The Road To Nowhere – Tuesday 31st May to Thursday 2nd June
Tuesday 31st May – Conrad to Great Falls (Stage 25)
We woke to blue skies once again & I set off in shorts, short sleeved jersey & sun tan lotion! As we left town, we could see “pepperpots” in all directions, a sure sign we were heading into remote farming country. As we approached the I-15, we took a right turn & joined a small frontage road – once upon a time in pre-freeway days this would have been the main road, but today we would have it almost to ourselves.
The two lane road offered views of the mountains to the right & views to infinity straight ahead! With a light tailwind behind us, we had perfect cycling conditions in a stunningly beautiful location.
After about 10 miles we reached the small agricultural town of Brady – in the last census it had a population of 140. It’s a hub for the collection of grain from the surrounding farms, so in spite of its lack of size, it’s still an important town.
Leaving town, the road picked its way between wheat fields as it continued to track the freeway, with the railroad tracking us on the other side. Round about here we saw our first car for 15 miles, which matched the number of deer I’d managed to photograph!
The next major event was crossing the freeway & passing through a small section of shrubs & small trees. As we reached Dutton we found a small diner where we stopped briefly for coffee & a cinnamon roll. Pepperpots continued to dominate the human landscape as we continued on our way – just after a small airfield the road turned to gravel for about 5 miles, which made an enjoyable change. All the while we continued to mirror the route of the freeway – at times we can’t have been 15 yards away from it!
Montana continues to offer stunning views of The Big Sky – mountains were always visible in one direction or another. We also got early warning of our only descent of the day – as you’ll have seen from the photos already, today had little in the way of elevation changes.
The road remained our own personal playground as we enjoyed the descent – as we reached the turnoff for Vaughn we’d travelled about 50 miles on backroads & we’d seen 6 cars in that time!!
The final 13 miles took us along more populated roads – our first surprise was an oversized load of 4 John Deere combine harvesters heading towards us! We also spotted our first & only wind farm of the day.
As we headed into Great Falls, we spotted a few aircraft overhead – I then remembered that the Malstrom Air Force Base is located just to the east of town & they appeared to be carrying out exercises above us. Thanks to David Higgs for confirming the photo shows a Hercules C130.
I’d forgotten to update my route when we booked the Super 8 Motel, so we had to manually navigate across town, but I’m pleased to say it all went smoothly & Sean was still talking to me when we toasted another glorious day in the saddle!
Stage Stats – 65 miles, 1,240 feet of climbing. Virtually pan-flat with a gentle tailwind for most of the ride.
Wednesday 1st June – Great Falls to Lincoln (Stage 26)
The first 13 miles of today’s ride were a reverse of yesterday’s final 13 miles, so I kept a few details back to use here! As we left town under blue skies, we crossed the Missouri river on our own bike bridge, before passing a car on a pole which was advertising a local auto repair shop. Finally, a livestock auction was in full slow with animals being delivered at one gate & being transported away by their new owners at the other.
At Vaughn we crossed the Sun river (more on this later) which was a small torrent at this point. Joining the relatively busy Highway 89, we were provided our first view of the mountains we’re due to visit tomorrow. We were also back into “Eagle” country – I use the term loosely, as the majority of the birds we see are one of the many varieties of hawk.
Leaving Vaughn behind us, we spotted the first of a number of buttes in the distance – my favourite shot shows a small dust trail being kicked up by an SUV as it speeds across the gravel road. Not long after, I spotted a small bridge that I planned to pose on for a photo, but when I got to it I realised I’d be going for a swim if a tried to balance on a couple of thin planks while wearing cycling cleats!!!
As we reached the small settlement of Sun River we stopped at a Historic Point to learn about its strategic importance. Back in the early 1860’s, a bridge was built over the Sun river & a toll had to be paid to cross it. The bridge was built on an old Blackfeet Indian ford & a thriving town built up as a result of the gold rush in southwestern Montana. In spite of the arrival of the railroad in 1887, the town continued to be hugely important until after 1900. The current bridge is the 4th incarnation.
