Jess Cerra, pro gravel racer for Canyon Bikes and Eliel Cycling, is no stranger to all-day rides in the Montana wilderness. Today she shares her tips for surviving your own epic adventures. Spoiler alert: you’re going to want a lot of snacks, really comfortable Eliel bibs, and some no-nonsense bear spray.
By: Jess Cerra
There is a moment when all Montana first-timers, after arriving bright-eyed, bags filled with maps, snacks, gear, and Big Sky dreams, are asked, “Do you have bear spray?” WAIT, WHAT? You mean my finest Eliel threads will not stop the penetration of a grizzly bear claw? Sorry folks, think bigger, like ‘10 adult-sized pepper spray’ kind of bigger. Also, you need to know how to use it or you will likely spend your vacation on the floor of the woods.
At this point you are either bug-eyed and crossing Montana off your list, or more likely and hopefully, intrigued and packing your bags. The truth is, you don’t need a long list of gear – you need a smart list of gear. That’s where I come in as your personal gear and tour guide for backcountry success in the serene mountains in and around Whitefish, MT and Glacier National Park. There is nothing I savor more than an eight-hour day on the bike, exploring groads that are only “Made in Montana.”
We have a saying in Montana: “There is no bad weather, there is only bad gear.” This can be adapted: “There is no ride too long, there is only bad gear.” Choose wisely and you can spend your time munching on huckleberry macaroons and setting PRs on Strava, rather than operating on your own saddle sores and nursing dehydration.
Safety is key. I joke about bear spray above, but just picture the Montana backcountry as a grizzly bear’s living room. You would be shocked if someone rode their bike through your living room and would want to protect your family, right? First piece of advice, become bear aware by watching my video on the use of bear spray and heading to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website to watch their bear-aware videos. A scared bear is an angry bear, so I also like to ride with bear bells, music in my pocket, and booming conversation with friends.
Second, nutrition and hydration can make or break a long day. An 80-mile gravel ride can often take twice as long as an 80-mile road ride, so do the math ahead of time on food and drink (i.e. breakfast + ride food calories = calories burned). Dense calories (insert shameless promo for JoJé Bars and QOMcakes here) and plenty of electrolytes (Untapped Mapleaid) should be at the top of your list. And always, ALWAYS overpack your nutrition. You never know if a mechanical or flat tire will suck up extra time and energy out there and you don’t want to be caught unprepared.
Hydration is slightly more technical on these rides. After doing hours of research on water filters (okay, after my boyfriend did), I purchased a Sawyer Mini filtration system and would give it a 100% approval rating. The water-bag rolls easily to fit in your jersey pocket or handlebar bag, the filter rarely needs to be replaced, and this piece of equipment has single-handedly kept me alive this summer. Plus, nothing tastes better six hours into a ride than ice-cold Montana creek water.
Now, how do I carry all these life-lines in comfort for eight hours? Like I referred to earlier, this is called smart gear, which is designed specifically for functionality. Eliel Endurance Cargo Bibs are so clutch for these adventures, specifically for storing my most precious food items that I don’t want to get smooshed, or that multitool which can be ready in seconds. Speaking of functionality, what good is that without comfort? I’ve tested these bibs and chamois on the longest, roughest, and most challenging rides and the reality is that once I put them on, I forget about them, which is just about the best compliment you can give a pair of bibs. Another testament to Eliel’s engineering ingenuity is the rear-panel zipper pocket, where I should have put the car key that I lost out of my handlebar bag on this exact ride. I digress, but if you still trust me to give you advice, please read on.
I love destroying my white Coureur Cycling Rincon Jersey out in the sticks. White kit is made for dirt, sweat, chocolate and grease stains, otherwise what fun would it be? Truth is, it keeps me cool in the summer heat and no matter how much bear spray and pancakes I stuff the pockets with, they never tear, stretch, or allow anything to escape.
Final pro tip on gear here, expect all weather conditions in Montana NO MATTER THE FORECAST. Snow has been recorded every month of the year in this state. Pack an extra pair of Eliel Signature Icon Socks in case of a stream crossing (yay for dry socks and happy feet). An Eastern Sierras Vest for summer or a Jacket for the “shoulder seasons” is also never a mistake. If you don’t bring it, you will need it! Last tip, if you know you will sweat on a long climb and have a cold or windy descent following, pack a dry Classic Zuma base layer and a sports bra (you’re welcome, guys).
Finally, nab a handlebar bag and let go of your aero dreams. Montana is not aero, and it doesn’t want to be. Divide and conquer your mechanical and flat-fixing tools between this piece of equipment (I choose Ornot) and your saddle bag. Check out my video for my list of mechanical and flat-fixing tools and ask your local mechanic how to do these two things: 1) plug a tire and 2) use a chain tool and spare link. If you know how to do this, chances are you won’t have to, but you will inevitably end up helping someone else in the middle of the forest and rack up tons of flat and mechanical karma, which one can never have enough of. Remember, your cell phone is only good for pictures in the backcountry of Montana, and as far as I can tell AT&T plans to keep it that way.
So now I will leave you to RE-packing the appropriate Montana adventure bag. Feel free to refer to my video for helmet, shoe, and bike choices as well. Cheers to happy, fun and most importantly, safe riding!