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Montana Bike Odyssey 2022 FKT Race Report, by Dexter Kopas


A note on gear: This route I’d say is a little smoother than the Tour Divide. I rode it on my 2020 Salsa Warbird gravel bike with 45 mm tires, Redshift Shockstop suspension stem and seatpost, and a mullet 1x12 drivetrain with a 42T chainring and a 11-52 cassette. For wanting to go fast, this was a pretty ideal set up for me, but it did give me a bit of fatigue in the last few days. With the gravel suspension components, I’d say 50 mm tires are ideal. Without any suspension, a little bigger tires would be better. The only spots where I felt outmatched was the chunky bike path along the I-90, the descent from Porcupine Pass, and the short singletrack around Richmond Peak. 

A slightly smaller chainring would also be good, but most of the climbing is low-grade sustained climbs (with the major exception of the 32% Fleecer Ridge climb, where no gearing will do you any good), so nothing too small. Still plenty of flat miles to justify a larger chainring. 

One regret I do have is not having more tire clearance. There are many miles that get pretty sticky when wet, so having a frame that can clear tires much wider than what you bring is wise to allow more of the mud to shed off instead of gumming up. Also, especially if it is carbon, put some frame protection on your frame. 


Day 1

Cold morning to start as I join father Graham, mother Erin, and their son Ben on a quick jaunt from their house down to the start in downtown Bozeman. The Goff clan had kindly offered me their backyard to sleep in and get prepped before the race. Not only that, there was a pre-race meeting the night before with all five riders complete with pizza and homemade cookies from MBO-veteran and FKT holder Falcon Murty. All together, it made my departure on this epic adventure feel like I was leaving from home off into the wild unknown. 

Once we made it to the town’s library that morning we form up the group of the five who would eventually finish the race along with a dozen or so friend, family, and other supporters to see us off, including Crowell Herrick (organizer of Bozeman’s companion ultra cycling race, the Big Sky Spectaculaire), Ben, Erin, and Falcon. The first 10 miles are a neutral start, and the five of us take turns chatting and sizing each other up for what would lay ahead. The moment those miles ended, all 10 pedals were rotated with purpose, and I wouldn’t see Graham, Zach, or Andrew again until after the finish. 

Fortunately, Cam and I found we had a comparable pace and more or less together for the fast first 120 miles. We rolled through stark prairie and savannah country under a powerful sun. At the end of an especially sweat-drenched climb, we were treated to a view of Ennis Lake and the appearance of a familiar van.

 A true hero, Falcon, who was unable to participate in the 2022 MBO due to lingering symptoms of CoVid recovery, had decided to spend some of his time driving Graham’s travel van around SW Montana providing random, neutral support to all the riders. The three of us sat in the shade enjoying watermelon, cheese-its, and Lacroix, enjoying what few moments we had left to converse, knowing that, although Cam and I would leave in tandem and Falcon shared we would likely see his van again, much solo time was to come. 

That solo time began around 5 pm when, upon leaving a gas station to see Cam, who I had just zoomed ahead of a few minutes ago, we share our separate sleeping plans. He would stop at Twin Lakes, at the top of a 2,000-ish foot climb, while I would try and push another 80 miles to a bike hostel in Dillon, making for a 200 mile day. We said our goodbyes and I rolled out of town, munching down chicken fingers and taquitos. I hoped I would see Cam again, but I remembered words he said to me earlier that day: “I’ve got a half ounce of weed in my bike. We’re riding different rides.”

While I slowly picked away at the climb up to Twin Lake, I had a chance to think alone about what lay ahead. What were the nerves I had about spending so much time away from friends and family that had filled my mind in the days leading up to the start had given way to excitement to challenge myself, meet strangers, experience new places, and, in the short term, accomplish my first 200 mile effort. 

At the top of the race’s first major climb, I’m treated to the first major forest. The road weaves over rocky terrain to spit me out among backyards of the town of Virginia City. The quaint western-themed town fittingly has one open establishment as the sun sets behind a thick layer of wildfire smoke: a tavern. I stop in for a quick fill up of soda in the bidons, and it’s back on the road. 

As I descend to the west, forests give way to cattle fields and the haunting sunset haze gives way to nightfall. I love riding at night. I feel alive. Emotions are heightened. In the adrenaline, I can listen to old favorite albums and podcasts with new connection. First Beach House is fitting for a fast rolling country highway with views I can only discern to exist with the light of a full moon. Next it’s the Behind the Bastards podcast on a mind-bendingly straight and barren 20 mile section of gravel road that finally lands me in Dillon. 

A mile north of the route brings one to the lovely Bike Camp SW hostel. After a brief interaction with a man I don’t want to sleep near (he called one sleep-ready cyclist “Un-American” for being in their underwear on the way to bed), I share a small hut with Matt Dickey, who is traveling the Transamerica route. We talk briefly (ie, he talks, I’m too tired to talk) then I fall asleep on the air mattress Matt was kind enough to lend me, seeing how he had a cot. First night of the MBO, and the comfiest, first indoor sleep I’ve had in a week. 


Day 2

Matt and I both rise at 6. Given the opportunity to bank some quality, comfy rest early in the race, I opt for 5 hours of sleep instead of the normal 4. First thing off the bat is a resupply in town, complete with lost-phone scare, saved by a kind and concerned local giving it a ring. I hear sandhill cranes making their trademark gurgling sound as the sun rises over what it turns out are plains surrounding Dillon, giving a pleasant midwest vibe to take me back to college-era escapism rides out of Beloit, WI. 

It takes a while for the legs to warm up. Seeing how far back the other racers slept last night, I’m in no hurry. Slow moving up the first climb of the day, returning me to pine trees for only a brief moment before a chilly descent back down to the plains to join up with the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I feel my power start to return in the late morning coming up the second climb, where the GDMBR winds along a quiet, scenic paved road through a forested canyon. I fill water and make a visit to a pit toilet at one of the many developed campgrounds, and wonder what bikepacking legends have slept within. 

A nice chat with late season GDMBR tourers from around the globe and a friendly White River Mercantile attendant get me stoked for the infamous Fleecer Ridge climb. All is seeming well as I turn off onto a chunky but pleasant 10 miles of “single track” (a rough gravel road closed to cars), until I lay eyes on the fella. I had wondered how a 32% grade would be possible, and now it was clear. It was not a road. Nor a trail. It was simply a hill that someone, at some point, had decided they could drive straight up in their 4x4. Enough people had clearly followed suit, and what was left was a long dusty scar of loose rock and dirt connecting one road to another. Not only was riding out of the question, but walking my bike up felt more like a third class scramble. It was at this moment I was glad to have a carbon frame, minimal water, and no sleeping bag, pad, or tent. I couldn’t imagine how someone with a full touring setup could make it up without tumbling back down once or twice. 

Fortunately, I was mostly just in awe of the thing, and happy to know that this was by far the steepest terrain I would have to cover in the whole MBO. The views at the top weren’t bad either. I rode the high for the snaking gravel descent back to grasslands and a freeway underpass, then it was back to climbing. By now the smoke had really developed, and was becoming more obvious as the sunset turned the sky a hazy yellow in the mid afternoon. The road was empty and the open savanna country was stunning, as was the sight of a familiar looking van passing by me and stopping…

Big smiles as Falcon gets out to once again bathe me in snacks and pleasant company. This man had been driving around for two days, tracking down all five racers and blessing them with good spirit. It was great suddenly having someone to share that feeling of being alone, tired, in awe of nature, amazed by what your body can do, and full of excitement to keep feeling that way for another week plus. I’m more than happy to spend a while chatting with him. On this departure, he sounds more confident that before that this will be our last encounter. He has yet to pay a visit to Andrew, who I later found out had slept in till around 10 the next morning back in Dillon. 

Leaving Falcon, I feel like I’m really off on my own for the first time. Zach in 2nd place is 12 hours behind me, and Falcon says he doesn’t know if he’ll be doing a third support stop. Fittingly, the smoky sunset adds a bit of an eerie atmosphere. I descend down to Butte to wind through bike paths and underneath freeways. Eating the wonderful pork and pastry concoctions Town Pump has cooked up west of town, I start to feel the smoke in my lungs, more than before. For some reason, it seems to peak around nightfall. Dust kicked up by cars into my face along nondescript gravel roads doesn’t help much. A nice text from my bunkmate from the previous night, Matt, with words of encouragement pushes me onward.

By 11 I make it to Anaconda, a former smelting town I learn later has one of the world’s largest brick smokestacks at 585 feet, though I would never lay eyes on it in the daylight. It is in this peculiar little town that I had heard there is yet another hiker hostel, as it is a stop along the Continental Divide Trail. Not knowing the exact location of it, I wander around a park until I come up to a building with lights on and hear someone inside say something about smoking weed. Hiker trash. Bingo. I come inside to find an exhausted but friendly CDT tramily (trail family) who have been hiking together since New Mexico. We share in our tiredness and a pint of ice cream. I love how the MBO passes through other travel routes: GDMBR, CDT, TransAm. My accommodations of a hard floor covered in a bivy and strategically placed clothing marks the start of what will be most of my sleeps for the rest of the race. 


