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  • Writer's pictureAl S.

Fighting Through Difficulties - Hardin, MT to Bozeman, MT

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

As I rode west past Billings, MT, I finally came to the end of The Great Plains. The flat, open prairie gives way to the foothills of the Rockies. As I approached Bozeman, I began to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance and had to fight through the hardest day of the entire journey.



 

Jul 02, 2021

Mileage: 54.3 miles

Odometer Start: 4836.5

Odometer End: 4891.0

Avg Speed: 11.5 mph

Max Speed: 32.4 mph

Riding Time: 4 hrs, 42 mins

Hardin, MT to Billings, MT


The forecast was calling for temperatures approaching 100 and that turned out to be accurate. I was up and on the road by 7 am in an attempt to beat the heat. Getting on the road at a very early hour in order to avoid the worst of the heat was becoming a habit.


The wide open spaces of Old US 87 between Hardin, MT and Billings, MT.

I followed Old US 87 out of Hardin. This road paralleled I-90 for a bit and then diverged to the south of a sizeable hill. There was almost no traffic on this road... but there was also nothing out there except fences and wide open views (with the exception of a strong headwind, but that doesn't really count).


I covered the 55 miles to Billings (the most populous city in Montana) by noon. I stopped by the Wells Fargo bank to get some cash. The Wells Fargo building in Billings is 14 floors and is the 3rd tallest building in Montana. (I looked it up). The other 2 taller buildings are also in Billings. Regardless, I needed some spending money and the building was conveniently located.


After the bank I headed over to the bike shop. The nearest bike shop was The Ride Cyclery in the middle of town. Fortunately, the owner was friendly and helpful. He was able to point me to a quality pump to replace the one that broke the day before. I appreciated his help and advice.


I decided to just stick around town since it was so hot and I had already covered 55 miles. I stopped at a convenience store to pick up a quick lunch and then made my way down to the KOA on the south side of the city. It backed up to the Yellowstone River and seemed pleasant enough.


Once I got settled in, I decided that I could use a day off tomorrow. The forecast was calling for another 100 degree day and that heat takes a real toll on the body over time. However, knowing that I wasn't going to be riding tomorrow let me really concentrate on food. I called an Uber, headed back into to town and got myself a nice big pizza and some fluids for dinner.


 

Jul 03, 2021

Mileage: 0.0 miles

Odometer End: 4891.0

Avg Speed: 0.0 mph

Max Speed: 0.0 mph

Riding Time: 0 hrs, 00 mins

Billings, MT


This was definitely a rest day. I took a couple of naps, watched the people (so many RVs...), did some bike maintenance (including patching several tubes) and played 3 rounds at the KOA mini-golf course. I scored a 46, 46, and 43. I probably could have knocked a couple of strokes off of that 43 if I had played one more round.


I had dinner at the sandwich "truck" in the KOA campground. I'm pretty sure the guy running the food truck was just a summer resident of the KOA. It sure seemed like he lived and worked in the vehicle.



 

Jul 04, 2021

Mileage: 44.5 miles

Odometer End: 4936.0

Avg Speed: 12.2 mph

Max Speed: 32.0 mph

Riding Time: 3 hrs, 41 mins

Billings, MT to Columbus, MT


It was another hot day today, so I was on the road at dawn. It would be nice to sleep a bit late on The 4th of July, but the heat makes everything harder so I wanted to avoid the hottest part of the day if at all possible.


The ride from Billings to Columbus was pretty standard. The road parallels I-90 and the Yellowstone River. It is not a particularly interesting ride. The most exciting part of the ride was when I spotted my first Rocky Mountain. At one point during the morning, I was able to see a snow-capped peak way off in the distance. By the afternoon, it was no longer visible (or it was hidden due to the terrain). At any rate, I am getting closer to the mountains and should be among them within the next couple of days.


Murt & Leroy making sure that I felt welcome at the campground.

