under his arm and disappears into the fading sunset.

In the morning, Sal’s legs are new and he wins the town sign sprint to Wise River. Bill rolls past me, smiling. Later that night after we’ve climbed the Anaconda-Plinter Mountains and made our way through an 18-mile block headwind to arrive at Georgetown Lake, the Compex rumors start flying. Before we know it, Jeff Rogers, a tall, fast rider from California who’s been locked in a head-to-head battle with a 17-year-old whippersnapper named Miles Frank, is sitting in a camp chair, staring at the double Alpe d’Huez Tour de France stage we’re streaming from a laptop, legs vibrating with the sweet, sweet promise of electrostimulated recovery.

“I gotta keep up with the kid,” Jeff says desperately. He’s holding an IPA. On the television screen, Tejay van Garderen is starting to go backward and we all scoot to the edge of our camp chairs and lean forward as if by getting closer to the screen we might will him to keep going or prevent the impending implosion.

At dusk, the white-bearded Camp Host named “Red” swings by to tell us about bear sightings just as a massive moose and her two calves tromp through our tent village, disappearing slowly into the misty marshlands. We peer carefully after them and hold our breath until they slip out of sight.

Trixi’s Roadhouse
Everyone is waiting for the fourth and penultimate stage. I am waiting for the final big climb and the 12 miles of gravel Gue promised would be at the end. Sal is waiting for the screaming descent out of Georgetown Lake and the fly-fishing at the finish in Ovando. Alan Jones, the oldest member of our group, is looking forward to finding some rad hot dog stand or crazy little cafe somewhere. He’s made a habit of just pulling over to have a nice meal or a beer when the mood strikes and as the trip nears its end he’s already accumulated an amazing collection of T-shirts, hats and stories. Diana and Susan are excited to have all of the major climbing behind us. Melissa King is excited about drinking whiskey at a roadhouse called Trixi’s.

What we don’t know—what no one knows, actually—is that Wild Bill has been anticipating the fourth stage more than anyone. In all his years of doing long-distance group touring, he’s never once managed to be the first one to the finish line. The first one to roll in—there’s something special about that. He decided early in the week that the fourth stage was his best bet: wait until everyone gets tired, take them by surprise. He’s been conserving, he has a plan. And just after I attack my group and lay siege to the final mountain pass, Wild Bill blows through the final rest stop in full aero, blazing.

Jeff Rogers is waiting for our small group to take on the gravel. Miles is making a point of riding an extra loop to get a full century. So with the usual front-runners occupied elsewhere, he goes for it. Wild Bill’s great escape.

It works, too. He beats us all by 25 minutes.

But the gravel is worth it: 12 miles winding through farmland and over country bridges that eventually drop us off right next to the Blackfoot River, a quick two-mile pedal into Ovando where camp is waiting, set up on a baseball field. Shade tents, cold beers, soft grass. I lay underneath a table and listen to the stories from the day. And just when the heat feels like it is too much, Gue finds a fire hose and unleashes refreshment in the form of mayhem. Dripping wet and laughing, we change clothes and stumble two blocks to The Stray Bullet to buy pints and fishing licenses and linger in the high afternoon sun.

Later that night we climb the grass hill up to Trixi’s roadhouse and toast with whiskey shots served in plastic cups. Gue spins Susan in circles under the dim red lights of the dance floor while the mounted moose and elk look on and I think to myself that maybe I have never seen one kid so happy to be sharing his home with friends. When we walk back down the hill to camp the sky is smeared in moody pastels and horses graze in a pasture.

In the distance, there is a highway that will take us back to Missoula in the morning, back to the farm where Mama and Papa Gue will greet us and make us dinner and challenge us to volleyball in the yard. A big hound named Beulah and a small dog named Asha will follow us around, looking for scraps. Gue’s aunt will be in town and the table will be decorated with paper flowers that his grandma sent up from Florida just for the occasion. His brother will show up with a tiny baby. His friends will show up with their girlfriends. We’ll ride the horses, we’ll drink sangria, we’ll hold the chickens.

But for now, there’s just this pastel evening walk in the warm summer silence. Whiskey-drunk and quiet with the thought that maybe, just for a moment, everything is some Montana version of perfect that we never even knew existed.

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