For two decades, Len Francies and Art Tuftee forged a friendship on the forest trails of the Northwest.
When they weren’t riding the hardest routes they could find, they were working. They cleared downed trees and repaired damaged trails.
Inevitably, a hiker or horseman would happen along as they worked and ask, “Are you with the WTA (Washington Trails Association)?”
“We’d say no, we’re mountain bikers,” Tuftee said.
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Just as service is one of the reasons the WTA is an organization beloved by hikers, it’s probably the most important reason for shifts in the way mountain bikers are perceived.
The titles mountain biker and trail steward are almost synonymous these days, and people such as Francies are the reason why.
I guess I’d like people to know that he was special in so many ways. And if you use trails you are benefiting from his life. And that would make him happy.
Art Tuftee, Francies’ long-time friend
“It’s pretty hard to overstate what he’s done,” said Glenn Glover, a state Department of Natural Resources employee and former director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance.
On Jan. 1, Francies left a gaping hole in the mountain biking and trail communities when he died at the age of 57. The man known as “Len the Legend” died unexpectedly when he suffered a medical episode during an afternoon ride with Tuftee on Grand Ridge near Issaquah.
“I guess I’d like people to know that he was special in so many ways,” Tuftee said. “And if you use trails, you are benefiting from his life. And that would make him happy.”
Some of Francies’ first work projects were in Capitol State Forest. Recently he was working on trails in the Snoqualmie corridor. Iconic trails along state Route 410 such as Skookum Flats and Suntop regularly benefited from his work. Sometimes they might not have been able to open without it, some say.
Jack DeGuiseppi of Puyallup worked side by side with Francies on several occasions and said he had a “buoyant enthusiasm.”
“I think it will take four, five people to do what he was doing,” DeGuiseppi said.
Francies’ friends remember him as humble and always sporting a smile. When he didn’t have his bike, he had a saw for clearing the trail. “And he always had stories,” DeGuiseppi said.
“Horsemen, hikers, bikers will all feel the impact of his passing,” DeGuiseppi said via email.
Francies’ “Legend” nickname originated from his immense riding talent. “I don’t think I was ever in front of that guy for very long,” Glover said.
But the name, like the man, was about much more than riding.
Glover says Francies was important in helping Evergreen evolve into the advocacy, education and stewardship group that it has become.
“It’s the breadth of it that is most stunning,” Glover said. “We all know some amazing riders. … We all know folks who do a ton of volunteer work. We all know people who were early pioneers in forming an organization. We all know people who were really active in advocacy. We all know people who pushed particular programs like education. But Len, he hit every one of those and stayed involved during the entire time.”
Francies lived in Kirkland and carved out huge swaths of time for his sport even while working for a large telecommunications company as, he liked to say, “an Internet plumber.”
“I don’t know how he did it all,” Tuftee said.
One of his most recent undertakings helped increase Evergreen’s ability to clear trails. He worked with the U.S. Forest Service to get the organization the ability to certify sawyers.
Not only is this good for trails, but it’s yet another signal of how far the sport has come. It wasn’t so long ago that meetings between mountain bikers and the Forest Service weren’t exactly productive.
And it wasn’t so long ago, Tuftee says, that victories were measured in maintaining the status quo. A trail saved. Access kept.
Today the sport is booming. New trails such as Tacoma’s Swan Creek are helping improve community parks. Mountain bikers are boosting tourism in places such as Wenatchee.
And education and stewardship programs that Francies helped pioneer are ensuring the future of the sport in Washington.
People might die, but legends leave legacies.