AChristmas present to his wife changed his life.
The gift was a mountain bike and the change soon followed in 2011 when Ernie Reyes followed his wife, Zulema, on her new gift into the 21 miles of bike trails at Alafia River State Park.
"As soon as I got out there I fell in love with the whole scene," said Reyes, who rode with his wife that first week on his crummy old bike. "Then I bought myself a $700 bike and a few weeks after that I went up to a $2,100 bike."
Reyes, 41, has been riding ever since, sometimes seven days and hundreds of miles a week, over hills and dales and into competitions, including the Florida State Championship series featuring the best riders from around the state.
And one of the best bonuses was that his son, Ethan, started riding alongside with just as much passion.
"I don’t really play any other sports," said Ethan, who at 13, after six years of riding, doesn’t plan to compete in anything else in the future. "This is what I love to do."
Now Ethan and his dad want to infect more folks with the biking bug, first in the area and ultimately all over the state, namely in the form of a sanctioned high school team series: Mountain bike races, for instance, that would feature local public and private high schools (everyone from Newsome to Tampa Catholic to Steinbrenner and so on).
Their idea is relatively fresh to Reyes’ family, but it isn’t novel.
According to statistics gathered by the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA), there currently are 21 states competing in NICA-sanctioned high school mountain-bike racing, featuring meets similar to cross country running.
To get the high school wheels rolling in Florida, Reyes is meeting about once a month with seven other point men and women from around the state. The most pressing initial goal is raising funds, sponsorships and awareness, which involves sparking interest in riders years before they reach high school.
Reyes did just that last Saturday when he held his first meeting of the Alafia Junior Mountain Bike Riders. More than 25 kids, ages 7 to 16, showed up at Alafia River State Park for lessons on racing and drills on skill.
"I had no idea how many would show up because we were just trying to get the word out on social media and through word of mouth," Reyes said. "I would say this was very, very encouraging, especially since it was rather cool (Saturday) morning."
More meetings for the Alafia Junior Mountain Bike Riders are in the works, while Reyes also works on getting the state NICA certified.
In May, Reyes and some of his colleagues will submit a proposal and bid to the NICA that hopefully will lead to sanctioning mountain-bike racing for Florida high schools. NICA, by the way, would be a separate operating body from the Florida High School Athletic Association, which sanctions most of the other known high school sports.
"(Mountain bike) racing for high school would be awesome," said Matt Plaza, a 15-year-old sophomore at Palm Harbor University high school. "I race now (recently victorious on the FSC circuit) and I love that, but I think having a high school series might be even better. Who wouldn’t want to race for their school against other schools?"
Reyes says he sees the interest growing, a notion bolstered by NICA participation numbers across the country, up 36 percent in 2016, pushing the registered NICA participants to almost 15,000.
"I think if we get more people out here to just see what it’s like then the numbers would really take off in this area," Reyes said. "I know that every time I come out for a ride I still get the butterflies in the stomach. I get giddy.
"I think what I love most about it is that you have to focus on what you’re doing and the rest of the world falls away. It’s like a meditation. Plus it gets you in shape, it makes you feel better."
For son Ethan, it’s similar but with a youthful twist: "I like to go fast and fly through the air. I like the racing. I know I’m going to get more of my friends out here because I know they’ll get into it. Hopefully, one day, I can race for my high school. That would be really cool."
Interested in getting involved or learning more? Contact Reyes at [email protected] or visit the Alafia Junior MTB Riders Facebook page.
Contact Scott Purks at [email protected]