LITHIA — How hard could it be?
The plan was to take the mountain bike out of the garage, pump up the tires and head to Alafia River State Park in eastern Hillsborough County. The park has some of the more scenic bike trails in the state. The image I had was wide trails winding through trees and around lakes, and maybe a few hills.
Turns out, the bike trails at Alafia River State Park are much more than that.
There are nearly 21 miles worth of trails. Eight trails are considered easy, seven intermediate and six difficult. The trails are color-coded — green denotes easy, blue intermediate and black difficult. There are even a few listed as "double black diamond," which is basically for riders who plan to enter the X Games.
Most of the trails are narrow and wind around hills, over bridges and through trees. There is no time to lose focus, or you could end up at the bottom of a hill with a scraped knee and elbow after doing a header off your bike. Trust me.
How hard could it be? Very hard. And I blame Jeff White.
White, 64, is a retired computer programmer who lives in St. Petersburg and is an avid mountain biker. He started volunteering for the Southwest Association of Mountain Bike Pedalers (SWAMP) club at the park seven years ago. Five years ago he became the club's trail boss.
Where other people may just see a hill of dirt and grass, White sees the potential for a new bike trail. He has helped build just about all of the offshoot trails at the park. They go by names like Twisted Sister, Gatorback, Moonscape and Spitfire.
Armed with a pair of shears, a pickaxe and a keen eye, White tours the trails several days per week to maintain them and work on new offshoots.
"A lot of the older trails are kind of flat and boring," White said. "What's the fun in that? I like to design trails that test the mountain biker and are unique to any of the other trails they go on."
The trails are no secret to bikers in the area. During the weekend there are between 500 and 700 riders. On weekdays, there are about 100 per day. The park lends itself to trails. For years, phosphate was dug up, with the excess dirt piled up to form various hills. The holes eventually became lakes.
On a recent ride around the Spitfire, one of his newest trails, White explained the nuances of building and maintaining a trail. He looks for clay instead of dirt or sand to act as a trail's foundation.
"A lot of this dirt on the side of the hills is no good," he said. "It just erodes away."
And erosion is enemy No. 1 for a bike trail. White said he watches carefully where the water drains after a storm. He takes great pains in making sure water drains away from the trails instead of pooling on them.
In spots where it isn't practical to continue a trail, White will build bridges over creeks or washout areas. Most of those bridges have been built with the help of local Boy Scouts.
White said it takes about 800 hours of work with volunteers to create a half-mile to 1-mile trail. Most of the work involves tediously chipping away on the edge of a hill with a small pickaxe. Like a good golf course designer, White sees a trail in his mind first.
"You have to build a trail that works with Mother Nature," he said. "She will tell you where to go. You just have to know what you're looking at."
And on most of the trails, bikers have to know what they are doing. Even on the intermediate trails there are plenty of danger spots. Go too fast down a hill and it could end badly at the bottom. Go too wide around a turn and it could mean hitting a tree trunk. Or it could mean a slide down a hill and into one of the many lakes.
"We call that being on the Alafia swim team," White said.