‘It’s starting to happen’ Bicycle touring an emerging tourism market

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Wheaton's Cycle mechanic Mark Christensen oils the chain a winter touring bike Thursday afternoon at the Kalispell bicycle shop. Jan. 23, 2014 in Kalispell, Montana. (Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake)

A new report verifies what local business owners have known for some time: The Flathead Valley is a superhighway for bicycle touring groups that bolster the local economy as they pass through.

Conducted by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research and graduate students from the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation, the study found that multiday cyclists spend $75 per day and stay an average of eight or more nights as they pass through Montana.

“What I think people are realizing is that adventure tourism groups are pretty big,” said Jan Brunk, who with her husband, Ron, owns Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish. “It’s been going on in Whitefish and Flathead County for years. What I think is that the pundits have gotten ahold of it, and it’s a good thing” for the state’s economists to understand.

“Over the years we’ve had two [tourism-related] groups of customers — tourists who like bikes and the other is cycling tourists. They’re pretty big categories for us,” she said.

Adventure Cycling Association’s Northern Tier route follows U.S. 93 past Glacier Cyclery’s doorstep and through Glacier National Park.

“Five Adventure Cycling routes intersect through or darn close to Whitefish,” Brunk said.

And there are seven or eight bicycle tourism companies that make Whitefish their home base during cycling season, Ron Brunk pointed out. The biggest of those is Backroads.

“They have people stationed in Whitefish in the summer,” he said. “Backroads provides the bikes so it’s not a huge effect to us, but they stay at hotels and Lake McDonald Lodge so they’re making a big impact.”

Commercial cycling tours need a permit to ride through Glacier Park, and that helps the park track the number of cyclists coming through each year, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said. Last year 550 people rode in bike tours through Glacier; that’s up from 400 cyclists in 2011.

With assistance from the nonprofit Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association, the tourism institute surveyed more than 700 cyclists who traveled through Montana between 2011 and 2013 or acquired Montana bike maps. Seventy-three percent reported traveling through Montana in the past three years on a cycle tour.

The cyclists surveyed were from 48 states and 18 countries and said Montana’s scenic views, local hospitality and diverse landscapes were the most memorable experiences from traveling through the state, the study noted.

The Whitefish Trail and expanded mountain biking on Big Mountain are driving the increase in cycle tourism here, Ron Brunk added.

He said one of his Canadian friends pointed out that while places like Fernie, British Columbia, have long had great reputations for bike-trail amenities, Whitefish has even more potential.

“I see Whitefish becoming a [cycling] destination for people,” Ron Brunk said. “It’s starting to happen.”

Cricket Butler, a longtime bike racer, tapped into the need for cycle facilities by opening Whitefish Bike Retreat last June. The new lodging facility is west of Whitefish adjacent to the Whitefish Trail in the Beaver Lake area.

After spending years on the road as a racer, Butler said she knew what other cyclists are looking for in a bike lodge. Above all, most of them need an affordable place to stay, and Whitefish Bike Retreat provides that.

The study noted that communities across Montana could capitalize on the emerging cycle travel market by providing simple, affordable amenities such as lodging, accessible dining and hot showers.

Whitefish is on the cusp of being a cycling destination, Butler said. Her retreat offers camaraderie for cyclists along with the basic necessities. It’s a place where they can relax and swap stories from the trail.

Butler hopes to start leading guided bike trips this summer once she gets a permit.

The Kalispell area also gets an economic boost from multiday cyclists. Wheaton’s is a popular stop for those needing repairs or supplies, according to mechanic and salesman Mark Christensen.

“We do see a good number of them,” he said. “We’ve rented out bikes to those whose bikes are in for repairs.”

Some cyclists stop by simply to get local information.

“I live west of town, and at Moose’s Crossing you’ll see a decent amount of bike tourists heading east,” Christensen said.

The Great Northern Historical Trail built on the old railroad bed is a great amenity for Kalispell, Ron Brunk pointed out.

“The rail trail is a phenomenal asset,” he said, adding that he regularly uses the 22-mile trail that runs from Kila to Somers.

Cyclists traveling through Montana use more than the trails. The study noted that 40 percent visit historical sites; 29 percent stop at local breweries.

According to Norma Nickerson, director of the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, “multiday cycling has the potential to be a tourism niche for the state of Montana which could be expanded into a statewide travel agenda.

“Many entrepreneurial business opportunities could emerge, including bike retail and service shops, campground expansion for cyclists, bed and breakfasts, more small-town breweries and maybe even the 10-year-old with lemonade stands along the bike route,” Nickerson said.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Wheaton's Cycle mechanic Mark Christensen tunes up a winter touring bike Thursday afternoon at the Kalispell bicycle shop. Jan. 23, 2014 in Kalispell, Montana. (Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake)

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