A full serving of the annual Chili Con Cheeno hits the spot for Flathead Valley adventurers during winter’s coldest days

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Mandy Mohler

The weather forecast predicted freezing rain, and even so, at 8 a.m. on this January Saturday, 45 cyclists assemble in the Kila School parking lot. It is still dark, and snowing shyly. A tailgate tableau of coffee, pastries from Kalispell’s Ceres Bakery, and cold Sierra Nevada pale ale draws a small huddle of riders and supportive spouses. Everyone else is off fiddling — checking tire pressure, testing brakes, and puttering around the parking lot on their fat bikes, warming up.

They plan to ride to Hot Springs, a 50-mile distance, on specialized bicycles designed to accommodate the burliest, widest, grippiest tires in existence. Regular mountain bikes easily spin out and get stuck in snowy conditions, but fat bikes gobble up Montana’s snow- and ice-covered backroads. Born from riders adapting to the challenges of unpredictable terrain in Alaska and New Mexico, and popularized within the last decade, the fat bike’s star is rapidly rising among adventure cyclists worldwide. A Tacoma in the Kila parking lot has a bumper sticker: “Fatter is funner.”

Amber Steed is twice as fast as you, and looks twice as good in a puffy skirt.

The riders joke about the abysmal weather forecast and debate wardrobe layering strategies. Amber Steed is wearing a puffy snow skirt. Tony Catalfomo is dressed in head-to-toe black, except for red buffalo check socks, and puffing on a morning cigarette. Cliff Kipp is wearing a pocketless Shearling vest and a sweater emblazoned with the Cino Heroica insignia, a memento from the beloved summertime ride, which travels a similar route from Kila to Hot Springs and back every year, and involves vintage steel-frame bicycles, significantly more fashionable outfits, and extravagantly epicurean indulgences.

By contrast, this annual winter ride, called the Chili Con Cheeno, involves white-knuckled survival. This is why it’s an invitational event: completing the ride safely takes no small degree of skill and experience, or at least bullheaded tenacity. Maintaining appropriate body temperature through cardiovascular exercise in winter is always a tenuous dance. It’s a formidable ride in summer, but in January, with sunset at 5 p.m., there’s greater pressure to keep a timely pace, and less room for mistakes on these roads roaming outside of cell coverage.

Hans Axelsen, who owns Wheaton’s Cyclery in Kalispell, and Mark Christensen, the shop’s service manager, have for years participated in the summer Cino. Soaking in the springs one summer, they poked at each other’s egos, swearing to one-up “the whiners” who thought the Cino was hard by recreating the ride in winter. They made good on their boast, completing the first Cheeno in January 2013. Seven bold friends joined the pair for the ride to Hot Springs; three riders pedaled home to Kila the following day, round two.

“We were just going to ride over there in the snow, no matter what,” Axelsen says. “Only a year before had any of us ridden [a fat bike]. It was cabin fever and boredom, and the advent of the ability to tour by fat bike. We called it Chili with Cheese, made it a totally played-down event.”

There is still little pomp and circumstance, and on this cold Saturday morning, there is no starting pistol. Groups of riders peel out of the parking lot in leisurely intervals. Some chat with the fervor of a reunion; others, dressed similarly and riding in comfortable silence, appear to be frequent bike partners. By 9 a.m., most riders are en route. “You’re all stressed getting ready and leaving on time, but once you start pedaling, you can relax,” Christensen says. A golden gash in the cloud coverage hints at a sunny morning. The snow soon slows, and the day reveals itself as impeccably clear and pleasant. This is unbelievable to some riders; the brutal double-digit negative temperatures and ice rink-slick conditions of the previous year have already become Cheeno legend. On days like that, a stiff sense of humor is the spoonful of sugar.

“Look ma!” Hans Axelson says on the final descent into Hot Springs.