I was in Columbus by noon and stopped at the local grocery store to re-supply and get myself some lunch and dinner. I was pretty hungry, so I managed to buy a fairly large quantity of food. In fact, I couldn't even fit everything into my panniers. I had to strap part of my haul onto the top of my rear rack.


I got myself a camp site in the Mountain Range RV Park in Columbus, MT for the evening. As I pulled up to the office, I was greeted by the 2 campground goats... Murt and Leroy. They were quite friendly and wandered around the grounds munching on the tall grass. I gave them a couple of scratches and they seemed quite happy with the attention.


I set up my tent in a shady spot and then proceeded to have a nice big lunch and a nice cool shower in the camp bath house. The rest of the afternoon was spent planning my route into Bozeman. I had about 120 miles left to Bozeman and I was confident that I could be there in 2 days, so I started looking for a hotel. The cheapest Marriott I could find was $424 per night. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen, so I started looking at other options and found a fleabag motel that was more centrally located at $200 per night. That is still expensive, but it isn't outrageous.


 

Jul 05, 2021

Mileage: 74.6 miles

Odometer End: 5010.6

Avg Speed: ??.? mph

Max Speed: ??.? mph

Riding Time: ? hrs, ?? mins

Columbus, MT to Sheep Mountain Fishing Access Site near Livingston, MT


I accidentally erased the daily totals from my cycling computer, so I don't know the exact details from the ride for this day. In fact, this was such a tough day that I accidentally erased the data multiple times.


Even at the mid-point of the day, I already had a sense that this was shaping up as the worst day of the entire trip. The day started poorly and went downhill from there.


I started the day with a large climb to get out of the town of Columbus. The only road that followed the level ground parallel to the Yellowstone River was I-90. The side roads went up a couple of steep hills, so my only option was to go uphill. I started climbing and spent over an hour slogging up the hillside. The first 10 miles were up hill and it was a relief to finally reach the top. It is important to understand that the hill is not really the problem. I was in excellent condition after 3000+ miles of riding and was able to handle the hills. The issue is that you feel like you are not making progress because you tend to ride about 8 mph depending on the slope.


The downhill was really steep. I was riding my brakes for many portions of the descent. Also, I was on a gravel road so you have to be really careful. One patch of loose gravel and you can lose control. This is especially true around turns. The cars will often push the gravel to the side of the road as they make the turn, this tends to cause accumulations of loose gravel in these areas.


Google wants you to think this road exists. Don't believe them.

Once at the bottom of the hill, I followed my map and turned parallel to I-90. According to Google Maps and my cycling app, there was a small road that ran under I-90 and connected to a frontage road. I reached the point where the map said to turn onto this road and there was nothing but a field. No gravel road, no dirt track, nothing but a field with a hint that a tractor may have driven that way at some point in the last year. In fact, not only was there no road, there was an electric fence blocking access to the field.


This was the second time that something like this had happened. Both of the maps that I was using told me there was a road at this location, but the facts on the ground disagreed with vehemence. (I had encountered a similar problem between Wall, SD and Rapid City, SD. That error forced me to ride an extra 30 miles over gravel to get back onto a paved road).


This was not good. I backtracked and followed the road back toward I-90. I was hoping I could find some other path forward, but it was not to be. At this point I had 3 options: 1) I could ride back up the hill and follow a circuitous route toward the town of Reed Point just a bit to the west 2) I could hop onto I-90 for 5 miles, reach Reed Point, and then get back onto the side roads, or 3) I could walk the bike along the railroad tracks that follow the Yellowstone river.


Honestly, I did not want to re-climb the hill I had just descended so option 1 was not really in play. I did not want to take my chances on I-90, even though it was only a short distance... so that pretty much left option 3. I started walking the bike next to the railroad tracks without actually getting on the tracks. It wasn't great and it definitely wasn't easy, but it was only about a mile to the next road crossing and I made it successfully. It should be noted that if I had it to do over again, I would have opted to ride along I-90 for a few miles.


The only real problem was that just as I was about to reach the road, my rear tire blew out yet again. Once I reached the pavement, I had to stop and patch the tube. On the upside, at least I was back on a paved surface. It was 11 am by now and I had only covered about 15 miles.


