Channeling the gritty spirit of a Montana frontier legend, gravel-grinding cyclists tackle a herculean challenge during the annual Joe Cosley Ride.
I t’s almost 4 a.m. on a brisk August morning. I straddle my gravel bike in the dark in front of the Whitefish Bike Retreat, just north of town near the Beaver Lake trailhead. It will be a while still before the sun crests over the eastern flank of the Flathead Valley, so I zip up my wind jacket and wiggle around to stay warm. Like a pilot running preflight operations, I look my bike over, checking tire pressure, turning on lights, and making sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Water, water filter, electrolytes, high-calorie fuels, jerky, TP, first aid supplies, spare tubes… cue sheet for the route? Check!
Nearly 30 fellow cyclists—mostly locals, and a sprinkling of out-of-towners—perform the same ritual nearby. I look around the field of competitors. There’s a buzz of nervous excitement because today’s race, the third edition of the Joe Cosley Pancake Ride, or JCPR, is far from ordinary. But then again, neither was its namesake.
As the official start time nears, I calibrate my mindset for the ride, attempting to take something big…and shrink it down a bit. It’s going to be a very long day, covering nearly 170 miles, primarily on dirt and gravel roads, with over 17,000 feet of climbing. My perspective of scale must shift dramatically to somehow wrap my head around the immensity of today’s task. For comparison, Glacier National Park’s popular paved Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs approximately 3,300 feet over 42 miles round-trip, and typically takes three to four hours to ride.
Each year, the JCPR route is different, serving up a unique tour of Northwest Montana backroads, but it’s always a minimum of 100 miles in length (usually more). There are no big crowds or big prizes, but tasty Joe Cosley India Pale Lager from Kalispell Brewing Company awaits all riders at the finish line. I’ve trained well and I mostly know this year’s route from studying the racer’s packet and participating in exploratory rides of individual sections. This is my second JCPR, so I’ve come prepared to handle fatigue, dehydration, mechanical issues, and even minor injuries on my own. Today’s ride is a massive undertaking and we’ll be far from civilization. I double-check the bear spray stashed in my right rear jersey pocket.
Pedaling into a ride like this feels like heading out into space. The excitement easily eclipses my anxious pre-race jitters, and I’m stoked as we push off on one of the hardest, most scenic, and most technical "gravel grinders" in the United States.
THE JCPR BEGAN AS AN IDEA thrown around among a handful of local cyclists, eventually crystallizing into the inaugural ride in 2017. Longtime Whitefish resident Brad Lamson stepped up to spearhead the grassroots event.
“We had talked about this monster-of-a-route for years,” Brad says. “So I plotted it out, and it turned into the 146-mile gravel tour around the Whitefish Range…the whole way around.”
That was year one. Year two weighed in at 167 miles. The 2020 route debuts a “short” 68-mile option alongside the “long” 120-mile route. The JCPR has criss-crossed the Whitefish and Salish mountains, connecting the dots between Marion, Fortine, Whitefish, and Polebridge.
Brad, 55, is an accomplished ultramarathon trail runner, ski mountaineer, and cyclist, but he’s equally as well-known locally for his creativity and good humor, like hut skiing in a bear costume, and keeping his toenails painted a hot pink all summer. Since the mid '90s, he has handcrafted signs for businesses in his workshop outside of Whitefish.
In 2014, Lamson competed in the epic Trans Iowa event, which ran from 2004 to 2018 and is considered by some to be the original "gravel grinder." It was self-supported, traversing 340 miles of surprisingly hilly terrain. The route revealed itself along the way through cue cards at each checkpoint. It was free and low-production on purpose. Out of the 120 riders in 2015, only 23 crossed the finish line before the 34-hour cutoff. Lamson finished fifth. In the last few years, "gravel grinders" have exploded in popularity and production value. Heavily promoted and sponsored events like the Dirty Kanza and Grinduro series attract thousands of cyclists, with races filling up within minutes of registration opening.
It’s a movement—and a booming business—for sure, but the Northwest Montana gravel contingent embraces more of a spartan, no-frills approach. The JCPR is deliberately off the beaten path and large in scale, to replicate the raw spirit of gravel riding’s early years. Trans Iowa’s founder, Mark Stevenson, or "Guitar Ted," created his event for the experiences to be had by sheer virtue of the distance and difficulty.
“We completely know and understand that not everyone will finish the race, and that’s by design,” Brad says. “Most riders will face their mental and physical threshold. But that’s why people sign up…to bring themselves to that uncomfortable yet almost poetic place.”
