May’s wet weather didn’t stop bikers and walkers in Helena and across Montana from logging some serious mileage in the spirit of both fun and competition.
The annual month-long Montana Commuter Challenge, organized by Bike-Walk Montana, PacificSource Health Plans and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, as well as local organizations, features a host of teams from private businesses and public agencies. While they come from different places in the community, teams come with the shared goal of replacing a traditional drive to work with an active commute.
Teams in local challenges log trips and miles posted online with scores based on the percentage participating, meaning 10 people walking one mile score higher than one person walking 10 miles. At the end of the month, the top teams have local bragging rights but also the benefits that come with biking or walking.
“A lot of people in Helena like to exercise and are outdoor minded, and this is another way to get free exercise,” said Pam Attardo, captain of Lewis and Clark County’s 17-person team. “You’re getting your workout but there are also the environment and economic factors.”
Attardo has been a committed bike commuter, with rough weather not hindering a smooth ride to work. While attending law school in Syracuse, New York, one year, she rode her bike through a winter that dropped 106 inches of snow.
This May’s consistent rain showers did not stop her either.
“It gets pretty competitive as far as I will ride my bike to meetings even if it’s raining, because it has to be related to work,” Attardo said. “I might arrive to a meeting wet, but I got the mileage so there’s your competitiveness.”
Attardo says she tries to not be “too preachy” when it comes to commuting and encouraging others, but finds it works for her.
“I just feel so much better when it’s that extra exercise and gets you out of the office,” she said. “It resets your brain and resets your body.”
Appropriately, the Montana Department of Transportation fielded a team of dedicated commuters.
“We are Transportation, so to get the word out about biking and walking is important,” said team captain Hannah Amestoy.
Transportation’s 15-person team is not overly competitive. It’s more about a healthy lifestyle, and seeing the challenge as a community idea is also important, she said.
Amestoy and another Transportation employee commute along the same bike path. Coming prepared for inclement weather and checking forecasts is a must for prospective bike commuters, she said.
Helena offers pretty good routes to commute by bike, but some crowded intersections are less bike-friendly and paths are the way to go if available. Amestoy says she has had some close calls with cars, but it hasn’t fazed her.
St. Peter’s Hospital fielded the biggest team in Helena’s 38-team challenge with 31 commuters. With interest growing and the majority of the team logging miles, the challenge has become a staple of the commuter season for many hospital employees.
Dave Ellis returned in 2016 to captain the team after first captaining a few years ago when only nine or 10 members turned out.
“It’s good to see folks from across our organization participating,” he said. “It brings the organization together as a team, and I think that’s how we want to present ourselves to the community as well.”
Commuting via pedal power offers both a boost to physical and mental health, he added.
“I work in an office so it’s my opportunity to be a little bit active during my work days,” Ellis said.
Finding a good bike route through Helena is somewhat about avoiding hazards, he said. Commuters face some infrastructure problems, including sensors at traffic lights that won’t pick up a lone biker, and tight streets lined with cars. For the most part, “Helena is fantastic for biking and walking,” he said.
For new bike commuters, Ellis recommends scouring the streets for a safe route and learning the potential hazards. Seek out used bike sales for reasonable prices and find resources such as the new Queen City Wheel House, located at 3790 West U.S. Highway 12, for tools and expertise. Once the confidence is there, come equipped for the weather, he said.
“I really look forward to my ride home even if it takes me less than 15 minutes,” Ellis said. “It’s all the same things you liked when you were a kid, the wind in your hair and the feeling of freedom.”