Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Flor'Easter: Day 9- Alafia Trails - Transformations

Don't take that corner too quickly.
I know, I skipped a day.  Sue me.

My Florida adventure moved to the Gulf coast where I met up with an old friend, Dave, who showed me around his home course: Alafia Trails in Lithia, Florida.  It was a day of celebrating transformations and new beginnings.

Miners busy making future trail terrain a/k/a "strip mining"
Dave picked me up in St. Petersburg, where I had spent New Year’s Eve doing my best to convert liquor into usable calories the night before.  

We headed south and then west into some of the flattest terrain that Florida has to offer.  As soon as we exited the highway, a large retirement community greeted us, complete with its golf carts and strip malls.  However the vestiges of late twentieth century Americana suddenly ended, and as we passed into the town of Wimauma we were seemingly transported thousands of miles deep into Latin America.  Brilliantly colored storefronts with Spanish signs announce the presence of “taquerias”, “carnecerias” and "fruitas".  The village dissolved into orange orchards and cattle pastures until eventually we spied large grayish mounds on the horizon tended by obscenely large cranes in their quest for phosphates.   

Ironically, the incredible destruction wrought by this strip mining process is the very genesis of the terrain where Alafia is located.  Now reclaimed by the tropical forest, Alafia sits on land that was once under the tracks of similar cranes only decades earlier. 
"Eyes on the road, Dave."

A manicured sign announced the entrance to the park, and a modest $5 fee secured our admission. Despite the fact we arrived on a Sunday (New Year's Day no less), the parking area was buzzing with activity as we unloaded our bikes.  The amount of activity seemed odd, given how far we were from the city, and the barren appearance of the landscape, but as I discovered, there was a reason folks were gathering here from afar.

Dave and I had last been mountain biking at Kingdom Trails in Vermont in early June.  Overweight and inexperienced on a mountain bike, Dave hadn’t exactly enjoyed his day.  I terrorized his haggard ass by dragging him up and around Darling Hill until he could barely walk. 

In the six months since our Kingdom visit, Dave dedicated himself to getting into shape.  This involved biking pretty regularly and exploring the mountain biking in the Tampa area.  His explorations led him to Alafia, widely regarded as the best trail network on the Gulf coast, and possibly all of Florida.  As we set out on the first trail it was clear that this wasn’t the Dave from six months ago.  He kept a decent pace and was attacking the technical sections.  Dave’s transformation in such a short amount of time was nothing less than amazing.  It was clear he had somehow become a mountain biker. While Dave’s tenacity played a big hand in this change, the trails at Alafia were the perfect training ground.

What Alafia (and the other Florida trails for that matter) lack in vertical or New England style technical rock gardens, they make up for in short but exceedingly steep hill sections.  I am hard pressed to think of any trails I’ve ridden in the Northeast, with the exception of Sidewinder at Kingdom, that test your ability to go into and then pull out of a nearly vertical nosedive.  If this is your thing, then you’ll love Florida trails and particularly Alafia.  Trails like Rollercoaster throw you a barrage of these steep drops, as well as short dips and jumps.  In fact, one section on Rollercoaster gave me a memorable pucker moment as I topped out on a mound only to see a nearly vertical wall in front of me on the other side of a nearly bottomless descent.  The pull of gravity as you navigate these steep mounds is unparalleled.

In addition to an abundance of steep drops, I’ve also noted that all of the trails I’ve ridden in Florida (and Alafia is no exception) have ample signage; almost to a fault.  Trails employ the same “green-blue-black” ratings found on ski slopes, and they often warn you of any particularly difficult sections that are ahead.  Coming from the Northeast, where there is almost no signage (and certainly none to warn you of the trails most difficult spots) I found the warnings to be unnerving.  I mean, if they are telling you it is “extremely difficult” it must be pretty damn difficult.  Ultimately, the signs work to put me on edge more than anything.  I prefer to be oblivious as to how hard a trail section is, until I’m knee deep in it—but that’s just me.

Typical of the trails I’ve ridden in Florida, the lack of vertical on the singletrack at Alafia keeps you constantly engaged in your ride.  Whereas you put your head down and suffer through vertical climbing torture sessions on New England trails, the trails in Florida are punctuated by only short climbs with long mostly flat but technically challenging sections.  Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro is probably the most similar to this style, although it lacks the steep drops which characterize Alafia.

Don't fall right.
My favorite trail at Alafia was North Creek.  It represents the best of the Florida style trail.  Although it is a blue trail, it is a playground of intermediate jumps, banked turns, and technical challenges.  It keeps you entertained for its entire two mile length.  In fact, I liked it so much I demanded we go back for more at the end of the day.

The layout of Alafia brings you back to the parking area as you finish each section of trail.   This is handy if you need to refuel or tend to a severed limb.  Thankfully, neither of us needed to drag any bodies back to the parking, although Dave did his best to scare the crap out of me.  He took three pretty impressive falls on our ride.  One of these trips over the handlebars was nothing less than spectacular as he pulled off a full split before somersaulting over the bars and down an embankment landing on his shoulder.  Somehow, despite his tumbles he made it through the afternoon without doing any serious damage.  These falls are the currency of becoming a good mountain biker: you have to push the envelope to get better.  Dave’s willingness to get back on the bike each time and push along just as hard is what made his transformation in such a short amount of time possible, and is a lesson we could all probably put to use in some aspect of our lives. 

The Russian judge deducted points for the landing.
In the end, Alafia is a pretty amazing place.  Aside from the way it has played a part in Dave’s new beginning, the place is a transformation in and of itself: from discarded landscape into a natural playground.  Much like Millstone in Vermont, it has become a regional attraction and an asset to the community around it.

The amazing transformation from industrial wasteland to natural playground in such a short amount of geological time should bring a ray of hope to even the most pessimistic environmentalist.

Here's the video from our run on my favorite trail, North Creek:

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