Day 3

Not feeling good this morning. Lungs and throat hurt from smoke, so I sleep an extra hour. Leaving Anaconda, I feel real bad. Moving surprisingly slowly. Remembering the previous day’s slow start, I am hopeful that again my legs will return and the smoke will leave. Overall, I’m feeling fortunate with how my body is doing. Three days before the start of the MBO I had achilles tendonitis flaring up and some other minor pains following a committing effort at the Fistful of Dirt gravel race. At the time, as I felt these pains come on halfway through the 104 mile six and a half hour ride, I made the choice to push through the pain, knowing that it might bite me in the ass once I got to Montana. The decision paid off in the short term, making 5th place overall and winning my age category. Flash forward five days, and all those minor pains had shaken out. It's amazing what your body can do when you convince it to keep moving. 

Several moments pick me up in the morning. The rising sun shows beautiful cliffs surrounded by pine and fir trees, the air quality improves, and I turn on a new episode of the Bikepack Racing Podcast. Though I always enjoy this show dedicated to the competitive side of bikepacking, this one is especially uplifting as it interviews Hannah Donau, former owner of a micro fleece I am wearing while I listen and pedal along. These pieces of connection to a larger community, though small, help to make it through those lonely moments. The final pick up of the morning is the other kind of human connection that is one of my favorite parts of traveling by bike: a random chat with a local, in this case one who had taken their ATV from home down to the National Forest campground to use the toilet. 

I move on to pass a large lake with a tall industrial building on a pier occupying the middle. Next stop in a pit toilet for a lovely poo. Climbing up the first big hill of the day, I realize again how much fun I’m having and how good it feels to move. It’s nice to get these realizations. On the descent, I make a mental note of a van that might be the first vehicle I’ve seen on this road. Then the van starts pulling off the road. I realize with excitement, and the slightest bit of disappointment that I have to stop, that our pal Falcon has yet again pulled through.

The routine of sitting down, drinking a LaCroix, eating Cheez-its, filling my pockets with raisin boxes (a surprise favorite that I won’t forget), and chatting about life with Falcon is by this point well worn, but in no way worn out. It’s inspiring, if saddening, that this man who so wanted to ride this route again was out here supporting the MBO in other ways. Knowing he couldn’t be out there made me want to ride harder, farther, longer, and to take in and remember even more. 

I could tell this would actually be the last visit, and I was in no hurry to say goodbye. After all, he still had to get to Andrew (he eventually made sure to visit all racers three times before his flight back to Atlanta). And yes, you read that right, Falcon is from Atlanta. 

Leaving the neutral support van, I skirt atop a rolling grassy hill, descended to the adjoining valley, then started a long forested climb following a stream. I stop to see what a family from Nebraska in town for a wedding has pulled off the road to view: a moose, casually foraging. The rest of the climb seems interminable, largely because my Garmin does not note it as one of the 89 supposed climbs along the 1720 mile route. Without the constant data feedback of remaining elevation gain, mileage, and grade that having the climb registered affords, I’m left to guess which of the winding turns will carry me to the apex. An exercise in self control, as I try to avoid thinking “this is it, I’m almost done.” 

When the top does reveal itself, it is unmistakable. I see a wide view through a burn scar down the west side of the mountains. An adrenaline inducing descent takes me down to idyllic country homes and out to the Bitterroot Valley. The view of the Bitterroot Mountains, which I had been excited to see ever since hearing of them back in 2017, is alas mostly obscured by smoke. You can tell that they are beautiful, but you can’t really enjoy their beauty. 

The last few miles of farm fields down to Hamilton brings me in brief contact with a friendly cyclist and a group of golfers. I take a moment to appreciate that my hobby of biking requires little to no extra infrastructure. Besides making, acquiring, and upkeeping a bike (which is, to be fair, still an impactful endeavor), there is little requirement to maintain the land to accommodate the bike, at least compared with many other sports or modes of travel. like skateboarding, I like the freedom this gives a cyclist to wander wherever they please. 

From the gas station in Hamilton I call in a takeout order of burger and fries to the Fireside Restaurant in Stevensville for a takeout order. Right beside the route 20 miles ahead, this joint was recommended by one of the youth trail crew members I lead during the summer. With the now-scheduled pickup time as a motivator, I time trial my way north on the bike path. There’s very little scenery to entertain me, paralleling the busy highway 93, so I stay engaged with Behind the Basterds, racing the clock, and some especially memorable Dots pretzels. 

Arriving right on time, the burger hits the spot. I follow it down with a cup of ranch dressing and put the fries in my top tube bag for easy access snacking. Eying the tracker, it looks like the next racer is 90 miles back. Though I love riding and pushing myself alone, I can’t help feel I’m missing out by not having someone baring down the back of my neck or just ahead of me for motivation. Just another aspect of bikepack racing to aim for and look forward to in a different race. 

In the meantime, the bike path is becoming winding and rolling as it makes its way into Missoula. I can see the Bitterroot River roaring below me down a steep hill. In the city, the route takes me on circuitously through many small parks and pathways, giving me a chance to check in with what people in the “real world” are up on one of the last nice evenings of the year. Playing with dogs, gardening, out for walks or bike rides. I’ve visited Missoula a couple times, and it’s always struck me as a city I would love to live in. Though I had mapped out several delicious and quick meals here, given the timing and my recent (and first of the race) sit down meal in Stevensville, I opt for the Town Pump and move on west out of town. 

For the sunset and first riding of this night, I’m treated to rolling forest roads, with occasional views off to the Clark Fork River. Around midnight I make it to the first of something I had heard much about and looked forward to in this race: a pit toilet home. Finding the adjacent parking lot empty, the door unlocked, and interior clean, I feel a great sense of relief inside. I’ve arrived. And with service! After a brief (who am I kidding, I spent 20 minutes) look at Instagram and text to my mom, it’s off to dream of bike riding. 


Day 4

Nice early start at the tail end of a cold night. I leave the pit toilet and cross the Clark Fork River in the pitch black. First stop is a water fill up at the Ninemile historic ranger station. I hope I didn’t freak anyone out searching around the many buildings for the spigot. As I left and headed back west, one of the most memorable and terrifying wildlife experiences of the whole ride shocked me to fully awake. I heard crashing hooves on all sides of me, and the sounds of elk. My headlight barely caught one of them, but other than that I could only hear the sound of an elk herd crossing the road all around me. I yelled to make sure they knew I was there, fearing one might run into me. 

Giving me more confidence as I ride is how well prepared I feel for the cold. I love the freedom and adaptability of a good clothing set up, with a bounty of zippers, flaps, velcro, and overlapping layers keeping me at a comfortable temp in all manner of settings. The decision to go with bibs is a highlight, preventing any skin exposure between pants and shirt. The current air is hitting the high 20’s, according to my Garmin, and I’m quite happy with down pants and a down jacket still packed away in my saddle bag. 

As the sun starts to rise, lighting up a gorgeous lush forest of firs and ferns, I start a solid 2,000-foot climb. My memory of this one is of many games to trick myself into continuing to pedal. “Three more switchbacks and you can eat a Reese’s Fast Break.”… “no looking at the Garmin until there’s fewer than 1,000 feet of gain left.” Near the top, where expansive views of forested mountains reveal themselves, I take a break to adjust my brakes. Trees make fantastic makeshift bike stands. 

Remembering the wise words of James Mark Hayden’s blog, I put on warm layers just 50 feet from the top. The descent down the southwest side is fast. Almost too fast. It’s always off thinking back to how comfortable one can get with hairy descents after doing so many of them so frequently. Deer run across the road. The view down to the Clark Fork River opens up, and in no time at all I’m back in civilization rolling along the river. I cross the bridge into Superior and have some delightful gas station pizza and full delayering.

It’s a warm, sunny, pleasant day. Rolling paved roads and a lack of smoke make it even better. Here and until the evening I would stay low following the Clark Fork north and west. I knew there would be a bike trail to follow this section, however I was surprised by how chunky it was, for the most part. Somewhat due to scenery boredom, partly due to road noise from I-90, and likely due to accumulating fatigue, it’s a rough going 8 hours. I find solace in the A Hot Dog is a Sandwich podcast and singing pop songs.

