Ten minutes into my social call on the serpentine trails surrounding Lake Massabesic on the outskirts of Manchester, New Hampshire, an unshakable sense of deja vu strikes - I've seen drawings of this maze before. No, not drawings - sculpture. Molded, in color-coded plastic. In sophomore biology class, tucked neatly in some dusty corner by the Bunsen burners and element charts. There, in life-size scale, was a cut-away model of your basic Homo sapien, his large and small intestines coiled tightly like an organic Slinky. That's where I've seen these trails before, the trail system Jack Chapman and his band of trailbuilders have wrought.
Chapman is the driving force behind FOMBA - the Friends of Massabesic Bicycling Association - a model fat tire advocacy group. Four years ago, no biking signs were posted on much of this property. Today, Chapman is introducing me to the Long Trail, a wet noodle that has me turning so often I accept that it's only a matter of time before my knees get impaled on my barends. Right. Left. Right. Right again. On and on and on.
"People ask me if I even know what a straight line looks like," laughs Chapman.
As you pedal deeper into the second- and third-growth forest that surrounds Massabesic - a Native American expression that means "The Place of Much Water" - sunlight is forced to squeeze through the dense canopy of leaves. These are not "epic" rides. No lung-busting inclines, startling vistas, or forever downhills. Climbs are short, and steep. Descents are inviting but treacherous, littered with endo-inducing stones and muddy sinkholes. Your heart will be pumping. Each corner is a new surprise, another obstacle in the trail, another gift tucked under the Christmas tree with your name on it. And like any holiday, there's a big emphasis on fun.
"We really lead a charmed life here," says Chapman, his cherubic face again breaking into a trademark grin.
Indeed. Manchester will never be a "mecca." But cyclists here love to ride the dirt side, and they'll take whatever singletrack they can get. During the last four years, FOMBA has pulled off a neat daily double, building more than 10 miles of choice singletrack while creating an ideal relationship with the quasi-public agency - the Manchester Water Works - that owns more than 8,000 acres of woodland surrounding Massabesic.
Manchester - the Queen City - is a rough-cut city built on the textile industry and the broad backs of Irish and French Canadian immigrants. At the turn of the past century, according to local lore, the two groups, fueled by ethnic differences, economic necessity, and a healthy dose of John Barleycorn, used to beat themselves half to death on the bridges that span the Merrimack River to see who would work the mills. It's not a great stretch to imagine those donnybrooks as a harbinger of today's trail-side tangles. Today, the combatants are trail users - mountain bikers, hikers, equestrians - all lobbying for their slice of the pie. In the role of the mill owners are land owners or managers, deciding who stays, who goes.
Confrontation still exists in Manchester, like any city with growing pains. And confrontation still defines many trail negotiations, no matter where you look. The folks at FOMBA took a different tact. Instead of clashing with the Manchester Water Works, they sought out and forged a working partnership.
Massabesic is the water supply for Manchester and a half dozen surrounding towns. The 2,500-acre reservoir, and the corresponding 42-square-mile watershed, has been a refugee for outdoor enthusiasts and lovers of solitude for decades. The shade of tall pines and eastern hardwoods, the lapping waters, and the cool breezes that spill off the lake conspire to entice those weary from their workaday existence.
Shortly after buying my first mountain bike in the mid-1980s - a stealth-looking Trek Singletrack 970 - I rediscovered the trails alongside Massabesic and branching off the abandoned rail bed that runs past the reservoir to the New Hampshire coast. The old fishing paths near the lake were typically too wet for unskilled novices such as myself, so I headed up to nearby Tower Hill Pond. But more adept riders enjoyed the challenge found in the thick Massabesic mud. In 1988, Chapman moved to neighboring Auburn. With a couple of cohorts, he started to connect and clean up the paths beside Massabesic in the early 1990s.
