Leigh Ann Valiton watched a customer meander the aisles of the Blackfoot Commercial Co. in Ovando, Montana. Valiton’s store, and attached inn, is open until seven every evening, but it was 10 p.m. and she showed no sign of leaving. The customer, Faye Cunningham from New Zealand, filled her basket with frozen burritos, energy bars, chips, and a Mountain Dew.
Cunningham was competing in the Tour Divide Race, a 2,735-mile long mountain bike race that stretches from Banff, Canada, to the Mexican border. The route enters Montana in Glacier National Park and meanders south, paralleling the Continental Divide.
Ovando sits at mile 550 and has become a staple stop for riders. “You always hear about the accommodations. It’s certainly known,” says Cunningham as she finished filling her basket. “It’s totally cool to come here.”
For the last five years, Ovando has become known by the cycling community around the world as a place to stop and sleep, refuel, and chat with the locals. “I’ve been a groupie [of Tour Divide] for years so it’s cool to see the places I’ve read about — Richmond Ridge, Holland Lake, here,” she continued.
Cunningham had ridden for 16 hours and wanted to make it to Ovando before she stopped for the night.
Currently, every room in Valiton’s inn was booked and a rider was sleeping on a mattress in the living room. Outside a cyclist was crashing in an old sheep wagon. Another was passed out in a teepee. The only open sheltered place left for Cunningham to rest was an old jail house that was restored for just that purpose. As Valiton scanned her purchases, she paused and looked up. “Wait, I’ll put a bed in the kitchen and you can sleep there.”
After making sure her last guest was settled in, Valiton finally left for the night. Most of the riders would be up before dawn to get back on the trail. “Our goal is to be as accommodating as possible,” said Valiton as she turned off the lights. “But that’s Ovando in general.”
“Years ago if I went to Missoula, no one knew where Ovando was,” said Kathy Schoendoerfer, the owner of the Blackfoot Angler and Ovando’s unofficial “Organizer of Frivolous Affairs.”
Now, nearly a thousand cyclists from around the world pass through the town of 50 residents every year. In addition to being a waypoint for the Tour Divide Race, the town on Highway 200 sits at the intersection of two popular cross country cycling routes.
Schoendoerfer recalled the first time the community banded together to support bicyclists. It was in 2012, when a TDR rider, Tracy, was inbound to Ovando. Someone phoned ahead, letting the town know Tracy was having a rough go of it. Only the sheep wagon existed back then, but the townsfolk put out a sign telling Tracy to rest up and they left food, drink, and moral support.
Since then, the town has actively courted the two-wheeled tourists. One small corner of Schoendoerfer’s fishing shop is dedicated to cycling gear — tires, tubes, lube, pedals, the essentials. The Ovando Community Fund was started from donations and provided money for the teepee, jailhouse, and outdoor shower system riders can use.
Each year riders donate around $500, Schoendoerfer said. Sometimes it’s change (Canadian), sometimes it’s a can of beans if that’s all they have. It’s enough for the town to know they’re having an impact on their visitors.
That impact goes both ways. According to a 2014 study by the University of Montana, cycling tourism has a substantial impact on the state.
The study, conducted by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research looked at the effect of bicycle tourism statewide. It found that the industry contributed nearly $377 million annually to Montana’s economy. Of the nearly half million bicycle tourists who visited the state, the average cyclist spent around $75 a day and stayed for at least a week.
For rural communities, that kind of expenditure can greatly increase viability, and towns are learning how to capitalize on it. A hundred and fifty miles south of Ovando, another small Montana town shows up on cycling maps, at the intersection of the Lewis & Clark and the TransAmerica Trails.
Twin Bridges is home to almost 400 residents and the nation’s first ever Bike Camp. Bike Camp sits in Jessen Park, on the edge of town. It’s a simple wooden building complete with a shower, toilets, tables and chairs, a sink and grill, and plenty of space outside to pitch a tent — but only for visitors arriving on two wheels.
After spending two years watching cyclists passing through, resident Bill White decided the time and need was right to do something to engage the Lycra-clad tourists. “All the bike riders passing through were like gold going by in a river,” he said in an interview for Montana Quarterly. “I started thinking about how to make Twin Bridges more than just a place to get a cup of coffee.”
White developed a proposal for Bike Camp, got a building permit, and raised $9,000 for materials. The town broke ground in April of 2009 and the camp was ready by June.
In the first year, around 300 riders used the camp. White said that by July of the second year, the number of visitors was already up by more than 50.
Those early cyclists left feedback for Twin Bridges (and enough donations to cover the cost of building Bike Camp), and the town found that the average expenditure per night per visitor was $24.92. In a small community like Twin Bridges, the economy is a closed loop, amplifying any expenditures. Overall it was determined that the cyclists brought at least $10,000 into the local economy
That figure is lower than the UM study estimate, but regardless, “it’s good for the local economy,” White said. “Especially the grocery store, the ice cream shop, the restaurant, and the laundromats.”
It’s personal interactions and community attitudes like those in Twin Bridges and Ovando, more than any university study, that excite proponents of cycling tourism. “There’s increasingly more stories coming out about how bike touring and bike travel can benefit rural communities,” said Laura Crawford of Missoula-based Adventure Cycling. “There’s maybe not an attraction that would pull people off the freeway, but if you’re going through by bike, you kind of rely on those communities as a place to stop for the night, stock up on food or grab coffee.”
Adventure Cycling is a national cycling advocacy group (“America’s Bicycle Travel Experts”) that boasts 53,000 members. The company organizes guided bike tours and maps out the more than 46,000 miles of cycling networks in the country.
A portion of their work is teaching communities how to become bike friendly, and its website offers pages of resources. Crawford has spent years investigating how cycling can save rural economics. In addition to her work for Adventure Cycling, she founded the travel website The Path Less Pedaled. She makes a comparison between a cyclist and a road tripper and the impact they have on communities during a trip.
Using a 200-mile stretch of road as an example — roughly the distance between Whitefish and Helena — Crawford breaks down the differences.
For a vehicle, that trip is a mere afternoon’s travel. A road tripper’s itinerary traveling city to city might only include a stop at a gas station or a lunch break in the middle and skip most of the small towns in between.
On the two-wheeled side, biking 50 miles a day requires a huge influx of calories, prompting the need for a dozen meals or snacks during that same trip. Due to the restrictions of carrying that much food on a bike, cyclists are more likely to stop in any town with a restaurant or market. They also need places to sleep, preferably with hot water to shower and potentially a place to do laundry. “Small towns would benefit as well with a constant stream of tired and hungry bike tourists coming through town,” a blog post on The Path Less Pedaled reads. “The more accommodations and services, the more people touring, the more people spending money in small towns.”
White, who passed away in 2012, saw firsthand the effect of riders on his town. When Crawford pedaled through Twin Bridges to profile the town and the Bike Camp in a video, she was struck by White’s foresight and determination to make the camp happen.
“Bill persevered … because he knew it would benefit the community,” Crawford said. “It gives tourists a reason to stop and stay and leave a few dollars behind that wouldn’t otherwise trickle into the town. And that idea is really fundamental to how bike tourism works in small communities. “It’s not a get-rich-quick sort of scheme, but a long-term, sustainable investment.”
This story appeared on High Country News and is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.
Photos: Eric Paradis (top), Larry Lamsa (middle), Tejvan Pettinger (bottom).