Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear - For all Your Motorized and Non-Motorized Adventures!

By Micah Drew
Pathfinder 

Ovando World Renowned

 

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

The old sheep wagon welcomes cyclists to Ovando.

OVANDO - Leigh Ann Valiton paces back and forth down the two aisles of the Blackfoot Commercial Co. Her store, and attached Inn, is open until 7 every evening, but it's currently 10 p.m. and she shows no sign of leaving.

Every few minutes she goes to her desk and refreshes the GPS tracker on her phone. She looks up, "It says she's here. Do you see her?"

The woman in question is Fay Cunningham from New Zealand. Cunningham is competing in the Tour Divide Race, a 2,735-mile long mountain bike race that stretches form Banff, Canada to the Mexican border. The route enters Montana in Glacier National Park and meanders south, paralleling the continental divide.

Ovando sits at mile 550 and has become a staple stop for riders.

"Ovando, you always hear about the accommodations. It's certainly known," says Cunningham as she meanders around the store putting food into a basket. "It's totally cool to come here."

For the last five years, Ovando has become known by the cycling community around the world as a place to stop by and sleep, refuel and chat with the locals.

"I've been a groupie [of the TDR] for years so it's cool to see the places I've read about-Richmond Ridge, Holland Lake, here," she continues.

Cunningham has been riding for 16 hours and knew she wanted to make it to Ovando before she stopped for the night.

Currently every room in Valiton's inn is booked and a rider is sleeping on a mattress in the living room. Outside a cyclist is sleeping in an old sheep wagon. Another is passed out in a teepee.

The only open sheltered place left for Cunningham to rest is an old jail house that was restored for just that purpose.

She brings her basket of food up to the counter and Valiton rings her up.

Two frozen burritos, two energy bars, a bag of Lays, a bag of Cheetos, Ritz cheese crackers, three apples, a Mountain Dew and a Starbucks espresso drink are scanned and put in a bag when Valiton looks up.

"Wait, I'll put a bed in the kitchen and you can sleep there."

After making sure her last guest is settled in, Valiton can finally leave for the night. Most of the riders will be up before dawn to get back on the trail.

"Our goal is to be as accommodating as possible," says Valiton as she turns off the lights. "But that's Ovando in general."

* * * *

"Seventeen years ago if I went to Missoula, no one knew where Ovando was," says Kathy Schoendoerfer, the owner of the Blackfoot Angler in Ovando.

Now, nearly a thousand cyclists from around the world will pass through the town that boasts only 50 residents.

Schoendoerfer is one of the reasons Ovando is on the map.

One small corner of her fishing shop is dedicated to cycling gear- tires, tubes, lube, pedals, the essentials. Every rider that passes by, during daylight hours at least, gets their picture taken and uploaded to a TDR online forum. Bikepacker magazine will often solicit photos for their magazine or website.

Five years ago, Ovando witnessed the affect their community could have on riders for the first time. A call came in from Seeley Lake that a TDR rider needed some help. Only the sheep wagon existed back then but townsfolk put out a sign telling the rider to rest up and carry on, and ask for anything she needed in the morning.

Since then, the town has embraced the TDR and cyclists in general.

Schoendoerfer is unofficially responsible for the 'faces of the divide' photos and she helped start the Ovando Community Fund which provided the money for the Teepee, and outdoor shower system and the small inventory of biking necessities.

Each year riders donate around $500, she says. Sometimes it's change (Canadian), sometimes it's a can of beans if that's all they have.

The TDR is a self-supported ride, which means riders cannot accept any help that is not available for everyone. To adhere to that, Ovando caters to the leaders, the caboose and everyone in between.

"What we do for one, we do for all," says Schoendoerfer.

* * * *

It's not just cyclists passing through who are aware of Ovando's reputation. Around the world, it has gained a following as a place in the know.

The most popular stops in town are the Angler, Blackfoot Commercial Co, the Stray Bullet Café and Trixi's Saloon.

Eric Sime, a 53-year-old from Colorado staying at the Inn, recalls getting a phone call in the Stray Bullet while he stopped there for lunch. His buddy saw his tracker stop in Ovando and knew exactly where he'd go.

"The places that embrace the race. It means a lot," Sime says.

Schoendoerfer receives calls at her shop from friends and families who are watching the trackers or see riders on the live webcam that is put up for the race. Most are just trying to contact riders who have been on the trail for a week. As per TDR rules, families and friends are not allowed to show up on the course for support-a well-timed phone call might be the only contact they get for the duration.

One year she received a hand drawn sign some kids sent for their dad-she posted it on the cyclist message board she has posted outside her shop.

This year, a cyclist showed up with a pair of gloves he found on the trail. Within an hour, Schoendoerfer found the owner, who had dropped out of the race but came to Ovando anyways "because she had to see it."

Schoendoerfer has received marriage proposals after providing riders with new tires, has mailed iPhones to South Africa and driven riders back to Seeley Lake to find lost wallets.

Schoendoerfer refers to all of this as "a lot of little trail magic."

After several years of interacting with the racers in this way, Schoendoerfer knows many of them.

"It's these little things you do and pretty soon they recognize you and you recognize them and it's freaking old home week around here," she says.

Schoendoerfer takes on an almost mothering role with the riders. A few days earlier Ben Staurbaut from Belgium, then the leader, rolled through and complained that when he tried to eat he got sick. He had been riding for 48 hours straight.

"I said, 'You do know what that's from...YOU NEED TO SLEEP,'" she yells, laughing at her own story.

Schoendoerfer doesn't seem to run out of energy as long as there is a cyclist around.

"C'mon, this is a boring town when nothing is happening, so when you get a bunch of people from all of the world in here, it's bitchin'," she says. "They get to see a rural side of America and we get to see a bunch of crazy Italians."

She takes back that last statement-this year the crazy guys are Belgian. They have two of the top five spots in the race.

* * * *

"It's good to be in Ovando!" exclaimed Randy Neil as he got off his bike in front of the Angler.

Neil is doing his third TDR, and greeted Schoendoerfer as an old friend with a hug. They sit and chat about who has passed through town, who has dropped out and who is missing out this year.

Another hug and Neil heads next door to refuel at the Bullet.

Before owning the Blackfoot Commercial Co., Valiton worked at the Stray Bullet. She still remembers her first year serving a TDR rider.

Micah Drew, Pathfinder

Kathy Schoendoerfer and Randy Neil chat in front of the Schoendoerfer's store, Blackfoot Angler. Neil is riding in his third Tour Divide.

"A tall lanky guy walked in and said 'I'll take a Pepsi, three pancakes and then I'll order.'"

Not much has changed.

After an hour, Neil exits the Bullet clutching his stomach and grimacing.

"I have a food baby," he said.

When asked what he ate he responded with a grocery list: biscuits and gravy, bacon, eggs, hash browns, French toast. Essentially enough food to fuel him to Helena, about 80 miles away.

As Neil gets ready to saddle up he adds his two cents about why Ovando is so popular among riders.

"It has just what you need," he says. "When you're out here riding... life becomes simpler in a sense."

As Neil swings a leg over his bike and prepares to head towards Lincoln he gestures vaguely to the town.

"This goes hand in hand with the simple life."

 

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