Potomac School Bike-a-Thon Tour

A blog post by Sandra Broadus.

October 7, 2015.


We left Free Cycles at around 4:30 in the afternoon, wearing our rain gear and with our panniers loaded full of tools, food, and camping gear. A quick stop for beer, and we were on our way - heading east on HWY 200. It didn’t feel like a Wednesday.


This was a small tour, both in length and in attendees (at least compared to the only other overnight tour I’d ever been on): just Bob, Emily, Locke, Cameron, and myself. The elementary school in Potomac was hosting a bike-a-thon the following day, and Free Cycles was coming to offer assistance. They even fixed up four children’s bikes to donate to the kids at the school who didn’t have one. There was discussion for a while about the logistics of how we would be strapping the kid’s bikes to our own bicycles on the way over – thankfully a rockstar volunteer named Silas loaded them up in his car and drove them to Potomac for us.


We were accompanied by a light drizzle for most of our ride that first day. But rather than being a deterrent, it felt cool and refreshing. I was inspired by the realization that this was probably my last big bicycling adventure for the year, as soon it was going to be too cold to want to stay out overnight.


Before long, the others pulled ahead of me, but I wasn’t worried. I was enjoying the feeling of getting out of the city, like a weight lifting off of my shoulders with each pedal stroke.


Upon cresting a hill, I saw the guys hanging out at a pull off. We regrouped and took a few moments to enjoy the view of the Blackfoot River. It was overcast, but the wetness seemed to be bringing out the saturation of the fall colors, making everything seem more vivid and alive. It would’ve been nice to stay longer, but it was going to be getting dark soon, and we needed to get to a campsite.


Coasting down the hill, my mind was at peace. The wind created by my motion whips past, and I felt cool drops of water on my skin. If I was thinking anything at all, it was just about the beauty of my surroundings and a thankfulness for roads with wide shoulders.


The first stretch of the journey goes by much too quickly. Just 19 miles from Missoula, we pulled off the highway at Johnsrud Park Road. Just a couple miles in, the pavement stopped but we didn’t. The road turned to dirt and rock, and I was reminded for a moment of my last bicycling trip over Jocko Pass. Dusk has settled in, but we kept pushing on. I didn’t know what the others were looking for in a campsite, but I just pedaled along, happy to not be in charge of anything and enjoying the ride.


Finally we found an area that seemed to satisfy everyone, and we pedaled off the road and into the woods (which quickly meant dismounting and walking, as dusk became dark). I then relied on my dim bike light to tell me where the rocks and logs are as we continued down a steep hill, and I tried to remember the twists and turns so we could find our way back to the road in the morning. We kept going until we found a pleasantly flat spot just above the river.


I wandered around with my detached bike light as my guide while I gathered firewood, and there was ample discussion of where our sleeping spot should be relative to the fire; I don’t have much of an opinion on such matters - Growing up in Kentucky, the mosquitos are so thick that the only camping you can do is inside the safety of a tent, for fear of being eaten alive as you sleep. So I was happy to throw my sleeping bag anywhere so long as I got to enjoy the night.


Finally, a fire got going, and before long, dinner is on, with Bob cooking in his wok. I honestly don’t remember what we ate that night, other than that it was warm, delicious, and exactly what we all needed (washed down with a cold beer and some cookies).  When dinner was over there was a crust of cooked food stuck to the inside of the wok, and Locke took it down to the river and set it underwater with a large rock to hold it in place so as to not attract any wayward critters.


The drizzle continued, as it had all afternoon, and Locke and I decided it was time to string up a tarp between some trees to provide us a bit of sleeping shelter. The tarp was oddly shaped, and the trees were unevenly spaced, so it was a harder proposition than expected. Cameron came to help eventually, and after many struggles (not enough rope, mainly) we finally had a shelter that would suffice. It wasn’t pretty, but hey, we weren’t boy scouts.


Sitting back around the fire to warm up, we talked for several hours. Bob proposed that we build a sort of bicycle with train wheels that could ride on the railroad, and how great it would be to see America that way, with no cars to worry about. We talked about politics, college, transportation, and the world, laughing and trading stories for what seemed a long time and no time at all.


After a while Emily, Locke, and Cam disappeared into the woods to protect our food via a bear-hang (another foreign concept to me as a Kentuckian). Bob and I continued chatting around the fire until we heard a large “CRACK” and then an outburst of laughter – after which we got up to investigate. With no rope to work with, the industrious trio had tied together a series of bicycle inner tubes, which had been slung precariously over a branch. Brilliant.


Soon it was time for sleep. I had no idea what time it actually was, but it seemed late, and we were getting up early the next day to make it to the elementary school by 8:30. I set an alarm for 6am. Locke, Cameron and I rolled out our bags under the tarp/shelter, but Bob and Emily insisted on sleeping out in the open forest, rain or no rain. I listened to the soothing pitter-patter of water droplets hitting our tarp as I drifted off to sleep.


