I never know what to expect from a trip like this. There is no way to know what will happen, what will break, what will hurt, when you’ll feel great, or when you’ll crack. Maybe you won’t crack. Perhaps you’ll want to. Either way, you will experience something profound.
When I heard of the Montana Bike Odyssey (MBO), I knew I had to participate. I couldn’t pass up a 1,700-mile epic that starts and finishes a mile from my house in Bozeman.
The MBO is ridden as a clockwise loop through Montana. This self-supported, single-stage race covers approximately 1,000 miles of gravel and more than 700 miles of remote paved county roads and bicycle paths. With over 100,000 feet of climbing and descending, this route incorporates many of the mountain passes worth peddling in Montana. The first 1,000 miles are spent west of the Continental Divide, with forests of conifers, sustained climbs, and long descents. The second half the route drops east of it, where it becomes stark and vast, entering an area of wide-open sky with rolling climbs, heading down the plains toward the canyons of the Missouri River. Towns are scattered along the route, mostly welcoming ranching and farming communities. Everything from one-street, one-bar towns to the seemingly big cities of Missoula and Great Falls. Many times, it’s remote, passing through lonely and isolated stretches of national forest, offering access to endless wildlife and solitude. A true Odyssey.
In July 2021, I rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Whitefish to Antelope Wells. I set out solo, long after the grand depart, with no ideas of racing. My goal was to finish. I’ve been obsessed with the TD since it was introduced to me, and I felt I had to ride it. I met friends along the way and rode miles that pushed the boundaries of what I thought was possible. I finished the route happy but unsatisfied. I knew I could go faster and put in longer days, especially if someone was chasing me. I wanted to race. The MBO started a week after I returned to Bozeman from New Mexico. Too soon, I decided. I set my sights on 2022.
Two days before the start of 2022 MBO, smoke arrived in the valley. The culprit unknown, “somewhere out west,” was thrown around. Clear skies had prevailed all summer until then. It was disappointing but a good reminder of how quickly conditions can change. The smoke would persist for the entirety of the race, varying in severity day by day and valley by valley.
The night before the race, five eager participants gathered at the home of route developer, race organizer, and participant Graham Goff. After completing the 2018 Trans Am with his son Ben Goff, Graham and Ben began developing a route of their own. In September 2020, after countless hours of planning and thousands of miles spent driving and riding on bumpy roads, the Montana Bike Odyssey was born. Graham has ridden and completed all three Odysseys since its conception. His dedication and passion to the sport of bikepacking is what makes this community so great.
We had a pre-ride brief with bike check and pizza. With such a small group, it was casual. We talked about bags and components, knowing we were kindred spirits. It was clear this group was here to race—to push big miles and themselves. All of us were MBO first-timers, aside from Graham, but everyone had experiences that would aid them. Confidence was expressed.
We started at 7 a.m. on September 6th. A small crowd waved us off as we pedaled away from the Bozeman Public Library, the same spot we hoped to finish 1,700 miles from now. There was 10 miles of neutral start. We chatted among each other and with the friends who joined us for the first few miles. Going through the final checks in my head. “I think I have everything. Remember there is a long way to go.” It was cold, but I knew the day would be hot and exposed. We hit gravel north of town, zig-zagging north, south, west, and south again. Passing grain silos and ranches. Through Three Forks and the headwaters of the Missouri. Heading south for Ennis up the Madison River drainage, our first pass over the Gravely mountains looming in the distance. Around 120 miles in, I looked at fellow racer Dexter Kopas with astonishment when he said he was planning to push through the night another 80 miles to Dillon. Knowing it would be foolish to blow up on day one, I went on another 10 miles and slept. I would not see Dexter until I finished 13 days later.
Day four, I slept for an extra hour after waking up to frozen water bottles and ice-covered handlebars. Forgetting gloves did not help. Summer was certainly over.
Day eight started with a climb heading toward Lake Koocanusa, which bridges Canada and the US in the Kootenai National Forest. Ten miles and 2,000 feet found me on top fiddling with my derailleur trying to diagnose why my shifting was so clunky. I discovered my lower jockey wheel had seized, and I removed the screw. As it pulled through, the shredded bearing disintegrated, dispersing its contents in every direction on the dark road. With the help of Graham, who had caught me the night before, we pieced together what we could and got the screw back in. It was a loose mess, but it spun and I could shift. One hundred miles and lots of climbing to Whitefish followed. The bike shops there offered my best (and only) chance at a replacement. We made it at dusk, and the bike shops had all closed. An REI 15 miles down the highway was open for another 25 minutes and seemed to have a set of jockey wheels that would work. With the help of an eager Uber driver who was willing to speed, Graham watching my bike and the guys at REI selling me a part they don’t retail, we were back rolling by 9 p.m.
Day twelve, I experienced my highest moment of the trip. A sunrise over the Missouri breaks that had me convinced I was in the African Savanna. I also experienced my lowest after crossing the first river ferry of the day. It was 80 miles to the next ferry, and it closed in 10 hours. If I missed it, I would have to wait 12 hours. My legs felt like lead, the mud made it feel as if I was dragging an anchor, and the 300+ miles I had left felt insurmountable. I yelled and cried into the empty landscape, asking myself why I was even doing it. If it hurt this bad, why would I subject myself to this? I stopped pedaling. I told myself I wasn’t going to make the ferry. It lasted less than a minute, but that moment would define the entire ride. I had to get back on the bike and keep going. The only way out is forward. I hit dry gravel, and I was laughing. In Big Sandy, I resupplied for the 100+ miles to Lewistown. I downed a can of pears in syrup. My legs came back, and I made the ferry with time to spare.
There were 280 miles to the finish, and it felt like nothing could stop me. One big day, some sleep, and then whatever’s left. I rode with everything I had to get away from a chasing Graham. Sixty miles from the finish, I could see the Bridger Mountains reaching high over the hills. I was heading that way, closing in on home. Arriving back at the library, family and friends were there to greet me. I was smiling, smelly, and satisfied.
There is no knowing what will happen on a ride like this. What can be known is that it will be a ride of not only beautiful roads, trails, and vistas, but also of emotions and experiences. It’s a razor’s edge, your body teetering between exhaustion and motion. Your head is swapping from mania to gloom. An experience like this one distills life down to little wins and losses, to climbs and descents and food and rest. It brings it home that we should always be moving forward.
2022 Montana Bike Odyssey Results
- 1st: Dexter Kopas (10D:17H:43M)
- 2nd: Zach Cole (12D:10H:36M)
- 3rd: Cameron Gunn (13D:11H:40M)
- 4th: Graham Goff (13D:19H:29M)
- 5th: Andrew Keepfer (14D:13H:49M)
The 2023 Montana Bike Odyssey is already scheduled for September 5th. Learn more here.
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