A mostly dirt ride from Bozeman to Billings, MT
A minimalist, mostly dirt ride from Bozeman to Billings, MT.
Bicycle Adventurers: Two adventurers co-authored this story: Justin "J-Dawg" Hogan and Tony "Tone Bone" LeBaron.
When: October 15–16, 2015
Accomodations: The lawn of the Stockman Cafe in Rapelje, MT, nestled between a parking lot and a decrepit old shed.
Distance: 165 miles in two days
Bonus tip for this adventure: Pass through Rapelje, MT at lunch time and support the community's Stockman Cafe. You won't regret it.
To some, autumn is a time to slow down, watch the leaves change, and drink pumpkin-spiced coffees. To Tony and Justin, two lads from Bozeman, Montana, changing leaves signal the time to load up bicycles and take to the road for our annual bike overnight tour extravaganza.
For this year’s adventure, we opted to journey from Bozeman to the bustling metropolis of Billings on a half-paved, half-dirt, out-of-the-way route skirting the Bridger Range and the Crazy Mountains, paralleling the Yellowstone River, and ascending a high plateau of juniper hills and wheat fields before contouring down majestic yellow sandstone cliffs into the most populous city in Montana: Billings.
Outside of Montana, Billings is known as a city in Montana. But here, Billings is known as a hub for petrochemical processing plants and for having the tallest building in the state. Some Bozeman friends questioned our motives for riding to Billings as they insinuated that, somehow, Billings is an undesirable adventure destination. To put it bluntly, they asserted that Billings sucks. If the direction of the wind the morning of our departure was any indication, they were right. On this day, we were to be blown hard, or sucked, towards Billings.
We planned to leave at 8:00 in the morning and, in keeping with tradition, left the house promptly at 9:30 a.m. After a couple stops in town, we were on the road before 10:00. Not bad! We would have left sooner, but we stopped in front of the public library to listen to Humpty Dumpty tell us a story. This many years on, old Humpty was a shell of his former self. Though his words were sometimes scrambled, his message was clear; he wasn’t yolking around. Always wear a helmet, or your life is ova.
From there, our egg-cellent adventure continued as we rode up Bridger Canyon and turned onto the unpaved Jackson Creek Road. We felt the satisfying crunch of gravel under our tires. Finally, we were living primally, free from the civilized shackles of pavement and yellow lines! The climb had been slow on the mountain bikes, but it was totally —
“Hey you guys, this is all private land.” A rancher had stopped in his pickup.
“I mean, we have a gate at the end of our property. You can try to climb over it with your bikes, but I don’t know if our neighbor has more gates up past there.”
Eager to partake in Montana hospitality, we continued on to the rancher’s gate, beyond which we gazed upon a hellscape of broken snowmobiles, junked cars, and a rutted quasi-road. We turned back, defeated, reasoning that even if we somehow managed to get over the tall gate with loaded mountain bikes, we were sure to be shot. Getting shot was not an option — we had Billings to see. We turned back, merging once again with loathsome pavement and followed the Interstate 90 frontage road over Bozeman Pass into Livingston, a town notorious for its wind.
After last year’s Livingston headwind fiasco, we figured the town owed us, and pay up she did. We coasted in to town at 25 m.p.h. under favorable winds. Upon arrival, we stopped in the lovely park nestled between Livingston’s lively Main Street and its bustling rail yard. Following a short snack break featuring Jelly Belly brand jelly beans and several bites of frigid sausage, we departed to the east along Old Clyde Park Road.
The road quality degraded rapidly outside of Livingston, becoming a cracked and pothole-ridden surface before yielding to a more natural state of gravel. Eventually transitioning to Convict Grade Road, presumably hewn from the rugged cliffs by some unfortunate chain gang, this path ushered us along the banks of the Yellowstone River among cottonwood trees in full fall foliage fabulousness.
As the road slowly climbed away from the river, we felt at home on the range among many deer and antelope. As they played, mostly by jumping in front of us, hours passed without sight of another human until we reached the far outskirts of Big Timber, a farming and ranching community on the south bank of the mighty Yellowstone River. The local grocery store was our first, and only, resupply stop on our journey.
Justin found Iron Star Pizza a favorably reviewed local pizza establishment at which to eat dinner. The only driving we did, aside from the entire return trip to Bozeman from Billings, was drive a large chicken-bacon-ranch pizza into our collective belly. To wash down the pizza, we ate cake-flavored frozen yogurt, topped with various junk food condiments — delicious and reasonably priced fuel for our bulging, white legs.
Before long, we were riding by headlight through a sage and juniper desert. As the landscape became veiled in darkness we were stripped of our perceptions of distance, our conversations gave way to comfortable silence, and our cadences fell into synchrony as we steadily put miles behind us. This sensory suppression removed almost all perception of how far we’d traveled and for how long we’d been traveling. A bike computer confirmed that we’d covered 115 miles for the day when we rolled into the hamlet of Rapelje, Montana, population 110, at 9:30 p.m.