Morning came far too soon. Our sleep had felt much more like a power nap. Slowly and groggily, camp started moving. Bob swore that was one of the best nights of sleep he’s ever had, and I just laughed. I wake up to a flat tire, and set to work getting it fixed, using my own patch and a borrowed pump.  It must’ve happened while we were walking through the woods in the dark last night. But no worries, I’ve fixed lots of flats already this summer, and I feel like a pro at it now.


My trunk bag and panniers are pretty well soaked through at this point, so I decide to continue wearing the shirt I had on yesterday, since it’s drier than the damp one in my pack. It took us a little longer than I expected to find our way back to the road. I guess we went further into the woods that I had thought the night before. But soon we’re back at it, pedaling down Johnsrud on our way to the highway. I stop just for a moment to snap this picture before moving on.


At HWY 200, Cameron turned right to head back to Missoula (he had class to attend that morning), and the rest of us turned left toward Potomac. It’s only five miles to the elementary school from that turnout, and it seemed like I was just starting to get to get into the groove when I saw Locke turn down Potomac Road, and we reached our destination. The school is nestled in a beautiful rural setting, surrounded by farmland on all sides. It reminds me of the school I went to back home – only this school was established in 1885, and it has that old world charm.


The kids were still inside the school, but we saw an army of bikes waiting out back, and got to work. I don’t think I had ever seen so many underinflated tires. Not being a mechanic myself, I grabbed an air pump and left the bigger issues to the Free Cycles professionals. After 15 minutes or so a teacher came out to greet us. Potomac Elementary has had this annual Bike-a-thon for years now, using it as a wildly successful fundraiser to bring the Missoula Children’s Theater to the school for an intensive week long play production – open to all youth in the Potomac Valley. The kids look forward to this day every year, but they’ve never had bike mechanics on hand to help out before.

Before long, the kids started pouring out of the school, racing over to grab their bicycles. They were asked to seek sponsorships or donations for each lap around the school that they completed for the fundraiser, which went from 9am-3pm that day, with an hour break for lunch in the middle. The loop around the school is about 0.4 miles, and they take off, excited to be “out of school” and doing something fun and competitive for the day.

As the kids mount the bicycles, we instantly saw tons of issues. A lot of the kids are riding bikes that they’ve already outgrown, or haven’t grown into yet. Chains needed oil, brakes needed adjustment, seats needed to be raised, or in some cases, the bike practically needed a total overhaul. When the kids realized we were there to help, they got excited to share stories with us, and tell us about their bicycles.

One young boy told me he looks forward to the bike-a-thon because his parents won’t let him ride his bike at home – the road they live on is just too dangerous. One kid tells me his parents have taken him to Free Cycles before – that’s where he got his bike! Yet another young boy tells us that he’s embarrassed to still have training wheels on his bike – all his friends can ride around so easy without them. We remove his training wheels and try to help him learn how to ride without them. He was excited to try, but scared every time his bike wobbled. We encouraged him as much as we could, and let him know that it’s okay to fall over, because you get better every time. He seemed unconvinced. A young girl told me she liked being faster than the boys. Another boy said he prefers riding his four-wheeler ATV.


I put oil on a boy’s bike chain and explained to him how it makes his bike easier to pedal and ride. He then keeps asking for more oil on his next few laps, and I laughed and explained it doesn’t work like that.


We helped as many of them as we could. I adjusted their helmets and made sure they fit properly. There’s such a vast array of skill levels and interest among these youngsters. I’m filled with hope for the future that they all seem to have so much fun when they’re riding. Some of them even wanted to learn about how to fix the bikes, and help their friends.


After a few hours, it seemed like we’d tackled all the problems we could with the tools and time we had. The rush of initial problems had slowed to a trickle. A teacher came over and thanked us profusely, telling us she’d love for us to come back next year. This Bike-a-thon has been so successful because of our assistance. Then, to express the school’s gratitude, she says they called ahead to Cully’s, the gas station/restaurant across the highway and paid for our lunch.


With a round of goodbyes to all the kids, we packed up our tools and pedaled the short jaunt to Cully’s Bar & Grill. We seemed to be getting some odd looks, pulling up to a gas station on bicycles so far out in the country, but everyone was friendly. We sat out on the porch to the side of the restaurant and the waitress brought us some menus. We all ordered burgers, and I had a tall glass of lemonade. When the food finally arrived, I took the time to savor it even though I was famished. It was delicious, and I could hardly finish it. Easily one of the best burgers I’ve had since I moved to Montana. And it was free!


I found out later that this Bike-a-thon really was their most successful one ever – they raised over $5000. A 3rd grader named Corbin raised the most money - $595.20 on his own! And a 5th grader rode the farthest – 40.3 miles, 100 laps! These kids are the future.


After finishing our meal at Cully’s, we each rode our own pace on the way home. Emily and Locke disappeared ahead of me, while Bob slowly faded behind. For a while on the road, I felt like the only person in the world. Just me, the trees, the river, and an occasional field full of cows or an eagle flying overhead. It was so serene, and the autumn colors were in full display.

As I coasted up to my apartment building, my heart sank. It’s always good to be home, but sometimes it’s better to be out on the road