How Safe Is It?

Make America Bike Again – Day 21

Rush hour on Friday afternoon was probably not the best time to be riding a bicycle down the main street in Great Falls. The city’s downtown commercial center hadn’t aged well. Population was on the decline. Parking spaces that once lined both sides of the road were gone. Gone to accommodate more lanes for cars and traffic. Today there were four lanes filled with cars and trucks, a couple feet of shoulder and a high curb. A motorist probably wouldn’t even notice that kind of detail. A bicyclist would.

There were just a couple more blocks to go. Then Robert would turn right and be off the main drag. A horn sounded behind him. The engine accelerated and started to pass. Directly ahead a sewer grate lay embedded into the shoulder. The driver of the car wouldn’t even notice. Robert noticed. His hands gripped hard on the brake levers and the handlebars as my front tire, a Schwalbe Marathon, dropped from the pavement to the sewer grate with a thump. But that was nothing compared to the impact that rocked the bike when we hit several inches of asphalt ledge on the grate’s other side.

Coming into Great Falls that afternoon, Robert was several hours ahead of the boys. He went straight for the Missouri River and a grassy park on the eastern shore. There were Canadian geese, white pelicans, and cormorants on the water. Children played in a municipal swimming pool on the far side. I needed a bicycle shop. Robert wanted to find a sporting goods store. Great Falls had several of each to choose from. But first, we needed a place to camp. He tried texting the guys. No response.

It was getting late. Dick’s RV Campground had space for tent camping, and a laundry, showers, and internet connection. It would turn out that Bill and Ed and their Honda Goldwings were already there. Both men were traveling the country, including Alaska, from their homes in Florida. Ed was a gregarious man. He came over offering a can of beer as Robert set up the tent, proudly announcing that in his travels he had never met a stranger, just people he hadn’t yet met. When he wasn’t riding his motorcycle, he was a voracious reader, one who preferred hardbacks. It was alot of common ground. Robert had to introduce him to his latest book, Icarus and the Wing Builder.

While they talked, Gerry got in touch by cellphone. The boys minus Robert and Frank were downtown, having dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, a national chain restaurant with a recognized brand and mediocre food. The campground was out on the edge of town. But, the panniers were off the bike and inside the tent, holding it down. Without their weight, pedaling the few miles to the restaurant would feel like flying. That’s how Robert found himself on Central Street at rush hour in Great Falls, surrounded by strangers in their cars and trucks.

When the front tire impacted the edge of the pothole, my forward momentum just died and I dropped towards the asphalt. Robert landed on the sidewalk, taking the impact on his right side. It all happened so fast. He wore a helmet, a polyester long-sleeved bicycle shirt, and gloves. I could hear him angrily cursing at the driver, the one who continued down the road without stopping. Robert was already on his feet, road rash on his forearm and a torn bicycle shirt. Cars behind us were already stopping, asking if we needed help. He bent down to pick me up off the street and stand me upside down on the sidewalk.

We never made it to Buffalo Wild Wings that night. I had a broken spoke on the rear wheel and a tear on the sidewall of my front tire. It was so much easier just to ride back to the RV campsite, a shower, and a hot meal.

So: How safe is this bicycle touring?

Answer: For an older cyclist, if the rider is reasonably fit with sound heart and lungs, then bicycle touring is about as safe as recreational skiing.

Even the best skiers fall sometimes. Usually, they’re having fun. Skiers pick themselves up after a fall and keep right on skiing. It’s the same for bicyclists. Even the most experienced cyclists fall. On this journey, we’ve been making 40, 50, and even 60 miles per day. And, having fun. After a fall you pick yourself back up, fix whatever needs to be fixed, and return to the journey. That’s what Robert did. He skinned his elbow. Got a bruise and a good story to tell. Our six week journey would eventually cover more than 2,000 miles. The fall in Great Falls was the only serious one;-)

Be safe. Put away the car keys. Rediscover the bicycle.

MAKE AMERICA BIKE AGAIN!!!

 

 

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What If?

Make America Bike Again – Day 20

Great Falls, Montana is a natural place to rest for a while and smell the roses. Lewis & Clark , Sacagawea, the 45 volunteers that accompanied them from St. Louis, and the three large boats carrying their gear, all stopped there. Geology and a series of waterfalls determined that the party would go no further up the Missouri River in their quest to reach the Pacific Ocean from St. Louis. They stopped to reflect on their choices, adapt, and change their mode of travel. The area became known as Great Falls, because of this piece of history.

 

That was two hundred years ago. The land was without roads or railroad tracks, and abundantly populated with Native Americans and buffalo…About¬†one hundred years after that, a dam and power plant were constructed across one of these water falls by a business consortium to create electricity for a fledgling city, and in hopes of attracting a railroad into the area. Today, the City of Great Falls boasts an international airport, a railroad, and an interstate highway filled with air-conditioned RV’s and trucks. Today, the City of Great Falls is replete with bicycle paths lining both sides of the river. The Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail follows the route of these early explorers and passes through the heart of the city.¬†According to Wikipedia and US census data, the human population of Great Falls peaked after World War II at about 60,000 residents. It has been declining ever since. Whether these points of historical interest are judged good or bad, I leave to each individual reader to decide.

There are better questions, such as: Where does the City of Great Falls and the State of Montana go from here?

The jobs once created by the copper industry in Great Falls are gone. Most of the remaining ones are supplied by the military, government, and the railroad. These employers are fully staffed and budgeted. Where can the young people of Great Falls look in order to feel hope for the future? Here are my ideas and suggestions:

  1. Although the dam and its electrical power were once essential for Great Falls to grow and thrive, that is no longer the case. The dam are its technology are old. They have aged in place while other sources of renewable power have become available and cost effective. The dam across the Missouri River at Great Falls is no longer essential. Nor is it the highest and best use of the river.

2. The highest and best use of the site is to remove the dam and restore the falls to their original condition. These steps, properly marketed, could bring national and even worldwide attention to the city, the state, and the upper reaches of the Missouri River as tourist destinations.

3. Montanans should recognize the importance of bicycle tourism to their state, particularly along the Lewis & Clark and TransAmericaTrails with bicycle friendly shoulders and improved state park facilities.