Bike season has given way to snow season, but the bike tourism industry is already planning next year’s routes.
“This year, we had 1,200 people come to our office during business hours,” said Adventure Cycling’s Jim Sayer. “That may not sound like a lot, but if you’re riding through Montana, you have to peel off the main route to get to Missoula. And we went from 500 a year to 1,200 in the last few years. We take a picture of every visitor who comes in. This year, we not only filled our huge pin board, we had to get three more portable pin boards because we had so many visitors.”
National and international research shows bike touring has grown rapidly in the past three years, despite the global economic setback. In the past two years, the U.S. Bicycle Route system has 41 states involved in planning and signing travel networks. Individual states have developed their own bike routes or banded together, such as the Lake Michigan bike system involving Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Adventure Cycling set an internal record for membership with 45,225 and has seen steady growth in map sales and tour signups, according to media director Winona Bateman.
And that’s in a state that has largely ignored cycling’s potential as a tourism draw, bike enthusiasts say. Montana remains one of nine states not involved in the U.S. Bicycle Route program. Mountain biking opportunities have been equally flat.
“On a tourism level or for job opportunity creation, we’re missing the boat a little bit,” said Bob Allen of the Montana Mountain Bike Alliance, based in Bozeman. “And we’re not addressing the resources we do have. On the mountain biking side, the assets are completely not being promoted the way they should be. And that’s to the detriment of rural communities.”
Allen said he recently stopped in Dillon on the way back from a major bike tourism convention in Las Vegas. While getting gas, he thumbed through a Dillon-area tourism brochure.
“The page dedicated to cycling showed an overweight woman with a badly fitted helmet,” Allen said. “The information was gibberish. If I was a tourist, I would have got back in my car and kept on driving. There’s a disconnect between chambers of commerce and local tourism things about what is cycle tourism and how do you need to present it.”
That hasn’t stopped a number of in-state businesses and communities from going on their own. From the Superior Ranger District’s Trail of the Olympian rails-to-trails route on the Idaho border to the extensive bike path system around Whitefish, to tour companies like Beartooth Bike Tours in Red Lodge, the grassroots of the industry is well established.
Allen said mountain biking also suffers from the state’s wildland management paralysis. The mountain biking community recently lost access to 500 miles of backcountry trails when the new Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest plan was updated.
Allan has also tangled with Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act for the way it blocks access to routes on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness around Lincoln.
“As we go through land protection mechanisms, some of our best trails have been tied up in recommended wilderness,” he said. “We need to think out of the box and find something between permanent protection and recreation. We have people coming across the country with their mountain bikes on the roof of their car, and they can’t bike.”
Sayer said the industry also needs to adapt to new ways bicyclists are traveling. While some like to go with a tour director who hauls luggage and meals in a van, others ride totally self-contained. The latest trend is for overnight bike adventures that loop through interesting areas but don’t require the big logistical challenges.
“Tour operators have seen a big upsurge after the decline in 2008,” Sayer said. “The last three years have been pretty amazing. There’s a real demand out there that’s not being met.”