July 20: Cabinet Gorge to Sagle, Idaho - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

July 20: Cabinet Gorge to Sagle, Idaho

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THERE'S A BRIGHT-EYED LAD called Vince who's just started at Mom's Cafe, I think it is - the first one on the left as you ride into Clark Fork from the east, anyway. He's 18, turning 19, dark eyes, dark hair, heart-warming smile. He was conscientious about learning the job but he was keener to know the life of cycling hobos.

One day you'll meet him. He'll be cycling round the world.

"I've always wanted to do something like that," he enthused after approaching us shyly at our table and asking to talk. "Ride across the country."

We chatted, we told him how, showed him our maps. He asked one bright question after another, then came outside to study our bikes. He asked about tyre widths, handlebar shapes, the stability of luggage. He took our address and asked to stay in touch. "I think you'll hear from my friend as well," he added, "because he'd love to do something like that as well."

I'm looking forward to it. I have few rules in life beyond never eating peanut butter but I do answer every question and show every enthusiasm when it comes to novice riders. I remember, when I was 14, that I came across a cycle-tourist returning from France on a ferry. He sat on the deck with his back to a steel wall, his bike beside him. In those days, bikes still went on deck on Channel ferries. I looked at him, bronze and lean, as a god. He was everything I wanted to be.

When I picked up courage to speak - at 14 every year of seniority counts - I said timidly that I too was a touring cyclist. I had started youth-hostelling at weekends. He looked up and said "Oh yeah?", not sarcastically, just without interest. And that was as far as the conversation went.

I realise now that he was probably shattered by riding too far and too fast against the wind to catch the boat. I didn't know that then. I just felt snubbed. The fact that I remember it almost 50 years later tells a lot. For that reason, I was delighted to help Vince. If he gets out of life what a bike has given me, he will grow a happy man.

Once, he could have gone to the other end of the village for help. There was a bike shop there, a lovely place by all accounts where the owner's wife gave every passing cyclist a marble - it was also a gift shop - and took his picture to pin on the

Once there was a marble for every passing touring cyclist. Now there is nothing in the shop but some leftover bikes and some scattered rubbish.
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wall and e-mail to friends. The couple who ran it had come from elsewhere for a better life and they had busied themselves helping Scouts with cycling badges. We were looking forward to our visit.

Sadly, the shop is empty. The counters have gone and all that remains is a heap of wheel bits in the centre of the floor and, to one side, a row of new bikes waiting for someone to claim them. I like to think that the shop fulfilled a dream, that it came to a happy end. Sadly, from appearances, the outcome is less warming. I felt quite sad.

Well, we are finally out of Montana, It was dull, very dull, for day after day. Then we went into Canada for a few days and Montana made amends and shone its tresses for us. To that extent it was like neighbouring North Dakota, a state of halves. We entered North Dakota on its poor side and left on its rich. Not in the geological sense, because it was pleasant if not glamorous throughout, but economically. The east is down-to-earth, a fair if unexciting existence; the west is oil country, prosperous literally on two levels, farming at eye level and minerals below your shoes.

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We came into Montana with the roadside boards telling us we had more than 600 miles before we left. Finally this morning we came to "1" and then, white on green with the bullet holes that all American road signs have, metallic confirmation of "Leaving Montana."

Steph sighed. "My favourite sign used to be the lorry going downhill, to show there was a long descent," she said. "But that's number two now compared to 'leaving Montana.'"

Idaho took us down beside the Pend Oreille. Curiously for America and its monolingual disregard of foreign pronunciations, it's spoken the way the French explorers said it. The locals have even named a town phonetically after it: Ponderay. We were expecting Ponder-Relly.

The lake in the morning sun - one extra hour thanks to a clock change - was cast a perfect reflection. Pines beside the water gazed narcissistically at themselves. What little moved on earth moved faithfully on the water. Not even a fish dared swim too high or a bird fly too low to disturb this double world.

We'd have enjoyed it more were it not for the traffic. It rose as the day progressed and both we and Adventure Cycling contrived to keep us in it. "At dumpsters turn right," the map said, a transient bit of navigating given that the hand that delivers Dumpsters can as easily remove them. We therefore missed an escape to a parallel if hillier road that had half the traffic. And we had no chance to cut across the railway to reach it. It would have been just a temporary respite, anyway, because the only road then takes a long, ragged whirl to circuit an entrance to the lake and life takes a turn for the worse.

This is the last hour or so to Sandpoint. The road is slow and tyre-dragging. There are cracks and holes. The road winds, climbs, falls and wheezes back up. Where once the scenery was kingfishers and gazing pines, it is humdrum. And it is like that all the way to Sandpoint.

And just as we thought life would get better, it stayed stubbornly sullen. There is a bike path out of town. Where it runs over the bridge, it is absurdly wide. Half the bridge has been turned over to cyclists and walkers. Even with bumps between metal sections, it is worth taking.

Beyond the bridge, the path narrows and becomes a misery. On some plan and tally in Washington it brings prestige to Idaho by pushing up its total of green routes. But only because nobody there has tried to ride it.

There are several things they ought to know. The first is that a bike path needs to be at least as good as the road it follows. The second is that cyclists are not enthusiastic about riding pointlessly up and down ungraded slopes when the road beside them is smooth and even. The third is that a bike path need not give way to every piddling car-park entrance that crosses it. And the fourth is that cars, with thick tyres, upholstery and suspension, deal with tree roots pushing through the tar. To a cyclist, such things are dangerous.

We took to the road. The irony is that where the bike path is unridable, the shoulder beside the road is wide, smooth and gentle. The only time it worsens, in Sagle, the bike path ends anyway.

Advice: Between Sandpoint and Sagle, use the closed side of the bridge over the river and then stick to the road.


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