In mountains, on roads, biking takes center stage

By CULLAN STAACK/Montana State News

No matter what kind of bicycle you ride, southwest Montana will keep you happy with in-town trails, long smooth roads and beautiful vistas to choose from. Endless possibilities exist when it comes to mountain biking; the only limitations are the type of trail and level of challenge you’re looking for. Whether it’s a smooth, fast downhill rush or a thigh-burning, lung-searing ascent (or both), it’s all just a short distance from Bozeman.

In communities across Montana, bicycling and walking are safe, everyday, mainstream activities. Bicycling and walking are recognized, accommodated and funded as legitimate and essential modes of transportation.

Montanans enjoy an enhanced quality of life, a cleaner environment, and better health as a result of the commitment to bicycling. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the fresh air and big skies of the Treasure State by choosing to ride instead of drive? Montana is also a model for innovative bicycling and walking facilities and programs.

The history of biking in Montana traces back to the Bike Walk Montana organization. Although it has a short history, Bike Walk Montana has a long-term vision of making Montana a safer and more accessible state for bicycling and walking.

The seed for BWM was planted in May of 2011 at the National Bike Summit held in Washington D.C., where four Montanans—Melinda Barnes, Jim Sayer, Virginia Sullivan and Darlene Tussing—were in attendance. During the three-day conference, these four began discussing why Montana was one of the few states with no statewide advocacy organization for bicyclists and walkers, what it would take to get one started and how to make it successful.

The bicycling fever started to grow even further in August of 2011 when an opportunity arose to pursue a Winning Campaigns grant through the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national advocacy group. Barnes and Sullivan prepared and submitted the grant application. Because the Alliance loved the idea, they counter-offered with a proposal to help create the coveted bicyclist and walker advocacy organization. Melinda and Virginia agreed they needed outside experience to get an organization up and running, so they took a risk and signed the contract.

The plan was really growing into something when they held the first statewide meeting, called the Founding Summit, in April of 2012 in Helena, and the group felt confident about the organization’s direction. At that summit, Jeremy Grandstaff guided the process of writing Bike Walk Montana’s mission statement, vision statement and guiding principles.

The leadership also developed long-term goals about what they wanted to see accomplished in terms of biking relevance in Montana. Today Bike Walk Montana continues to advocate for a safer and friendlier Montana for bicyclists and walkers.

Biking has since become a huge part of life in Montana, and in Bozeman especially. Just in our small town alone, there are five bike teams that focus on various types of bicycling, from mountain biking to road racing. One of the biggest and most obvious reasons biking has emerged to be so common and successful throughout Montana is the gorgeous outdoors and vast range of possible trails to be explored that surround our cities.

Kyle Rohan, the founder of one of Bozeman’s newest biking teams, Project X, says, “I think that something that comes with living here is pressure to go outside and be active in the outdoors and that’s how a lot of people get into biking.”

Rohan also says, “The thing about Bozeman, and Montana in general, is that people ride bikes but they rarely race. There is a lot of mountain biking here and for the most part it’s very recreational.”

Despite the availability of mountains and other rugged terrain for bikers to utilize in Bozeman and around the surrounding area, there still appears to be a large coalition of bike advocates who heavily focus on road racing. According to Rohan, Montana is actually home to some of the more ideal conditions for road races compared to other areas around the country of high biking interest.

With our long stretches of paved road, combined with frequent changes in elevation that exist all over Montana, road races here can be more technical and ideal than in other, flatter states. “If you don’t have any technicality to a road race, like large climbs, then the only question in the race is who can stick with the pack the longest and who can sprint the fastest at the end,” Rohan explains.

Biking in Montana is not without its issues, however. One of the biggest problems for bikers throughout Montana, and in Bozeman especially, is the potential for dangerous drivers on the roads. It’s no secret that Montana has a history of permitting faster speed limits than most states, as well as a budding reputation for driving related fatalities.

Rohan, cautiously, says, “Generally speaking, I’ve felt safe here on the roads in Montana, but every once in a while you get a driver who is annoyed with being stuck behind a biker or you get into a tight spot on a road without a shoulder and things can get a bit sketchy.”

There have been many focused attempts to rectify the danger bikers face on Montana roads. The most recent, the “Share the Road” campaign, encourages drivers and bikers to share the space on the road in order to ensure everyone’s safety and equal right to enjoy the sanctity of our inviting public road system. Even more recently, there was a legislative movement designed to ban biking on all two-lane highways without shoulders.

Not surprisingly, the pushback from Bozeman’s growing biking community on this controversial issue was vehement.

Kyle Olson, the president of Montana State University’s Cycling Club, was visibly frustrated with the proposal, saying, “If you take away all biking on two-lane highways without a shoulder, you don’t leave anywhere for us to bike. If that had gotten approved, we wouldn’t have been able to hold our annual road race at the Lewis and Clark Caverns and any options for moving the race would have been minimal.”

Even though the legislative movement was designed in the best of intentions to protect both riders and drivers from potential collision, Olson makes a good argument: the majority of roads around Bozeman that are frequented by road racers and recreational bikers alike are the exact type of two-lane roads that this legislation is targeting.

These public roads lead out of town and into the countryside, most of which have long straight stretches and thus less traffic, as well as being without stoplights or signs for the most part. Consequently, the majority of these roads, because they have less traffic, are paved without shoulders, something that appears to be relatively rational. Unfortunately, with the number of people who utilize the biking possibilities around Bozeman, on and off mountainous terrain, legislature created such as this leaves very little wiggle room for recreation.

Created as a way for Bozeman’s biking community to voice their opinions and to make their overall strength in numbers known, the Gallatin Valley Bicycle Club is dedicated to providing cycling activities that promote recreation, individual health, education and advocacy and encourage a more bicycle friendly community in the Gallatin Valley. Additionally, the club supports shared-use trails in appropriate and accessible locations, as well as being an active voice in advocating for fairly sharing the roads with drivers.

The important thing to remember when biking on Bozeman’s public roads is that even if you have the right of way, or are “in the right”, bicyclists do not have the laws of tonnage on their side. Vehicles weigh 20 times what bikes do, and cyclists cannot rely on the correct judgment of potentially angry, rushed, or negligent drivers.

Biking has become a treasured pastime and method of transportation for many across the Gallatin Valley and all over Montana; by keeping safe and following established laws, we can continue to make cycling accessible to anyone and everyone who wishes to partake in experiencing the wonderful outdoors firsthand.

– edited by Chelsea Anderson

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