Unfortunately, the spring of 1996 brought heavy rains. Soon the ruts - and the run-off - near Massabesic caught the attention of MWW officials. "What brought the issue to the forefront was the number of folks biking around the lake, riding through these little feeder streams that were going right into our lake - they were actually riding in the lake because of the high water," says MWW forester Ethan Howard. So the MWW began posting "no biking" signs. Warnings were issued. Some bikers were hauled into court. Others called Jack Chapman.
Chapman was miffed. He went to the MWW in the summer of 1995, his first foray into municipal negotiations, to establish formal rights for mountain bikers in the watershed. When told the agency preferred to deal with organizations, he and his wife, Barbara, plus a few friends, formed FOMBA. They affiliated with the Eastern Fat Tire Association. They identified a problem area, hosted a bridge-building party that fall, and got a great turn-out. He struck up a friendship with Howard. Everyone was happy.
In the spring of 1996, however, the signs announcing certain areas off-limits to bikes caught Chapman off guard. "I didn't know anything about it, so I was a little bit teed off that Ethan wasn't keeping me abreast of what was happening. I told them that this FOMBA thing was only going to work if we can work together, and there's some communication."
Chapman asked for a meeting with the MWW brass, and presented his best look-'em-straight-in-the-eye sales pitch. "I basically said 'This thing can work. Do you want to let us do it or don't you?' I suggested we be allowed to cut some singletrack in a different part of the watershed. I told them we could keep people away from the water if they gave them a place to ride. These guys thought it was a great idea. And they gave me the green light."
What you'll find waiting for you on MWW land - all within a Mark McGwire long-ball of the reservoir - is a candystore of singletrack. Some trails feature a bounty of tight turns, over gnarled, Sleepy Hollow roots and boulders (after all, this is the Granite State), and a slew of natural and man-made obstacles direct from central casting for a NORBA trials event. On others, pine-needle carpets compress into smooth, banked turns that allow even beginner riders to connect with their mojo. Occasionally you'll have to pop over antiquated stone walls, a time-honored reminder that farming was once the primary use of this land. You'll elbow through trees that crowd you like hundreds of frenzied bargain hunters during a Kmart Blue Light Special.
A quick peek at the FOMBA map will convince any doubters. These trails look like a collection of Eastern Block countries divvied up by warring ethnic groups after the bottle of potato moonshine was passed around. Squiggles all over the place, a fat-tire Rorschach test. My kind of trail.
At the tail end of the Red Pine trail, we slide over a corrugated drop-off with a nose-bleed pitch, sort of a "British Columbia North Shore meets the Northeast" kind of challenge. The "Log Roll" is consummate FOMBA handiwork - a pucker-up chute that features small "warning" flags at the top and a more gentle escape route for less-daring riders. Everyone is smiling.
There are many reasons why FOMBA has been so successful while other mountain bike groups struggle. Foremost is a willing and involved landowner. "The Manchester Water Works really has to be Number 1 on the list," says Chapman. "They said, 'OK, we're going to take your word for it. Run with it.' They had the confidence in us."
"They saw the proliferation of mountain bikes in the watershed, saw the changes in the trail and the erosion, and they didn't know what the hell to do," he says. "There was no way for them to establish communication with the bikers. So, all of a sudden, they had a chance to talk with us."
Chapman also points to the key role Howard plays. It doesn't hurt that Howard's personal perspective dovetails nicely with FOMBA's mission. "I think I've been on all sides of the potential conflicts out there," he says. "I spend a lot of time out there on the ground, walking. I do some biking. We've got a couple of horses. I cross-country ski, and snowmobile, and I've got an ATV, the whole nine yards." Howard says the MWW simply saw the writing on the wall.
"We realized, being in southern New Hampshire, there was going to be a tremendous number of folks mountain biking, that we had a tip-of-the-iceberg thing here. We took the mentality, 'If we can't beat them, maybe they ought to join us.' Some groups work very well like that."
