Originally posted September 2012
FATS trail system brings riders — and fear — to the CSRA
You know how the commercial goes —
Riding shorts: $29.95.
Borrowed bike and helmet: free.
The wisdom not to make my first mountain bike ride down one of the six FATS trails: whatever a trip to the emergency room goes for these days.
Okay, so that’s a pretty cheesy way to start a feature story about the world-class mountain bike trail system that’s snaking around through the Sumter National Forest barely 15 minutes out of Augusta, but it’s an honest one.
Standing there at the top of the trail, ready to hurl myself down into the great, brambly unknown, I was seized not so much by fear or an awareness that an overweight, Dew-addicted person like me had no business tackling anything quite so daunting, but by an unreasonable personal aversion to being on the answering end of awkward and embarrassing questions like the ones I’d certainly be asked by the first responders called to extract me.
“You’ve never ridden a mountain bike before and you came here? Really?”
The FATS system — FATS is an acronym for Forks Area Trail System — has been awarded Epic status by the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) and it’s up for another, even more exclusive distinction at the World Mountain Bike Summit in Santa Fe next month, an annual meeting that was hosted by FATS back in 2010.
“We can have injuries,” admits Susan Messick. She’s the president of the CSRA chapter of the Southern Off-Road Bicycle Association (SORBA) and she knows a thing or two about what she’s talking about. Her organization has a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the 35 miles of FATS trails. They also have a mountain bike patrol, meaning that if the local fire department ever needs help getting to someone or getting them out, they are the ones to call.
The group, which has close to 200 members, also has similar agreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Augusta Canal Authority. In total, they are responsible for nearly 150 miles of area trails.
“If it’s rained and it’s really muddy, we discourage folks from riding it because they can cause a lot of damage to the trail,” she says. “We try to be good stewards of the land.”
“Pretty much any rider can ride them,” she says. “But how successful you are at riding it would depend on your physical fitness level.”
Not exactly the reassurance my ego is looking for, but my spirits will be buoyed a few days later when I run into an experienced rider who had taken a nasty tumble on one of the FATS loops. His entire abdomen is bruised and swollen and screaming “Buddy, you did the right thing.”
The FATS trails were conceived and built by Bill Victor, a mountain bike enthusiast who sounds an awful lot like Larry the Cable Guy if Larry the Cable Guy ever happened to talk about mountain bikes
“I first approached the Forest Service about a trail in that area in about 1995,” he says. “They were somewhat receptive, but they wanted to know who I was and who I represented.”
Since the U.S. government isn’t in the habit of building something for only five or six people, Forest Service officials wanted confirmation that he represented something greater than himself, which is how the local chapter of SORBA was formed.
“The guy in charge said he liked to talk with one person who represented an interest group,” Victor says. “He also said they had three or four trails that were part of the system that needed some work and suggested we work on fixing those up for them.”
So, in other words, it was an audition process?
“I think that’s one way to look at it,” he says. “But the way I always looked at it was, when I got up and left the office, they were like — okay, that’s the last time we’re ever going to see that guy.”
If that was indeed what they thought, they were dead wrong. For the next few years, Victor would make such a nuisance of himself that by the year 2000, when a new person came in to replace the guy in charge, he had made quite a reputation for himself.
“She told me flat out — you have really ruffled some feathers in the Forest Service with your aggressive nature,” he says.
By then, he had started the SORBA chapter, formed his own trail building company and discovered the Recreation Trail Program, a federal grant program that allowed him to build trail systems in Baker Creek State Park in McCormick and Hickory Knob State Park. He also wrote grants to fix the Forest Service trails in the area that needed fixing, including equestrian trails.
By 2003, the woman who told him he’d shaken up the Forest Service had herself shaken things up enough to give him what he wanted — some land to build on.
“The Forest Service came to me and said they were ready to do it, but they told me they didn’t want the six miles I was asking for, they wanted at least 30.”
Though Victor’s not all that proud of the first trails he built at Baker Creek and Hickory Knob, by this time he had figured out exactly what he was doing.
