Words by Falcon Murty, photos by Falcon Murty and Graham Goff (@goffgraham)
“Have you checked the temp?” No, I haven’t, but I know that I can’t feel my toes or fingers and my water bottle is frozen! What the hell!
When Graham, the race organizer and my best friend, asked me that question, we were two hours into the last day of the Montana Bike Odyssey (MBO) with 130 miles to go. We had started pedaling that morning from Cooke City at 5 a.m. hoping to make the 144-mile push to Bozeman that day, a distance that seemed like nothing after the 14-day odyssey we had been on. “You got this,” I told myself.
The previous 14 days had taken us through some of the most remote and beautiful places that the “last best place” had to offer. Ever since my first road trip out West, Montana has had a special place in my heart. That road trip had such a profound impact that I transferred there to pursue a degree in Architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman. Pedaling through the state has only made me love it more. We had pedaled more than 1,100 miles of gravel, dirt, and singletrack, as well as about 500 miles of remote paved country roads. Starting and finishing in Bozeman, the race makes a big loop up the western side of the Continental Divide all the way to Canada and then drops back down and over to the eastern side of the Divide into the wide-open rolling prairies that have to be where Montana got its nickname “Big Sky.”
We had climbed more than 100,000 feet, including the 10,947-foot Beartooth pass around mile 1,620. Mile 915 put us outside of Big Fork where we scared a black bear away from “her” apple tree. After she cleared out, we helped ourselves to a couple of beautiful apples that were just outside of her reach. Mile 500 found us on a dirt road with the Clark Fork River below us and a couple of bald eagles flying at eye level beside us. Mile 1,271 was a race to catch one of the two remote ferries across the upper Missouri River while taking in one of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen. Mile 295 was an intense near-vertical hike-a-bike up and over Fleecer Ridge, which was followed by an epic downhill. At the bottom of that glorious ride is where I discovered that my rear cassette was really loose! With a lot of help from my buddy Graham, a “phone a friend” to Pat at Loose Nuts Cycles in Atlanta, and some roadside bike magic with my Leatherman and a rock, I was able to get it tight enough to ride again.
125 miles to go… we’re riding west through Yellowstone National Park toward a setting full moon anticipating the warmth of the rising sun on our backs. It’s a slight downhill and we have a small tailwind, so we’re flying. It’s impossible to describe how beautiful the mountains are with the moon setting behind them and the sun’s glow starting to show on them. The Lamar Valley is opening before us, and all along the road there are people bundled up with their spotting scopes trying to find the perfect spot. If they’re lucky, they will see the wolves that frequent the area in the early mornings. Occasionally, as we fly by them on our bikes, they’ll give us a smile or a thumbs up, but most of the time they look at us like we’re aliens. We get the same look from most people who pass us in cars too. They can’t believe there are two guys riding their bikes this early in the morning—through Yellowstone—when it’s this cold. And it is really cold. I’m wearing thick gloves, wool socks, leg warmers, and a down jacket, but it’s not enough.
The MBO starts the Tuesday morning after Labor Day weekend. For those who don’t know, September weather in Montana can be a crapshoot. Summer is over and fall is on its way, which means the weather may swing dramatically between the two seasons. Rain, snow, and 90-degree days with 30-degree mornings are absolutely a possibility, so having wardrobe options is very important. Some days it feels like every few miles one of us was yelling “costume change!” which is our term for needing to adjust clothes… again. September is also incredibly beautiful in Montana. The leaves are starting to change color and the yellow of the aspen leaves are striking in contrast to the infinite shades of green from the Douglas firs, spruce, and lodgepole pines that cover the mountainsides. However, there’s no time to waste because “winter is coming” and you must get up and over the Beartooth Pass before it closes for the season, which generally happens in late September.
113 miles to go… As the sun comes up, we stop in Tower Junction and try to warm up. Man, who would have thought it could feel so glorious standing next to a heavily used Yellowstone Park pit toilet. The sun is finally starting to warm me up and I couldn’t think of anywhere on earth that I’d rather be. Rolling out of Tower Junction saw another quick costume change. The sun was doing her job and the sweat was rolling down my back and I had to shed some layers. After the changing clothes, it was a 24-mile push to Gardiner and it felt amazing. It was finally warm and the road was in perfect condition. Not to mention, there is a five-mile screamer of a downhill from Mammoth to Gardiner. In Gardiner we stopped for 15 and I grabbed the best cup of coffee that I had had during the entire ride at Yellowstone Perk coffee shop next to the main entrance to the park.
89 miles to go… was the beginning of some very serious washboard. The ride from Gardiner to Livingstone is mostly gravel along the Yellowstone River and the Absaroka Mountains rise dramatically to the east of the river. It was gorgeous, but I was focused on trying to keep my eyes in my head as I bounced down the road. I was also thinking about the finish line in Bozeman. After 14 days, I felt strong, and despite the washboard I felt like I was flying. That was also due to a slight tailwind and the fact that it’s mostly downhill to Livingston. We knocked out that 55-mile stretch in four hours. We were flying.
33 miles to go… the winds shifted on this stretch from Livingston to Bozemen and we had a headwind as we climbed up and over the Bozeman Pass. Dropping down out of the pass was glorious. The Bridger Mountains were directly to our west and the sun was starting to get low on the horizon, so we were officially going to finish the race during the “golden hour.”
This was my second time riding the Montana Bike Odyssey. Last year’s MBO was my first long-distance bikepacking trip and it was a grueling 18.5-day introduction to the sport. If you’d have asked me after last year’s race if I would ever do something so obviously foolish and intense ever again, my answer would have been a definite “are you freaking crazy!?” But as time passed, I started to look back on that time in the saddle with fondness. Riding the Montana Bike Odyssey is the antithesis of modern life. It distills life down to a few essential things, like when am I going to eat, what am I going to eat, how do I stay warm, how do I cool down, and where am I going to sleep. Running a small design and construction firm means my days are normally filled with an overwhelming number of decisions. During the MBO, all I really must do is pedal and eat. Having only a couple of tasks to focus on helps bring me into the present and gives me time to think. It’s like a 15-day hardcore retreat that helps me recenter and gain some much-needed perspective. The overwhelming beauty and the limitless vistas also bring an overall sense of calm to the day. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times that I feel like I’m being chased by some unseen “boogie man” and any time I’m not pedaling means whatever is chasing me is getting closer. But generally, the ride creates a sense of calm that I rarely feel in “real life.” A couple of months after last year’s race, I called Graham and told him that I was in for this year and that I was going to try to complete it in 15 days. With what I’d learned on the first ride, a new bike, and less gear, I felt like improving my ride time by 3 days was possible.
15 miles to go… and the climbs keep coming. There are two short but steep (10%) climbs over Kelly Canyon and then the final ride into town is along the Peet’s Hill Trail that runs along a ridge overlooking downtown Bozeman. This path is a popular dog-walking path and sunset viewing trail, so it had a bunch of smiling people on it as the sun set. It was a perfect end to the race. After 15 days of being deep in the backcountry of Montana, it felt really nice to see smiling faces, and those smiles coupled with the end to an amazing race made me smile back as I rode into the official finish line at the Bozeman library—the same spot we’d started at 15 days earlier and 1,800 miles ago. The odyssey was over.
2021 Montana Bike Odyssey Results
- 1st: Falcon Murty (15d 12h)
- 2nd: Graham Goff (15d 12h 10m)
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