Producing New Paths, Riders, and Stewardship Partners in the MWV
By Sven Cole
The ribbon of brown bends around the trees 40 feet ahead on the trail; leaves and dense forest are within inches of the track, but the track itself is clear of debris. Bike tires get maximum grip on the dirt and the rider quickly passes the stand of trees when the track, yet again, bends around a granite outcropping. The trail winds its way through the forest; so natural and flowing, it hides the incredible work that went into creating it. Thanks to the efforts of many, riders simply get to enjoy the ride and to explore the region.
That trail has a story, and that story tells the evolution of mountain biking. From a fringe sport that started by using whatever trails riders could find, to a sport that made its own path, regardless of who owned the land upon which the trail wound, to a movement towards partnership and sustainable land management, to an economic driver and draw for the region.
Mountain biking has been in the Granite State a long time, but now the new drivers of the sport insist that it’s ready for its close-up.
Sitting in a corner at Moat Mountain Smokehouse with a view of Mount Washington behind them, Amanda Tulip, president of the White Mountain chapter of NEMBA (New England Mountain Bike Association) and Alex Leich, VP of the club, discussed where the sport of mountain biking was, where it is going, and how they hope to help get it there.
“In five years, I hope people think of mountain biking in the Mt. Washington Valley the same way they think of skiing: as the primary reason to come and visit. And then they are stoked that they also have Story Land, tax-free shopping, and amazing dining,” Leich stated when asked where he thinks the Valley’s reputation around riding can go.
It was a small, but extraordinarily dedicated group of people working hard to build a system that they could enjoy—and share with others. Those efforts created an impressive initial infrastructure, not only in terms of trails, but also in terms of relationships with key stakeholders. Tulip and Leich are now charged with stewarding what is, while also crafting a new vision for what it can be.
“We have a lot of legitimate and maintained trails that access some amazing areas, and the trail count continues to grow. Some of the long-time riders from the Valley get nervous when we say this, but we have a system that rivals that of the Kingdom Trails over in Vermont,” Tulip said.
The Kingdom Trails in Vermont were the result of a small number of trail builders making the decision to “go legit” and to partner with land owners (including the state and land trusts) to get proper agreements regarding access, trail building, signage, and most importantly, trust.
What this meant was they could then spread the word, print a map, and share their trails with the world. And people showed up. Now mountain biking is one of the economic drivers in the region. More riders meant more resources, better access, and better trails for all levels. Win-win-win.
Except that to some it meant: too many riders.
Leich has a thought on that. “We have the ability to spread a lot of people out over our trails here in this area. I just don’t think the idea that our trails will ever be too crowded is a legitimate concern. We have a world-class trail system, and it IS a benefit to the region. By sharing our trails with the world, we will be able to continue to grow and expand what we have to offer.”
The variety of trails is growing in the region as well. WMNEMBA is currently working on an aggressive “gravity” trail that will come off of the Kettle Ridge Trail near Hurricane Mountain.
In addition, there is work being done by other groups to promote a recreation path, similar to the one in Fryeburg, that starts near the state line, to be utilized by cyclists, runners, walkers, and the like.
To help people explore the trails system, the WMNEMBA Chapter recently launched a new trail map (see next page) that gives riders of all levels the opportunity to know where to go and the information to confidently navigate the ever-growing trail network. When you look at the map you understand where Leich is coming from; there are miles of trails to choose from!
This map also gave the club the opportunity to work alongside other businesses in the Valley. For example, working with Cranmore gave the club the opportunity to partially solve one challenge: parking. By not only mapping trails from Cranmore to access other trails on the system, but also discussing future trail builds at Cranmore, the club, in connection with Cranmore, was able to create a sort of gateway. Ben Wilcox, Cranmore president and GM, said of the project, ”Cranmore has a great relationship with White Mountain NEMBA and we have worked together to officially map and endorse trails like the popular Red Tail Trail, Kettle Ridge, and links to the Eastside Valley network. We also continue to have dialog on other trails that could further expand the NEMBA network. Our parking lots are open to mountain bikers wishing to access NEMBA-sanctioned trails.
We are also excited to be a parking hub for the new MWV Recreation Path, which is expected in 2019. This new paved path will attract bikers, runners, walkers, and families—this clearly makes a statement that our Valley is dedicated to opening the outdoors to all abilities. This new path will also provide easier access to NEMBA trails in the Eastside Valley Network. As a passionate mountain biker and skier, I am thrilled to see our Valley grow to attract more outdoor recreational enthusiasts.”
