I mountain biked Alafia and didn’t Ala-die-a
Hit the bumpy trails in Lithia, but hold on to your gluteus.
A rider more experienced than our columnist hits the trails at Alafia River State Park.
A rider more experienced than our columnist hits the trails at Alafia River State Park. [ SCOTT PURKS | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 9
Updated Apr. 9

LITHIA — This pandemic has pushed mankind to his outdoor limits. We are testing our mettle, because we’re bored. We have become Survivorman, or at least the Michael Scott version who almost dies eating a wild mushroom.

Today’s exhibit is mountain biking. The cycling industry has been one of the biggest winners of the COVID era. Sales of bikes and bike equipment went up dramatically in 2020, and shortages persist.

We discuss these woes often in my home. My husband is a cyclist who takes 20-mile relaxation rides, while I get the wine deep breathing for dinner. Lots of stuff he wants is backordered, and his cycling magazines are a ruthless tease.

You would think all was lost, but it wasn’t. I forgot about rentals. When he said he wanted to try family mountain biking at Alafia River State Park, I said, lovingly, “You need to manage your expectations.”

Perhaps you have explored the sport of mountain biking. Oh, you have not? Let me tell you about it. This activity reveals the unique way adrenaline registers in your body. For some, it’s like, “whee!” For me, it’s a constant fixation on the cost of my dental work.

Related: Let's pandemic kayak in Tampa Bay, they said. It'll be fun, they said.

Indeed, there is mountain biking in mostly flat Florida. Alafia’s trail system is built on a former phosphate mining site, providing world-famous elevations for cycling enthusiasts. There are three levels of difficulty: Green, Blue and Black. Black is home to portions called, and I am not kidding, “Frankenstairs,” “Gravitron” and “Twisted Sister.” Green sounded great.

A friendly guy at the rental stand told us to hop on the bikes. He did a maneuver to test, I assumed, how far we might bounce off into a borrow pit. He then explained the gears. They are different than the ones on my bike at home, which include “to brewery” and “back from brewery.”

Still, he gave clear instructions, such as, “Press this to make it easier and press this to pedal faster.” He also said, “Don’t press this one.” Then, I promptly got on the trail and pressed That One.

It’s not a good sign when, on the first tenth of a mile, you have misunderstood the gears so intensely that your bike locks up and you have to scream “GUYS” to whichever guys are down the trail. Once I got it moving, I decided not to touch the gears. If it was my time, it was my time.

Mountain biking with a group is a losing game. Once you have built up momentum, the person in front will have stumbled over the tiniest twig, stopping the line. Or, you will have fallen so far behind that your group waits to check on you. When this happened, I yelled, “GO, GO, GO,” but they could not get started in time, which led to the most embarrassing fall, the kind that’s not even cool. I’m talking about falling at 2 mph.

I persuaded my husband and 9-year-old stepdaughter — both Whees! — to tear off without me. This allowed me to commune with nature at my own pace. If you listen, mountain bike trails have a special sound. It is the melody of someone getting punched in the gut, coupled with the noises from The Blair Witch Project.

The two-hour rental period was plenty of time to explore the Green area, take moderate dives off tree limbs, learn to lift out of the seat to save the gluteus, and watch more experienced people attempt sick jumps from a distance. There was even time to shut it down when the child asked if we could “just go on Black for a little bit.” I’m not one to discourage adventure, but some things can wait for the next pandemic.

If you go

Alafia River State Park is open every day, 8 a.m. to sundown. $5 per car. Rent mountain bikes from the University Bicycle Center inside the park, $30-$70 for two hours. You can book online in advance. Helmets required. 14326 S. County Road 39, Lithia. (813) 672-5320.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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