Words by Jules Stennes and Patch Doyle, photos by Jules Stennes and Kathy France
A town with a bar and a hill and grizzlies everywhere… The roads are beautiful, the locals are friendly, the route is adventurous, and it was a spectacular way to experience Montana.
We were the first pair to enter the Big Sky Spectaculaire, an event that’s listed as a single-stage self-supported competitive adventure bicycling ride. Parts of the route are on the Adventure Cycling Association’s TransAm and Lewis and Clark Bike Routes. The fixed route is 891.6 miles with 38,842 feet of climbing. RideWithGPS shows the route as 21% unpaved. But, when we were in it, we felt like we were on unpaved roads most of the time. The race organizer Crowell Herrick did a great job communicating before the race with monthly updates leading into the start of the race. Crowell also participated in the event this year. This write-up is from each of our perspectives as well as our couplehood, as we call it.
After researching ultra races in 2021, Jules found the Big Sky Spectaculaire, and she couldn’t stop talking about it. I listened as she read me the details. And we started fantasizing about beautiful scenery, togetherness, eating at our favorite convenience stores, and wait for it… grizzly bears! We listened as Evan Deutsch discussed his ride day by day on a podcast. We read as Heather Poskevich recounted her experience racing to the Virgelle Ferry. We researched Montana and read through the Big Sky Spectaculaire website. It was super exciting.
So, in January 2022, we contacted Big Sky Spectaculaire to request additional information. Pie stops for time bonuses! Could this be true? We love pie, and we probably eat quite a bit of it on our bikepacking adventures and races, but now we get time bonuses for eating pie?! There were also time bonuses for other landmarks along the way.
On August 19th, we packed up our bikes and headed to Bozeman, Montana, for the bike check and pre-race meeting at a local park. At the pre-race meeting, we met the other racers, ate a Chipotle group meal, discussed our gear at length, and went to bed. Then, on August 22nd at 6:30 am, our neutral start guided by locals took us out of town and to our first gravel section. The race was on.
The first day was filled with excitement and surprise as every turn seemed to bring something new. Beautiful scenery was abundant and there were a lot of dirt sections as we made our way to Three Forks and our first pie stop. With our excitement, we missed the Missouri Headwaters and its time bonus. Suddenly, leader James Folsom appeared. We realized we were riding with the leader of the race. James Folsom was in Montana with Meg Hackinen after her impressive finish at the TCRNo8. We rode together for a few minutes, then James powered off over the steep hill ahead of us. When we got close to Dillon, Montana, we could see the sky was getting dark. In just a few minutes, we had lightning all around us and really strong winds. We jumped in a ditch for a few minutes but decided to just keep riding since we had nowhere good to go to escape the rain and lightning. We finished our first day in Dillon and got some sleep. Well, first we ate dinner thanks to Subway. We’ll get back to Subway and our food plan.
We started our second day at 3:59 am. As we were chatting and climbing one of the hills leading us out of Dillon, we heard a voice from the darkness next to us, “Good morning!” It was Crowell, the race director. We said hello to the voice in the dark and pedaled off into the darkness. As we climbed, seeing only what our headlights would show us, we talked about grizzlies and how they must be standing on the road waiting for us.
Back to our overactive imagination of grizzly bears: after reading about grizzly bears in the area, our imaginations ran wild. We recalled a YouTube video of this woman who was hiking and she discovered that a mountain lion was tracking her. After several attempts to scare the cat away, she played heavy metal music, and the cat ran away. So, we downloaded a Metallica playlist. We played Metallica every time we were in an area identified as grizzly territory. We were total chaos riding on remote, pristine, and beautiful roads while playing heavy metal music and singing along. Crowell provided very detailed information about grizzly sightings and territory throughout the race. We are from Colorado, so grizzlies are unfamiliar to us. During planning, we even decided to change our plan from a bivy to sleeping in lodging to avoid them. During our 891 miles, we saw one bear and a cub. Yep, one bear. It was a grizzly, but just one bear. To do it over again, we would bivy.
Back to our second day. We rode through Jackson, Wisdom, and Sula on our way to Darby. Before arriving in Sula, we climbed Gibbons Pass. This was roughly a 17-mile dirt road somewhat close to the Montana-Idaho border. On the descent, Patch misjudged a sharp turn on the loose rock and slid off the road into a ditch, and rode his front wheel for around six feet. This tweaked his neck a little. Once we arrived in Darby, Patch asked if we could stay there for a night. We planned to ride over Skalkaho Pass and sleep in Philipsburg.
On our third day, we got started on our climb up Skalkaho Pass at 3:43 am From Darby, the top would be 40 miles ahead of us and roughly 31 miles of dirt road to arrive in Philipsburg. The Skalkaho Pass dirt road was steep at times but what we call good dirt other than the continuous washboard on the descent. We filtered some water at the falls and arrived in Philipsburg in time for lunch. We had lunch and made our way to Lincoln for a sleep stop. We had bar food and went to bed.
