Posted by Miles Arbour
Words and photos by Big Sky Spectaculaire organizers
Montana’s inaugural Big Sky Spectaculaire bikepacking race welcomed a small but select group of riders to the first edition of the 967-mile mixed-terrain route. On August 24, 2020, eight riders set off from Bozeman. This route was designed and organized by Crowell Herrick, an experienced cyclist and bikepacking racer, and covered a challenging course made up of 80% pavement and 20% gravel. The route stitched together sections from the Adventure Cycling Association’s Trans America route and the Lewis and Clark Bike Routes. Crossing the Continental Divide twice, at Chief Joseph Pass (elev. 7,241 feet) and Rogers Pass (elev. 5,610 feet), the southern parts of the route showcased Montana’s scenic but diverse mountain beauty. Further north, the route also ventured into Montana’s agricultural heartland, the Golden Triangle, featuring wide-open views of wheat and barley fields and challenging gravel surfaces.
If the challenge of the course wasn’t enough, the event also offered up time bonuses to racers who completed and documented off-course excursions to see the Missouri River Headwaters, the unique Sculptures in the Wild outside Lincoln, and, most importantly, partook of a series of pie shops and cafes along Pie a la Road. Limited hours for services and the strategically placed Missouri River Ferry crossing, which operates only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., created strategic choices for racers pushing for a fast time.
The gravel stretches of the route, while not long by distance, slowed down the pace and offered racers some of the most unique and beautiful sections of the route. Some highlights included Burma Road, which meanders along the Big Hole River towards Dillon, and Skalkaho Pass, a rough dirt pass that connects the Bitterroot and Flint Creek Valleys.
The small group of racers arrived in Bozeman eager and ready to race, and the pace on day one reflected that excitement. The lead group included Janie Hayes and Evan Deutsch, top finishers from the Trans Am Bike Race, Heather Poskevich, overall winner of the 2019 Hoodoo 500, and Greg Grandgeorge, one of the top endurance cycling coaches and an elite gravel and endurance racer in his own right. Chris Coleman, Todd Hamina, Joshua Thornton, and Michael Vermeulen also set steady tempos with all riders through the 100-mile mark in the first 12 hours of racing. Evan reached Jackson, Montana, in the Big Hole Basin around sunset with a slight lead. Heather, Greg, and Janie rode close together behind, spending some quality time outside the McDonalds in Dillon. After a short rest, Evan was able to push ahead and ride a strong pace through the remainder of the night, cresting Skalkaho Pass at mile 340 by sunrise. Through the second day he was able to establish a lead, reaching the challenging prairie terrain at the end of the day. He took his first substantial rest after arriving into Fort Benton in the middle of the night at mile 615. With about 350 miles left to ride, he left Fort Benton just after sunrise to tackle the last third of the course.
Meanwhile, Greg, Heather, and Janie departed from Lincoln in the early hours of the morning. Day three provided the highlight of the race for all of the dot watchers, as Heather showed her strength, making an inspiring, non-stop push to reach the river ferry crossing in Virgelle. She made it with mere minutes to spare before the ferry closed for the night, having also budgeted her time well enough to gain a pie-stop time bonus. Evan took his final rest in Monarch before setting off in the early morning hours, climbing through the quiet of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and crossing the pass into White Sulfur Springs for his final resupply for the remaining 125-mile stretch to the finish in Bozeman. Proving that racing through Montana is never easy, he was met with fierce winds and heavy bouts of rain. Relief finally came as he turned off the exposed pavement stretch to a rugged doubletrack section that took him to a final high point before the rewarding, beautiful descent through the Bridger Canyon to the finish in Bozeman. He posted a final time of 3 days and 10 hours, for an average of 285 miles per day.
Heather continued the momentum of her push to the ferry and rode strong with limited stretches of rest to finish a strong second place in the early morning of day five. Michael Vermeulen continued his steady pace and perseverance as the final finisher of the inaugural Big Sky Spectaculaire with an average daily milage above the 100 mile century mark!
Future editions of the Big Sky Spectaculaire will undoubtedly see more racers take on the challenging and beautiful route. As a testament to the quality of the route, several riders who scratched from the race for various reasons chose to continue riding at a leisurely pace, enjoying the beautiful roads, hot springs, small towns (and, of course, pie) that Montana has to offer.
The Experience By Bike podcast, hosted by Seth Dubois, met up with first place finisher, Evan Deutsch, for their most recent episode. It’s a great listen for those interested in Evan’s approach to racing the event. Check it out below.