Sunday, August 13, 2006


The topography around Missoula sort of conspires against loop rides of any reasonable distance. I end up doing a lot of out and back rides when I have half a day to spare, and to keep it interesting I plan my turnaround somewhere I can fish, explore, or at least have a picnic. There is one popular loop ride that I hear about occasionally, though, "Ninemile-Remount." For whatever reason I've never ridden it--probably some combination of no riding partners and lack of map reading skills (I am not a navigational role model, to twist a Kent P. motto). Well, nothing like one week left in town to motivate me. I set off this morning to ride the loop.

I pedaled west out of town on familiar roads, enjoying the cool air that had me in a long sleeve wool shirt and knee warmers. With the sun warming my back, I had the shirt off after 7 miles and the knee warmers jammed down around my ankles. I've been wearing Smartwool microweight tees as jerseys lately and highly recommend them. I haven't found a lighter weight wool, and these have proven both tough and sun safe.

After about 12 miles, I turned onto new roads. The frontage road was a nice surprise, rolling pleasantly along the base of the north hills with no traffic. At the first interstate exit, another unexpected surprise, a paved bike path took off along the right side of the road. The path was mostly empty, but after a few miles I saw a slow-moving road bike approaching ahead. Since he didn't seem to be pushing it, I figured I might swing around with him and get some pointers to piece the loop together. I slowed and waved and shouted "Hello." No response. I slowed further as he approached. "Hi there!" I said. Nothing. The guy just motored by on the 5 foot wide path without a glance. I guess his contract with Pearl Izumi prevents him from breaking cadence on the Frenchtown bike path. A little irritated, I headed on. I had a rough map in my pocket that I'd sketched this morning, and from the hills rising ahead, I figured I'd get somewhere interesting, anyway. It was just about then that I first spied Leonard.

Up ahead, I saw what on first glance looked like a typical local bike path user. Pedaling bowlegged from a foot-wide saddle, the cycler appeared to be an older fellow out for a Sunday toodle. Occasionally, he would even weave edge to edge. Two things confused me, though. First, he was moving at a pretty good clip, and though the gap between us was closing, it wasn't closing very quickly even at 16mph. Second, despite the bowlegged style and too-low saddle, the cycler's form had a smoothness that suggested a lot of miles in those legs. The path ended and the road tipped downhill, and I picked up the pace a little bit worrying (foolishly, as it turns out) that my mystery rider might turn off and vanish at any driveway.

I pulled alongside and commented on the nice day. The cycler returned the greeting warmly and immediately straightened his course, accelerated, and rode more closely to me than I'd usually be comfortable doing. My suspicion about the miles in his legs seemed to be correct. The weaving side to side was apparently just for fun. As we chatted, I tried to take in the scene. Leonard (I now knew his name) was perhaps in his 50s. He rode an aluminum Mongoose mountain bike with knobby tires--the sort I imagine you'd go out and buy at the nearest pawn shop after losing your license. He wore cotton sweats top and bottom, a bandana around his neck, and an old mesh baseball cap on his head. A 2 liter bottle of water hung in a sling over one shoulder. White smears of sunscreen protected nose and ears. Makeshift bags held food, tools, and other essentials (I learned).

Upon hearing that I really didn't know where I was going, Leonard took me under his wing. He mentally confirmed that my hand drawn map was about right but pointed out a couple of intersections where I might have trouble. Overall, he seemed a little nervous about my whole endeavor. "You have water, right?" "Tubes?" "Food, sunscreen?" With "Don't forget the turn at that rip-off restaurant!" Leonard eased up and sent me on my way, telling me he'd go the opposite way around the loop and see me at the "big hill." I smiled as I rode off with renewed strength. Leonard was a real character, just the kind I love to meet on the road.

