That Dream Montana Road Biking Vacation

Larry Johnson

In August 2012, my buddy Larry and myself along with wives set out for Montana for a four-day road bicycling adventure. We each drove matching compact RVs complete with bicycle rack in back.  The first part of quickly getting to Montana is to follow I-80, which means leaving the pine-scented Sierra forests for the Nevada sage-scrub lands.  We spent the first night in Winnemucca, hooking up our life support of electricity to run the air conditioner.
Two days later we were camped in Billings on the banks of the Yellowstone River.  That sounds so much better than the reality of not being really camped but instead parked in one of many parallel slots all containing RVs some of which were supersized.  The Yellowstone though close by was only accessed over a thorn-strewn river rock path that we chose to avoid.  Weather predictions for the next day were temperatures near 100 and the road out of town, Montana Highway #3, climbed steeply up a shoulderless incline to the Billings Airport, located on a desolate, treeless bluff.  All indications for successful biking pointed to somewhere south of crazy, at least according to our concerned mates.
Larry and I left before dawn in order to beat both traffic and sun.  At 6am, we chugged through downtown road construction, up the half-mile ten-percent-grade in which we were passed by only three cars, and then onto the highway with a good 12”-18” of shoulder.  It was light enough for vehicles to spot us but early enough to get out of town before traffic built up.   There was one small exception that was the eighteen-wheelers whisking by at 75 mph taking their cargo to points northwest.
But generally we had the road to ourselves. Flocks of antelope grazed close by and the high plains had a dark beauty in the cool dawn.  We soon passed by an abandoned railway stop called Comanche, with aging wood shacks and a glorious old wooden tower that either held water or grain or both.  The highway often had long straight runs with rolling dips here and there.  Life was good and our goal of reaching Harlowton made for anticipating a reasonable 90-mile day.    
We linked up with our SAG wives along the way:  in Acton for coffee, potted between shelves of motor oil and earthworms, and in Lavina, with eight empty rocking chairs resting on a porch outside a boarded up 1908 hotel.   A couple miles short of Ryegate just before noon, I biked ahead to inform Larry’s wife Vicki that he had gotten his second flat and, as it was now about 95 degrees, he’d appreciate a lift.  She left to retrieve him and soon we were fixing the tire in the sweltering canopy shade of the lone diner.  One of the travelers informed us that the road west was undergoing construction beginning a few miles out of town.  Armed with that info, we asked the wives to hold up so that we could at least bike that far before needing a ride over the removed asphalt.  

Sure enough a sign a few miles out of town read “Road Construction Ahead for 9 Miles/Motorcyclists Consider Alternate Route.”   There were no alternate routes suggested.  Whatever such detour might be for a motorcyclist, say twenty miles at a minimum as few roads existed, that’s a big deal for a bicyclist, especially when the alternate route might not even be paved.  The wives passed us just before the flagger stopped traffic up ahead.  Unfortunately, just behind me, Larry got his third flat.  Too parched to call out or whistle, he had to walk the final quarter mile to the where we waited.
Luckily, having the wives driving SAG meant that we could hitch a ride through the road construction, which we did, allowing the racked bikes to eat dust through the removed asphalt under construction section.  Past the construction, I biked the last ten miles into Harlowton.  Snake-bit with three flats for the day, Larry chose to stay in the vehicle’s air-conditioning. 
Parking one vehicle in Harlowton’s RV park, we drove the other to visit Two-Dot, a few miles west where Larry’s wife Vicki was born.  Her former house is gone, as were her past neighbors’, but the self-proclaimed World Famous Bar lives on.  We also learned that the highway continuing west had no shoulder but the speed limit was still 75mph between more upcoming road construction sections.
Accordingly, we changed our route to Great Falls, going north out of Harlowton instead of west.  The next day under gray morning skies, we headed out.  Once we got through the under construction highway intersection, we were hit with a hurricane-like northerly crosswind that slowed us to lower gears less than half our normal speed.  Struggling along past ultra-sleek windmills, we soon came to a familiar sign:  “Road Construction Ahead for 12 miles [this time]/Motorcyclists Consider Alternative Route.”  At this point we knew there was no route north-west-south-east that was not under-construction.   

We bagged it until our SAG wives appeared.  Catching a ride to the next junction, we considered bucking the breeze westward as the wind had somewhat diminished.  The only problem was, yep,  “Road Construction Ahead.”  Our wives had envisioned SAG as part-time, allowing them to sight-see while we struggled onward to meet at the day’s destination.  Now they were stuck in sweltering weather, frog-leaping between construction gaps.  For them, the “recreation” had gone out of RV.  For us, fifteen-bicycling-miles on and fifteen-driving-miles off wasn’t our cup of tea either.  We all continued in our vehicles to Great Falls, turning a four-day bike journey into an aborted day-and-a-half.
From that point on, we would mostly drive to towns and then do twenty-to-thirty mile rides out and back where we could rely on pavement and the wives did not have to spend their day waiting ad hoc.  What we learned about biking in the Northwest was that speed limits are high, shoulders narrow or non-existent, road surfaces are occasionally rough with chip-seal except where the asphalt is entirely removed, usually for several miles, the heat can be oppressive and the wind biblically strong.  Oh, there’s also the possibility of lightning-ignited scrub-brush fires befouling the air as we found out.  Of course, the smoky inconvenience to biking is nothing compared to the fire threat to towns and homes.
But it’s just one more thing to consider when planning that Montana bicycling dream ride.

Published Cycle California, May 2013, Vol. 19, #4