Wilcox and other business leaders in the Valley are realizing that mountain biking is not only a great activity, but it can be a great economic driver. While one can find a mountain bike to purchase for as little as a few hundred dollars, it is more the norm to see bikes out on the trails that cost several thousand dollars. Many mountain bike enthusiasts spend several thousand dollars a year on their gear, as well as on extended trips to explore and ride new trails. This means opportunity for lodging and restaurants to cater to these people. “For under $100, a lodging property could set up a bike wash station, and for people coming up to this region to ride, that could be an easy differentiator in where someone might stay,” Leich said.
Beyond the map, the club is also working hard to improve the access to the sport by hosting group rides and encouraging more of the social side of the sport. Shannon Dunfey-Ball is the club’s social director. She is the woman behind WMNEMBA’s “Bikes, Boobs, and Brews” rides on Wednesdays. It is a women’s-only ride that caters to beginner to intermediate riders and has a dress-up theme each week. Dunfey-Ball explains, “We’re trying to create a fun, relaxed culture with our rides. The themes are just fun and give the group a really laid-back feel. We ride as a group, and speed is not the goal—having a great time and building the tribe is what we are about.”
“We’d like to see mountain biking develop a similar culture to what we see in skiing here in the Valley; where there are après ride gatherings at various spots and people share stories about being out on the trails. People are coming to this area to ride, and are building their vacation plans around riding and being in this area. I think there is more we can do to make it that much more inclusive,” Dunfey-Ball said.
Group rides not only help people learn the trails, but they also help people better develop their riding skills. It is thrilling to be out in the woods with a group of friends enjoying perfect singletrack. Beyond the Wednesday WMNEMBA rides, there are other group rides for every level rider. Many of the area bike shops, as well as clubs in Gorham, Berlin, Bethlehem, Littleton, and Bethel, Maine, are hosting regular rides, too. A great resource when looking for trail information is the NEMBA site, www.nemba.org.
Both Tulip and Leich grew up riding in the North Country. Dunfey-Ball grew up snowboarding at Attitash. All three have parents that rode bikes and were active in the club. They participated in a lot of the local races, from the Legg Mason Summer Race Series that was spearheaded by Red Jersey Cyclery to the 24 Hours of Great Glen that ran its final race after a 20-year run just a few years ago. They saw the ebbs and flows of mountain biking during their years peddling, and feel now is a great time to be involved in the sport.
Several of their friends are “professional mountain bike trail builders,” which wasn’t exactly a common profession being talked about on career day just a decade ago. Both Tulip and Leich also believe in trail advocacy and in doing things the right way. In fact, Tulip currently works for the U.S. Forest Service, an organization that, 20 years ago, was seen as a major obstructer of mountain biking. Today the U.S.F.S. and WMNEMBA work together regularly on trail creation, trail maintenance, and access.
With the help of those who have paved the way, WMNEMBA continues to look forward with the partnerships intact. “I learned a lot from watching Jana Johnson, dispersed recreation manager with USFS. She found ways to start working with these advocacy groups, and now we are seeing really exciting work happening,” Tulip said.
The new energy in the club means that the sport is in good hands. The likelihood of an ever-growing trail network, of on-going trail improvements and work to increasingly improve access, of continued efforts to put on fun events, and to build the “stoke” of mountain biking—all of this will happen. Riders certainly don’t need to be a part of the clubs that make all of these things happen in their areas, but those clubs certainly benefit from the support. You can learn more about the WMNEMB by checking them out on Facebook, www.facebook.com/groups/wmnemba. To find clubs in other areas, go to www.nemba.org.
Even better news is that this building energy around mountain biking is not confined to the Mt. Washington Valley. There is good work going on all over New England, and all over the country. Mountain bikers need not wait to see the lime green Klein hanging in Jerry’s apartment during an episode of Seinfeld to feel like the sport is getting some mainstream attention. While only a handful of readers will get that last line, they will all appreciate the hard work that people like Tulip, Leich, Dunfey-Ball, and hundreds of others, contribute to ensure that mountain biking in the region is viable for a long time to come. Watching the transformation—both physically in the proliferation of trails, and the cultural and generational shift—this passing of the torch and building a legacy that endures is no small feat. To all of those who have been in the trenches doing this work for all these years—thank you. This rider hopes you are proud of what you have built.
Now get out and ride.