There is nothing that a mountain biker likes more than a proper sufferfest, except maybe drinking beer, or that could just be me. On March 22nd, 2015 Gone Riding, Florida's premiere mountain bike racing organization, put on the first event of the South Eastern Regional Championship series or SERC. It was held at Hailes Trails in Newberry, Florida and as promised it was worthy of sweat and tears.
What is SERC? This regional cross country race series appears to center around the state of Georgia which is odd because Georgia already has their own race series. However, SERC casts a wider net reaching into the states of North & South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Florida. It's a perfect in-between for those who can't afford the longer travel of the U.S. Cup series. It also closely matches the typical start of the racing season. No matter the reason you latch onto SERC, more racing means more options for everyone.
This year the SERC season started in Newberry, Florida sort of. There is no exact address so I zoomed in on Google maps and came up with one of my own. Since I'm working hard to promote my new book Twisted Trails, this seemed like the place to be. I had heard a lot about Haile's Trails and the consensus was built on ruggedness, clearly aimed at the hard core riders. This was confirmed the moment we arrived at 10:30am on Sunday morning. The first person I ran into said "You need to pre-ride the course. It's very rough. Prepare to suffer." He wasn't kidding.
These trails are not normally open to the public. In fact you have to pay a small parking fee when you first enter. Hailes is built on the grounds of a rock quarry with spectacular views plus it sits adjacent to a supercross track. You could certainly ride this singletrack on a dirt bike, the extra power would come in handy. How would my flatlander legs do amid such adversity, it was time to find out.
Practice, motivation, fitness, sure I had some of those but as for luck, not so much. My last two XC races ended abruptly. One to an asthma attack and the second to a crash. This time I hoped things might be different and they were, right up until I started the race. My first pedal push off the line caused my gear to jump off the middle ring. I started spinning and up shifted through the gears but by then my age group had a huge lead. I pushed to catch them on the first climb but then my gears decided they didn't want to downshift. Hardly half a mile into the race and I was already out of contention.
I spent the first half of the race trying to anticipate the inclines so I could kick into gear far ahead of when it was needed. The truth is that you need a decent bike, or at least workable gears, to take on this kind of rapidly changing terrain. By the second lap I had accepted the inevitable and simply enjoyed what amounted to a very challenging trail ride.
What kind of terrain am I talking about? Hailes has a surprising number of hills. I was repeatedly saying, "Are you kidding me?" I approached a face, banked then climbed higher, banked again and climbed even higher! Being a native New Englander and seeing all these hills, I kept being reminded of where I came from. However, for those who have never been to the vast green of the northeast I'll use other Florida trails for comparison.
It has tight technical sections on rolling singletrack with blind corners similar to Boyette. It has deep, dark holes in the earth that appear to go on forever similar to the heart of Croom. It has beautiful cliffs overlooking cyan water that you won't see anywhere else. It has the biggest, steepest, off camber climbs that I have ever endured in Florida. The race promoters went out of their way to make sure that every ascent/descent was included so you had better bring your small ring and a healthy pair of lungs. It turns out that I hadn't brought either.
Racing at Haile's Trails is a once or twice a year thing so you've got to grab that chance. Forget winning or losing, forget worrying about your cadence or Strava segments. This one is worthy on so many other levels. It will challenge your technical skills, your desire to conquer the steeps and it will test your heart at the same time that it captures it. Isn't that what we all want, trails that you fall in love with while they make you gasp?
Granted you can only ride these trails during the races but so what? Get a one day license, pay your race fee and follow the crowd. These might be the best mountain bike trails in Florida. Despite my terrible performance I had a blast. I recommend that anyone who loves riding needs to give Haile's a try.
Photo Gallery - SERC #1 2015 (Mostly Cat 3)
If you enjoyed this story be sure to check out my book - Twisted Trails.