Plus, the MWW has a history of working with diverse groups, beginning some 30 years ago with snowmobiles. Once the snowmobilers got organized, the MWW agreed to allow them to groom and maintain trails. Using that agreement as a blueprint, the MWW mediated similar arrangements with equestrians, fishing clubs, even dog-sledding groups, in addition to mountain bikers.
A second key ingredient to FOMBA's success is a dedicated group of volunteers - essentially FOMBA's ability to walk the talk. In four years, FOMBA has grown from a loose collection of about five to a robust organization of 200. "I really think we have a record of doing what we say we're going to do," says Chapman. "Shortly after we started taking members, I started applying for grant money, and we got a grant. And we've been at the top of the list since."
They're likely to stay there if they continue past practice, says Johanna Lyons, program assistant with the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation. "They have a great volunteer base, they're really in touch with the community, and they're very focused on their goals," she says, noting FOMBA has received two grants from her agency. "They haven't gotten a lot of money from us, but they've done great stuff with it. We're getting a huge bang for our buck."
Which is a byproduct of the third ingredient - FOMBA's esprit de corps. You don't have to look any further than Jack and his wife, Barbara. The two work hand-in-glove, dividing FOMBA duties like household chores - Jack cuts the trails, while Barbara minds the books. "I couldn't do it without her," says Chapman.
Then there are the other 198-or-so members. These people genuinely like one another, though the ribbing is as constant as brake squeal. Chapman and his band are a rolling collection of wise-cracking Adam Sandlers (another Manchester native), firing off one-liners as they rifle through the trails or heaping good-natured abuse on anyone who suffers a mechanical. FOMBA VP Pat Cassidy has a pig-shaped whistle toy mounted on his handlebars, and Chapman loves telling the story of when he had a curvy female racer approach Cassidy at the group's Watershed Wahoo race, asking if she could "squeeze his pork." Howard was dubbed "His Forestness" by Chapman, and has a plaque stating such - handcarved by the FOMBA founder - hanging in his office.
"I think it's a panic, an absolute panic," chuckles Howard.
And they genuinely love the land. At one nasty off-camber turnaround during my ride, Jim Dollard looked longingly at an amputated tree root before whispering, "we hated to cut that root, but there was just no other way around it." Chapman talks about FOMBA's latest feat of trailbuilding artistry - the Fire Line - in almost reverent tones. "It was a challenge to mark out. There are a lot of stone walls out there from a hundred years ago. You can't just barge over the wall and knock the stones out of it. You try to find a way to lace the trail through it."
"All of a sudden I find an opening created by the farmer years ago, a 12-foot opening with a giant boulder on either side, like bookends," he says. "That wall, most of it is four feet high, is very well preserved, and I was just blown away. You stand in that opening, and you think 150-200 years ago, there was a guy herding his cattle through here. I was out there by myself, and I almost felt guilty laying a trail through it."
FOMBA has proved so popular that the group started a trailside education program. The idea is to encourage stewardship and safety, which might prove the group's biggest challenge to date. As most advocacy groups can attest, preaching trailside manners is a tricky balancing act. Chapman opts for a "live and let live" approach. He understands there will be riders with a wild hair, who don't want to listen to his gospel of trail safety and etiquette, but are more than willing to take advantage of their hard work. He doesn't mind if FOMBA doesn't maintain its "coolness factor."
"I'm not that cool anyway," he says.
Those who have ridden his trails will beg to differ.
FOMBA (Friends of Massabesic Bicycling Association)
The main parking lot for Lake Massabesic is located on the Route 28 Bypass near the Manchester-Auburn town line, roughly two-tenths of a mile south of Exit 1 off Route 101 (and halfway around the traffic circle at Candia Road).
Monthly meetings held at the Manchester Water Works facility, Lake Shore Road, Manchester, NH
Annual events: The Watershed Wahoo race, part of the EFTA Championship series, generally held the second weekend in May.
The Turkey Burner Fun Ride (to benefit the Auburn Volunteer Rescue Squad), held the Friday after Thanksgiving.