There will always be true racers in the pack, gunning for the podium; it’s still a competition. But every year I meet more and more riders like me, who only want to push through and beyond what they know to be possible.
ABOUT AN HOUR INTO THE RIDE, it’s still dark. We’ve swapped the tarmac of Highway 93 for a winding, pocked gravel road lined by Douglas fir and western larch. Only slight ups and downs so far.
I think through my strategy for the day, which splits the race into three segments, each with a corresponding high point. First: Mount Marston, mile 45. Then: Pinkham Mountain, mile 113. Finally: the Martin Creek Divide, mile 141. The only aid stations along the route are situated at the pinnacles of the first two sections. Between them, in Fortine, there’s a Conoco gas station. One often hears that breaking down large tasks into tiny, more achievable wins can be helpful. We’ll see how it goes with my three big objectives.
Warming up, I ditch my wind jacket and increase the cadence of my pedaling. Soon the lead group appears in the distance. The race has remained friendly so far: no fast breaks, no aggressive moves, just a steady clip, which allows us to chit-chat. Our warmup is synchronized with the rising sun, which reveals the steep peaks of the Upper Whitefish Range above us. I soak in the beauty as the road meanders through tight little canyons, lush meadows, and old growth forest.
We crest Fitzsimmons Pass and let gravity work in our favor, charging down the first rowdy descent of the day. I maneuver my relatively thin tires carefully around the unforgiving fins of exposed bedrock, dodging someone’s dislodged water bottle bouncing down the road. If I blink at the wrong time it could easily end my day early. The landscape opens up with multiple drainages converging into a larger valley, the upper reaches of the Stillwater River. I can see our first objective, Mount Marston, 3,000 feet above us, dominating the view.
This is a self-supported, off-the-grid race, so I make a brief stop at Chepat Creek for a water resupply before the climb. It feels good to get off the bike, and I’m tempted to relax, maybe even soak my feet. But I pop some electrolytes and hop back on my trusty steed. Slowly coasting forward, I know that this climb is absolutely relentless, so I make a commitment to ride at my own maintainable pace.
When I find my tempo I start to look around. The sidehill road goes for miles and miles, following the contours of the mountain’s drainages and shoulders. In, out, in, out…the rhythm interrupted only by the rubber water bars, which are impossible to avoid.
The horizon expands with every pedal stroke. I round a dusty corner and the summit lookout comes into view, high up on the ridge. The race leaders fly by me on their descent, hooting and hollering. I get out of the saddle and put in a spirited burst of effort. An explosion of beargrass lines the road, vivid against the charred forest recovering from last summer’s fires.
Grinding through the last switchback, an unexpected headwind focuses my attention on something else: breakfast! The summit aid station is a VW camper, manned by Phil Grove, a Whitefish-based athlete and semi-pro fun hog. He serves up a Joe Cosley-approved meal of pancakes, sausage, and coffee. I wolf down the calories. For a moment, I gaze off to the east, where I can see the smiling faces of Kintla and Rainbow Peaks in Glacier Park.
My relaxation is short-lived. It’s 8:30 a.m. now and the tick-tock of my internal race clock wants me to keep moving. One uphill done, two more to go. From up here, I can visually piece together the entirety of today’s route under the canopy of scattered clouds.
I imagine myself as Paul Bunyan for a moment: just hop down this river drainage, a few steps up the valley, tippy-toe through Trego and Fortine, then step up Pinkham Mountain, and skip over to Sunday Creek. But I’m no giant, which is how I prefer it. I’m going to enjoy every intimate moment of the work, covering miles and miles of dirt roads. You know the turnoffs you drive by and wonder, where does that go? Well, I’m about to see.
After safely descending 4,000 feet to the base of the Whitefish Range, I head west, into the older and rounder Salish Mountains. The gravel road leads me through charming little communities, ranches, and farms you can’t see from the highway.
Midway up Pinkham Creek, I spot two people harvesting huckleberries. So attentive are they to their task, they fail to hear the snapping of twigs, nor do they see the 300-pound black bear run down the hillside, across the road and just behind them, within 50 feet.
I understand their focus, as I’ve locked into my own. I labor forward, pedals in a continuous rotation, splitting my concentration between maintaining efficiency through form and effort, and taking in the scenery as it goes by. I am both pilot and passenger. Pushing up the punishing Pinkham Mountain road, it becomes clear that, to survive, I’ll need to think and move like Joe Cosley, Glacier Park’s original outlaw ranger, the mustached scofflaw himself.