After patching the tire, I was back in the saddle and rode through Reed Point, then Greycliff, and then stopped for lunch in Big Timber around 1 pm. As I departed Big Timber it began to rain. It wasn't a hard rain, but it was enough to get me to put on my rain jacket. Generally, rain isn't worth mentioning... but in a couple of hours this minor event was going to have a big impact on my ride. At least the gentle sprinkle cooled things off.


Crossing the Yellowstone River. I thought the worst was behind me at this point... I was wrong.

About 15 miles west of Big Timber the road turned right, crossed the Yellowstone River, and pulled away from I-90. Once on the other side of the river the road surface changed to gravel.


The change to gravel was not unexpected, but this surface was unlike any gravel road I had experienced to this point. This was by far the poorest gravel surface that I had seen. There were ruts perpendicular to the road that made it almost impossible to ride. It was almost as if the tread from a bulldozer had left a permanent pattern in the road. The surface was so bad that I was only able to ride 4 or 5 mph in most places. I only had about 10 miles remaining to reach my goal for the day, but instead of an hour of riding it turned into a 2+ hour ordeal.


To make matters worse, I crested a hill and began to run into a bit of mud from the rain. It didn't look bad, but my tires began picking it up and throwing it onto the fenders of the bike. Within a few minutes, I could not get the front wheel to turn at all because the mud was so thick. I attempted to scrape it out with no success. I eventually had to remove the fender from the bike in order to remove the mud.


That mud was amazing. It was almost like cement. It was moist, but incredibly thick and sticky. I cleaned the fender and the wheel as best I could. It was pointless to reattach the fender because it was obvious that the mud would just accumulate in there again. I strapped the fender to the rear rack and continued on my way.


I made it to the Sheep Mountain Fishing Access Site along the Yellowstone River. There are quite a few of these Fishing Access Sites that provide access to the Yellowstone River. Camping is not allowed at most of these sites, so I was sure that a game warden was going to catch me that evening given how bad my luck was going that day. Regardless, I was too tired to make it further. I set up camp in a spot that I hoped would be inconspicuous and then proceeded to wash all of the mud off my bike in the Yellowstone River. I reassembled my fender and did some basic maintenance before having some dinner.


I was really tired after a very difficult day and I was in bed early and sound asleep. The only thing that disturbed me all evening was a huge splash as some large animal jumped into the river. That definitely woke me up and put me on high alert. I'm guessing it was probably an elk, but there is no way to know. I spent the next few minutes sitting in the dark, listening for any animals approaching, and keeping my can of bear spray at the ready. After nothing else happened, my brain began to relax after a few minutes and I managed to fall back to sleep.


That was the end of a long, stressful, and difficult day. Describing the events does not do justice to the amount of frustration and difficulties that I experienced. In hindsight, this was absolutely the worst day of the entire journey. There wasn't another day that was even a close 2nd in terms of problems and challenges. Regardless, I never once thought about stopping. I was only focused on addressing the problem that was currently facing me.


 

Jul 06, 2021

Mileage: 48.8 miles

Odometer End: 5059.5

Avg Speed: 11.3 mph

Max Speed: 34.7 mph

Riding Time: 4 hrs, 17 mins

Sheep Mountain Fishing Access Site to Bozeman, MT


I was on the road at a reasonable hour. There were only about 50 miles between me and Bozeman, MT. I had already committed to taking a day off in Bozeman. The road had dried from the rain on the previous day and I covered the last 10 miles of gravel road without difficulty.


The top of Joe Gaab Pass with The Rockies in the background. It is all downhill from here to Bozeman.

I reached the town of Livingston, MT at prime breakfast time. I found myself a little restaurant and had a well-earned stack of pancakes. As I was pulling out of the restaurant parking lot I was approached by a pedestrian. He was in his early 20's and began asking questions. It turned out that he had ridden from Massachusetts to Livingston the previous summer. He had come out to Montana to work at a nearby ski resort and was really happy to see another long distance cyclist.


