Mountain biking in Florida? Alafia River State Park offers easy to expert trails

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LITHIA – The trails smell of pine, palm, rain and marshes. Not quite typical of a mountain biking scene, is it?

Alafia River State Park, located 10 miles southeast of Tampa, is home to Florida’s best ATV trails. People drive for hours to navigate the trails of different difficulty levels (easiest, easy, intermediate, advanced and expert), which stretches for more than 20 miles in the recovered phosphate mine.

The scenery “offers some of Florida’s most dramatic elevation changes,” according to the park’s website. Use of Google Earth and Forks (a trail database system with interactive maps), some trails have high and low points above sea level that differ up to 184 feet.

Get started

Bikers gather at the University Bicycle Center on the grounds of Alafia River State Park. UBC’s branch in Alafia offers bicycle and helmet rental as well as repair services for adults and children. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Ben Sumner worked at the University Bicycle Center for about six years. He works Monday to Friday at the store Tampa location, but drives an hour and 20 minutes every Sunday to the storefront of Alafia. His favorite part of the job is fixing bikes and getting around whenever he can.

“You do what you love, you never work a day in your life, do you?” Sumner said between the barks of his dog Shorsey, who bounced in place next to his bowl of water as he was tied to the UBC bridge.

UBC’s branch in Alafia offers bicycle and helmet rental as well as repair services for adults and children. Cyclists can rent bikes for two hours for $ 40, three for $ 55 and all day for $ 70. Other nearby stores like AJ’s Bikes offer private lessons for the less experienced.

Sumner came to Tampa from Atlanta, where he started out as a “fixie bike,” meaning he rode fixed-gear bikes. He actually got into mountain biking after moving to Florida.

Sumner learned exactly why mountain bikes, as opposed to cruise bikes or road bikes, are needed for Alafia’s terrain. Suspension is the key, he said. The MTB’s suspension supports riders and protects them from painful landings after taking in a lot of air on big jumps. It also makes it easier for the bike’s tires to hug rocky and rooted trails, so riders can go faster and more safely.

The two most common repairs Sumner sees rolling through UBC are flat tires and bent derailleur hangers, which connect the rear derailleur (the device that moves the bike’s chain) to the bike frame. They fold easily in the event of an accident or collision, but much cheaper to replace or repair than a bicycle 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 voluntary, non-profit organization that looks after the needs of cyclists and other visitors to the park. Sumner said he saw people coming from all over the world, including Germany, Japan and Russia. But the same goes for many Floridians.

“It’s a party every weekend,” he said. “It’s a lot of regulars.

Feel the berm

Russell Cunnius, 27, from Riverview, descends the Gwasi Berm and climbs for a jump.  It was the first time Cunnius had climbed the berm in months, as it had been closed for improvements.
Russell Cunnius, 27, from Riverview, descends the Gwasi Berm and climbs for a jump. It was the first time Cunnius had climbed the berm in months, as it had been closed for improvements. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Russell Cunnius stood on his bike atop Alafia’s famous Gwasi Berm listening to Jimi Hendrix. It was the first time in months that he had been granted access to the feature film, so he felt that an original soundtrack by the electric guitar scholar was appropriate for the occasion.

Gwasi Berm had been closed for renovation, and it was one of the first weekends since it reopened. So after warming up on one of the less intimidating trails and a few hops along the Roller Coaster Trail (which the park called “intermediate”), the 27-year-old body technician decided he was. time to tackle the berm.

“You really want to have proper warm-ups and also that confidence helps a lot,” he said of attempting tricks along the trails. “But you definitely want to calculate a bit when you go up the jumps where you want to take off on the ramp, the body angles and stuff like that.”

Riders should also be wary, Cunnius said, of taking jumps that are too steep. If you’re a beginner and find yourself tightening the handlebars, you should find a way to relax before you do something too crazy. Warm-ups can be used for this purpose, but other mechanisms like music could also do it.

25-year-old Eva Morrison lines up to ride on Alafia's Gwasi Berm.  Morrison recently moved to Clearwater from Colorado for his medical studies and was thrilled to find mountain biking trails nearby.
25-year-old Eva Morrison stands in line to ride on Alafia’s Gwasi Berm. Morrison recently moved to Clearwater from Colorado for his medical studies and was thrilled to find mountain biking trails nearby. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Mountain biking is Eva Morrison’s favorite thing to do, although much to her friend Raven Grant’s dismay.

Morrison, 25, and Grant, 23, ran together at Baylor. Today, Grant is studying at the Charleston Southern University School of Nursing in his home state of South Carolina, and Morrison recently began his medical studies at Nova Southeastern University.

When Morrison moved to Florida from Colorado (where she was originally from and graduated from), 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 him.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Morrison, who got a job with AJ’s Bikes after moving. “The trails here are really cool, and there are trails here that anyone can do.”

At first, Grant, a self-proclaimed “girly girl” compared to her adventurous “tomboy” friend, didn’t feel so convinced. But after walking a beginner or “green” trail, she converted.

But not strong enough to try the Gwasi Berm with Morrison.

Tidy trails

Map of mountain biking trails in Alafia River State Park.
Map of mountain biking trails in Alafia River State Park. [ Courtesy of LeRoy Dennison, Friends of Alafia ]

Trail maintenance (including updating Gwasi Berm) is handled by the Friends of Alafia.

The president of the group is LeRoy Dennison. Her Facebook page is awash with images of nature, from her extravagant landscaped garden to scenes from Alafia.

Dennison has worked in maintaining the park’s trails for about 10 years, first with the Swamp Mountain Bike Club and now with Friends of Alafia.

“I knew the tracks didn’t build themselves,” said Dennison, “and I didn’t want to just go out and ride and enjoy it on the weekends without lending a helping hand.”

During the rainy summer season, Dennison said hill erosion and overgrown vegetation are the two biggest maintenance needs for the park. Palms, vines, and grass (which he says grow up to an inch a day and can hide different types of rattlesnakes) grow like mad during the summer months and can affect the safety of people. cyclists as they cross the meanders of the park, responsible 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 are out), where they are riding their bikes. on the trails with mowers or folding saws to cut whatever is needed. along their journey.

The biggest challenge in this demanding job is finding the best way to share your time. Dennison said it was worth it to know that he had helped make the park better for other outdoor enthusiasts like him.

Phillip Goransson agrees. The 26-year-old from Indian Harbor Beach loves how each 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.

“Besides being in nature and being active, there is nothing better. “

Bike rental and lessons

Rent bikes at University bicycle center or AJ’s bikes. Contact AJ’s at (813) 685-2453 to inquire about bike lessons.

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