A few miles later, the road turned away from I-90 and up a green, narrow valley. At mile 27, the road turned to gravel at the base of a steep pitch. I climbed up into the shade of some pines and stole glances back at the little valley below. The ups and downs continued--the gravel keeping things interesting on the fast, sweeping downhills. The magnificent scenery to the north continued, too. I came to the first intersection. Leonard had described it as a "T," but it looked like a 4-way to me. Maybe he meant lower case. Anyway, a cluster of white buildings and a shady grove of trees caught my eye to the north, and I pedaled over to check it out.

The white buildings turned out to be the Ninemile Remount Depot. Built by the CCC, the depot once supplied all of the pack mules for the forest service in the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, the mules were called Rocky Mountain Canaries, and this resulted in one of the best historic signposts I've ever read (with lines like "The tenderfoot would often resort to a constant string of cursing to get his stubborn canaries over a high mountain pass.") I rubbed in sunscreen and stowed my overshirt more securely before returning to the junction.

Leonard had said left at the "T," but left looked hot, rough and washboarded. Right headed into the mountains. Straight looked most appealing, and my scrawled map showed this to be part of the loop I'd envisioned. Straight quickly became straight up, but the climb led to shade and I had some canaries to keep me company off the slope to my right. I crested and had a long, sweeping downhill to cool me off. I reckoned the temperature was mid-70s, but the sun was getting intense. Some miles later, I reached a junction which took me to the edge of my map. The road straight ahead looked inviting along the creek, but it would have to wait for another day. I turned left and began heading east on West Ninemile Rd., which was itself south of the creek and north of the river--I laughed out loud thinking someone like me must have named it.

I was back on pavement now, about 35 miles into the ride but feeling pretty good. My only nervousness came from not quite knowing how to complete the loop and head back toward Missoula. Lots of local kids were playing in the creek off to my left, and the sight of them made me feel a little hotter in the sun, too. I eventually came to a junction that didn't quite make sense. My map hadn't shown this one, and, of course, the roads lacked any signs. I went right and soon came to the river, which immediately told me I'd gone the wrong way. Correcting my course, I quickly came to that rip-off restaurant and was back on Leonard's map. I would just do his loop in reverse. Two and a half miles got me back to the depot, and now I was retracing my earlier route back to Frenchtown--and food, which I'd just run out of.

In Frenchtown, I topped off my bottle with 1/3rd apple juice and bought a few other provisions for the 25 miles home. Back on the road, I spotted a bicycle far ahead cresting a hill. When I'm tired, a rider ahead always boosts my spirits, and between that and the cold supplies, I moved through the rolling hills at a surprisingly decent pace. It wasn't until the last corner before the end of the frontage road that I caught a good view of the rider ahead--Leonard! I caught up, and, seeing me in his mirror, Leonard greeted me with a good natured "Hey, Joe, what'd you do, get lost?" "Me, never!" I replied. He seemed more inclined to think I was completely lost than that there was a fourth road at the "T." He said he couldn't figure out how we hadn't passed, since he'd come in from the freeway side and should have met me somewhere near the restaurant turnoff. We never did get it straightened out, each refusing to modify our mental maps, but we did agree that it was a lovely ride. Leonard apparently runs a self-help business and offered me a stress management tape on the house before we parted. I declined, telling him his friendliness had already done the trick earlier.

As I climbed the last steep hill into the valley, the reality of Leonard kept sinking in. This 50-something guy had just ridden about 70 challenging miles pedaling bowlegged on a $50 mountain bike, in sweats, and he's one of the happiest cyclers I've met on the road. I wish I'd asked him more questions. He might be another million mile Freddie, for all I know. He was riding the same smooth 12 mph at the end of the day as he was at the beginning. The only advice I got from him on riding (besides always carry water and a spare tube): "Ride in the rain. There's something about a wet road that bicycles just like. I think the resistance goes down. I don't even mind getting a flat if I can ride in the rain."

Here's to you Leonard, and all the cyclers out there who take the time to share their wisdom. Thanks for a great ride. I learned a lot.



Blogger George said...

Great post! Everyone needs a ride like that at *least* once a year.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

This sounds like a fun ride! Too bad you didn't meet Leonard earlier this year! Four days until I'm home!!

-rachel lynn

5:22 PM  

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