Two more gas station stops come and go in a blur, highlighted only by a friendly hunter on an ATV and an accidental detour up a steep chunky road for several miles (whoops). Coming up to the divide that marks the Montana-Idaho border, the multi-use trail climbs up some switchbacks and comes to a tunnel, blocked off by “do not enter” signs and a wall of jersey barriers three high. At this point, I’m determined, and decide to not do the smart move of making a game time routing audible, and instead make an attempt on the dark, foreboding tunnel. I tie a strap onto my saddle and lean the bike close against the barriers. Thankful for several years of rock climbing experience, I mount onto the six-foot tall stack of concrete and hoist the bike up via the saddle strap. It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s refreshing to use non-pedaling muscles. 

After gently dropping my rig onto the other side, I proceed into the dank tunnel. It’s quickly clear why it’s blocked off. Chunks of concrete from the ceiling litter the ground. I pass through with haste, stopping only to take one photo. The other side of jersey barriers is just as challenging, but I get over it with no hiccups. 

The trail tops out high above the freeway and river below at a ski resort. Descending to the west, I make the crossing into Idaho. The first stop is a gas station in the mining town of Mullan. This one takes longer than it should. My brain is feeling a bit fried. On the plus side, all of my poops to this point are in gas station bathrooms. Great places to waste time browsing Instagram and To my mind, by this point, it seems I’ll easily make first place if I don’t blow up. I switch my focus more towards my pre-race goal of a finish in under 10 days: just over 170 miles per day. 

Leaving Mullan is a fun, if cold, paved trail descent down to the charming town of Wallace. Here I pick up two burritos from local joint Muchachos Tacos with a kind owner. Under the I-90 overpass that covers the downtown, I scarf down one as fast as I can given the spiciness, and save the other to have right before bed. 

From here the MBO route turns north away from the Clark Fork to ascend mountain passes. This is a section that is only part of the route due to fires in Idaho. On the way out of town I pass a Forest Service sign with a map showing that I’ll be passing just west of the nearby wildfire. Yet somehow, the smoke is not bad, likely due to wind direction. 

The last bits of sun come down on a paved climb. The road is surprisingly empty of cars and a sunset shines around me. Once I reach the top and the sun is completely gone, it’s cold. I layer up right before the top so that I can rewarm myself after the stop. The descent down the other side has me pull over to put on more clothes again. 

Now down in deep valleys winding along the river, it again feels good to be in my ball of warmth despite the cold. Soon I make it to a planned stopping point:  another pit toilet. This one is again clean and the parking lot is empty. After eating the second burrito, it’s off to dreamland with ease. 


Day 5

Up before dawn once more to start a major climb. My Garmin informs me I'm 2,500 feet straight up. Without service and totally in the dark, this one feels especially out there. No cars have I seen. These long climbs are something to savor. I love the state of mind you reach by experiencing such a long unbroken period of excretion. Makes you want to sing. It is a moving meditation. Emotions and thoughts rise to the surface without warning and hit you with force. Best to take advantage of sudden feelings of appreciation and record a voice memo to send to someone special. 

Close to the top of the hill, I need to poop. I try to hold it off until the end (always best not to draw out a hill climb), but I can’t, and soon have to dig a hole for the first time of the trip. Just as I finish making a pit two entire feet from the road, sunrise is revealing the forested views around me, and the first truck of the day I can hear coming up the road. No time to stop now, this gopher is coming out of its hole. Fast forward 30 seconds past the world’s fastest bowel movement, and the truck passes by with my bibs just barely up over my bottom. 

Minutes later, I’m at the top. The sun is up now, and it’s a crisp clear morning up at 5,200 on the ridge . I start the switchbacking descent promptly, towards the fog-blanketed valley. A quick, hairy descent full of smiles and singing (the sleep deprivation is setting in) brings me down to Noxon Rapids Reservoir. I take a few brief moments to pet the dogs of campers out for a morning walk and to take in the fog that is lifting off the water just as the sun starts to cook it. 

A little further over some gently rolling forest roads brings me to the town of Trout Creek on the banks of the reservoir. The grocery stop is highlighted by raisins and a quick call in with mom, then it’s off to cross the Noxon. But hang on, first I have to find a trash can because I forgot to throw away my trash. I find a bot launch and a bin and carry my bike up some stairs back to the road. Oh, wait, now I need sunscreen and my chain needs to be cleaned and regreased. As sleep deprivation continues, it gets harder to condense all your stops into one. Efficiency inevitably declines. 

Now actually on the move, it’s north through some remote forest roads until the next resupply in 60 miles. One of the longer lifeless stretches of this fairly easily resupplied route. By this point in day five, with the usual midday-slog coming up, boredom starts to set in. Fortunately, I’ve hatched a plan to defeat it: fast biking. Most ultra cycling is trying to move with as little effort as possible. Why not switch it up? That’s it! I’ll entertain myself with a workout.

This idea does not turn out well. If I’m honest, I can’t remember much of the next 6 hours. What I can distinctly recall is calling out lazily to all the animals I saw, as well as a 10 minute nap on the side of the road that was interrupted by a nice man stopping his truck to ask if I was ok. What stands out vividly from my fatigue was when I was slowly freewheeling down a paved road, and looked left to see a black bear stand up from behind the deer carcass it was eating. We stared at each other for what seemed an eternity from a minimum distance of no less than 10 feet as I rolled by at 15 mph. By the time either of us had time to process what was happening, I was well down the road. 

Woken up by the encounter, I pedal hard down a fun mellow paved descent and up and down the bluffs beside the Kootenai River into Libby in the late afternoon sun. I'm feeling like I need to stop early tonight. Lots of gas station food is eaten. The sun feels oppressive. The cars and air pollution of this logging town feel oppressive. I make a call to my girlfriend, which comes as a breath of fresh air. I pass through a chainsaw wood carving demonstration happening in the north of town, and have to stop for a selfie in front of one of the bear carvings. Before the MBO started, us competitors had joked about seeing who could obtain the most of such selfies throughout the experience. This stop put me in the lead.

Leaving town to the north, crossing bridges and starting climbs, I put on my “romantic mix” on Spotify, an AI-generated collection of my liked songs and suggested pairings, mostly of old RnB and bolero with some classical mixed in. It’s odd how the combination of exertion, beautiful views of nature, and isolation can bring about the deepest emotions.

The rest of the evening and into the night are pure bliss. The sun sets, the music plays, and I turn to positive reflection and appreciation for the landscape around me.  Powering up a silent climb, I make a voice memo for an old friend I haven’t seen in years. 

At the top, light is fading and the general store in the outpost of Yaak is closing soon. It’s not completely necessary, but I’m low on water and would love some sugar to carry me to Eureka tomorrow morning. I find some hidden energy and unload to get there in time. Music feels better than it’s ever felt and the pedals turn with speed and ease, assisted by a slight downhill. The calculations inside my head suggest I need to make 21 mph to get there in time, and my Garmin makes it seem I’m achieving that. 

When I get to Yaak, it’s too late. Just a few minutes past 9 pm and the store is closed. The next option I have planned is to fill my bottles from the nearby stream, but as I do a quick look around town, I find an open bar, lively on a Friday night. If you’ve seen Top Gun: Maverick, then the reaction to my arrival in lycra and a helmet will be familiar: like an astronaut dropped out of space, hungry to find sustenance at the local pub. 

I leave town with two bidons full of sprite and one with Coke (the latter for a caffeine hit in the morning). It’s a quick 17 miles to the next pit toilet, and my high from before is broken only briefly when I stop playing music and realize again how vulnerable I am out here. Some singing and friendly greetings to any potential bears lessens the somber feeling. 

In the motionless minutes before falling asleep, my mind conjures vivid and quick images of made up cartoon characters. Despite this activity, I sleep well. It’s as if my brain never really turns off, but stays active, yet nonetheless I feel energized and rested the next day. Just too excited for what the next day will bring.


Day 6

Cue the morning muffin, cue the hill climb in the dark. I take a moment to appreciate the cob webs that have formed on my aero bars. Cue the nice sunrise from the top. Not much traffic and smooth tarmac rolling over the bridge on Lake Koocanusa and out of the forest a bit to Eureka. Another bridge takes me to my resupply in the town. Lots of time spent charging devices and eating ice cream. No matter how cold, and it is a cold morning, ice cream is always a treat. Partly this is due to the state of my mouth by this point. After several days of mouth breathing, sugary drinks, and a dearth of dental hygiene, your lips and tongue start to grow sore and swollen. Ironically, this sensitive state makes the prospect of eating real food more difficult, leading to the consumption of more soda, ice cream, and chocolate milk, and thus more mouth sores. 

From here the route turns generally southeast, first past farm fields in the Tobacco River valley. It’s a welcome change of pace after the relatively rugged wilderness that was northwestern Montana to see a more pastoral scene. I can see just the slightest first hints of fall color change here in early September. 

