September 7, 1997

Painful Lessons Of History Ride Commemorating Experiment With Bicycle Troops Raises A Few Sore Points

Sherry Stripling Seattle Times
 
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Seventy-five yards out of historic Fort Missoula by modern bicycle, I stopped feeling sorry for the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps and started to envy them for their crummy gear.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

Our 200-mile bike ride up the gorgeous Swan Valley from Missoula to Glacier National Park in northwest Montana was supposed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of a noble - though foolish - experiment.

The military used steadfast African American troops in a series of excursions in 1896 and 1897 to see if bicycles could replace horses at remote outposts.

I’d just seen an example at the Fort Missoula museum of the clunker bikes those men used to cross streams, skid along on gumbo roads (made of fine, silty soil that gets sticky when wet) and follow orders to “Jump fence!” as they hefted their 76-pound loads plus rifles.

But within 10 minutes of leaving the display all I could think of - with envy - was the thick padding of their wool uniforms and the comfortable width of their “cushioned anatomical saddles” that a turn-of-the-century advertisement implied made “pressure on sensitive parts an impossibility.”

It was true that my group of five was riding high-performance 12-speeds.

We weren’t roughing it. We were headed to wine and cheese the first night at Seeley Lake; a hot tub the next night in the upscale artistry of Bigfork near Flathead Lake; and then on to an exquisitely prepared salmon dinner the final evening at Lake McDonald Lodge at Glacier National Park.

But it was also true that we were in immediate agony. The narrow tires of our borrowed bicycles seemed better suited for velodromes than rugged Montana roads. Our skinny bicycle seats felt like calcified chalkboard erasers. I couldn’t quite make out the manufacturer’s name on my saddle, but I believe it was “Marquis de Sade.”

Our challenge over the next three days would not be the pleasantly moderate terrain through the Swan Valley, which is graceful and beautiful, almost magical in vivid morning or late afternoon light.

Sliced between the towering Swan and Mission ranges - “foothills” of the Rocky Mountains - our challenge was to stop thinking of how we could possibly ride side saddle or without sitting at all. We were supposed to be reflecting on the miserable conditions the stalwart soldiers faced, not drowning out the warbler or osprey’s cry every time one of us went over a pothole.

We followed little of the soldiers’ 100-year-old trail, but on that our leaders made the right choice.

The soldiers were a band of eight, led by Lt. James A. Moss and dubbed the “Bicycle Corps.” Moss had graduated at the bottom of his West Point class, which was why he was stationed in remote Montana and why he was in charge of African-American soldiers.

Though the assignment was less favored by white officers at first, later reports on black troops reflected a change of heart. The Army’s Western outposts were notorious for attracting skulkers and drunks from the white population. But a steady, honorable job was coveted by the black community in the wake of the Civil War, so African-American soldiers were more likely to be fine citizens.

The notion of riding bicycles was not as crazy as it sounds.

Bicycles were at the height of their popularity in the mid-1890s. They were already being used to good review by armies in Europe for reconnaissance and messages.

Lt. Moss convinced the Army to test bicycles, arguing that bicycles would be a cheaper alternative to the horse and were guaranteed not to whinny in times of ambush.

The Spalding Co. smelled an advertising opportunity and donated 10 of their new “safety bicycles,” which look much like our mountain bikes today, give or take 25 pounds and all but one speed.

Off the men went from Missoula on their first training ride in 1896. Like us, they were heading north. Unlike us, they were on the west side of the Mission range.

They had two beautiful days, what Lt. Moss liked to describe as the “poetry” of bicycle riding, catching trout and enjoying a lake that “stood without peer” beneath McDonald Glacier in the Mission range.

Then it rained. Roads turned to muddy soup. The glue holding tires to wooden rims washed out, leaving 12 loose tires that the corps had to re-cement in downpours.

“Had the devil himself conspired against us, we would have had but little more to contend with,” Moss wrote.

Today, he could have added fearsome traffic to the mix of devilments had he followed the same route, which would have taken him along what is now Highway 93.

We missed that traffic east of the Missions along Highway 83, and had better views to boot.

After leaving Missoula, we followed the Clark Fork River on Highway 200. When we turned north on Highway 83, we rode beside the Blackfoot River, handsome setting of the book, “A River Runs Through It.”

The road had good shoulders and gradually rose through the forests along the Garnet Range past Camas Prairie and Potomac, where the hills resemble Scottish golf courses and the horses share pastures with thick-timbered old barns.

We turned left at The Cow, a fake bovine with a pituitary problem outside a store at Clearwater Junction. Here there was talk of wishing we had the soldiers’ rifles to get revenge for our bicycle seats, which once more defied the 1890s Spalding advertisement and “put pressure on sensitive parts.”

But there were consolations. In the background, we could see a blending of mountain ranges and valleys, all protected as the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat and the Great Bear wildernesses.

We spent the night at Wapiti Resort on Seeley Lake. One moral fiber fewer and I would have relieved them of a small pillow the next morning.

I’ve done my share of cycle touring, maybe some 15,000 miles in the past 12 years, but the first hours of Day Two from Seeley Lake to Condon struck me as some of the most pleasant cycling I’ve ever done.

Lodgepole pine beside the roadway presented narrow slices of morning sunshine and provided the scent rising from the previous night’s rain. Closer, the roadside was decorated by pale purple lupines and white puffs of flowering Beargrass.

