Meet Kristi Drake – 1/2 of our newest Solmate couple, Billings TrailNet Executive Director, full-time bike commuter and Tour de Fleur women’s ride founder. Under her leadership, her community has embraced a commitment to cycling, with over 50 miles of multi-use trails and 25 miles of on-street bike lines that connect the city. What’s it take to get that done?
Tell us your backstory to becoming a leader in your cycling community.
I came to be involved with Billings TrailNet right about the time I moved to Billings in 2008. I’d enrolled in a masters program at MSUB and rode my bike every day to campus from across town on the west end. Someone who was involved with Ales for Trails learned that I was a runner and cyclist, and thought I would be a good board member for what was then BikeNet. I attended a meeting and immediately found “my people!”
After graduation, I took a full-time job at the United Way and quit the BikeNet Board of Directors. But in 2012, the board advertised a job opening for a full-time position as their first executive director. I applied and the rest is history.
I’m proud that we elevated the organization’s profile from what was perceived as a small bike club back in 2008, to the trail funding powerhouse people now know it to be. I’m proud that we have made such a huge difference in the lives of so many people in Billings, and I am proud that major trails like the Skyline Trail and soon, the Stagecoach Trail are actually on the ground in my lifetime, largely because of our work.
How do you sell a community on investing in trails?
Trails are a pretty easy sell. They affect almost everyone who drives, rides, walks, runs or uses an assistive mobility device.
Parents, grandparents, athletes, and people wanting to live independently, can actually experience their value by using them or feeling certain of their family members’ safety when they use them. Trails don’t discriminate against age, ability, economic status or politics. People just like to walk or ride bikes, and they’ll invest in them when they see progress and want more. Everyone was eager to support trail development, and once they saw someone was dedicated to that cause full-time at Billings TrailNet, we grew from 12 members in 2012 to almost 2,000 in 2024!
That’s the easy part. But convincing businesses to invest big dollars in being corporate members took a little more time. We now have a robust corporate membership program where businesses invest thousands every year to support our work. Time and again, business leaders tell me that trails and active living help recruit and maintain employees. A lot of professional firms have other offices in Colorado, Bozeman, and in northern areas Montana, where those communities are famous for their hiking, skiing, and active lifestyle amenities. Businesses in Billings are competing against that and know that our community needs to offer competitive quality of life amenities which constitute more than just a salary. We have the rims and the river, and skiing just 45 minutes away. They want to capitalize on these somewhat-unrealized recreational opportunities. And then they see high profile trails like the Skyline Trail, and that says something about who we are as a community: active, proud of our environment, and eager to welcome people.
Do you remember your first bike? Did you grow up riding?
My first bike? I do remember being on a tricycle as a toddler, my 70s style, kids bike with the banana seat & tassel handlebars, the 10 speed my mother told me I need to ask my father to buy for me and then a long sabbatical until I was an adult.
I was living in Winnemucca, Nevada and was a 30-something mother with toddlers when my next-door neighbor invited me to borrow her husband’s bike and go mountain biking with her on “The Bloody Shins Trail.” It was a single track and aptly named with rocks and sagebrush teaching me to hold my pedals just right, ease my turns and look beyond my front tire at where I wanted to go. Well, this inaugural ride as an adult may not have been too graceful, but it was a thrilling adventure I wanted more of, and knew I had to buy my own bike. So I went down to the only bike shop in town and plunked down $600 for a white and blue Specialized Rock Hopper with front suspension. I rode that bike almost every day, first just mountain biking, but then riding to the grocery store, and then on some distance rides.
I commuted to grad school on that bike for years, and with a little competitive spirit, became a bit dismayed when I got passed by studs on skinny tire bikes. I realized that if I wanted to go faster I would need a smaller road tire. I went down to The Bike Shop and bought a used Cannondale touring bike. It felt like a Cadillac compared to my mountain bike while I was riding on the street.
A few years later, I went on a distance ride from Billings to Columbus (45+ miles) and realized very quickly that I needed a real road bike. I went back to The Bike Shop and bought a used Giant Liv bike I nicknamed “Tinker Bell” because it’s so quick and nimble. It made all the difference in my road riding. Later, I bought a fat tire bike, thinking it could double as a winter commuting bike and a full suspension mountain bike because of the squishier tires. It served me well as a winter bike, but I realized after a few years that I was hobbling myself from being a good mountain biker and my biking buddies really encouraged me to get a real full-suspension bike, so I expanded my fleet.
It was that experience in Winnemucca that not only introduced me to a love bicycles, but shaped my belief that a lot of times, women need to be invited to take up riding again after decades off a bike, raising children, working in professional clothing and spending much of their traveling time in a car.
We came up with the idea of having a women-only ride that would be fun, non-intimidating, and something they could do with their friends. I told my personal trainer about the idea and she worried that a mile on a bike would be too long. It made me realize that even people who are physically active but unfamiliar with biking don’t realize how easy and fun it is. With that in mind, we created the Tour de Fleur: a 1.5 mile ride to introduce women women to biking. That first year, 175 women showed up!
I think a lot of women are curious about riding, but some may feel intimidated by the gear they think they need to have, the terrain, or the traffic if they want to ride in an urban area… I think it helps to have women invite other women, whether it’s riding on paved urban trails or mountain biking. Making that connection and the camaraderie of riding together breaks down barriers.
Tell us about your mom and getting her into the Tour de Fleur leadout.
My mom was so proud of me when she saw the women flocking to the Tour de Fleur the third year. She had just moved to Billings and I like to introduce fun new activities to her. She has always had a tremendous sense of adventure, even into her 90s. I put her on a recumbent bike and she rode in the Tour de Fleur at age 90! She didn’t quite make it a mile, but she had fun, and it was a glorious day for us both.
Rumor has it you gave up your car and are a 100% bike commuter –– is that true?
Giving up my car also involves my mother. During the pandemic, I realized that rather than have Mom live at a senior living facility, we really needed to live together. Alzheimers was taking hold of my mother’s brain, and Covid was a real threat. I found a house with a detached cottage, and while my mother could no longer drive, her car was still in great shape. The new-to-us house is just a mile from downtown Billings, and so it’s very bikeable.
Choosing to bike instead of drive is a habit. It’s easy to get out of the habit of riding a bike for transportation during winter or when you’re used to driving a car.
I love riding my bike for transportation and recreation. It’s fun, I get exercise and people are friendly. And I am concerned about our environment. I want to do as little damage and as much good as I can in my life. I think reducing carbon emissions is one of the things I can do to help alleviate the wear and tear I cause just by living in this day and age.
We didn’t need three cars at the house. So, I chose to make it less convenient for me to drive than ride. It has worked out well. I sold my car. And if I absolutely need to drive, I just need to plan ahead a little because Kevin and I share my mother’s car. Much of the year, the car just stays in the garage and Kevin and I both commute for work.