Summer’s Last Stand

The windows are open and a cool breeze wafts in as I write this morning.   Sunrise is still an hour or so away and so perhaps it will warm up later but maybe not so much that we’ll have to turn the air conditioner back on.  Fall is coming.   It won’t be long now.

It has been a summer of endless blooms along the Raccoon River Valley Trail.
Roundup time.

It has been an amazing summer.  I’ve ridden more miles than ever before and I’ve seen the most incredible things.  On the wildlife front, I’ve ridden with the bulls.  Okay, technically they were cows but you get the idea.  Most people never get to see cattle run.  It’s quite a sight…all that weight charging forward.  I’ve also seen copious deer, eagles, beaver, one curious gray fox and even a bobcat.

I’ve added Montana, Oregon and Washington to the list of states I’ve now cycled in.   I’d been to all of these places before, but seeing them on a bike is different and better and I have a new appreciation of just how special they all are.   Portland was everything I heard it was.  Billings and Missoula are completely different, but both delighted me in ways I didn’t expect.   If you ever find yourself heading to Billings and are looking for suggestions, let me know and I’ll share with you where to stay and where to eat.  It has blossomed from the gritty little oil town I remember into a nice smaller city.

Downtown Billings. I like it here.
I liked Missoula even more.
I crossed both the Mississippi and Columbia by bike for the first time this summer.

Closer to home, I crossed the Mississippi River in Davenport and rode the Hennepin Canal towpath in Illinois as well as the Three Rivers Trail in Hampton Iowa.   We also visited Cedar Falls for the first time.  If I was young and just starting out and looking for an affordable Midwestern “mountain” town, I  might consider moving there.  It reminds me of Boulder way back when.

The passing of summer doesn’t mean that cycling season is over.  Minnesota beckons.  The Root River Trail is one of America’s best and this month they’re having a Taste of the Trail.  That’s a good excuse to head north before the snow flies.

I’m also heading to Nebraska in a few weeks to ride the Omaha Jackrabbit, a 125 mile gravel grinder.   Like Seattle to Portland earlier this year, I have absolutely no idea what this entails.  It’ll be fun to find out.

The Loess Hills…another one of my “happy places.”

I plan to ride through the winter again this year.  I probably won’t go as many miles as last year, especially on those below zero days, but you never know.  I do plan to get out in it regardless.   I’ve even found myself looking wistfully at my Surly Wednesday fat bike these last few weeks.

That’s a good thing.

Ride on.

Missoula

Some of you already know this, but I get around.  I’ve ridden my bicycle through the heart of cities as large and diverse as Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle.  I’ve crossed rivers with names like Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Monongahela.  I’ve climbed out of canyons and cycled through countless small towns and across miles and miles of countryside.  Most places are navigable, at least to some degree. Few are exceptional.   None are Missoula.

Lots of places have signs, but in Missoula they actually seem to mean it.

I came to this storied seat of education on the far side of Montana expecting to leave just a little disappointed.  Missoula sounded too good to be true.  It has serious cred as an outdoor town…kind of like so many other places that were less than perfect when it came to actually turning my crank.  I’ve heard it all before and so this time I listened to my jaded heart and tempered my expectations.  But Missoula didn’t play along and that’s a good thing.  Missoula blew me away.

This bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street is the most ingenious piece of bicycle infrastructure I’ve seen in the US.
It was early and not much was open yet, but it’s hard to miss all that bicycle parking.
Kim Williams Nature Trail along the Clark Fork. There’s a hiking trail up to the M on the mountain as well.  It looked crowded from down below.
Protected bike lanes on Higgins – Photo: Google Streetview
The Higgins underpass along the Kim Williams Trail is wide and easy to navigate.
Love locks on the footbridge to Albertson’s.  I saw this on the Hot Metal Bridge in Pittsburgh as well.

This is without a doubt the best place I’ve ever ridden a bicycle. There is no honorable mention I can think of.  This city is that far ahead of the other places I’ve cycled.  It’s the gold standard, the place against which I will now measure all other places.  It is the one and only city in Pedalfree’s Cycling Hall of Fame.

So what did I like?   Connectivity, for one thing.  I felt like I could go anywhere here by bike.   Crossing the Clark Fork was no big deal.  There’s a foot bridge that sneaks up behind the Albertson’s grocery store.  It’s full of padlocks and inspired by the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. There’s also this incredibly pragmatic bridge beneath a bridge on Madison Street.  I call it America’s Hovenring.  There are trails here and there and everywhere.

Missoula is an active place and so it seemed as though all of those trails were clogged with walkers and joggers.  Instead of weaving through the crowds, I hit the streets.   I cruised the protected bike lanes along Higgins Street downtown and passed a law enforcement officer. We exchanged greetings, which was easy to do since he was also on a bicycle.  Everywhere I went, motorists were kind and courteous.  They still respect crosswalks in Missoula.

It might seem like a small thing, but I passed countless bikes in front of businesses here.  Few, if any, were locked.   Apparently there’s no need.   Helmets are optional, just like in Holland.  Speeds are low for both bikes and cars.  The folks I saw were not training for next weekend’s gran fondo.  They were just going about their daily lives on bicycles.

It seems as though the total community is engaged.  There’s a local organization called Missoula In Motion that works with employers to encourage people to commute sustainably.  They hold a commuter challenge and have a leaderboard on their website where companies compete with each other. It reminds me of my time in Denver when RTD, the local transit organization, worked with employers to get people out of their cars and clean up what was then the country’s worst air pollution.

Of all the places I’ve been, I think Missoula would be the easiest to live without a car.  The town itself is relatively compact.  There’s free bus service everywhere, even to the airport.  Roads are being redesigned in a way that incorporates Vision Zero principles.  One major exit off of Interstate 90 is a roundabout with no stoplights.  Another is under construction at present.

Not everything is rosy here.   As I understand it, air pollution is a serious problem in the winter.   The lay of the land suggests that this is the case, as Missoula sits in a relatively tight little valley the likes of which typically produces temperature inversions.  Growth is also creating sprawl outside of the city limits.  People want to be here and it’s bustling.  I saw this same thing destroy Boulder, and so I keep my fingers crossed and hope that Missoula can work through it.

We weren’t even going to stop here.  It was just a fluke that we did…a matter of making time work in terms of other stops further on down the road.   I’m glad we did.   It was serendipity.   I can honestly say that Missoula is in a class by itself when it comes to bicycle friendly…at least from my perspective.  I can’t wait to come back.