The afternoon was marred only slightly by 17 miles of rubble, also known as “road under construction.” Thankfully, we were numb now both to the bicycle seats and the resignation that none of us would ever again be able to have children.

At Highway 209, we turned west to the art-and-designer-clothing town of Bigfork. To the good fortune of my charge card, all the little shops were closed.

It was here at the Marina Cay Resort that we found the hot tub, something we concluded the soldiers missed until they reached the geysers of Yellowstone National Park.We took the advice of local cyclists, detouring to back roads to avoid some Highway 35 road construction and going-to-the-park traffic. That night we stayed at Apgar on the south end of Lake McDonald - with gorgeous scenery on an even grander scale than we’d been traveling through.

Cycling in the park isn’t encouraged because of the heavy traffic and narrow roads. Some of us awoke early and rode through a tunnel of trees along the lake.

The more ambitious went up the snow-locked road toward Logan Pass, where cyclists are prohibited between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The less ambitious, which included me, stopped to drink coffee on the veranda at Lake McDonald Lodge.

The soldiers of the 25th came back to fight fires in Glacier National Park a decade after the bicycle experiment was abandoned following the outbreak of the Spanish-American war. They fought honorably in the war but went on to be mistreated in the South and Southwest because of racial prejudice.

Back in Montana once more, their work in Glacier again was praised as exemplary. Same men, presumably same behavior, but a whole different level of acceptance.

I’m not sure how close we felt to the soldiers on our ride except in our shared appreciation of the scenery.

But I can tell you this. Like them, we learned to turn the other cheek.

MEMO: The exhibit, “A Long and Dusty Road: Fort Missoula’s 25th Infantry,” will run through next March at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Copies of the booklet, “Fort Missoula’s Military Cyclists: The Story of the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps,” by Linda C. Bailey are available by mail for $5 from The Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Building 322, Fort Missoula, Missoula, MT 59804, or by calling 406-728-3476.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO When it comes to bicycling in Montana, it seems that all roads lead to Adventure Cycling Association, a Missoula-based nonprofit group promoting routes, tours and cycle advocacy. The 40,000-member group was founded in 1973 as BikeCentennial. Since developing the TransAmerica route to celebrate the 1976 United States bicentennial, Adventure Cycling Association has become the largest recreational cycling association in the country, providing maps for 22,000 miles of back-road and mountain-bike routes. Their most popular Montana rides are the annual Cycle Montana and two segments of the new Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Here are some Montana bicycling highlights: Cycle Montana: Each August this ride visits either Glacier or Yellowstone National Park, picking a loop route that showcases a different part of the state. The nine-day, 456-mile route starts and ends in Great Falls and includes the Swan River Valley. Cost is $550. Great Divide River Country and Great Divide Gold Country, both segments of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a 2,500-mile route that will run from Montana through New Mexico when it’s completed in 1998. The five-day, 170-mile River Country ride, which runs from Holland Lake in the Swan Valley to Helena, costs $600. The six-day, 197-mile Gold Country ride, which runs from Helena to Dillon, also in August, costs $625. Adventure Cycling sells a map for the route from Missoula to Glacier National Park. Order the Great Parks North Bicycle Route map, Section 1, from Missoula to Elko, B.C. Cost is $6.50 for ACA members, $9.50 for nonmembers. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route maps also are available. To reach Adventure Cycling Association, write P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, MT 59807-8308 or call 406-721-1776. Fax: 406-721-8754. E-Mail: acabike(at)aol.com The company’s Web site is http:/ /www.adv-cycling.org

The exhibit, “A Long and Dusty Road: Fort Missoula’s 25th Infantry,” will run through next March at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Copies of the booklet, “Fort Missoula’s Military Cyclists: The Story of the 25th U.S. Infantry Bicycle Corps,” by Linda C. Bailey are available by mail for $5 from The Friends of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, Building 322, Fort Missoula, Missoula, MT 59804, or by calling 406-728-3476.

This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO When it comes to bicycling in Montana, it seems that all roads lead to Adventure Cycling Association, a Missoula-based nonprofit group promoting routes, tours and cycle advocacy. The 40,000-member group was founded in 1973 as BikeCentennial. Since developing the TransAmerica route to celebrate the 1976 United States bicentennial, Adventure Cycling Association has become the largest recreational cycling association in the country, providing maps for 22,000 miles of back-road and mountain-bike routes. Their most popular Montana rides are the annual Cycle Montana and two segments of the new Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Here are some Montana bicycling highlights: Cycle Montana: Each August this ride visits either Glacier or Yellowstone National Park, picking a loop route that showcases a different part of the state. The nine-day, 456-mile route starts and ends in Great Falls and includes the Swan River Valley. Cost is $550. Great Divide River Country and Great Divide Gold Country, both segments of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a 2,500-mile route that will run from Montana through New Mexico when it’s completed in 1998. The five-day, 170-mile River Country ride, which runs from Holland Lake in the Swan Valley to Helena, costs $600. The six-day, 197-mile Gold Country ride, which runs from Helena to Dillon, also in August, costs $625. Adventure Cycling sells a map for the route from Missoula to Glacier National Park. Order the Great Parks North Bicycle Route map, Section 1, from Missoula to Elko, B.C. Cost is $6.50 for ACA members, $9.50 for nonmembers. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route maps also are available. To reach Adventure Cycling Association, write P.O. Box 8308, Missoula, MT 59807-8308 or call 406-721-1776. Fax: 406-721-8754. E-Mail: acabike(at)aol.com The company’s Web site is http:/ /www.adv-cycling.org


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