Leaving Livingston, there was a 10 mile uphill climb to reach Bozeman Pass. The road ran parallel to I-90 and a set of railroad tracks. I was lucky enough to make this climb at the same time that a freight train was climbing up to the pass. It was very interesting because the grade was sufficiently steep that the train and my bicycle were travelling at the same speed.


During this 10 mile climb, I managed to get 2 flat tires. That made for 3 flats in the last 2 days. That was enough of this nonsense. I made up my mind that I would stop by a bike shop in Bozeman and have them troubleshoot the rear wheel while I took a day off.


Shortly after reaching the Bozeman Pass, the road breaks away from the interstate and climbs up to Joe Gaab Pass. It is actually a pleasant climb and has some great views and almost no traffic. In fact, I passed multiple cyclists on this road. I easily saw more cyclists on this 10 mile stretch of road than I had seen in the entire rest of the state of Montana. However, the best part of Joe Gaab Pass was going down the other side. I had the bike rolling along at 30+ mph all the way down.


Welcome to Bozeman, MT!

Bozeman is a nice little town. It is home to Montana State University and has a college town feel. Apparently, it is close enough to Yellowstone National Park that it picks up some tourists from that area... and that is why the decent hotels are $400 /night. The city has lots of bike trails and many of the main streets have bike lanes. It was very accommodating for a bicycle.


I got into my hotel and then made my way over to Owenhouse Cycling just off of Main St in the downtown area. I explained some of the problems I was having with the bike and that I would like them to try and figure out what is wrong with my back tire. The bike mechanic was very young and didn't seem particularly interested in helping. He put my bike up on the rack and fiddled with the shifter cables and checked the brake pads. He then told me that it "probably wouldn't be a great idea to try and chase tire gremlins".


I was a bit dumbfounded. I just responded with "Tire gremlins? Really?". I took the bike and headed out of that shop. I had made it clear to him that I would pay him to take a look at the bike and track down the tire "gremlins"... but he just couldn't be bothered.


I spent the afternoon doing laundry, had a great dinner in town, and then spent the evening wondering around the downtown area. It was great to sleep in an actual bed that night.



 

Jul 07, 2021

Mileage: 0.0 miles

Odometer End: 5059.5

Avg Speed: 0.0 mph

Max Speed: 0.0 mph

Riding Time: 0 hrs, 00 mins

Bozeman, MT


The reason I stopped in Bozeman was the Museum of The Rockies. I had wanted to visit this museum for quite some time because of the excellent dinosaur exhibits. The museum did not disappoint.


"Big Al" the Allosaurus at the Museum of The Rockies in Bozeman, MT.

The museum has a host of fossils mostly focused on dinosaurs found in North America. One of my favorites was my namesake... "Big Al" the Allosaurus. Apparently, the Allosaurus was a relatively common carnivore that lived during the Jurassic Period. According to the information provided by the museum, it is not uncommon to find Allosaurus teeth around the carcasses of sauropods. This particular fossil was found in Wyoming in 1991.


The T-Rex fossil at the Museum of The Rockies.

I found this museum to have excellent information associated with each fossil. Many museums only have some very basic facts, but this museum seemed to present much more detailed and advanced information.


One bit of information that was particularly interesting was concerning T-Rex. It turns out that T-Rex fossils are relatively common for a predator. This suggests that T-Rex was not actually an apex predator as many people currently believe. In fact, the abundance of T-Rex skeletons suggests that they held a place in the ecosystem more similar to a hyena as opposed to a lion.


Triceratops fossils at the Museum of The Rockies.

After spending several hours wandering around the museum, I made my way back to the hotel. I gathered up the bike and an empty saddlebag and headed over to Albertson's supermarket to resupply. Conveniently, there was an ice cream shop on the way to the grocery store and it seemed impolite to not stop and enjoy some chocolate ice cream with hot fudge. After all, I didn't want to be rude.


I spent the evening watching the last game of the 2021 NHL playoffs. Tampa Bay won yet another Stanley Cup.


 







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