In June, David Ziccardi of Philadelphia spent eight days riding his bicycle some 470 miles around western Montana.
Ziccardi is one of hundreds of thousands of touring cyclists who likely will pass through Montana this year, spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the state.
The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research recently published a study estimating that 565,372 cyclists rode through Montana in 2012. On average, those cyclists spent 8.8 nights in the state and spent more than $75 per day, for a total of $377 million spent by touring cyclists in Montana in 2012.
"It's absolutely a potential economic development," Norma Nickerson, director and principal investigator at ITRR, said of bicycle tourism.
ITRR was asked by Montana's Tourism Advisory Council to look at bicycle tourism in Montana and how it compares to other parts of the country. The research group worked with Missoula-based Adventure Cycling to poll cyclists who had passed through Montana in the past three years to find out what they liked about their experience in the Treasure State and what they didn't.
The study found that cyclists were impressed by the friendliness and hospitality of Montanans, but would like to see wider shoulders on roads and more courteous drivers.
The study also showed that cyclists go all over the state, visiting many of Montana's tiniest towns.
"When people are biking in Montana, they're not just going to one place," Nickerson said. "They are all over the state."
That means increasing bicycle tourism could benefit all corners of the state.
"It's not going to be huge," Nickerson said of the economic impact of cycling tourists, "but it could be really beneficial for small communities."
'Mountainous and beautiful'
Ziccardi first traveled to Montana via bicycle in 1999 on a 10,000-mile tour across the country. He came back again in 2009 and 2011.
"I wanted to get back to that area," Ziccardi said. "I remember it being very mountainous and very beautiful."
Those memories proved accurate. In June, Ziccardi flew into Missoula and traveled from Missoula, down the Bitterroot Valley, over to Jackson, through Twin Bridges and Butte and on to Philipsburg, Hamilton and back to Missoula.
He followed a combination of paved and dirt roads, camping along the way, eating in restaurants and occasionally staying in a hotel.
A highlight of his trip was panning for sapphires at Gem Mountain between Hamilton and Philipsburg.
Ginny Sullivan, director of travel initiatives with Adventure Cycling, wasn't at all surprised by the results of the ITRR study.
Adventure Cycling promotes bicycle touring and offers maps of touring routes. The Missoula-based nonprofit has developed touring routes across the country and around the globe, including five routes that pass through Montana.
"We have both on-road and off-road routes that go through the state," Sullivan said. "We bring a lot of cyclists into the state of Montana."
Cycling is currently undergoing a boom in popularity.
"A lot of people say biking is the new golf," Sullivan said.
That boom affects everything from bike share programs in large cities to bicycle touring, and was part of what prompted the Montana bike study.
Many states' tourism bureaus are looking at ways to promote bike tourism, whether it's through building mountain bike trails, designating scenic bike routes or offering services to touring cyclists, Sullivan said.
Since ITRR's study was published in December, Adventure Cycling has started working with Travel Montana to promote bicycle tourism in the state.
"It's a geo tourism niche, which Travel Montana and the Tourism Advisory Council are interested in doing more of," Sullivan said.
Bike touring is also a way to promote off-the-beaten-path areas of the state, especially those that aren't near Glacier or Yellowstone national parks, she said.
"Cyclists love little towns because they're so friendly," Sullivan said.
Travel Montana recently posted a list on its website, visitmt.com, of 38 half-day and day-long bike rides in Montana, along with information on mountain bike trails.
Melinda Barnes and her organization Bike Walk Montana also works to help communities promote themselves as bike tourism destinations.
"We work with communities in trying to welcome bicycle tourists," Barnes said.
That idea is catching on around Montana.
Lincoln is working to attract more mountain bikers with designated trails and better signage. Helena also is promoting itself as a mountain bike destination. Anaconda recently released a map showing its bike trails.
A camp for cyclists
In 2009, Twin Bridges established a bike camp.
A local Twin Bridges resident, who wasn't a cyclist himself, noticed all the bikes passing through the small town but not staying there, Sullivan said.
"He convinced the town to pony up $9,000 to build the camp," she said.
Twin Bridges simply built a shed with some showers in a city park. It's since turned into a destination for long-haul cyclists.
Cyclists often spend a couple days there, do laundry at the laundromat, eat at the local restaurants, drink at the local bars and resupply at the grocery store.
"They figured by the end of that season, they had recouped that money in both donations and spending in the community," Sullivan said.