Once the route turns me towards its first climb out of (and eventually back down to) the valley I feel that same wave of tiredness as the day before. This time I make no effort to fight it off and instead immediately find a drainage ditch beside the road to lay down, helmet on, to snooze for 20 minutes. Almost more than the actual sleep, the opportunity to find stillness is rejuvenating. After spending every moment of every day towards the goal of movement, the body and mine crave a moment to simply relax, listen, and feel. It is crucial to any ultra endurance effort to tactically take time to absorb as the muscle of focus becomes strained. 

Moving on and up the modest climb, I’m rewarded with a fun winding rocky descent through open pine forest. I stop once to watch in awe as a local harvesting firewood drags a felled tree with a chain attached to his truck. Several minutes later I slow down to greet a whole family, toddlers and all, devoted to a similar task to prepare for the coming winter. I cherish these scenes of regular people gently borrowing from the land to sustain themselves. 

Returning to the valley, the route takes me on US-93, but fortunately I find a gravel path that runs parallel, and make sure to text the other riders behind of this escape opportunity from the highway. Ahead is a gas station, and an attendant hosing down the pumps with a power washer. I ask him to spray down my bike, and he happily obliges and offers a sponge as well. Inside the gas station I wander around for several minutes before deciding I don’t need anything. 

I leave the highway again and take a nice pathway along Dickey Lake. It’s hot now and the water looks mighty enticing, but I remind myself of my goals. One more cross of the 93 and it’s on to a rather exciting bit of paralleling double track and then a long gravel climb up into the mountains again. This one takes a while. At the top the road crosses a stream and I make the rock hopping descent down to the water to fill up. I realize now why the climb felt so especially arduous. The smoke has returned. 

I don’t remember much of the 15 miles to white fish. It’s a blur of wildfire smoke and dust from four wheelers. On the rolling paved road that skirts around Whitefish Lake I make note of the mansions and how not even Stevie Wonder’s Definitive Collection can bring me away from the desire to eat and leave the town as fast as I can, partially wanting to get to known pit toilet sleeping as quick as I can and partially wanting to avoid this wealthy resort town. 

On the bright side, I find a health food store with lots to choose from. Tillamook cheddar is a highlight. I also catch a riveting conversation on how silly it is to change the names of sports teams away from racial slurs. Fortunately outside the store as I’m loading the 8,000 calories on my bike I have a nice chat with a man who’s endlessly curious about what it is I’m doing. 

On the way out of town I eat some delightful sushi. The route is a blocky assortment of turns through the flat valley and many houses. We pass through downtown Columbia Falls and I stop to ask a bartender to fill my bottles. Love the looks from the vacationing families in Patagucci attire. As the sun is starting to set, I’m  feeling great to leave town on a full belly. But just as I remark internally at how much I hate the wide busy road I’m rushing down, I get the unmistakable sound and feeling of a tire spraying me with sealant. 

I wait a minute to see if it will self-seal, but no luck and soon my rear tire is looking mighty flat. I pull over on the sidewalk to investigate. A simple plug and pump doesn’t do the trick. A policeman stops to offer assistance, but he’s soon bored by my ramblings about why the tire won’t plug and speeds off. I take a deep breath, realizing this could take a while. 

I take the time to remove the tire and take my repair kit down to a park just off the road. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Sitting on a rock trying to remedy the problem, a cyclist in high-viz gear shows up to help me out. He’s a nice chap, local, and keeps my company while I work on it. Thanks to his words and the nicer surroundings away from the traffic of the road, I’m soon able to get it to a point where I just need to keep riding, or so I think. With the way the liquid sealants work in modern tubeless tires, it’s often good to ride on a slow leak, which allows the centrifugal force to send sealant to where it needs to go. 

I thank the man, reattach the wheel and I’m off to races. Not 10 minutes later, I stop to re-repump the tire. And again. And again. By the time the sun is fully gone down, I’m 5 miles further and still having the pump every so often. Then on one fateful pump stop, I find that the problem is actually a different hole. I plug that one, and am finally back to smooth riding. I think here my problem was not stopping soon enough when I initially got the flat. I ran on a flat tire and allowed the rim to damage the tire further. 

Now well behind schedule for the day, I’m searching forested areas for any spot to camp. Unfortunately, it’s all private land and still many houses. After scoping out a preschool and worrying that if I’m found sleeping I’ll be “that guy”, I settle for a pit toilet a few miles off route on a peninsula into Echo Lake. With the long stops and the flat tire debacle, I end up with a lackluster 148 miles for the day. When I show up around midnight there is somebody taking their boat out of the water after what I’m assuming was the best day of fishing ever. I’m too tired to explain myself, and simply wheel into the pit toilet and lock the door. Night night. 


Day 7

Up in the dark, and off to some paved roads and cross a bridge. By the time the sun starts shining, I see it’s a foggy one this morning. Off pavement and on some dirt for a nice long morning ascent. Not much for views given the fog, but the cool moist air feels good. I listen/sing along to Bo Burnham’s Inside, one of my favorite albums of the year. Singing really helps one get through those tough moments. I don’t actually belt out much given how my respiratory system is occupied by the effort of pedaling, but just barely mouthing the words gets you excited enough. An exception is the full effort I give to White Woman’s Instagram, a touching and comical number about a woman coping with loss and moving on with life disguised as a simple farce on social media. 

A couple more climbs on forested obscured roads and I take a break to fill water at a creek. Coming from my current home of Arizona, I’m amazed how much running water there is in western Montana. Not many views open up for the next 40 miles or so, and not much more can I report but for the mist slowly turning back to smoke. By the time I hit the next landmark of Holland Lake and a water spigot in the afternoon, the air quality is once again a drag. 

Filling my water, I take a look at the map. To resupply at the next town, Seeley Lake, in 11 miles would be a 4 mile detour. 26 miles after that Ovando would be closed by the time I roll through, then another 38 to Lincoln. I assess my food situation to see if I wanna do 75 miles before resupplying. I decide to try and rush the next 37 miles to Ovando to maybe try and make it before they close, and if I’m not making good time can drop off to Seeley Lake. Off I rush with fresh bottles flavored with electrolyte powder.

These kinds of calculations really keep me interested over long stretches of monotony. I’ve always had a soft spot for math and this and whatever other relevant arithmetic is a bit of a treat for my often under-stimulated mind.  

I start off at a good pace, rushing up and down forested smooth gravel. Great, even, until half an hour later I realize I’d taken a wrong turn. That just about dashes any hopes of skipping Sealey Lake that I had. However, I’m now free to enjoy a climb up into some high mountains, giving amazing views of the cliffy peaks of The Swan Range off to my left across the valley. 

Eventually the road becomes a trail as I bisect two boulders demarcating the end of vehicle allowance. The trail is still an old road, but there is a defined single track within the old road grade, surrounded by new bushes and wildflowers reclaiming the land. It’s truly a gorgeous sight, as the trail/road winds its way around a mountain peak. Soon I lose much ability to enjoy the view as the climb turns to a descent and the wide road bed to a narrow path on a steep slope. I try my hardest to stay afloat with my rigid gravel bike and skinny 45 mm tires. 

Fortunately no falls in what would turn out to be the most technical part of the whole route. I return to smooth gravel for a speedy descent through a recently burned forest on the way down to Seeley Lake about 5 pm. Outside the grocery store I find a bikepacker headed north on the GDMBR. Our differences in style are immediately obvious. I’ve got aero bars, he has a bow and arrow. For clear reasons, I stop to chat with him. Not only is he hunting with the bow, he also has paper maps only. A legend. I hope to later tour in such a low-and-slow fashion, but first have to scratch the itch of speed. Both approaches have their merits, but I haven't figured out how to do both at the same time, and right now I’m going fast. 

On the way out of town I buy some burgers at local fast food joint The Ice Cream Stand, taking the wait time to put on new brake pads. Soon I’m on my way back to the route. I plan to make it 64 miles to Lincoln to sleep at the town park’s public bathrooms. An added treat and motivation as there i can get my first and only shower of the 10 day trip. 

Rolling through forest roads headed east above the Cottonwood Lakes I catch a glimpse of another black bear. I switch my bear spray from the front fork to a back jersey pocket. Soon the sun starts to go down and I’m treated to yet another unforgettable Montana sunset. This one is soundtracked by the somber string arrangement Fantasia on a Theme from the movie Master and Commander. I’ve seen and loved the film countless times, yet in my current state I’m struck by the beauty of the song in a unique way. I’d never appreciated its juicy sadness before, but this time I’m brought to tears. Perhaps it’s how lonely I am, perhaps it’s the never ending scenery, and perhaps it’s the emotional intensity of what I’m putting myself through. One of my favorite moments of the whole MBO experience. 

I seize the moment to stay on the soundtrack train, and load up the original Star Wars score as light gives way to total darkness and I’m happily pushing along with a smile. Soon I make it to Ovando and wave to a possible camera outside the Blackfoot Angler, a famous stop along the Tour Divide. It’s a bit like role playing as a Tour Divide racer in these moments. I plan to some day test myself along the granddaddy of all bikepacking races. For now I just enjoy the simple pleasures of wheeling through a tiny town in the wee hours when not a peep can be heard.