Most stories about Cosley are sourced from the orator himself. The Ontario-born trapper’s saga begins in 1910 when he was hired among the national park’s first crew of rangers. He got the job because of his deep regional knowledge; the Whitefish Pilot heralded him as a “champion trapper of the Rocky Mountain region.” Cosley was stationed in the Belly River region, the remote northeastern district. Once, in a single day, he ran and hiked 70 miles to Waterton and back, just to “shake a leg” over the Canadian border, as Brian McClung reports in his Cosley biography. The ranger carved his name and the initials of his lovers on trees across the park, and many of the lakes around the Belly River bear their names: Elizabeth, Helen, Sue.
Within a year, he was fired for trapping on the job. Decades later, he was thrown in jail for poaching in his beloved stomping grounds. Released on bond in Belton, present-day West Glacier, he split out of town on one of the area’s most impressive chase scenes. Imagine Cosley, on foot, with the authorities in hot pursuit by train, automobile, and horseback. He bolted into the backcountry, a “panther on snowshoes,” as some local Blackfeet reportedly called him. After picking up his cache of valuable pelts, he disappeared into the Canadian woods. Cosley gauged distance and effort with a perspective unlike any. His larger-than-life exploits are remarkable, even if he was the spirited author of most of them.
“[Cosley] understood the law, was a respectable, interesting, and well-spoken character,” Brad says. “But he absolutely followed his own rules, quite frequently against the status quo.”
I’m convinced that Brad—whose mustache even bears an uncanny resemblance to Cosley’s—might have a bit of shared DNA. As the visionary and organizer of the JCPR, as well as a competitor, Brad certainly puts in the hours and miles in Cosley-style.
To distract myself from my current suffering on Pinkham, I think back two years, reminiscing about the struggles of the initial JCPR: crawling up the Big Creek drainage in the late afternoon sun, exposed in 110-degree heat, my bum not happy at all. I also remember, just as fondly, the refreshing whiskey and Coke that Henry and Essie Roberts handed me from their makeshift aid station, positioned right where the route finally entered the shady forest. Big days call for big vision, tons of grit, and the capacity to transcend the physical to make it work. But the little things count, too. When I reach Pinkham’s high point at 4:20 p.m., I look north toward Lake Koocanusa and crack open a celebratory Coke.
It’s late afternoon and I have a problem. After the spirited descent of Pinkham, followed by a challenging climb leading up to Sunday Creek, I’m inching my way up the pass before Martin Creek, the final climb of the day. I’m exhausted, my back and hands are sore, but more pressingly, my bike computer has died. I’m navigating strictly off my cue sheet, and I think I may have missed a critical turn. It feels like I’m going around the wrong side of the mountain. This late in the day, a mistake that gets me lost in the dark could be dangerous. Weighing my options, I decide to turn around and go back to the intersection in question. My mind spins, disoriented, as I lose the precious vertical I labored so hard for.
I soon run into another racer, the first human I’ve seen in hours, and learn that I’d turned around about 100 yards from the top. Defeated, yet relieved, I join him and we ride together, mostly in silence, retracing my climb. Minutes later we’re joined by another small pack of racers, including Brad and his wife, Emily, another key JCPR organizer. (It was her idea to name the event in Cosley’s honor.)
We crest the pass, don windbreakers, then accelerate down the serpentine road. I have my hands low on the drop bars and eyes peeled as dusk approaches. A brown figure appears about a hundred yards ahead. After slamming on the brakes, we creep forward until we’re able to decipher the telltale paddles of a bull moose. We wait patiently, in awe, as he slowly disappears into the woods.
Darkness catches us. The gravel feels perfectly smooth, like a freshly groomed ski run, allowing us to assemble into a high-speed pace line, despite the limited visibility. The final miles tick off one by one until we reach Good Creek, then Martin Camp Road, and finally Highway 93. Like a horse smelling the barn, our group kicks it into high gear for these last few miles. Fellow racers, friends, and families welcome us when we roll back into the Whitefish Bike Retreat just shy of 11 p.m.
Brad hands me a much-deserved India Pale Lager and we toast to doing something quite big. Standing there in the glow of the after-party, my body is confused. It knows only movement. Now that I’ve stopped, I still feel a buzz, or maybe it’s the cyclist’s version of sea legs. It’s the residual vibration of more than 170 miles of gravel, the aftershocks from "shaking a leg" so far from home and returning to tell tall tales about it.
Phots: of Eric Greenberg and Henry Roberts by Essie Roberts
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