For the third time in recent weeks, Helena is garnering national recognition.
While those who mountain bike this rolling and rugged landscape know how good they have it, the rest of the world now knows it too.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association on Thursday awarded Helena a bronze-level designation as a ride center.
The designation represents the organization’s recognition of large-scale mountain bike destinations that offer a wide range of great trails for every riding style, the association’s website stated.
These communities, the website continued, take care of riders both on and off the trail by being places where mountain bikers are welcome.
Helena is one of five communities named to the 2013 list of ride centers and joins Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Coldwater Mountain in Anniston, Ala.; Burns Lake in British Columbia; and Rychlebske Stezky, Cerna Voda, Czech Republic.
Earning a silver designation this year is Livigno, Italy.
“We felt Helena definitely fit the bill,” said Mark Eller, the communications director for the Boulder, Colo.-based organization.
The interconnectedness of the trails and that the community celebrates its trails were factors in Helena’s being selected, he said.
Being named to the list is significant for the community, Eller added and explained that the organization’s newsletter draws requests for more information on these communities.
The Mountain Bicycling Association was founded in 1988 by a group of California mountain bike clubs concerned about trail closures to cyclists. The organization has grown to nearly 50 full-time staff with 35,000 individual members, its website notes.
“Montana’s ‘Queen City” offers a modern day gold rush for mountain bikers,” the organization’s website announced in giving Helena the bronze ranking. “More than 70 miles of singletrack await you, including routes accessible from town, free shuttles and access to the iconic Continental Divide Trail. For short rides, try Mount Ascension and the climb and descent from Eagle Scout to Entertainment Trail. Rodney Ridge, Wakina Ridge or Mount Helena are great options if you have a few hours to pedal.
“Higher up, the MacDonald Pass portion of the Continental Divide Trail yields a beautiful backcountry experience. Further afield is the Trout Creek Canyon-Beartrap Gulch loop, where you can navigate steep limestone canyons and commune with the footprints of large, furry mammals. Helena offers a vibrant cycling scene and bike lanes throughout town, meaning you can easily enjoy a car-free mountain biking vacation,” the organization’s review concluded.
For more information on mountain biking in the Helena area, the International Mountain Bicycling Association website refers people to the Bike Helena website at www.bikehelena.com.
“We scored extremely close to the border of bronze and silver,” said Pat Doyle, community outreach director for the Helena Tourism Alliance/Tourism Business Improvement District.
“This isn’t just another town to bike in,” Doyle said. “We have something that’s truly unique.
Room for improvement
An August 2013 evaluation by the association noted that the bike park in Centennial Park adds an amenity to the “already robust offering of trails” and would quality Helena for additional points on its next application.
Restructuring very steep grades on South Hills trails would also allow for additional points to the city’s score, the evaluation noted, as would adding more trails for novice riders.
Other improvements to the trail system for mountain biking are also pointed out, such as better aligning trail signage in the South Hills with numbered intersections on the map for the area.
How the award was earned
However, the organization gave Helena the full complement of points when it came to being a community where a cyclist could easily ride for three days or more.
Each ride, the organization’s ranking noted, “should provide a unique experience” even if each ride doesn’t necessarily need to be on a completely different trail.
Helena captured all of the points available for the categories for services, community involvement, tourism and marketing, and above and beyond. For the trail experience rating, it scored 35 points out the 62 points available.
And the community earned points for Helena’s variety of cuisine, brew pubs, grocery stores, coffee shops and organic food stores. The array of camping, from primitive to that for RVs, added to the score, as did lodgings that catered to bicyclists.
The availability of medical services and Helena’s airport also were factored into the scoring.
Marketing of the mountain biking opportunities helped, too, as did the Bike Helena Ambassadors Program that provided trail patrols.
A community has to be invited to apply for a ranking and that invitation came after representatives of the organization were invited to Helena to view the community and the mountain bicycling opportunities.
Two members of the organization were here for most of a week at the end of July and rode local trails for four days, Doyle said.
“And they came away very impressed,” he added, and wanted Helena to apply for a ranking.
The proximity of trails to town — in a few minutes a person can bicycle from town to trails — helped Helena’s application, as did a free shuttle service from Fridays through Sundays to ferry mountain bikers to trailheads farther from town.
Helena must reapply every four years to retain its standing with the Mountain Bicycling Association and can reapply every two years if it has new amenities that can increase its score and ranking.
Park City, Utah, is the association’s only gold-level community.
The mountain biking trails here haven’t been widely known, Doyle said, but coming to the community left him with no doubt of the opportunities that exist.
Living six blocks from a trailhead, he asked, “Where else in the country do you have that?”
Other Helena honors
The recent national acknowledgement of Helena’s amenities leads Doyle to conclude, “Everything’s coming together for Helena right now.”
The bronze award from the Mountain Bicycling Association comes on the heels of two other recent honors for Helena.
Rand McNally gave the city its Best of the Road award for geocaching, which is a new category.
Geocaching is kind of a game of hide and seek. Caches, which can be small handsized containers or metal boxes about the size of a shoebox, are hidden and people use GPS devices or smartphones with global positioning system technology try to find those caches.
A cache can be little more than a logbook, pencil, a few trinkets for people to take with them as a souvenir and then leave behind something for the next person to find.
“Geocaches on the Helena GeoTour are so rewarding that even locals swear they learn new things about their town,” the Rand McNally website noted in its praise of Helena from among five finalists.
Helena was also recently notified that it made Livability.com’s list of top 100 places to live in 2014.
According to the website, www.livability.com/top-100-best-places-to-live, Helena came in at 95.
Commute time to work, health care, social and civic capital — which is how people interact with their community — all played in Helena’s favor as did education, housing and proximity to an airport.