All I used to know about Montana was that it’s “Big Sky Country,” thanks to my local radio station playing that melodic Chris Whitley song
every night. I’d listen in my garage as I tried to return my octagonal wheels to their normal oval shape, and it would have me dreaming that somewhere in Montana would indeed be huge mountains with sketchy, skinny trails winding perilously down from snow covered peaks, under that storied sky. It would take me many years to finally make a trip there, but when I finally did experience that sky and those rocky peaks, I most definitely had that same Whitley song stuck in my helmeted head. And, my wheels by then resembled a circle more than any other geometric shape. (Usually.)
With the Collegiate National Championships happening in Missoula well after I had graduated from both my time at my university and my party-hearty visits back to see friends still working toward their diplomas, I hadn’t had a specific reason to visit Montana. No NORBA nationals were held there when I was racing, and it was too far to travel to briefly while I was living and working in Santa Cruz, CA. So, I didn’t know much about the Montana mountain biking scene. That would change late one evening at a bike industry event in Santa Cruz.
The original inhabitants of Missoula were a Salish tribe called Nemissoolatakoo, from which the word “Missoula” was derived.
While attending the launch of the V4 Ripley, I chatted with a couple from Missoula. I excitedly told them about my Local Loam series, as I had just returned from sunny and vibrant Puerto Rico and was thinking about where to go next. They immediately spilled over with enthusiasm about how much their local advocacy club, MTB Missoula, had recently accomplished there. I remembered that my friend Sam Schultz also had spoken highly of the same shovel-wielding Montanans, so I decided right then and there that I would make a trip to Missoula, and an episode, happen soon. Or so I thought… Carlton Ridge and Sheep Mountain are two of the backcountry routes that MTB Missoula helps maintain. These rides were both a lot of fun, though we were only able to out-and-back on Carlton. Sheep Mountain was a blast, which we rode as a loop. With our trusted guide, Mr. Sam Schultz, we found our way out in the dark, an hour after sun down. Some would say we got “Schultzed!”
Fast forward a few weeks later and I was lying in a hospital bed with my pelvis snapped in two. While I considered still making the trip without a bike of my own since a “full” recovery looked to be about 10 weeks away, I figured a Local Loam episode would be best served if I were able to throw knobbies to dirt myself alongside the staff of MTB Missoula. When Logan and I finally made the trip at the dusty end of summer 2019, it would then still be nearly two years until I’d finally get the video done. Honestly, Missoula is so beautiful that a lot of the delay was due to self-inflicted pressure to make the video something special, something that would at least begin to portray this club in a manner befitting them and their amazing work. Ben Horan (left) descending Carlton ridge. Brian Williams (right) airing out a root.
So who and what is MTB Missoula? Operating as a 501(c)3 non-profit, the club answers to a board of directors and has a full-time staff of two. From my own experiences with the Local Loam series, it really appears that when an advocacy group is able to employ full-time staff, the results are far more productive than a purely volunteer effort. Why? Full-timers are able to put more hours into the project, of course, but a paid staff brings much more legitimacy when working with governmental agencies. A big part of advocacy work is simply acting as a conduit for communication between mountain bikers and land managers. Someone who is available on a full-time basis is almost guaranteed to have the best results.
One of those MTB Missoula staffers, Brian Willians, the Trails Director and acting Executive Director, is an experienced machine operator and trail builder. Sampling some of Brian’s work on “Bjorn Again” was one of the highlights of the trip. At one point on the trail, a series of giant, sweeping berms traverses a grass-covered ski hill. Normally, at bike parks, berms are built about as steeply as intermediate level riders would ever need. Not the case here -- these berms were so well built, with plenty of inclination and with radii that matched, that it felt like an intergalactic slot car track when hauling the mail into these glorious “s” turns. Marshall Mountain is home to a small bike park. A former ski resort, now it sports several fun descents. Bjorn Again, Hello Kitty, and the other trails on the upper mountain are forever safe in the hands of Five Valleys Land Trust and at no risk of being closed.
The other full time staffer was Ben Horan. Was? After four years as executive director, Ben recently announced his departure from the club. Ben came into the advocacy line after having been a race promoter. In fact, I found some video of him being interviewed after helping host one of the first MTB races in Missoula. While Ben could never be “replaced,” I’m sure that MTB Missoula will find a wonderful new executive director who can bring a unique set of skills to continue the group’s important work.
Montana is the third most sparsely populated state in the USA, at 7 inhabitants per square mile, ranking third behind Alaska and Wyoming.
MTB Missoula currently has a lot going on. In addition to continuing the work at Marshall Mountain, they are also searching for solutions to preserve old freeride trails in another part of the valley called Deep Creek.
Since this was filmed, as part of another project with Five Valleys Land Trust and the City of Missoula, MTB Missoula built a 4 mile trail called “High, wide and handsome,” which goes to the top of Mount Dean Stone, on the south side of town. In 2021, they’ve just won the contract to extend that trail with a new 4.5 miles of ridgeline singletrack called “House of Sky,” which will create a 9 mile continuous singletrack trail around the southern side of Pattee Canyon, the most remote parts of which will be hand-built. You can bet that I will be excited to ride all that! Perhaps a follow up episode might be needed? In the meantime, I have a lot of memories to look back on when I hear Chris Whitley’s “Big Sky Country” any time I’m doing wheel maintenance these days.
Local Loam: a series produced by Jeff Kendall-Weed that tells the stories of how successful advocacy groups build rad mountain bike riding communities through excellent trails.
Jenson USA, PNW Components, and Industry Nine Previous Local Loam episodes have visited: Pittsburgh, PA Kamloops, BC Puerto Rico Austin, TX Tucson, AZ
@jeffweed / @loganpnelson