Next in the night riding is some open plain country and plenty of washboarding.  Then back up to the mountains for a final bit of climbing before Lincoln. The climb goes on and on, as does the chunk factor of the road and my general spook factor biking around here at night. The spook is noticed when I take an ear bud out for a moment. 

It’s not so much a fear of the dark that gets me. Those nights lying awake frozen and terrified that so robbed my child and teenage years of much sleep have fortunately not followed me into adulthood. No, it’s more of the bizarre disconnect between me and the surroundings that can make night riding feel unsettling. Here’s this quiet peaceful environment, and here’s a panting singing caffeine-buzzed lunatic speeding through forcing the Madden ‘08 soundtrack into his ears and Fritos into his gullet. I’d like to get better at being more at one with my surroundings in night riding, but it’s hard for reasons that are completely sane and reasonable. In short, I guess it’s not the dark forest that’s spooky, but the crazed state that I have to put myself in in order to move through the dark forest. 

I return to the world of the Madden soundtrack and mouth the words as I make my way down to Lincoln, not before an 8 mile stretch of flat road coming into town that feels never ending. Off to the main square park, and I find a large public bathroom, just as Graham had told me before the race. It’s 3AM and I plan to be gone by 8. No guilt in locking the door and taking it over at such an hour. Clothes off and into the shower for a quick rinse, making sure to pay close attention to those areas that are pressed up on a saddle all day long. Then I wash my bibs in the sink and hang them up to dry. Puffy jacket and puffy pants on, onto the floor, asleep. 


Day 8

I wake at 7 to somebody trying to get into the bathroom. Guess I misjudged my assumptions on the use of this facility. Embarrassed, I quickly pack up and go outside to sleep another hour in the grass, leaving the bathroom available. This morning I have someone else to be accountable to, as I have an appointment to get to. Some friends were living in Lincoln at the time, and this would be my only chance to see them during this trip. I checked with the race director and with myself, and decided it would be stupid to forgo a rare opportunity to see these friends in favor of technical racing ethics. In my heart, I knew this brief interaction would not give me an unfair advantage in this adventure. 

So, I get up again at a set time, did a pickup in town of coffee, breakfast burritos, and candy, and continue down the highway to the folks I knew living at the Forest Service work station beside the MBO route. After 15 minutes or so of catching up, I feel like it’s time to go. It feels odd taking a moment away from race mode to chit chat. I feel both that I’m too sleep deprived and smooth-brained at the time to be good company, and also that if I stayed too long my body would start to shut down. Best to keep moving and see you next time. 

The highway climb out of Lincoln over Roger’s Pass is one I’ve done in a car in the other direction back in 2020. Fun to remember that covid road trip and happy to be back, this time on a bicycle. The climb is also notable as on the other side you cannot see the next mountains. The next 300 or so miles would be mountain-less, as I get to experience another side of Montana: the plains. 

Though seen by some as the boring part of the state, I was quite looking forward to the grasslands. I’m drawn to riding in these areas of expansive views and shining sunlight through the fields. As I come to the first gravel turnoff into rolling hills of dry yellow grass surrounded by basalt crags, I think of the Asian steppe and throw on some of the Russian folk band Huun-Huur-Tu (the album Ancestor’s Call is full of bangers). 

There are some small climbs up to savannah type terrain, such as up to the Birdtail Divide, and then it starts to feel more like the Midwest. Miles are flying by and I’m feeling good, until I get struck by an STA (Sudden Tired Attack). During a speedy, straight, and fun downhill,

out of nowhere, I feel myself starting to fall asleep, and immediately I pull over for a 10 minute nap in the ditch on the side of the road. It’s weird how during a moment of fun, excitement, and stoke, your body can decide to remind you that you’ve slept less than half what you should’ve for the last seven nights. 

Feeling refreshed, I easily take the last 15 miles to Cascade and the first resupply of the day around noon (or at least I think that’s how I got there. TBH having trouble recalling what happened here. Either that little nap didn’t do enough to wake me up, or I should write out these race reports fewer than 10 months after the fact). In the grocery store I do the usual: avoid people in the store to not invade them with my stench, chug chocolate milk, and wander the aisles wondering what I should buy for way too long. Only later would I remember this was the town where Graham Goff recommended getting pastries from the Homestead Cafe. Next time. 

Outside I eat the Doritos that most grabbed my fancy, and speed out of town. I cross over the wide Missouri River, which brings home the feeling of being somewhere in Illinois. I think of the water below me eventually getting to other places I’ve been: Minneapolis, the Driftless Area, St Louis, New Orleans. Up on a plateau, the straight gravel roads at right angles separating fields of hay and alfalfa make me think of the Unbound gravel race, which I’m listening to a podcast about. I spend the next hour pretending I’m in a 200 mile race (a comically small number of miles). There are folks fishing alongside massive cottonwood trees as I cross the Missouri back to the west side and into the town of Ulm. I blink and miss the town. 

Another 15 miles and I’m seeing what look like suburbs of a bigger city. Turns out Great Falls is kind of great. I dodge a bit of traffic on the main road and stop into a gas station for dinner: several hot dogs down the hatch, followed by more chocolate milk and ice cream. Outside, I’m stopped by an older man who asks what I’m up to. He shares that he’s always wanted to do an adventure like this, and doesn’t know if he ever will. I tell him it’s not too late. Even if by car, go out and take yourself far away to a place where you don’t know what you’ll find. You’ll certainly find something. 

This vulnerable moment from the man is touching, and makes me think. What’s holding him back from his dreams? How come I’ve been able to do this and he’s lived a life surely twice as long as mine  and hasn’t had the same opportunity? One big reason is I’ve had a lot of kind people both inspire and encourage me. I’m gonna take a moment away from writing to thank some people who have helped me to lead an adventurous life (mom, dad, college professors, my excellent friends). Though great personal growth can come from experiences had while on your own, nobody gets there by themselves. I hope I could give that man some inspiration, and that he finds the trip he is looking for. 

Back to the task at hand, the route takes me to a series of paths through a park along the Missouri River. The place has the hustle and bustle of a good sized city. On the way out of town I pass some industrial goings on. Turns out there’s a large Air Force base and nuclear weapons program in the area.

Up to more gravel and dirt roads in rolling fields of grass and some crops. The sun is starting to go down, but I should be able to make the 45 miles to Fort Benton before the store closes at 10. After that it’s 30 miles to the first ferry crossing, which starts at 7 the next morning. So, I can sleep somewhere in between and time it so I get to the ferry right as it opens. Then it’s 80 miles to the second ferry and that runs until 7pm, so I should clear it easily. MBO in under 10 days, here we go! What could possibly go wrong? 

The first thing was my Garmin glitching out, telling me to turn left on E Avocado St, which allowed me to waste time and energy on complaining to the void about it, but brought no real issue. The real issue that soon followed was the rain. I was actually excited to get some rain, since it had been so hot and dry the last eight days. Once it started as predicted around sunset, I put on my rain gear and basked in the cooling shower. Soon after I got stuck in the byproduct of rain: mud.

The hours flew by but the miles did not. Not even the Star Wars soundtrack could save me here. I decided that whenever I made it to Fort Benton, I would splurge for the only motel stay of the trip. 

There wasn’t much bike riding happening that night. I pushed my bike well past complete darkness. It was a moment in which every time I would stop for just a second, I would realize how spent I was, but just kept finding energy to push on. However it was becoming clear that I would need to stop to sleep soon. The 10pm closing time of the gas station in Fort Benton came and went, and they didn’t open again for eight hours, so I was in no hurry. What was I gonna do, sleep in the mud in my bivy while it rained on me? The thought did cross my mind, but another thought was that if I found a barn, an abandoned house, any sort of cover I would take it. I thought about just pushing past Fort Benton without resupply, but I’d have to wait for the ferry to open anyways.  So, best to sleep in or before Fort Benton. 

Eventually around midnight I started seeing lights on the horizon. Maybe some shelter I can sleep in? As the lights inch closing and closer, it dawns on me that it is the tiny town of Carter. Reinvigorated, I push my bike on to find somewhere to sleep. Immediately, I see a big barn with a small one-sided shack next to it. Bingo. 

Quietly, and while rehearsing in my head how I would explain myself if accosted, I push my bike around the fence and under the cover of the shed. It’s perfect. There’s even a bed of hay for me to sleep on, my very own manger in Bethlehem giving the most comfortable lay of the trip. 

