Ready to ride: Missoula to Lolo Trail emerging as tourism draw

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Partners in Missoula and Ravalli counties will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1976 “Bikecentennial” by cutting the ribbon on the new Missoula to Lolo Trail during the Montana Bicycle Celebration planned for next week. (Photo by Saara Snow, courtesy of the Adventure Cycling Association)

By Martin Kidston

While riding from Alaska to Argentina back in 1973, Greg Siple and his wife had an idea. The nation’s bicentennial was only three years away, and organizing a “Bikecentennial” seemed like a good way to celebrate.

That summer, 4,100 riders answered the call and nearly half made the coast-to-coast ride to celebrate the nation’s 200th birthday. Others tackled more regional routes, including a ride led by Siple from Missoula to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

“We thought of a ride across American, and in the beginning it was a very loose idea,” said Siple, co-founder of Bikecentennial. “That summer was such a success, we decided to keep going as an organization.”

Adventure Cycling has called the world’s cycling enthusiasts back to Missoula to participate in this month’s Montana Bicycle Celebration. The event celebrates Bikecentennial’s 40th anniversary and the grand opening of the new Missoula to Lolo Trail.

The trail had long stood out of reach until 2013, when Missoula County and several funding partners received a $4.5 million federal transportation grant. The 8-mile stretch, which runs from Reserve Street in Missoula south to Lolo, will be completed this month at a cost of roughly $5.4 million.

“It’s part of the TransAmerica Trail, but the Missoula to Lolo section was not very safe,” said Eva Dunn-Froebig, Adventure Cycling’s outreach coordinator. “We’re really excited about having a trail, and having a safer route for people when they’re using the TransAmerica Trail. Over a thousand people still ride it every year.”

A study conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana in 2013 found that multi-day cyclists spend up to $103 a day while in the state. On average, they stay eight or more nights.

Cyclists surveyed for the study came from 48 states and 18 countries.

“The new section of trail will be really good for bicycle tourism,” said Dunn-Froebig. “We have commitments already from 600 people for the celebration. Ninety percent of them are coming from outside Montana, and many from all over the world.”

Siple’s father was an avid cyclist back in the 1930s, a time when bicycles were considered a child’s toy. That image endured through the 1960s, though Siple wasn’t deterred by stereotypes. He completed his first 100-mile ride going solo.

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Cyclists on the Missoula to Lolo Trail. (Photo by Greg Siple)

“I didn’t know anyone who would want to do that with me,” he said. “My father got me interested through scrapbooks and stories. The bicycle that was once seen as a child’s toy is now part of mainstream America.”

It’s also become an economic driver, and Missoula is well-poised to capitalize of the sport’s international draw.

“Our winters aren’t all that severe, and Missoula is only so large, so you can get places pretty easily,” said Siple. “There’s this growing infrastructure, and that makes it a more attractive place to bike.”

The Montana Bicycle Celebration kicks off on Friday, July 15, and runs through the week. Partners will host a supported ride on Saturday from Missoula to Traveler’s Rest in Lolo, where a ribbon-cutting will take place at noon.

Follow this link for a complete lineup of events – and to register.

“Over the years, the traffic has increased on the route considerably,” said Siple. “Now it’ll be a safe ride. It’ll help bring some riders into Missoula who may have balked at doing so. They need a place to stay and buy food.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com