Friday, January 6, 2012

Flor'Easter: Day 10- Balm Boyette:

Running Ridgeline.

I started into my dive and the familiar tug in the pit of my stomach made me briefly consider clenching the brakes. However, the sandy, wet concrete honeycomb holding the trail together wouldn’t tolerate even the slightest braking. It threatened a fishtailing disaster to those who dared to defy its pull.  As my speed exploded and I neared the bottom, I felt the bike drifting to one side of the track.  I was headed off of the safety of the honeycomb toward the sandy rock strewn edges and certain ski-season-ending catastrophe.

The death march.
On our second consecutive day of mountain biking my buddy Dave and I had chosen Balm Boyette, only a short distance from Alafia Trails.  Balm incorporates the best of Florida trail biking into twenty plus miles of rolling terrain.   Named after the Balm-Boyette road where the trailhead is located, Balm (like Alafia) sits on land formerly used for phosphate mining.   Access to the singletrack requires a two mile trek on sandy doubletrack, but the long entrance provides an opportunity to warm up the legs before getting down to work.  With little shelter from the sun I imagine that the relaxing trek more closely resembles a death march in the heat of summer (or any season other than Winter for that matter).  The distance to the trails also has the effect of making the network feel more remote than nearby Alafia.  While there are just as many people on the trails, the distance from an emergency rescue or repair raises the stakes of any broken bones or equipment.

Trailhead map. 
The trails, like most others in Florida, are well signed and there is even a map at the trailhead to help the uninitiated.  Most of Balm’s trails are on rolling terrain punctuated by occasional drops and mildly technical features.  Trails like Loch Ness, Lower Spider Berm and Sidewinder represent the best of this style.

Aside from the long entrance, what separates Balm from other area networks is the sheer number of the steep drops that make Florida mountain biking so exciting.  The undisputed crown jewel of Balm’s network is Ridgeline which consists of a seemingly endless chain of these steep drops and climbs.  Several of the drops provide alternate lines for tired legs or shattered egos.  When combined with Side Winder and the sneakily technical Swamp Thing, Ridgeline makes an infinitely entertaining loop that you could lap over and over again without getting bored.

Watch that first drop
 it's a doooo-hoo-zey.
But before Dave and I could enjoy the trails we had to make it through the first drop of the day- and it was a doozey.  As I rolled to the top of the berm the impossible steepness of “Big Drop” came into view.  Briefly paralyzed, I considered telling Dave that we should skip this part of the trail- or at least put it off until later. 

But we didn’t and now I was at full speed on a slippery ramp with a drifting front tire and possibly heading toward a trip to the hospital.

Somehow, in the split second before my front tire wandered completely off trail I shifted my weight the slightest bit, directing it back to the center of the trail and onto the rolling run-out.

Far from relieved, I realized that I might be leading Dave in over his head.  I quickly yelled over my shoulder “Don’t touch your brakes!” and hoped that he’d avoid the drift I had experienced.

Only the very bottom of the drop was out of my view as Dave started his dive.  Just as he disappeared I heard an “Oh Shit!” and then the sickening sound of body and bike hitting the ground at full speed.  I rushed back toward the drop but for some reason I hesitated to yell out and ask Dave if he was okay.  Perhaps I wanted to enjoy the day for a few more seconds before calling the ambulance.

He's alive!
But as I crested the small rise between us, a shaken but unbroken Dave came into view.  Amazingly, he had jumped from the bike just as it smacked into the rocks on the side of the path.  The loud “crack” which I had pictured as a snapping femur was instead the sound of his bike frame bouncing harmlessly off of rock.  For the fourth time in two days, Dave’s cat-like ability to land unharmed had saved his ass.  With a full day of mountain biking ahead, we nervously laughed off our near death experiences and headed down the trail, looking for the next dance with old man Reaper.

After our two days of biking Dave asked which of the two trail systems I liked better.  Although I admitted Alafia had my favorite trail (North Creek), there is something about Balm that holds a special attraction for me.   Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the trails, the abundance of the gut wrenching drops, or maybe its Ridgeline’s spectacular views.  I honestly can’t tell you which of the two is my favorite.  What is clear, however, is that the folks in the Tampa area are blessed with some excellent trails…mountain biking trails.

Here's the video:


  1. This is much more entertaining than various ski reports...

  2. Given the current weather that's not saying much... but thanks anyway. :)

  3. Thanks for sharing the info about Balm and Alafia. My husband and I rode Alafia on Monday for the first time and loved it. Didnt get a chance to ride North Creek (Hubby's sprocket decided to take a bite out of his right leg on one ofthe Rabbit Ear loops), but we will definitely be going back. Will definitely be checking out Balm as well, now that we know it's worth it! We are in the north Orlando area and only have a small but cool trail near by, so the southwest ones are a treat. Have you been to Santos in the Belleview/Ocala, FL area? I've heard it's awesome, but not as much as Alafia.

    1. I didn't get a chance to check out Santos, but I've heard great things. I did, however, get to check out Graham Swamp and Malacompra which are within ten minutes of one another in Palm Coast. They would make a nice day trip from Orlando if you're looking for places to check out.