I should mention, this is most likely trespassing, so I should explain my reasoning. One, the shack is unused, but for some hay, and a good few hundred yards from any inhabited houses, so I shouldn’t be disturbing anyone, livestock or human. Two, I’m arriving around 1am and leaving at 5, well before sunrise, so the chances of an encounter are low. Three, people are generally nice, and if someone does find me and is not nice, I can apologize and leave. Four, this is a risk. No doubt, there is still a chance I could land myself in trouble here. But my thinking is that the risk I’m posing is to myself. I’m not causing any harm, and am willing to take on personal risk in this rare situation of desperation during a big adventure. If anyone has thoughts otherwise, slide into my DMs.  This is a gray area in ultra cycling, and in life in general, and I’m open to other opinions. 

And with that, so ends day eight. Though I’ve covered just 35 miles in the last six hours, and just 116 miles on the day, hopes are still high that I can make the second ferry before closing on day nine and then blast through the final 300 miles in one push to complete the MBO in under 240 hours. 


Day 9

After a pleasant night's sleep of four hours in the hay shack, I awake to darkness and further rain. Spirits are high, but first off I need water. Ironically given the rains, I’m fresh out of the stuff. I take a look around a church to see if there’s a spigot to no avail. Fortunately, find a faucet next to the town hall. After a quick fill up, it’s off to dark wet roads over to Fort Benton with no drama. 

Rolling up to the gas station right as it makes its 6am opening, I’m feeling victorious listening to the ending ceremony music from A New Hope. After washing my stead and slamming some microwave burritos, the sun rises as I cross the Missouri back over to the east. It’s dry for now, but I know more rain is coming. It hits while I’m climbing up onto the bluffs that line the river. Gives a feel of Iceland or Scotland. Quite enjoying it while I’m on a paved road. 

Sure enough, as it always does, the paved road leads to a dirt road, and though the clouds, light, and scenery are breathtaking, I’m again deflated by a slowdown from mud. It’s not as bad this time. Just makes the wheels turn a lot less easily. But progress is progress. The main concern now is just how dirty my bike is getting. It can be quite fun to get your body all dirty, cause wet will always dry and we are amazingly regenerative. The bike, on the other hand, does not really fix itself, save for the magic of tubeless tires. 

The grinding of mud and grit running through every moving part of my Salsa Warbird is ever present in my mind, making me wince. Without any bodies of water in this dry grass and scrub landscape in which to clean my drive train, there’s not much I can do but push on. Progress is again slow, putting me behind the planned 8am arrival at the ferry. I take a poop behind the only tree for miles around. 

Finally, just barely into the afternoon, I come to one of the big highlights of the MBO route: a ferry. This is not a boat you wait in line with cars for, listening to a loud speaker telling you to keep an eye on your belongings and know where to find the lifeboats. No, this much simpler, magical experience, first run in 1913, would be right at home in Huckleberry Finn. 

I arrive at the ferry by descending off the bluffs back down to the Missouri River. I see a telephone pole on either side of the river, connected by a wire across the muddy water. Other than that, my side of the crossing looks like a boat launch, with the dirt road descending right down into the river. On the opposite side, 100 yards away or so, I can see a house amongst some trees as well as the great vessel itself. Taking Graham instructions from before the race, I press the button on my telephone pole. 

A loud buzzer rings out, breaking up the peaceful riverside scene. After a minute or so, a woman comes out of the house and walks casually down to the ferry. She starts up the loud engine and putters the flat bottomed craft over to my side, with the engine turning wheels to pull it along the cross-river cable. When she gets to my side, after another few minutes, it’s a quick hello and I’m onto the boat.

During the crossing back over to her side, I have a lot of time to think up questions to ask the 60-something year old caretaker while the engine noise forbids conversation. Once we arrive and the engine is quiet, she apologizes for the time it took her to get outside after I rang the buzzer. “I was in the middle of canning in preparation for the winter.” She told me she’s one of two full time residents of the town of Virgelle, the other owning the mercantile just up the road. She also told me about a family that had taken the ferry earlier that day, who were in the middle of a walk across the state following a trip their ancestor had taken to Canada, whose border lay some 70 miles north. Wish I could remember more of what the caretaker had told me then, but memory is what it is. 

Washing my bike in the Missouri as best I could, I thought about how wonderful it was that jobs such as hers still existed, ones that seem to stretch back in time. 

She operates and maintains a sacred relic for the few people who live nearby and for travelers like myself, and in exchange she gets to live in this beautiful and remote place. A simple yet complicated arrangement I’m sure. 

Heading north and up the bluff from the ferry, I pass the walkers and their support vehicle on their way to Canada. Safe travels, friends. A minute later I’m in downtown Virgelle and the Virgelle mercantile. I step inside the old hotel to find an almost entirely wooden interior made to look like an old general store, complete with 80 year old magazines. Again, I’m astounded that such a place exists. 

Now, after my mud slow downs put me off schedule, it’s decision time. It’s 80 miles to the next ferry, and it closes in just six hours. Do I try for the 13 mph average speed to make it out in time, hoping I don’t hit mud again, or do I take my time and have a nap and a full resupply in the upcoming town of Big Sandy? While with hindsight I wish I’d pushed to get to the ferry, I must have been pretty tired and hungry at the time, cause I opted for the chiller pace and more food option, partially because I need to give the mud time to dry out, as by now the sky is clear and the sun is blazing down. 

Outside the store, I sit to drink a coke and eat ice cream. A couple on a road trip chats me up a bit, but I think I just mostly chuckled to them in return. For the people who witness someone in such a state, it must elicit either a positive or negative reaction. One extreme is “what is this idiot doing? He’s pushed himself to the limit and he’s acting silly.” The other is “this man is at the pinnacle of existence and is chasing his dreams.” I can’t imagine a bystander having any middle ground of opinion. 

Rolling out of Virgelle, the mud is still giving a bit of stick. I think about how if I’m not pushing to make the ferry, I might as well wait for the mud to dry out a bit. Right on cue, I pass a culvert. My heart skips a beat. I turn off and beeline towards it. Inside, it’s cool and plenty big for a quick nap, which is just what I do. 15 blissful minutes on the concrete. 

I wake up feeling slightly refreshed, slightly out of it, and crawl out of my hole to greet Mr. Sun. Looks like the fellow has done its job, as I’m able to spin along the dirt road with ease. I come up to join the highway, and take the six miles into Big Sandy. Upon finding the little grocery store, I load up. Two big sandwiches, carrots, and kefir (a delicious yogurt drink) go down the hatch. Still lacking phone service, I ask the cashier for a weather update, and he informs me it should be dry for the next day. 

Feeling good now on the way southeast out of town, leaving civilization once more. The sun beats down on me for a couple small climbs, but a playlist of new hyper pop music keeps me upright. Fortunately the sun starts easing up and heading down soon, and I get to enjoy the pine and juniper covered hills around me. It’s 60 miles down to the Missouri, where I’ll have to wait until 7am to cross. I fly there in about four hours, pausing only to say hi to a friendly ranch dog with some horses, hanging in my aero bars and in love with the sunset all the while. My somewhat drunken but blissful mindset is evidenced by the silly videos I take. 

In the end, maybe I could have made the 7pm ferry after all, if I’d tried. C’est la vie. I gingerly take the steep dirt switchbacks down the bluffs to the Missouri. It’s fully dark by now, but I can tell I’m missing out on an amazing view. 

When I get to the crossing around 9pm, I find a campground with a bit of a party going on. I’d love to sleep in the pit toilet there, but I can’t justify it with so many people there. So, I take the opportunity for my first actual camp out of the trip, walking a few hundred yards from the campground and laying down between the sage bushes. 

Having missed the ferry today, I’m effectively out of the running for a 10 day finish. I’d have to cover the final 300 miles in about 23 hours. No thanks. So, I console myself with still having pushed myself well, and still having an exciting 300 mile effort ahead of me. I’ve only ever done 200 miles before. Who knows what will happen? Best to save the excitement for tomorrow and take advantage of the eight hours of rest I have ahead of me. 


Day 10+

A 6am wake up feels like I’ve slept in till noon and I’m feeling quite well rested as I pack up and head for the ferry. The operator lives in a house on this side of the crossing, and comes right outside to take me across as soon as 7 o’clock rolls around. With the morning light now shining through bits of fog settled above the water, I can now see the Upper Missouri Breaks environment I missed out on last night. Steep, jagged bluffs, dotted by pine trees, rise from the calm reflective Missouri waters. I take a moment to bask in it while the ferry putters across, anticipating the many hours of movement I still have left. 

Once I say a quick thank you and goodbye to the operator, the first task of the day is to ascend the bluffs up onto the plateau. Steep roads require a bit of pushing the bike, but the task is quickly dealt with. Soon the pine trees give way to the unending sea of yellow grass and I’m back in the plains. After 15 quick and mostly barren miles, I’m in the old west-feeling small town of Winifred. At the little grocery store in town I rest my bike against the building a la tying my horse up on the hitching post and dip inside to fill up supplies for the next 85 miles. The shopkeep is nice and talkative, and allows me to use their hose to rinse off my muddy bike. 

