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Rolling through: Cycling brings a big economic boost to Bitterroot Valley

Adventure Cycling riders enjoy views of the Bitterroots, while contributing to a growing sector of the valley’s tourism picture.

While Montana’s landscape has always made it a hub for tourism, one type of traveler in particular is coming to Montana in great numbers, staying longer and spending more.

The University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research and the Missoula-based cycling nonprofit Adventure Cycling Association recently released a study of the economic impact potential bicycle tourism can have in the state.

One of the primary takeaways of the study was that bicycle tourists spend an average of about $75 per person per day and tend to stay eight nights or longer in the state. That is a conservative estimate based on the riders the study surveyed. When only the data from the riders who reported spending money in the state is taken into account, the average daily spending is more than $100 per person.

The study compared that to last year’s nonresident tourists from July through September, who spent about $69 per person, and averaged six days in Montana.

It also looked at some of the difficulties cyclists visiting the state face on their multiday trips. Chief among them were rumble strips on the sides of some roadways, and some stretches of road with no services or food available for many miles.

Alex Gallego, owner of Missoula Bicycle Works, said every day from April through October, the shop sees at least one cyclist passing through on a multiday trip.

He said Missoula is a common stop for cyclists on several of Adventure Cycling Association’s long-distance routes, as well as for people who are riding the Continental Divide and come into town because they have heard good things. Gallego said he was recently in Europe, and spoke with several cyclists who said Montana is on their list of dream ride vacations.

“A lot of people see Montana as a destination. They’ve seen photos and want to go there. The marketing of the state has been fantastic,” he said.

When these riders come into his shop, Gallego said often times they are picking up small parts for their bikes, new tubes for their wheels, or getting some repairs done after being on the road for days or weeks.

“Some of them just want to get something that says Missoula on it,” he said.

Apart from spending money on bike gear, Gallego said cyclists are always on the hunt for good beer, good coffee and good restaurants to visit after a long day on the road.

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While he hears almost constant praise of the beautiful country and the friendly people, Gallego said the most common complaint he hears from multiday cyclists is the lack of wider shoulders on rural roads and highways. Specifically, he cited the stretch of Montana Highway 200 from Missoula to Great Falls.

“It’s the only route to get there, and there’s just no shoulder on the side to safely ride in,” he said.

Not only is it a problem for bikers, but it also puts them into traffic lanes.

Gallego also said cyclists who want to stay in town, many of whom choose to camp during their trips, don’t have a place to stay. To find a campsite, they have to be on the outskirts of town, making them less likely to visit businesses to eat or buy supplies.

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“We need more opportunities for them to be able to camp smack in the middle of town,” Gallego said.

Montana Business Quarterly, a publication put out by UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, published a story from the researchers in its summer issue about their findings.

Norma Nickerson, director of the ITRR and a coauthor of the Montana Business Quarterly article, reached several conclusions on what Montana towns can do to make themselves more appealing to bike tourists and potentially reap the rewards of their spending. The full study and story are available on the websites of the ITRR and BBER’s, respectively.

“There is a need for restaurants that have more than French fries and burgers, as well as accommodations that are moderate in price. Cyclists need laundry facilities, wireless Internet availability and perhaps a massage. The more services they find in a community, the more likely they will stay an extra day,” she wrote.

Peter Kern, owner of The Bicycle Hangar, said he also gets plenty of traveling cyclists in his shop during the summer months.

Kern said he’s spoken to riders about everything from weeklong trips to spending months on the road riding across the country from Seattle or Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C., or New York City. For the riders heading from west to east out of Idaho, Missoula is one of the few major towns riders come across.

Many of the riders who are hitting the road for extended trips tend to have expendable income and are willing to spend it on things they need and want.

“They have the ability and money to take time off from work for these rides. It’s their vacation, their form of entertainment. They have no hesitation to spend money when they stop places,” Kern said.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.