As each member of our group clumsily hopped on their loaded bikes in Billings, eager and unprepared, and as we faced the many grueling miles we had ahead, the end goal of our adventure always felt like it was reaching Glacier National Park, the Crown of the Continent and a prime example of climate change and its effects on ecological systems. We talked about the meetings we would have in the park, how our last few days of the course would be spent camping near West Glacier, in Apgar by Lake McDonald, and how on one day we would have the privilege to ride up “Going to the Sun” road — apparently the thing to do while in the park. Some of the other girls from the group who had been there raved about its beauty and challenge and even from home my dad kept reminding me that he too had been up to Logan Pass and it was worth the traffic.
As the last few days of the course were winding down, afternoons had been spent drinking overpriced coffee and lounging by the cold, clear, turquoise-blue water of the Flathead river as raft tours passed by and guides, as practiced, slapped the water with their oars. On the day that we were supposed to go on our most challenging and looked-forward-to ride up Going to the Sun Road, this is exactly how the day had progressed until meeting at the campground to ride to our dinner. It was relaxed and welcome, and I was very much unaware of the length of the night to come.
Since the road is closed to cyclists between 11am and 4pm, our group decided to take advantage of the full moon and take part in the unofficial moonlight ride, leaving the north side of Lake McDonald around 9pm to begin our upward trek. Other than a glimpse of a map, a mile count, and general elevation profile, I had no idea what to expect as the gang pulled out onto the still busy road, jammed with other cyclists and cars carrying bikes (presumably to ride down the pass with). However, while traffic was at first a nightmare making one question the audacity of tourism, the setting sun on the Rockies and the first glimpse of the rising moon over the tree line made me understand the desire to witness your surroundings by whatever method possible.
While the views were incredible while they lasted, the night slowly took over and darkness engulfed the mountains around us so all that could be seen were the moonlit hills slowly winding upwards and a cloud of bike lights from far ahead and behind. For me, this is what made the experience unforgettable. As the sun set and car numbers dwindled, there was unison in the goals of the people around me; everyone wanted to be present in a beautiful place and most wanted to use their own power to make it to the top. The moonlight ride wasn’t about the grandeur sights, but rather the enthusiasm and community that gathered around cycling and the commitment to face the challenge of the ride. Whether passing or being passed, there was constant encouragement and friends and strangers all rallied around each other to inspire and strengthen the will to make it to the top.
Being on team sports like cross country and track my whole life, this experience reminded me very much of the races I used to run and the pride and community that accompanied them. As I struggled with what I thought was the last switch-back (surprise it wasn’t), I was met with a stranger’s voice yelling “only 3 miles left! You got this” and as we reached the last stretch I felt completely supported and reminiscent as my teacher, Ben shouted out “sprint finish!” and took off as I pathetically attempted to sprint with what little energy I had left. All of this reminded of what it was like to be on a team again; all of the “last hill” and “almost there” and the hoots and hollers were all reminders that there was an end to the uphill madness and each person there had accomplished it with you.
Before this class, I called myself a cyclist — making the daily commute to campus and occasionally the grocery store — but I didn’t really know what I was doing and when I did know what I was supposed to be doing I still never did it (i.e. using lights or wearing a helmet). It was simply the quickest mode of transportation, but I never felt quite in alliance with the others I was sharing the road with. This experience has shaped my idea of a cyclist and, like running, has shown me that it can be anyone in any shape on any bike and all deserve encouragement — no matter how small the ride.
Overall, I am glad I got to experience this ride in a different light and surrounded with like-minded, passionate people. While I may not have made it to the sun or witnessed the full expanse of views from our highest elevation, this opportunity allowed me to take advantage of my strength and reminded me of the goodness of people and spirit sport can have. I also got the check something off my bucket list I didn’t even know I wanted to do.