Up until 1976, Virginia native David French had never traveled farther west than Ohio. The high plains and mountains beyond the Mississippi were the stuff of movies and television shows, and witnessing it all for the first time from the seat of a bicycle remains one of his most profound memories. The Bikecentennial ride along the TransAmerica Trail was a "life-changing" experience, he says. Forty years later, nostalgia is prompting French and other riders to rally in Missoula for a celebration French likens to a high school reunion, only perhaps more meaningful.
"Going to high school, everybody does," says French, who moved to Missoula in April 2015. "But participating in a one-time event to celebrate the bicentennial and ride your bicycle across the country is a significant event in anybody's life."
On July 15, the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association kicks off its Montana Bicycle Celebration aimed at commemorating the group's 40th anniversary and the Bikecentennial from which it was born. According to Events and Outreach Coordinator Eva Dunn-Froebig, roughly 600 cyclists from across the globe have registered for the weekend-long event, which is set to feature bike rides, a bike expo and presentations from cycling luminaries such as Lael Wilcox, who has been traveling the world by bike for eight years, and Erick Cedeño, founder of Bicycle Nomad. Many of those attending are biking in from various corners of the U.S., Dunn-Froebig says. Given the connection to the Bikecentennial, the nonprofit also decided to host a DIY reunion guide on its website for those looking to recreate their experience from 40 years ago. Eighteen groups have registered reunion gatherings or rides.
"For a lot of the people coming, this was a life-defining experience for them," says Dunn-Froebig, who has been sharing Bikecentennial stories on Adventure Cycling's blog for the past year. "There are multiple stories about how people decided they were going to change occupations because their career wasn't meaningful to them, or they decided to move to Missoula or they met their spouse through Bikecentennial. A lot of people decided they could live much more simply."
French has spent much of the past year helping the nonprofit prepare for the celebration, reviewing decades-old trip logs for inclusion in a book on the TransAmerica Trail and contacting former Bikecentennial riders who responded to a survey put out by Adventure Cycling last year. French estimates he's reached out to 60 of those respondents, all of whom—like himself—were "very excited" about getting involved.
"I don't think I got a definite 'no' from anybody for either volunteering or attending the events," he says.
For French, it's been an opportunity to lend a hand in recapturing the romanticism of a cross-country bike ride that introduced him to the West. But for Adventure Cycling, the Montana Bicycle Celebration has been years in the making, an event requiring extensive planning and outreach. The celebration has also offered Adventure Cycling and its partners an opportunity to showcase cycling's future in the region, namely the long-anticipated Lolo-to-Missoula stretch of the Bitterroot Trail, which will have its grand opening July 16 as part of the festivities. Already the trail's expected completion later this year has sparked interest among Bitterroot Valley communities hoping to see an economic benefit associated with cycling. Adventure Cycling worked with various agencies, organizations and nonprofits like the Bike Walk Alliance for Missoula to promote the trail in time for the celebration-pegged inaugural ride.
"It may not be perfectly finished," says Missoula County Parks and Trails Manager Lisa Moisey, "but we didn't want to let that hold up the opportunity to take advantage of this fantastic event Adventure Cycling is hosting. There's just so many good reasons to celebrate the opening of the trail at this particular time."
French says he plans to be on that ride, then follow it up with a cruise along the Hiawatha Trail a few days later. Like the rest of Adventure Cycling's volunteers, staff and partners, he's been working hard to get the Montana Bicycle Celebration off the ground. On a recent Friday, he'd just finished stuffing the last of 600 goodie bags for the first night's reception. Asked if he feels the coming weekend's lineup of activities will come close to evoking the same excitement and connectedness he felt during the Bikecentennial, he doesn't even hesitate.
"Right on target," he says.