55.6 mi / 11.9 mph / 2102 ft. climbing
Home: Helena VRBO Apartment
It had been a bit difficult designing the last couple days of this five-day push from Glacier into Helena. There just wasn’t a great stopping point for that fourth night on the direct route, so instead of just not stopping (making a massive 4th day be the final day), I decided to take a slightly longer route overall but one that would divide the last two days more evenly. The direct route from Ovando to Helena branches south off of MT-200 onto MT-141. But I had looked up the traffic counts on MTDOT’s website and saw that the next road that branches south to Helena, MT-279, sees a mere 300 cars per day vs. MT-141’s ~1500. MT-279 had no shoulders, but MT-141 wasn’t much better, and even though it added some miles, continuing east on MT-200 past the MT-141 turnoff allowed last night’s reasonable stop in a Lincoln, a place we already knew worked well for touring cyclists.
But that still made today’s ride a big one, over the Continental Divide once more at Flesher Pass. So we were up at 4:30am, with our coldest morning of this stretch so far at 42F. That’s a literal 50 degree difference between yesterday’s high, something I don’t think I’ve ever experienced without a change in location/elevation.
Up with us was Carlos, who had shared the campsite with us and somehow survived tentless out on his sleeping pad. His rear derailleur had broken on the Great Divide, and he’d been unable to source a compatible replacement (or would have had to wait too long for one to be shipped), so he was currently riding with an incompatible replacement that limited his bike to a single speed (or two, if he manually moved the chain between his two front chainrings). Due to this near-catastrophic situation (which he seemed to take quite in-stride), he decided that it was time to return home to Spain and had booked a flight out of Helena a few days from now. He had liked the sound of my plan for getting to Helena, so that’s part of why he had joined us in Lincoln, and he would be attempting to get over Flesher Pass today with us too.
We didn’t precisely ride together (perhaps due to Carlos intuitively understanding Rett’s lack-of-experience with group rides), but instead linked up several times throughout the day at our various rest stops. It was still the most riding we’ve done “with” someone in these nearly-two years, and it was a lot of fun. Carlos incredibly made it over the pass, and nearly as fast as us. It helped that the road was another great “old highway”, carefully engineered with switchbacks to keep the grades around 5% (and like the other “old highway” mountain climbs we’ve done, the traffic was minimal). He did manually gear down (though not even at the start!) but at one point riding behind him I counted out ~3.5 pedal rotations of my own for every one of his!
After descending to the beautiful farm/ranch country of Canyon Creek, we all stopped at the Canyon Creek Country Store, which was expectedly closed on this Sunday, but that just helped us feel not-guilty when we used the nice picnic table and water and toilets in their side yard to eat our packed lunches even though we hadn’t bought anything. I was really pleased with the way all my routing-research had panned out on this Ovando-to-Helena path, and it was nice to have it also appreciated by someone besides Rett.
Approaching Helena from the north, we all rode together up the unusual and inexorable upslope into town (it feels like the entire city and suburban area is built on land that a fault has thrust upward into a vast ramp). Carlos suggested a stop for a cold drink at the first gas station we passed, but Rett had her mind focused on reaching our destination (as she often does as the end of the ride reaches sniffing distance) and the celebratory beers we’d been discussing for half the ride. A couple miles later, her body entered an overheating phase and we needed to stop in the shade at the side of the road and get her cooled down. Let me say, it was nice to have someone besides me to give Rett an “I told you so!” (but of course he did it with much more tact and class than I can, and he also had good cooling advice).
Just blocks away from the downtown brewery, the three of us are sitting at a red light. It turns green, Rett pushes hard on her pedal to get her heavy bike going, and WHOOSH! some douchebag on a bike shoots the tiny gap between us. She understandably yells “What the fuck!”, and the guy turns back questioning what he did wrong. “For one, you don’t pass on the right in any vehicle!” I yelled in response, but soon after that, his window of openness to learning slammed shut. Nonetheless, Rett sped off after him and they continued a fruitless exchange for a block or two. Carlos said to me “which one do you think will give up first?” Hmm, no comment!
We navigated into the nice pedestrianized historic downtown (with one side of the street unfortunately 1980s-redeveloped). The beers (at 10 Mile Creek Brewery, recommended by a guy gambling at the bar in Ovando!) eventually cooled Rett down, but it probably took the ice cream cones from the shop next door until both her physical and emotional temperatures returned to normal.
Prior to arriving in Helena, we had been camping for 15 straight nights (or 14 of the last 15 if staying in the hoosegow in Ovando doesn’t count as camping (and in my spreadsheet, it doesn’t)). Either way it smashed our previous record, so we were definitely overdue for a restorative break (especially given the unusually long push of the pedals that we made from Glacier to get to Helena). So we had five nights booked in what turned out to be a really nice upper-level of a house (two bathrooms!), especially when we discovered that it had unlisted window air-conditioners, as it was definitely hotter here than we’ve been used to.
One of our main tasks was planning our next directional target. Ever since (or even before) we entered Montana, Rett has wanted to ride through the area where “The Horse Whisperer” was filmed. I liked the idea of exploring that I-90 corridor by bike too, but lack-of-anything in southeast Montana makes it really difficult to head east from that south-central region (the main bike route runs east up near the Canadian border). So that made us finally confirm a route south through Yellowstone (surprisingly a more-services-filled path), but approaching via the far-less-common Northeast Entrance, over the legendary Beartooth Pass.
So of course one night on the giant TV we watched “The Horse Whisperer”. We never made it out to one of the easily-accessible hikes up one of the mountains overlooking the city, so hopefully our hiking muscles won’t completely wither away before we get to Yellowstone. We glimpsed the State Capitol building on our trips to Safeway, but that was the extent of our Helena tourism.
Carlos had a couple days to get his flying-with-his-bike logistics figured out, and once that was successful, we met up for a dinner of local co-op Montana beef burgers at Old Salt Outpost. It was funny to finally see the “civilized” version of Carlos, and I’m sure it was the same for him in reverse. Once again we had wonderful conversation, but I realized a lot of the value came from his ability to meet us for cultural exchange on our side of the language barrier. Why was his English so excellent? Well, he works as a translator! Even on the first day when we met, I found myself surprisingly appreciative of the fact that we discussed almost nothing about our travels. Usually that’s 80% of what we talk about with other travelers (at least initially), and while that’s interesting too (and often quite useful!) it was refreshing to immediately bypass all of that and jump straight into topics of lifestyle and relationships. Thanks Carlos, for one of the best on-the-road relationships we’ve been lucky to create!