Back in the saddle and off we go to the south. It’s more rolling yellow plains, dotted with ranches. A couple have very nice dogs come running off the front porch of a remote ranch house to say hello. It’s always worth it to take the time to give pets, as I will easily make the time back up with my energy freshly lifted.

The terrain keeps rolling by as I roll along without issue. It’s a sunny day and I’m starting to see some small peaks around me of the Moccasin and Judith mountains, but my riding stays pretty flat. There are a few small towns with restaurants I pass by in favor of covering ground. At one point during this crossing I find an outsized appreciation for the song “more than a woman” by the Beegees. After a repeat listen, I haven’t had my fill and decide that I need 10 straight plays in order to get the most out of the song. With so much time to ride my bike, why not? With each successive repeat of the song, I try to focus on different qualities. Vocals, lyrics, drums, bass, guitar, synths, rhythms. I can now declare that “more than a woman” is one of the most bangingest bangers of all time, and deserves its place in the canon of disco classics. By the end, I wasn’t even tired of it, though I was happy with reaching double digits and excited for other tunes to check out. I’m not sure if there is a world record for most successive listens of that song, but I bet I’m close to it. 

Not that I need too much to keep me focused at this point. Though I’ve been riding for so long, I find a new excitement in the goal of making this the longest ride I’ve ever gone on, both in distance (300 miles) and time (however long it takes). There is also something new to look forward to, as Graham has offered me a spare bedroom at his house in Bozeman once I finish. Gotta keep pushing so the next sleep I make is in a real bed. 

Soon enough it’s after noon and I’m in Lewistown, a good-sized place with a Town Pump gas station, complete with hot dogs, PB&J’s, and many freezers of ice cream for me to gobble up. Reloaded, I weave through residential neighborhoods to the bike path, which spits me back out onto the plains. 

After a couple little ups and downs, I reach the next town of Moore, where I’m blocked by a train filling up from the town mill. I ride around to one end, and the conductor waves me across the tracks. Wanting to be sure to still cover the whole route, I return to the road I had run into the train on, before realizing the diagonal nature of the train tracks has again blocked my route. So I go back to the end of the train, once again get the go ahead from the conductor, and find my way back the route and out of town. On the way I follow a fast moving horse-drawn buggy, likely from the local Mennonite or Amish community. Two kids stick their heads out of the window to give a wave, and I happily wave back. 

The afternoon sun is starting to hide behind smoke once more as I cover the next few miles over to Hobson. I decide to pop into the store, given the long haul it will be to the next open resupply. I buy some gloves to replace ones that I lost somewhere in the last day, and chug a half gallon of milk. Why did I chug a half gallon of milk, you might ask? Well, I thought it was the smallest size they had and I needed that easy to digest slurry of fat, carbs, and protein. 

Heading west on the highway out of Hobson I can feel the massive blob of liquid weighing down my stomach. The sensation makes this one of the most painful moments of the whole race. Fortunately, I find myself quite adept at telling myself that the moment will pass, and sure enough it does pretty quickly and I’m back to “normal.” 

Normal takes me past some growing hills to a cowboy bar in the tiny village of Oxen, just 10 miles further. For some reason, less than an hour after filling my stomach to the brim, I decide it would be a good idea to stop for dinner. I think I was both perma-hungry and wanted a treat before riding into the night with possible thunderstorms. With my goal time of 10 days now impossible and a first-place finish all but assured, I find it difficult to keep up my efficiency when I’m so far from the edges of my expected outcome. Might as well enjoy these places I’ve come so far to see and may never see again. 

Walking into the bar, I am once again very clearly the odd one out in a sea of denim. I get the feeling they only play two types of music here: country and western. I sit down at the bar and order the best-looking thing on the menu, an Indian Taco. Make it two. I’d heard of the fry bread creation a year before and had been looking for a chance to try it. While I’m waiting, I slip to the bathroom to get rid of all the milk that’s passed through my body. In the men’s room I find a sign talking about all the reasons guns are better than women, featuring such hits as “guns function normally every day of the month.” Well, I’ve experienced this bit of the route, ready to start moving fast again. 

Outside the bar, I eat one of the tacos. It’s ok. A pile of meat, tomatoes, and lettuce on mid fry bread. While I’m scarfing it down, me and two younger cowboys have a chat. They hate their town and are excited by the idea of the Montana Bike Odyssey. I try to convince them they live in a beautiful place, but they’re hearing none of it. Fair enough. I remember feeling the same about the place I grew up. 

Heading south in the direction of Bozeman, my stomach makes turns seeing the sight of dark clouds gathering in dark skies over the oncoming Little Belt Mountains. My worries are tempered by remembering the music and podcasts on my phone that I had saved for just a night like this. Onwards into the breach, come what may. After two and a half days, I was returning to mountains and forests. As the sun changed color and darkness set, I became again surrounded by pine trees and beautiful rock canyon walls. Up the hill we go. 

Eventually the rain makes it my way. I throw on my rain gear, and feel comfy hunkered down in a layer of Gore-Tex. I was happy to have the rain, but again just worried what it would do to the dirt roads. For this climb in the rain, I put on one of my favorite albums of all time that I haven’t listened to in many years, “It’s Album Time'' by Todd Terje. It’s the grooviest thing this side of the Missouri. The experience reminds me of watching videos and hearing accounts of bikepacking races before I’d ever done one, and thinking to myself “this is the party I’ve always been looking for.” Now sitting up and dancing on my bike, vibing to Norwegian space disco with the rain falling down outside my happy little dry cocoon, I feel I’ve reached that euphoria. 

Around the point when the top of the climb gently flattens out and starts descending, the rain stops, allowing a less hairy descent down to a developed campsite I knew had a water spigot. I pull in and take a look around, avoiding shining my light at any of the quiet, still, and dark tents and RVs filling the site. It’s midnight and once I turn my music off there’s not a sound to be heard. The contrast from a few moments ago is stunning. After some searching around, my headlamp happens to shine into the woods where the water spigot is, and I head over to the tall oversized structure with a 3-foott handle. I take the quiet moment of respite to eat my second Indian Taco and mentally prepare for the next half and next mountain range of the night. A fitting halfway point. It’s important to divide up any big effort into manageable chunks. 

I leave the campsite ready for round two, which starts with a climb up a highway. It’s odd seeing a few cars go by. Soon enough I turn off at the town of Checkerboard to a dirt road to continue climbing. I turn on an episode of the Bikepack Racing Podcast to get me through slogging my bike up the chunky roads. 

This climb, too, is soon over without much fret and I’m set to descend. But first, it’s time to put on new brake pads. A tree limb works great as a bike stand, and I’m able to do the task with ease. The chunky roads lead me out of the Castle Mountains and back to the highway towards the next town. Time seemed to speed up during this night ride, and not much happened of note. Unfortunately, time slowed way back down on the way into White Sulphur Springs. I had to resort to a playlist of early 00’s pop to keep me with it. 

It was cold and still dark as I pulled up to the gas station. I wandered around drinking hot chocolate and looking for just the right combo of sweet and salty snacks that won’t annoy my sensitive tongue. This was a remarkable stopping point, as I was planning for it to be the last of the ride. I had done 200 miles since the morning before, and I had 100 left to the finish line in Bozeman. 

After spending enough time annoying the gas station attendants pouring bags of Cheez-Its and candy into my bike bags, I got back on the road in time for the sun to start showing its first light. It was back to gravel along a flat plain as the surrounding terrain came to view. Along with it came a wave of fatigue. I tried to fight it, but was unsuccessful and took a 10-minute dirt nap instead. 

When I woke up, I engaged with a riding pleasure I had been saving since the start of the Montana Bike Odyssey: Futurama. With little to no traffic around, I put on my favorite episode of one of my all-time favorite shows, “the devil’s hands are idle playthings.” I mouthed the lines I knew (most of them) and slowly built my spirits back up, listing along at a solid 10 mph through the flat landscape. The opera scene was especially enjoyable: “Destiny has cheated me, By forcing me to decide upon, The woman that I idolize, Or the hands of an automaton.”

Soon the landscape turned a bit less flat, revealing rocky escarpments and gentle climbs, and a bit more wet, as a light mist of cold precipitation again started to fall. I huddled up in my Buff scarf and chuckled right along. Those chuckles faded to furrowed brows of concern when the rain turned to a wintry mix and I found patches of snow beside the increasingly damp dirt road. I could tell the snow was at least a day old, but it still did not bode well. After starting my ride bike days ago with temperatures reaching the triple digits, I now had a taste of winter. 

I soon came across yet another picturesque tiny Montana town, this one sporting the adorable name of Ringling. I thought about sheltering somewhere until the rain stopped, but reminded myself that it was the mud that should be the only thing to slow me. down, and it was best to try and move past any potential spots before they turn sticky. So, I simply had the attendant at the small post office fill my water bottles and ventured back out into the wet. 

