A cold, wet morning slowed down to a barely spitting drizzle Saturday afternoon as mountain bikers from as far away as Whitefish descended Helena's trails for the 2019 Shuttle Fest.
Dozens of mountain bikers were waiting for shuttles to bring them from the Women's Mural across from the Base Camp to the trailheads where they would descend Mount Ascension and Mount Helena. The bikers, decked out in bright colors, knee pads and helmets, chattered while they waited.
Andrea Opitz, the executive director for the Helena Tourism Alliance, explained that Shuttle Fest started in 2014 in conjunction with the city of Helena's launch of Bike Helena. "There are two Shuttle Fests," Opitz said. "There's the spring one, which coincides with Ales for Trails, and the summer Shuttle Fest that coincides with the Montana Brewers Association's Summer Rendezvous."
Helena's easily accessible trails are extraordinarily popular. For Helenans, the ability to walk directly from their homes into Montana pine forests and up on mountains is one of the reasons they love living in the capital city. And for people coming to Shuttle Fest, the trails are some of the best in the state for mountain biking.
They're also the source of Helena's silver level Ride Center designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
"The Ride Centers designation recognizes the pinnacle of mountain biking communities. These are large-scale facilities with something for every rider, from a variety of riding experiences to a variety of ways to have fun off the bike," the International Mountain Bicycling Association's website said. Helena is included with other more well-known areas like Steamboat Springs and Vail, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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"We're only one of 12 in the world with that certification," Opitz said. "You have to go through basically a series of criteria, the quality of the trails, amenities, services that are available, how bike friendly Helena is."
Karen Reese, a Bike Helena and Visit Helena employee, said riders from Butte, Bozeman and Whitefish make their way to Helena for Shuttle Fest. "It kicks off the trail riding season, which is from mid-May to September," Reese said.
Over the weekend shuttles would drop riders off at the Park City Ridge trailhead on Mount Helena and on the 2006/Arrowroot trailhead on the back of Mount Ascension. "The shuttle goes up to the Continental Divide trails in the summer," Reese said. With MacDonald Pass receiving a heavy coating of wet snow, those trails would be mostly unusable even if they were open during the weekend, part of Montana's May charms.
Reese said Shuttle Fest would be impossible without the help of community sponsors. Blackfoot River Brewing Company, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Broadwater Hot Springs, Lewis & Clark Brewing Company, Jackson Murdo & Grant PC and SoFi all partnered with Helena for this spring's Shuttle Fest, according to Reese.
"It's pretty unique," Opitz said. "Having the South Hills network with 80 miles of trails with access to downtown — it's huge."