The route wends south from Smith Valley, pointing up the Mount Creek drainage to Browns Meadow Pass. When the twisty road reaches the meadow, the glory of the morning fully sinks in: sun pours lavishly onto the wide, deep-set fields, where rays catch and alight an entire universe of snow crystals. The temperature climbs rapidly, and as the riders pedal through a shadowed hallway of tightly spaced firs, bending coniferous branches shed heavy clumps of wet snow. The road, recently plowed, flows forward in switchbacks, and still the riders chat, a little more breathlessly than before, or they pedal, heads down, in a meditative trance. Climbing roughly 800 feet over five miles to the pass, the ascent isn’t unforgivingly steep, but it is constant.

Pedal after pedal, the riders triumph at the top, sun-dazzled and wheezing and giddy almost to the point of delirium. They crack beers hauled by the “sag wagon” support vehicle, and wait for each other. Chatty riders loiter on the narrow pass for an hour, reeling off life updates. Everyone keeps shaking their heads at the morning sunshine and repeating variations on “how on earth did we luck out like this?” Participants squeeze out energy goo packets, and all but Rob Ford prepare for the descent by stripping off sweaty base layers and zipping on big, puffy jackets. Despite the celebration, there are still miles and miles to come.

“The goal is no brakes on the downhill,” one rider says, mounting their bike.

“The goal is no medical bills,” another corrects.

The road drops southeast from the pass, unveiling a panoramic vista of the rolling plains where Flathead, Lake, and Sanders Counties meet on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s an inversion morning, and snowy hills rise above the clouds, but the riders freewheeling downhill move too quickly to discern the fine line between sky and earth. “This is so beautiful, we should not be allowed to see this,” Christian Shaeffer says. “Double Barrel” Darryl Iblings agrees. “It’s like you’re floating on clouds,” he sighs. The road sinks into a drainage, and the low-lying skyscape disappears behind.

Cliff Kipp knows a shearling vest, when paired with Gore-Tex, is always in style.

The group approaches MT-28 — the route most drivers take from the Flathead Valley to Hot Springs — and takes a sharp right-hand turn just before, sticking to back roads. In the front of the pack, a rider spooks a flock of sparrows. The lunch tent is within sight. Wisps of smoke curl from a portable wood stove, on loan from saddlemaker Jeff Morrow, an enthusiastic fan who lives in nearby Niarada. He also brought growlers of his homemade chokecherry beer to share. The support team, who drove from Wheaton’s, lays out lunch: yes, it is chili, “with a dash of brown sugar,” somebody observes, rubbing their spandex-ed stomach. Fighting off the nap impulse, the riders mount their bicycles after lunch for the finale, approximately 20 miles, primarily along the West Road.

“Chili is not a good bike food,” Catalfomo says. “It’d be better if we called it the Bratwurst Cheeno.”

From here, the valley is so vast that the scenery changes slowly from the saddle of a bike. As the group flies down a slope, Jon Kofal notes, “More dips than it looks like, even though it looks like open country.” On the side of the road: coyote carcass, cattle carcass, another cattle carcass, frozen cattails dripping in the afternoon sun. A solitary crow caws on a slushy pond. And the faithful, unobscured sun still shines. “I wish it would rain,” somebody jokes.

Return riders counsel neophytes on what’s to come: this is the third-to-last-hill, the second-to-last, the final push! The road climbs up the shoulder of the hill bearing a satellite tower and the “H” that overlooks Hot Springs. Where it reaches its highest point, it bends sharply and descends. As the cyclists pedal, they can see the end of the climb, but no further. They just ride like hell toward the empty sky.

Again, everybody waits at the top. Rejoicing. A few more miles remain, but this is the spiritual finish line. On the descent, Axelson climbs onto his top tube and holds his arms out. It’s 4 p.m. and the town is quiet. Three horses gallop in unison to inspect this curious two-wheeled herd. Within the hour, the entire crew — plus numerous family and friends who have driven to join the evening celebrations — are soaking, limbs splayed and conversations lighthearted.

“I’d challenge you to find another winter ride where someone follows you with a keg of Sierra Nevada and you end up at a hot spring,” Catalfomo says, steam rising around his face. “There’s no greater good — we’re not achieving anything, or winning any Nobel prizes. It’s just about fun, and that’s why we like it.”