Nothing captures the golden age of cycling like traversing Montana’s peak-studded landscape on a road bike, a soul-scrubbing feat of endurance that pays homage to the sometimes-horrific conditions of early European road racing while celebrating the state’s labyrinthine network of un-manicured, two-track backroads.
The “gravel grinder” has been regarded as an open secret for years in Montana, where cyclists have been retrofitting their whips with impenetrably lugged tires and navigating a mix of dirt, gravel and asphalt. Now, gravel biking has evolved into one the fastest-growing niches in the sport of cycling, and it’s coming to roost in Northwest Montana.
Gravel grinders are races and rides that link unpaved routes using two-track Jeep roads, dirt paths, fire and service roads, and anything else that’s ride-able, usually totaling close to 100 miles in distance or more. The sport requires bikes that look just like classic road bikes, but which rely upon fortified frames and thicker tires and rubber sidewalls to sustain the harsh terrain.
And while there’s been several low-key iterations of the gravel grinder gracing the Flathead Valley for years, including the now-infamous Joe Cosley Pancake Ride, a local rider hopes to grow an inclusive gravel-grinding event in her own backyard.
Whitefish native and professional cyclist Jess Cerra, along with her partner, Sam Boardman, recently announced that they’d be building on the momentum of gravel biking by debuting “The Last Best Ride,” a new gravel cycling race that aims to showcase some of the state’s most spectacular outdoor offerings.
Slated for Aug. 22, 2021, The Last Best Ride will explore the surrounding gravel roads of Whitefish and glimpse views of Glacier National Park over two course distances — a 48-mile short course with 4,800 feet of elevation gain and a 78-mile long course with 8,700 feet of elevation gain.
Registration opens Nov. 10 and costs $175 for the long course event and $145 for the short course, with discounted entries for riders who register with their collegiate club programs.
The race is a throwback to Montana’s unofficial moniker, “The Last Best Place,” which stems from the 1988 bestselling literary anthology of the same name, co-edited by Annick Smith and William Kittredge. In that spirit, Cerra and Boardman hope to capture the essence of Whitefish as an adventurer’s destination through a racing experience.
“After exploring the gravel roads of Whitefish all summer, we thought, ‘Wow, this would seriously be one of the most beautiful gravel venues in the entire country,’” Boardman said, noting that racers can expect eye-popping views of the surrounding mountains as well as varied terrain and steep, test-your-mettle climbs throughout the course.
As professional cyclists who have competed all over the world, the organizers had a clear vision for what they pictured as the ideal race.
“We believe that the spirit of The Last Best Ride itself is equally as important as the spirit of community,” Cerra says. “So we made the event all the things we wished races could be: challenging enough for top pros while still approachable enough for enthusiasts, inclusive to families, and supportive of the local community.”
To that end, 20% of the proceeds will go to the race’s Champion Scholar Award, which will be given to one financially qualified Whitefish female student and one financially qualified local Native American student seeking post-secondary education.
“My priority,” adds Cerra, “is activating underrepresented populations, specifically women, by creating a platform for a more inclusive start line.”
“The Last Best Ride is a chance for me to showcase the special community that I grew up in,” Cerra continued, adding that as a disadvantaged youth, she relied on local scholarships to attend college, and looks forward to growing that possibility for others. “It also celebrates the spirit of gravel and promotes a mission of inclusion.”
With registration open this week, Cerra and Boardman wanted to get the word out early, particularly as people make travel and vacation plans for next summer.
According to the event schedule, a casual pre-race dinner and fundraiser will take place outdoors at a local eatery on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. On Saturday, Aug. 21, local bike shop Great Northern Cycle and Ski plans to host the race expo and evening block party, complete with food trucks and live music. Included in each race entry packet is admission to the post-race celebration with fresh, locally cultivated fare, handcrafted huckleberry ice cream, and other only-in-Montana offerings.
The Last Best Ride is intentionally geared toward family members and spectators, who can ascend to the top of the Whitefish Mountain Resort via its scenic chairlift, or by biking or hiking to the top, where they can take in the expansive views of Glacier National Park while waiting for their racers to pass.
For more information, check out thelastbestridemt.com.