The most important white settlements in Montana were the mining camps in the western mountains. A series of military posts was established in the 1860’s & Fort Shaw was one of these. It also protected the stage & freight trail from Fort Benton. In 1876 General Gibbon led his troops here to join General Terry & General Custer on the Yellowstone, just prior to his disastrous fight with Sioux & Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Fort Shaw Indian School became World Champions at Girl’s Basketball when they beat all-comers (from the USA & around the world) at the 1904 St Louis World Fair. I learned all this from following a Historic Point sign that had directed us both down a narrow gravel road.
Leaving Fort Shaw behind, we continued to head towards the big mountains until we reached Simms. We stopped briefly for a coffee & cookie at a gas station (the first place that had been open since we left Vaughn about 90 minutes before. As we set off again, we took an immediate right turn onto another deserted road & within minutes we’d spotted another eagle, this one perched in a tree waiting for us to move on. I also met a herd of cows, who made it clear I should moooooo-ve on!!!!
After gradually climbing for about 45 minutes, we finally got our well deserved payback – a long, straight descent! We stopped for a selfie at the top before enjoying a rapid descent with a stunning view of the mountains ahead of us.
As we were freewheeling along the flat at the bottom, we spotted what on first inspection looked to be a ghost town – it was only when we checked out a “Private Property” sign that we realised it was actually a local gun club. Just a couple of fields later we spotted a couple of white tailed deer, although they kept their distance from us. Continuing on, a new section of The Rockies revealed itself – somewhere over there must be the Pass we’re crossing tomorrow.
We got to enjoy one final descent before we joined the 287 for the final couple of miles into Augusta. Our motel is called the Wagons Rest & along with the rest of the town has retained its wild west heritage & some of its physical history too. We arrived slightly early & the owners weren’t in, so Matt (the previous owner) kindly checked us in, sorted us out with room keys & ensured we were comfortable.
After a relaxing dinner from the local grocery store (salad, crisps, chocolate & Dr Peppers in case you’re interested) I stood & watched a stunning sunset as the sun dipped its head behind The Rocky Mountains.
Stage Stats – 57 miles, 869 feet of climbing. Virtually pan-flat with no wind to speak of. Glorious sunshine all day.
Thursday 2nd June – Lincoln to August (Stage 27)
Today we’re back in the mountains again, but first we have to get there. We set off about 9.30am under blue, but cloudy skies & almost immediately we spotted a couple of herds of deer in the same field – there must have been 10 of them in total. The mountains were on our right hand side as we started a gradual climb of the non-categorised variety. As we reached a short downhill section we were overtaken by a huge truck carrying an oversized load – we’ve encountered a few of these on our adventure to date & like all the others, the driver made sure to give us plenty of room.
At the 19 mile point we took a right & re-joined the 200, which we’d been riding yesterday (until we turned off at Simms). Immediately we hit a short, sharp climb, which isn’t really what the legs need before a hors category ascent! What also became clear very quickly was there would be a number of false climbs where we’d keep giving back the ground we’d climbed……
We’d been crossing small creek valleys, which was why the road kept rising & falling – eventually we crossed the last of the rivers & the climb of Rogers Pass started for real. We also returned to National Forest land, this time it was Helena.
While the early slopes of the climb were quite friendly, it did get steeper the further up we went – sections were 8%, which on a fully loaded steel touring bike is slow going as I only do about 4mph in these bits. I recorded my thoughts at about the halfway point of the climb;
We stopped near the top to take a couple of photos to remind ourselves of the climb & the scenery we’d ridden through. I know from experience the mind soon forgets the detail of each of the days, especially when so many new experiences are happening day after day!
Rogers Pass forms part of The Continental Divide, so this became our 2nd crossing in a week (after Marias Pass last Friday).
This was another simple & straightforward descent – a very gentle slope, with no bends or turns to talk of. Sean simply had to tuck in behind me & enjoy the free ride! As we were climbing, it was overcast above us, but almost as soon as we summited we had sun & blue sky again.
As we descended further we started to cross creeks again & pass small lakes. We also stopped briefly at the Ranger Station to learn a little more about bears – we don’t plan to meet any at close range, but do want to know what to do in the unlikely event it happens! We also saw gates to a Sculpture In The Wild exhibition, which Sean investigated further when we reached our hotel. It looks an interesting candidate for a visit on our rest day tomorrow!
Stage Stats – 57 miles, 3.176 feet of climbing. A long drag up a non categorised climb before the Hors Categorie ascent of Rogers Pass.