LITHIA — The trails smell of pine, palm, rain and swamp. Not entirely typical of a mountain biking scene, is it?
Alafia River State Park, located 10 miles southeast of Tampa, is home to Florida’s premier mountain biking trails. People drive hours to ride through the trails of various difficulty levels (easiest, easy, intermediate, advanced and expert), which span more than 20 miles in the reclaimed phosphate mine.
The landscape “offers some of the most radical elevation changes in Florida,” according to the park website. Using Google Earth and Trailforks (a trail database system with interactive maps), some trails have high and low points above sea level that differ by as much as 184 feet.
Get in gear
Ben Sumner has worked at University Bicycle Center for about six years. He works Monday through Friday at the shop’s Tampa location, but drives an hour and 20 minutes every Sunday to the Alafia storefront. His favorite part of the job is fixing bikes and squeezing in a ride whenever he can.
“You do what you love, you never work a day in your life, right?” Sumner said in between barks from his dog Shorsey, who bounced in place next to his water bowl while tied to UBC’s decking.
UBC’s Alafia location provides bike and helmet rentals along with repair services for adults and kids. Riders can rent bikes for two hours for $40, three for $55 and the whole day for $70. Other nearby shops like AJ’s Bikes offer private lessons for those less experienced.
Sumner came to Tampa from Atlanta, where he started as a “fixie biker,” meaning he rode fixed gear bicycles. He actually got into mountain biking after moving to Florida.
Sumner has learned exactly why mountain bikes, as opposed to cruisers or road bikes, are necessary for Alafia’s terrain. The suspension is key, he said. Mountain bike suspension braces riders and protects them from painful landings after catching a lot of air on big jumps. It also allows for the bike’s tires to hug the rocky, rooty trails more easily, so riders can go faster and more safely.
The two most common repairs Sumner sees roll through UBC are flat tires and bent derailleur hangers, which connect the rear derailleur (the device that shifts the bike chain) to the bike frame. They’re easily bent in an accident or crash, but much cheaper to replace or repair than a bike frame, which they serve to keep intact.
Between 700 and 1,000 people frequent the park every weekend, according to the Friends of Alafia, a non-profit volunteer organization that looks out for the needs of cyclists and other visitors of the park. Sumner said he’s seen people come from all over the globe, including Germany, Japan and Russia. But so do a lot of Floridians.
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“It’s a party every weekend,” he said. “It’s a lot of regulars.”
Feel the berm
Russell Cunnius stood on his bike at the top of Alafia’s famous Gwasi Berm listening to Jimi Hendrix. It was the first time in months he had been allowed access to the feature, so he felt a soundtrack by the electric guitar savant was an appropriate one for the occasion.
Gwasi Berm had been closed for upgrades, and this was one of the first weekends since its reopening. So after warming up on one of the less intimidating trails and a few jumps along the Roller Coaster trail (which the park labeled as an “intermediate” one), the 27-year-old auto body technician decided it was time to tackle the berm.
“You definitely want to have proper warmups and also that confidence helps a whole lot,” he said of attempting tricks along the trails. “But definitely you want to calculate a little bit as you’re coming up the jumps where you want to take off on the ramp, body angles and stuff like that.”
Riders should also be wary, Cunnius said, of taking jumps too stiff. If you’re a beginner and find yourself white-knuckling the handlebars, then you should find some way to loosen up before doing anything too crazy. Warmups can serve that purpose, but other mechanisms like music could as well.
Mountain biking is Eva Morrison’s favorite thing to do, albeit to her friend Raven Grant’s dismay.
Morrison, 25, and Grant, 23, ran track together at Baylor. Now, Grant is in nursing school at Charleston Southern University in her home state of South Carolina, and Morrison recently started medical school at Nova Southeastern University.
When Morrison moved to Florida from Colorado (where she’s from and went to graduate school), she assumed her love of mountain biking would be sidelined for a few years. But she was pleasantly surprised by Alafia. So much so that she decided it was a must-see for Grant when she came to visit.
“It’s lots of fun,” said Morrison, who got a job at AJ’s Bikes upon moving. “The trails here are really nice, and there are trails here that everyone can do.”
At first Grant, a self-described “girly girl” compared to her adventurous “tomboy” friend, didn’t feel as convinced. But after riding through a beginner, or “green” trail, she was converted.
But not strongly enough to try the Gwasi Berm with Morrison.
Trail upkeep (including the Gwasi Berm update) is managed by the Friends of Alafia.
The group’s president is LeRoy Dennison. His Facebook page is flooded with pictures of nature, whether it be his extravagantly landscaped backyard or scenes from Alafia.
Dennison has worked on trail maintenance at the park for about 10 years — at first with Swamp Mountain Bike Club and currently with Friends of Alafia.
“I knew the trails didn’t build themselves,” Dennison said, “and didn’t want to just go out and ride and enjoy them on the weekend without lending a hand.”
During the rainy summer season, Dennison said hill erosion and overgrown vegetation are the two biggest maintenance needs at the park. Palmettos, vines and grass (which he said grows up to an inch a day and can hide different types of rattlesnakes) grow like crazy in the summer months and can be detrimental to riders’ safety as they zip through the park’s twists and turns, liable to get sliced by a rogue plant.
Dennison and other Friends of Alafia volunteers — mostly shift workers and retirees — often do what is called a “ride and trim” on weekdays (when fewer people come out), where they bike the trails with clippers or foldable saws to trim back whatever’s necessary along their route.
The greatest challenge of this demanding job is figuring out how best to split one’s time. Dennison said knowing he has helped make the park better for other outdoor enthusiasts like himself makes it all worthwhile.
Phillip Goransson concurs. The 26-year-old from Indian Harbour Beach loves how every ride manages to be unique.
“Even though the trails are mostly the same from year to year, it’s like you never really have the same lap,” he said. “You take a different line or you approach it differently, you have more or less speed. It’s always changing.
“Also just being out in nature and being active, there’s nothing better.”