“Thank God the Forest Service said no for 10 years,” he cackles. “Because if they’d have given it to us in 1995, we would have really screwed it up.”
By then, his way of working had changed, too. In 1995, the trails were all hand built, but by the time he started working on FATS, he had discovered machines and learned how to use them.
Most of Victor’s trail work is done with a Ditch Witch SK500, a mini skid steer that looks like a little walk behind end loader. He has two of them and they do a great job, but sometimes he needs a more specialized piece of equipment, so he contacts a buddy in Charlotte who has something called a Sweco Trail Building Machine, which unlike the Ditch Witch you can actually ride.
“Making the initial cut with the Sweco is the best,” he says. “It creates your trail bed, then you get your guys with the Ditch Witches and they come in and massage all that dirt and build your berms and make your drainage and your grade dips.”
It’s that synergy between knowledge and equipment that gives FATS its flow, and to hear mountain bikers talk, flow is everything.
“It’s just the way your bike naturally flows through the woods,” says Messick, who likes riding Brown Wave, Skinny and the Great Wall. “You’re not doing a lot of switchbacks and turns just to make the trail fit in the woods.”
Older trails, trails that have been around since the 1950s, often have lots of bridges, for example, and some of the bridges might have 12-inch steps, which are fine for hikers, but present problems for riders. Give those steps a 90-degree turn right after the step — that’s what you call bad flow.
“It just feels unnatural,” Victor says. “Like you’re trying to get from A to B, but the course you’re on doesn’t flow well for a bicycle. You’ll find none of that in any of the trails we design and build. They’re all about flow and everything is where you expect it to be.”
The flow feels like the entire trail is going downhill. It’s not, of course, but that’s the impression it gives.
The FATS trail system has done a lot for popularizing mountain bikes in the area, Messick says.
“Before, the bike shops didn’t carry as many mountain bikes as they did road bikes,” she says. “Now, pretty much everyone wants a mountain bike.”
Brett Ardrey, owner of Outspokin’ Bicycles in Augusta, estimates he sells 60 percent mountain bikes to 30 percent road bikes, and he says it’s not unusual to have customers from all over the country, and in some cases the world.
“A guy I just bought a van from teaches driving to Formula One drivers,” he says. “He told me a group of five European Formula One drivers are going to ride the trail while their wives do the equestrian thing in Aiken.”
Drew Jordan, owner of Andy Jordan’s Bicycle Warehouse, agrees that FATS has helped the sales of mountain bikes considerably.
“There’s a definite correlation with the opening of FATS, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “This was a brand-new trail built and designed specifically for bikes.”
Then, he waxes poetic for a moment or two about the flow out there before marveling at what it’s like having such an iconic system so close.
“There are people who live here that have never heard of it, and then there are people who come in, buy a bike and go straight out there,” he says. “I mean, a dude from Hawaii knew about it.”
But was I dumb for chickening out at the top of the trail?
This time I ask Victor. He doesn’t answer directly, but instead starts talking about stupid mistakes he’s seen people make on the trails, which leads me to believe that I made the right call. If the mere idea of me riding FATS gets him talking about people he’s encountered deep down the trail without a water bottle in the heat of summer, or people riding without a helmet, then I definitely did the right thing.
For Victor, the FATS saga has been as challenging as it’s been rewarding, and while the system is a showpiece now, there were plenty who doubted him.
“It’s kind of like in the Charlie Brown story,” he says. “FATS was the Great Pumpkin and I was Linus.”
You can tell Victor is one of those rare dreamers patient enough to devote 10 years to seeing one thing through, yet restless enough not to be defined by it.
He has two additional projects he’s excited about right now. One is the idea of building a one-track in North Augusta, and the other has to do with some 40 miles he’s just flagged for the Forest Service north of Columbia. He says if the funding comes through and he’s allowed to build it, the new system will blow FATS out of the water.
“FATS is cool and all, but at the end of the day, it’s 600 feet about sea level,” he says. “It is what it is.”
For most, what it is happens to be pretty damn nice.