The rain kicked up as I sped down a flat dirt road past wooden ranching structures and abandoned cabins. With it too came the arrival of sticky mud. Not too bad at first, but after checking the weather report that showed the rain clearing up soon, I took shelter in an empty stable. The view was immaculate. I ate a muffin, and contemplated what I was doing. “I’m but 70 miles from the end, what am I waiting for?” Another voice told me “you could easily get in real trouble with mud, and have to walk for hours, or worse damage your bike and have to scratch.” The tortoise method won against the hare method and so I waited for an hour and ate a muffin. 

Once the sun had come out, I emerged from the safety of the stable and took to the road. It was just starting to climb up into the first suggestion of the Bridger Mountains, which eventually connected to Bozeman. Although that fact made the end seem close, the sticking of my bike’s wheels did not. At this point, there was no more waiting. I picked up the steed and alternated carrying and riding it to the top of the hill. From there, it was pretty easy going past peaceful streams and more and more prominent peaks. The rain came back a bit, but the road surface was rockier up here in the hills and less clay-rich, so no sticking. 

I passed through a near canyon and it looked like I would be able to get through the whole range. Then I saw some four wheelers coming towards me. I pulled off to let them by. I had a bad feeling when I saw how much mud was stuck to them. “How’s the road up ahead?” I asked. “Bad,” one replied.  Despite the news, the interaction raised my spirits. In addition to the simple pleasure of talking with a friendly stranger, it can be nice to have word of what difficulties are to come. Riding slightly downhill through the gorgeous Sixteen Mile Canyon, I was rolling well for five miles or so, until I reached some wide swaths of the sticky stuff. I now expected the worst, and didn’t mess around with the mud for fear of locking up my wheels. Instead I mostly carried and rode my bike through the tall grass beside the road and was able to get through the section pretty quick, probably helped by the sun now doing some shining in the late afternoon. That wasn’t nearly as bad as the four-wheelers made it seem! Even when some rain started back up as I was reaching the near-ghost town of Maudlow, hopes were high that I could make it the 40 miles to Bozeman before the middle of the night. 

As I turned south to climb a hill, those hopes soon evaporated. I was back in the sticky stuff. For a while I was in a daze, just pushing, attempting to ride, and cleaning my bike on repeat. It took me probably an hour of this to realize how remarkable the situation was. The substrate turned to fine clay again, and with the new rain it became stickier than anything I’d ever seen. It was perfect modeling clay. Still I pushed onward, not wanting to acknowledge how this would impact my evening. I alternated trying to ride in the grass, getting grass stuck in my wheels, and returning to the mud where I would carry my bike until I was sick of it, then set it down to push it, get mud stuck so that the wheels would not turn, clean it out, then repeat it all over again. There were three highlights of this experience. One was the two black bears I saw running up the hillside on my left, briefly taking my head out of the conundrum that occupied a five-foot radius around me. 

The sun was again shining but I was not as I kept slowly inching my way upwards, every so often lulling myself into the hope that I could ride my bike and sending more mud into the clearances to be cleaned off. After a couple more hours I looked up again to see that I had reached the top of this hill, there were no more trees next to me obstructing my view, and the view was a sunset look at storm clouds over the Bridge Mountains and the Horseshoe Hills. The second highlight. Wow. I almost was able to enjoy it before I was overtaken by anger at my predicament and I just let out a loud “FUCK THIS SUCKS” to the couple of cows who could hear me. In hindsight, I’m a bit disappointed that I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy this moment more. At the same time, despair and anger are sometimes a part of the process, and it is a reminder that I so rarely feel this way when bike riding. I’ll take a small bit of horrific anguish in order to draw contrast to the normal joy and positive memories that fills even the most difficult of rides. I can even picture in my mind right now what that sunset looked like, so maybe I did do all the enjoying that was necessary. 

It was a few minutes after I continued on with my slog that I realized what sunsets and storm clouds meant: storms. And clouds. And the setting of the sun. To rub it in, I couldn’t even ride the downhill from the summit of the climb. Push, push, push, clean, clean, clean, sigh, sigh, sigh. Highlight number three came from space to my phone in the form of texts from the other riders on the course. Andrew was loading up on Starbucks Doubleshots, which not only gave me some virtual human connection and a reminder of what I was riding for, it also reminded me that I had a Doubleshot in my jersey pocket. I downed it while watching the sun escape below the Horseshoe Hills to the west. Then something remarkable happened: I tried to ride my bike and I was able to continue riding after 50 feet! I just kept riding. It was insane. I did not know how it was possible. I thank the Starbucks corporation. 

As the last bits of light left the sky and rain started to pour, I was happy as could be descending down the hill straight south. All the calculations in my head about when I would return to Bozeman became once more meaningless. I would get there when I got there. I stopped at a creek to fill my bottles, singing joyful songs to the frogs. I mounted my bike, trying not to wish that it was the last time I would get on my bike for the next week. I put on all my rain gear, started my Spotify playlist for raising biking spirits (“Let’s effin’ go”) and set off into the dark. 

At this point I was just hoping to not keep Erin up for too long at the finish line. I had no goals or expectations for myself. I had been let down too many times. I would arrive when I did. That said, I was definitely rushing. Songs like “Everybody knows that you’re insane” by Queens of the Stone Age and “The party we could have” by Nathan Micay shot me onward, with little to no regard for the rain. All would dry later. My legs could rest later. I could eat a meal later. I could charge my phone later. I could text my mom back later. I could clean my horrifically dirty and muddy bike later. When I inevitably reached some sticky mud on the penultimate climb, I made no fuss of it and simply picked up my bike until I was sure I could ride again. Lesson learned. Don’t mess with the sticky stuff. Descending back down, my phone died. It was quite fitting. Now I could complete the last 20 miles in peace and reflection. 

A neat idea, but there was not too much reflection or peace in the next 20 miles. I was simply in a hurry and ready to be done. I reached a road that I had been on in the opposite direction 10 days ago when the race began and knew that I was close to the end. However, I soon came off that route to take a left away from town for the final climb. I cursed Graham in my head. It was the middle of the night and I was riding away from Bozeman. At the top, I thought “ah good, now a descent to the end.” Never a good thought. Always expect anything. At the bottom of the hill the route again turned away from the goal and I found myself puzzling through my head unit trying to make sense of the woodland paths in Glen Lake Rotary Park, Story Mill Community Park, and Story Mill Nature Preserve. I wondered what the hell I was doing, but thought that whatever the cost, I need to make sure I hit every one of these trails correctly, or else I’ll be coming back out here tomorrow to cover any ground I missed. Though I again cursed Graham in the moment, it was very much worth it in the end. Nothing makes you more satisfied than a fight to the bitter end. 

I didn’t think it was going to be over until I saw the library and two people with flashlights standing by the archway that marked the beginning/end of the route, clapping and laughing. I freewheeled through the archway and let myself slow to a stop before leaning to the side onto a brick wall. My body softened. It was over. I heard a voice say “you haven’t slept in two days?” It was Crowell Herrick, organizer of the Big Sky Spectaculaire. Erin was there too, and they’d brought a beer. I couldn’t be happier. Total time: 10 days 17 hours  43 mins.

Unlike the end of the Ride Across Arizona four months earlier, this was the first time I’d finished a race with a welcome party. A remarkable heartwarming move by both Erin and Crowell. After sharing some stories for a couple minutes and soaking it in, we all acknowledged that it was late and we were all tired. I loaded my bike into Erin and Graham’s van and we drove back to their house. Erin had put together a wonderful meal of vegetables, curry, mung beans, electrolytes, and dipping sauces, but alas my tongue was too sensitive to enjoy it. I ate what I could and went to bed, filled with gratitude and pride. If the ride itself wasn’t enough to make it worth it, the warm welcome and interest shown by Erin at the end of the race made it so. Much more reflecting would come, but for now it was time to sleep. For a while. There were also four more riders out on the course. I was fortunate enough to have time to wait in Bozeman for three of them to finish, which made a great bookend to the whole experience. 

Later on I would find out what pushing my bike through all that mud had done to it (see photo of chain stay). Clearly I did not have enough tire clearance for the conditions and pushed when I should have carried too many times. Now I have a Cutthroat and more frame protection on, so fingers crossed it never happens again!

I’ve now completed or attempted four ultra-races, and while I have thoroughly enjoyed and been amazed by all of them, I think my Montana Bike Odyssey experience holds a special place. I chalk this largely up to the Goffs and their remarkable kindness, openness, love of the sport, love of the land, and overall goodhearted nature. To this add the range of emotions, small towns, encounters, landscapes, and sleeping accommodations I went through over the route. I highly recommend it to those who are searching for the long path towards a transformative and spiritual experience.

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