Chronicles of Rider Dave

I wake up in Big Sky crust-eyed and weary from my high-speed race across Montana. I'm banged up with burning muscles and trail rash. Yesterday's bike ride in the Black Hills and an over-the-bars crash in the Badlands the night before add to my weakened condition. A day earlier I'd left my family in Illinois, then blitzed through Wisconisin and Iowa in my minivan, dreaming of the life ahead. It's late May and we're relocating to Montana seeking adventure after a decision to leave a hectic life in the Chicago suburbs. My mind is abuzz with anticipation about our future. Where will we live? Will I find work? Where will my children go to school? What is the mountain biking like? Leaving our jobs and moving a family to the Wild West is unlike anything we’ve done before. But our recent trip to ski the Bozeman-area mountains cleared up any doubt—we were moving to Montana, come what may.

After shaking off the cobwebs, my first impulse is to find a trailhead and begin probing the backcountry. I hit a local restaurant for some strong coffee and huevos rancheros, then head out the door with a purpose. My book on Bozeman-area mountain bike trails leads me to Porcupine Ridge Trail. I mount the bike and take off.

The first few minutes are deceptive; I’m thinking, this is a breeze. But the grade soon steepens and I begin to feel the effects of being 7,000 feet above my comfort zone. The double-track splits, then splits again and again. Now I have the additional concern of retracing my path through this maze. Several miles later, I plunge down a steep, exposed pitch with tires slapping the rocky single-track. I enter a dense stand of firs where I see the trail interrupted by a stream crossing. Instead of splashing through, I skid to a complete stop and quickly look around. I’m not alone. Fifty feet away, the eyes of a bull moose are trained on me. I cautiously pick up my bike and walk through the water to the nearest tree. The moose goes back to grazing and I quietly exit. Two more hours of climbing single-track in alpine meadows, and I’m at an intersection with a sign pointing me back to the trailhead. I shift into my big ring for a long, white-knuckle descent.

What a day! My first Montana bike ride has proven rich in spectacular scenery and laced with lenging terrain. On the way back to Big Sky, I stop for groceries and overhear some chatter about a bear. Apparently a grizzly mauled an elk calf near the highway, close enough that shopkeepers could hear the calf wailing. I remind myself that I’m not in Illinois anymore.

The next day I blast off to Bozeman in search of more single-track. I ask around and am pointed to Bangtail Divide. This ride has myriad challenges. I start out with wet feet when I miss my mark at a stream crossing. Climb, climb, climb. The switchbacks seem endless, but I’ve found my rhythm. I keep my head down and my weight centered. If you can maintain traction with your rear wheel, climbing on a mountain bike can be enjoyable—but if it’s loose rock with stumps and roots littering the trail, the joy can quickly turn to agony. I’ve heard bike racers refer to the experience as “an exercise in pain management.”

The climbing is relentless. I’ve just about reached my limit but I resist the urge to get off and walk. Finally surmounting the ridge, I pick up speed and begin to ride aggressively. The terrain here is undulating and ideally suited to a cyclist from the Midwest. Incredible views of the Bridgers and the Crazies up here. As I weave down a rocky hillside, a coiled snake appears in my path. I try to veer around but my wheel goes into a rut, instantly stopping the bike and pitching me over the bars. Dazed from hitting headfirst, I take stock of my other body parts and find abrasions on my knees, elbow, and hip. My right hand aches, but seems to work. I look up the hill at the snake—still coiled, undisturbed and oblivious to me and my wreck. I remount my rig, cautious about getting up too much speed again. The trail has turned rocky and narrow in the turns. I plummet down and down, eventually finding the parking area at Bracket Creek. I think this is what they call an epic ride.

Day three takes me to Twin Cabin Trail in Big Sky. The only person in the parking lot is a leather-covered dude on horseback. He rides up to me and in a gravelly voice says, “You know there’s bear up there?” “Yes sir,” I say. “I have a bear bell.” He glares at me while I stand there in cycling shorts, holding my bell. I might as well have been wearing a leotard.

I take off, but the horseman’s warning has spooked me. Fifteen minutes up the trail, I realize that I’ve left my pack, with flat tire kit and pepper spray inside, hanging from the roof rack of the van. I consider going ahead without it but instead wheel around and sprint back to get it. My ride starts and then starts again.

The terrain is mostly single-track in open meadows with great vistas. Far ahead, I spot a large herd of elk. At the top of each rise, I expect to close the gap but they sense my presence and keep moving away. Seeing the elk has calmed me and I start to enjoy the ride. Heading up, up, up, I notice that my bike is a little out of sorts. Yesterday’s crash bent my right brake lever and put a couple of small dents in the aluminum frame. Bummer.

Shaded by loosely placed trees, I approach the summit. It’s thick with brush. Getting edgy again, I begin talking to myself out loud. I’m creating as much noise as a solo rider can make. As I urge my metallic steed over a small rise, I see three large animals moving quickly across my path 150 yards out. When the largest one stops and rises up on its rear haunch, I suddenly realize the full impact of the moment. It’s a sow grizzly bear with two cubs in tow.

In an instant, I unclip my pedals and jump off the bike while reaching for my spray. I think about grabbing the camera in my pack but my gut tells me to pay close attention to these animals. With a loud snort, the sow leads the cubs away—but not before raising up and snorting at me a second time. It’s one of those riveting moments where you don‘t know what to do except watch. At the same time, I’m considering my exit strategy. The bears quickly leave my sight but this comes as little comfort. I’m so rattled from the encounter that I can’t continue. I wheel around and head back in a daze, arriving in the parking lot numb, breathing a huge sigh of relief.

I’ve just discovered what many people already know about this place. It is so
rewarding to ride here. There’s a prize at almost every turn: white-capped mountain peaks, alpine lakes, glowing wildflowers, and the huge thrill of encountering wildlife. You get a sense of being in the wilderness even when you’re close to the road.

It’s a different world here.