By Dave Iltis — Gran Fondo Kootenai is a fully-supported, multi-day cycling event held in the remote northwest corner of Montana. This year’s edition occurs on July 1 and 2. The ride starts in Libby on Day 1 and travels to Eureka. The ride then returns to Libby – via a different route – on Day 2. The back-to-back, “stage” fondo is augmented with a short, unofficial, fun ride along the Kootenai River on check-in day (June 30).
We asked organizer John Weyhrich to tell us more about the ride.
Cycling West: Tell us about the three courses. What is the scenery like? How are the climbs?
Gran Fondo Kootenai: In general, we designed our routes to take in the region’s abundance of spectacular scenery along National Forest Scenic Byways, and to take advantage of its exceptionally lightly trafficked roads. Each day, riders will see snowcapped peaks, deep green valleys, grand lake vistas, and majestic mountain views. And, due to the remoteness of these routes, cyclists will also encounter very few motorized vehicles along the way
Our Day 0 “Fun” ride, is 17 miles long, with a minimal amount of elevation change. It helps orient new riders to the area, and follows the Kootenai River for a stretch along roads which we don’t otherwise ride during the actual event.
The Day 1 route is 76 miles long, with 4700’ gain, and three aid stations. It features continuously rolling terrain with a few short, steep climbs and a fabulous downhill run into the town of Eureka, just a few miles from the Canadian border.
The Day 2 route is 98 miles long, with 6000’ gain, and four aid stations. It boasts several stellar climbs through lush forests and long, fun descents along rushing streams. This route also includes a mile-long unpaved section, a legitimate Euro-style climb (10-miles, ave. grade 7%; max. grade 12%), and is considered by many to be one of the top routes in the nation – it’s truly an epic ride!
CW: What support is available to riders each day? What are the highlights of the rest stops? Where do riders stay in Eureka?
GFK: We offer full support during the entire weekend. That includes mechanical and nutritional support along the ride routes, as well as chip timing. Our aid stations are manned by members of regional service organizations, and their additions of home-baked goods, fresh fruit, and cool treats provide a little local flavor – figuratively and literally – to a full complement of Hammer Nutrition products and other standard ride fare. We also transport luggage and gear (clothes, tents, sleeping bags/pads, etc.) to/from Eureka, where we take over the school complex on Saturday evening and Sunday morning, provide warm showers, and a fantastic catered dinner and breakfast. Most participants overnight in their tents on school grounds, though some choose to sleep inside on the gym floor. A few choose to stay at one of the limited indoor lodging options in Eureka (at their own expense); if so, we’ll transport luggage to/from those locations, as well. Essentially, riders show up, hand us their gear, and simply focus on riding to their day’s destination.
CW: Tell us about the natural features and geography of the area. What are some of the highlights?
GFK: The area is renowned for its abundance of natural resources, spectacular scenery, wild lands and its small, but hearty population. One of the most prominent features of the region is Lake Koocanusa, which we spend a considerable amount of time riding along (and across!). Technically, this body of water is a reservoir, but it’s in a scenically spectacular setting and it provides a fantastic backdrop for the event. We’ll ride for nearly 50 miles along the U.S. portion of the “lake,” but there is a whole other half of the lake in Canada! In fact, the name is a conglomeration taken from the Kootenai River which flows into/out of the lake in Canada and the U.S.A., respectively. And, speaking of the Kootenai River, Kootenai Falls – made famous in the film The River Wild with Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon – lies just downstream from our start point in Libby. With the heavy snows received in the Kootenai region this past winter, the falls should be raging during this year’s event! The river bisects the rugged Cabinet Mountain range, still home to a modest population of grizzly bears. We’ll also pedal through the legendary and wondrous Yaak Valley, made famous in writings by Rick Bass and other authors for its quiet remoteness. Glacier National Park, and all its majestic grandeur, lies only an hour and a half to the east.
CW: Tell us about the history and the local people.
GFK: The name pertains to the ancient homeland of the Kootenai Indians, which reaches from northwest Montana to northern Idaho and southwestern Canada. In more modern times, the region has been susceptible to the rises and falls of the timber industry. Additionally, the town of Libby, in particular, was beset by the revelation that a local mine produced an asbestos-laden byproduct which caused severe medical and economic hardships for hundreds of the town’s residents. Libby is still recovering from that blow, and proceeds from the gran fondo go toward aiding that process.
CW: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
GFK: Gran Fondo Kootenai welcomes all interested cyclists. This event provides opportunities to be as challenging or as leisurely as desired. Our relatively small size – typically less than 100 riders – allows us to provide personalized service and a special, intimate experience. And, our close proximity to Canada draws many of our cycling neighbors from the north; come be part of a fun, friendly international rivalry.
July 1-2 — Gran Fondo Kootenai, Libby, MT. A two-day, point-to-point, chip-timed fondo featuring fully supported riding through the spectacular landscapes of Montana's remote northwest corner. Located on National Forest Scenic Byways, our routes take in the stately Cabinet Mountains, serene Lake Koocanusa, and the legendary Yaak Valley. Proceeds benefit local charities, John Weyhrich, 406-241-2829, [email protected], gfkootenai.com