Rapelje is known in mountain biking circles as the home of 24 Hours of Rapelje, an endurance mountain bike race and fundraiser for the town’s Stockman Cafe (here's the video). Given the town’s cycling credentials, we reasoned that nobody would mind involuntarily hosting two weary traveling bicyclists for the evening. It’s not like there was anybody to ask, anyway. With the town already asleep for the night, we unrolled sleeping bags next to the cafe and passed out under the stars.
At 4:00 in the morning, it became clear why everybody was asleep early the night before, as every citizen of Stillwater County began driving around town in muffler-less diesel pickup trucks. Our tenuous sleep was interrupted with each passing vehicle. Two men parked in front of the cafe and enjoyed a loud conversation before leaving again in the dark. Dogs barked. We continued to sleep intermittently until 7:00 when the sun came up.
As Justin eased back into consciousness, vision blurred, he began to make out a figure staring at him from a nearby yard. His wakefulness was hastened by the eventual realization that we was making eye contact with an inexplicably excited, and creepy, stallion.
For breakfast at the picnic tables in the cafe parking lot, we dined under the stallion's gaze: bacon, nutella and strawberry sandwiches with macaroon bread accompanied by cold, canned ravioli and gummy worms. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation can drive a man to eat strange meals, but calories are calories, and we didn’t want to wait for the cafe to open at 11:00 a.m.
Dangerously under-caffeinated, we managed a moderate pace out of Rapelje. At some point the previous night, the stark, beautiful, scrubby desert we’d ridden through the day before had become wheaten, rolling hills. The decidedly less majestic Bos taurus, the common cow, replaced the deer and antelope. Still, we were utterly satisfied knowing we’d traveled from mountains to plains solely under the power of our bulging, white legs.
In the glorious absence of traffic, we continued to ride side by side, and since we planned to meet Justin’s fiance in Billings, we joked that he was literally “riding to a breast.” We pedaled through America’s breadbasket, hoping to get to Billings and find real food before resorting to the emergency SPAM we had purchased back in Big Timber. The wind roused before our arrival in Molt, requiring us to endure alternating headwinds and crosswinds. Our water reserves dwindled, our progress slowed, and the spigot outside the Molt post office failed to deliver potable water. A few miles beyond Molt, we decided to take a roadside lunch break rather than grind out the last 15 miles on empty tanks. The hearty lump of gelatinous, light pink meat product delivered the last few calories we needed to pedal into Billings.
A few miles later, we reached the iconic rimrock surrounding the city of Billings. As we crested the rim, a steep and winding descent materialized before us. We sped down from the plateau with wind at our backs ... most of the time. At worst, we battled 30 m.p.h. crosswind gusts while going 30 m.p.h. ourselves with a steep drop on our right. Thankfully, the dearth of car traffic permitted an occasional wind-induced weave. At best, we had a perfectly aligned tailwind down Echo Canyon and into the steadily growing throngs of automobiles. Although the drivers were mostly courteous, we moved onto a bike path as soon as we could.
One and a half days of cycling, gorgeous vistas, and pleasurable isolation halted starkly as we stopped at the first gas station we encountered in Billings. We entered surreptitiously to forage in the nutritionless garden of modern conveniences. As the pious go to church to refill on spirituality, motorists go to gas stations to replenish their gas tanks, enabling a continuance of their militant avoidance of even the mildest inconveniences, auto-ambulation chief among them. Filleth thy tank lest thee be forced to move under thy own power.
Despite the purity of our journey to Billings, we sat outside a gas station conspiring to sin; to succumb to the irresistible temptation of motorized conveyance. And succumb we did. Our unjustifiable sense of righteousness for having cycled all the way to Billings was quashed as we loaded our bikes into the car. As was planned from the beginning, we unceremoniously and excessively disassembled our bicycles and stuffed them hastily into Justin’s fiance’s Subaru for an easy journey home. Stopping only for yet another pizza, which we devoured in the car, we completed the return journey in two short hours. By the time the car was unloaded and the bicycles hung back on their respective hooks on the garage wall, the journey had assumed the feeling of a distant memory. Thanks to Bike Overnights, however, it will exist in perpetuity, as if carved in stone, to inspire and/or offend future generations of adventure cyclists.
Your favorite local bike shop? The Bozeman Bike Kitchen is a non-profit, volunteer-run community bike shop where staff will work with you to teach you how to repair and maintain your bike.
Bike overnight tips and tricks? Don't trust Google Maps cycling directions or you may end up accidentally trespassing on a ranch like we did. Do your research and make sure you're riding on public roads.
HOW ABOUT YOU? Inspire others by submitting your bike overnight adventure!