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Tom Howard


LARRY MAYER\Gazette Staff

After spring weather finally arrived on in April 14, I welcomed the opportunity to climb aboard my bicycle and log some miles on dry pavement.

A gentle tailwind provided encouragement as I navigated the eastbound bike lane on Poly Drive on my way home. Near the intersection of Poly Drive and 13th Street West, a blue SUV whizzed by my left shoulder, just a bit too close for comfort.

“Get off the (expletive) road!” one of the vehicle’s occupants yelled through an open window. You can probably imagine the adjective he used.

The driver hit the gas and zoomed through the light before it turned red, but I didn’t make it to the intersection before the signal changed. Had I been able to roll up beside this vehicle, I probably would have pointed out that not only was I legally entitled to ride my bike on Poly Drive, I also happened to be in the designated bike lane when he cursed me.

I’ve pedaled thousands of miles in and around Billings in the 29 years that I’ve lived here, and I’ve noticed that cycling has become much safer and easier thanks to the efforts of government officials and cycling and pedestrian advocates. The bike path on Poly Drive is part of a network of some 45 miles of cycling and pedestrian trails in the Billings area.

The vast majority of Billings drivers are respectful when they encounter cyclists on the road. Despite a few soreheads who view cyclists as interlopers, most drivers seem willing to share the road.

At the recent Bike Walk Summit in Bozeman, I represented Billings TrailNet, a local nonprofit whose 1,000 members advocate for and help fund local pedestrian and cycling trails. As part of the discussion, the 100 or so attendees learned how bicycle tourists are now providing a valuable source of income to rural Montana communities. Lois Volkening, commander of the American Legion Post 20 in Dillon, said that bicycle tourists have provided a major economic boost to Wisdom, where she helps run the American Legion Memorial Park and Campground. In the same presentation, Lydia Janosko, of the Anaconda Local Development Corp., discussed that community’s successful efforts to cater to bicycle tourists. The Anaconda Adventure Camp provides camping spaces, lockers and restrooms.

“These people are magnificent,” Janosko said, referring to the cyclists.

Pat Doyle, a representative of Montana State Parks, said a new network of bicycle campsites in state parks has been a big success. So far, bicycle and pedestrian campsites have been developed at four state parks: Whitefish Lake, Flathead Lake Wayfarers State Park, Placid Lake and Seeley Lake.

“Bicycle tourism provides a real economic benefit. Cyclists stay longer and spend more. It provides a big boost to local economies,” Doyle said.

Norma Nickerson and Jeremy Sage of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana, presented research that shows Helena’s extensive mountain bike trail system provides a significant economic boost to the community. Out-of-towners who ride Helena’s mountain bike trails spend money at motels, restaurants, and at other retailers, including gas stations.

Some of Montana’s small communities have made great progress in trail development. Gene Townsend of Three Forks said his community’s 10-mile trail system gets heavy use from local residents and out-of-town visitors as well. Townsend, a board member of Bike Walk Montana, started working on the Three Forks trail system in 1997 while he was mayor. The system extends from the Jefferson River at the Droillard Fishing Access to Headwaters State Park. Gene hopes to connect Three Forks trails with other communities in the area.

So, in addition to asking motorists to please share the road, a tip of the bicycle helmet is extended to Bike Walk Montana, Billings TrailNet and other organizations that work tirelessly to encourage cycling and walking as transportation.

Tom Howard, a longtime Montana journalist and cyclist, lives in Billings.