Gridiron Goals

Reid Sabin deep in the Montana backcountry, on a trail that sees far more wolf and bear traffic than human. Fresh snow from the night before revealed the pack was cruising just ahead.

Gridiron Goals Northwest Montana's Postseason Blitz

Omaha! Omaha! To most people, this famous snap count is synonymous with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

But to mountain bikers in northwest Montana, it’s a rally cry we yell when we see our buddies on the trail, enjoying the best time of year to ride. While fall means football season for the whole country, in these northern climes it also  represents the prime riding period. And though it might at first seem odd, to us, mountain biking and the good old gridiron have a lot more in common than just a shared season.

Think about it. During the spring, everyone’s a little rusty from a long, harsh winter, and our rides here are more like football’s training camp, when we’re just getting warmed up for the season. The trails are usually still snowy up high and muddy down low, and we can’t ride as much as we’d like. Even though fall is several months away, autumnal glory is still at the forefront of our thoughts.

Summer is when the gains are made, putting hay in the barn and working on the fitness that we’ll take into the regular season and hopefully the playoffs. While the big alpine rides of summer are cool—and an ideal way to get into shape—it’s hot and dusty on our finest lowland trails, and it’s all too easy to get distracted by time cooling off in the lake or rivers. But come Labor Day, it’s game time for everyone who’s put in the work and is ready for the regular season.

Being on the road in the fall is such a great way to ride different types of the terrain, and the trails of Nelson, BC certainly shake things up. Noah Bodman drops into one of the big, steeper-than-it-looks slabs in Nelson.
When the fall colors begin to pop, the understory goes first and the larch follow just behind, their needles turning electric yellow. Weaving through the ever-changing hues of color, Pete Thomas brings it in for a first down.

My buddies and I came up with this analogy more than a decade ago in Missoula, Montana, during a University of Montana Grizzlies home game at Washington-Grizzly Stadium. The iconic venue is situated right at the mouth of Hellgate Canyon, sandwiched between Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel, creating a dramatic atmosphere for the perennially crazed hometown crowd. We were riding high in the hills above the stadium, and each time the Grizzlies would get a first down, the chanting of “first down Montana” would echo through the mountains, pushing us to pedal harder through what we thought was the tail end of our riding season. The chant became our group mantra, inspiring us to keep moving the chains even when the season seemed all but over—“first down Montana!”

To this day, the analogy holds strong and helps keep our crew in Whitefish, riding late into what is, for many mountain bikers, the end of the season. But by September in northwest Montana, our entire squad is game-fit and ready for the regular season. At Spencer Mountain, just outside Whitefish, Monday Night Football is the name of the game. We ride here every Monday night until it’s dark, or snowing, or both.

The area is a true success story of organized mountain bike advocacy and partnership with local land managers. Countless volunteer hours of trailbuilding by the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, in coordination with the Montana Department of Natural Resources, have transformed this once-illegal freeride zone into a sanctioned area called the Spencer Freeride Trails—a rowdy network for advanced riders just 10 minutes from downtown Whitefish. The system is truly worldclass, rivaling those of more famous destinations such as Bellingham, Washington and Squamish, British Columbia. It boasts everything from steep, technical sections to huge drops, stunts and sizeable jumps. Many of the landings can’t be seen until after takeoff, so we just use some trees to line it up like goalposts and punch it through like a field goal. Some of our team’s players even go for the two-point conversion.

When golden hour lights up golden trees, all seems right in the world. The small town of Whitefish and Whitefish Lake settling into a fall slumber.
Big backcountry days in the fall must be approached with the right attitude. Bring a sandwich (or two), be ready for unknown trail conditions and blown-down trees, and anticipate cold, short days, Type-2 fun, and hike-a-bikes galore. But when it pays off, it pays off big. Chad Corah stacking up the yards on a ripping section of ridge.

From mid-September to mid-October, our squad likes to take the show on the road to see how we stack up against the riders and trails of interior British Columbia. In places such as Rossland, Nelson and Castlegar, fall arrives a little earlier, and the aspens, birch and cottonwood are on full display, with vivid colors decorating entire mountainsides. But we come up here for more than just the fall colors. We’re mainly searching for the decomposed cedar on steep hillsides that comprises the basic element of the deep, grippy dirt known to every mountain biker as loam.

The trails around Nelson have some of the finest loam known to man, and the steepest of those make our whole team feel like we’re throwing fourth-quarter Hail Marys with only seconds left on the clock. We tear down them in semi-controlled slides, but even in the worstcase scenario we usually end up just crashing into 8 or 9 inches of this soft, forgiving substance. After a solid week in Nelson, we’re looking set to make the playoffs. It’s time to head back to Montana, where it’ll be home games until the Conference Championship.

Once we’re home again, it’s our last chance to get up into the high country before the snow really starts to fly. This is our favorite time of year in the alpine, as the summer months have so much new vegetation growing, we sometimes can’t even find the trails. Midsummer rides in Montana’s alpine will often have us trudging through the bushes at half-speed, through undergrowth so thick we’re worried about stumbling blindly into grizzly bears. But as the days begin to shorten and the nights grow colder, the leaves start to recede and the trails become visible. Finally, we can rip these narrow ribbons of dirt like a wide receiver sprinting down the sideline for a 60-yard pass. This window of time is fleeting, though, straddling a fine line between there being just enough frost at night to kill off the leaves and the first big snow that actually sticks. This period might be short, but it makes for some unforgettable days of riding in the fading fall sun.

Once every larch in sight has turned gold, it’s officially the fourth quarter. With temps dropping by the hour and a thick blanket of needles covering the ground, Pete Thomas races the beginnings of winter. Soon, the snow will start to fly.
Overtime. Noah Bodman milking one last lap on Spencer before the season officially comes to a close.

By late October, our team knows the season could end at a moment’s notice. We can make it all the way to the playoff s, but all it takes to be knocked out is a truly deep snow. At this point, it’s the uncertainty of knowing that each ride could be our last that keeps the crew going. Last year, Halloween week was so cold and snowy we thought it was over, but at the last minute the forecasters reviewed their call and it turned out we were headed to the Conference Championships.

While most of the deciduous trees have long since shed their leaves, this is the time when northwest Montana has one more surprise in store: The larch trees, also known as tamaracks, have needles that turn yellow and then gold, creating a beautiful arena for the final games of the season. Though the larches are technically deciduous conifers with needles, they eventually lose those needles during the final days of fall. We call this period the Larchfest, and it really rounds out the riding season in style. Our team has the only players still in the game, and the forest is so quiet you can hear the larch needles falling like the first snowflakes of winter.

By the time the trails are covered in a thick layer of larch needles, we know we’ve made it to the Super Bowl. It’s time to take a trip down the golden road for one last hurrah. The days are so short at this point that 2 to 4 p.m. is the best window for riding, with the afternoon sunlight providing just enough warmth to thaw the trails for our final rides of the year. A dedicated few of us celebrate the season’s triumphs in solitude, far from the referees and the fans. As far as we’re concerned, we’ve won the Super Bowl. And we take our final victory laps in silence, until the ground freezes over for another long winter.