The fourth day started with the only flat or mechanical we would have during the race. Jule’s rear tire was flat. We added more Stan’s and rode to a Lambkin’s Restaurant for some breakfast sandwiches. Man, we should have ordered twelve of those sandwiches. So, so good. Now on our way to Fort Benton, we were trying to make up some time from the unplanned stop in Darby. As it turns out, there was a big storm just ahead of us. As we made our way into Dutton, we found wind and rain. Along the way, we got a text from Crowell that he and another racer Mike were sleeping in a church in Dutton and we were welcome to stay there too. James had texted Crowell to say he was dealing with relentless mud heading toward Fort Benton. We decided to stay in the church for the night. We slept on the floor inside our emergency bivys, which was a mistake. Never sleep in your emergency bivy inside. We were both soaked the next morning. Our emergency bivys do not breathe at all. We packed and prepared for the fourth day of riding.
The fourth day included a long section of gravel leading into Fort Benton. We arrived in Fort Benton and looked around for lunch. We found Wake Up Coffee and had our first and only sit-down meal of the event. Wow, what an amazing meal it was! We consumed two lunches each. Patch was sleepy and wanted to take a nap on the grass next to the Missouri River. We decided to continue to ride and that was the right decision as the ride to the Missouri River Ferry (Virgelle Ferry) took longer than we thought. We made the ferry with minutes to spare. After the ferry, we were planning to stop in Geraldine. We rode through an amazing sunset and the rest of the dirt section in the dark.
We started day five at 6:14 am A bit of a late start for us, but we have fewer miles to cover in our plan. After losing some time in Darby, we have now caught back up to our original plan. We develop a plan, in a spreadsheet, for all of our races with estimated average speeds and distances for each day. We can then estimate when we will arrive at destinations along the route. If we adjust our average speed in the spreadsheet, we see the ETA’s for destinations all the way to the finish. We base our average speeds on experience, mileage, feet climbed, and surface. Also, RideWithGPS will provide estimated ride times for routes. We arrived in White Sulfur Springs late in the night. We found a gas station that is basically a gas station and grocery store combined (Town Pump Food Store). Amazing food selection for a gas station. We bought too much food, ate, and went to sleep.
We planned our last day to be short (for an ultra). We had 97 miles to go until the finish. We started our day at 5:38 am The route took us out of town and almost immediately onto a dirt road and eventually onto a two-track road where we crossed private property that Crowell negotiated for us to ride through. After riding a two-track road and navigating several gates, we were past the private property and back on the dirt roads we have been used to on this route. There was excitement in the air as we rode towards the finish. Before we would arrive in Bozeman, we still needed to ride through Bridger Canyon and climb up Battle Ridge Pass and Bridger Divide before descending into the Bozeman area. Once we descended, there was a hard left onto a gravel bike path. Of course, Crowell was not done with gravel yet. Finally, we hit the tarmac again and rode to the finish line. Kathy, Crowell’s wife, was there taking photos, as were Graham from Montana Odyssey, first-place finisher James, Meg, and some locals clapping as we arrived.
Back to Subway sandwiches and our food plan for this event: as we were researching the first planned three days of the route, we noticed there were Subway shops along the route. We discovered Subway has an app for ordering online and you can also tag favorites. So, during our training for Big Sky Spectaculaire, we included stops at Subway shops. The idea was that we could order from the bike and avoid time-wasting lines. This could help us stay on the bikes longer. The first couple of times we tried, we probably spent more time ordering from the road than we would if we just stood in line. It was difficult to see the phone screen in bright sunlight and navigating the app was difficult from the road. But, as we continued practicing, we finally got it. During training, we would be riding along, push a couple of buttons, and voila, we could run in grab our sandwiches from the designated area, load the bikes, and be on our way. This was a great plan until we realized there were no more Subways past Hamilton, and Hamilton was off route. We had to adjust our food plan. It would be burgers, fries, and fried chicken after Hamilton. Oh boy.
Everyone always wants to hear about the numbers and gear choices, so here you go.
Miles: 891 miles
Feet climbed: 38,842
Time: 6 days and 9 hours
We rode two OPEN UPs (33 pounds each), Force 1 mechanical, Apidura bags, Hunt wheels with dyno hub, Rene Herse 700 X 44 Snoqualmie Pass tires. The entire rig was bulletproof except for one small leak in one of the tires and additional stans fixed it.
This was our first successful finish for a self-supported ultra event. We are very proud, and this gives us the confidence to try other bikepacking events in the future. If you are thinking about the Tour Divide or some other big event, this is a good event to start with and work through your planning, strategies, and gear. We wish we had started with it sooner. You see, our very first bikepacking event was the Transcontinental TCRNo.6. I guess we decided to go to the Super Bowl without ever playing football. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
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