Sunday, March 29, 2015

50 Miles on a Singlespeed Fat Bike

The word Epic gets overused a lot these days. Much like the word Awesome, we tend to label things as Epic that don't even come close to the definition or even the spirit from whence it came. Epic refers to that which is heroic, grand or monumental. It usually involves a gripping adventure, a powerful expression of willpower and an unforgettable outcome. With this firmly in mind I think it is safe to say that the Tour de Picayune has become one of Florida's Epic races.

The Tour takes place in Picayune Strand State Forrest, an area made up of 78,000 acres of former swampland. The history of this area is fascinating. Starting in the 1940's it was logged for cypress trees. When the trees were gone they filled in the land to make pastures. In the 1960's the Gulf American Land Corporation purchased 57,000 acres to build "Golden Gate Estates," which was to be the largest subdivision in America. Here is where it all went sour. Golden Gate Estates turned out to be nothing more than a land scam. The roads and canals were built but they never constructed a single home. The property flooded each summer making residential housing nearly impossible. The project was abandoned. Years later some of the neglected roads were used as landing strips for drug planes coming in from South America.

In 1985 the "Save our Everglades" program acquired funds from the federal government to purchase acreage from the 17,000 owners. By 2006 the program was completed and the reclaimed land became Picayune Strand State Forrest. The race itself is only a few years old with new sections of trail being built each season. The winner's prize is called the "Durrwalker" cup which is named after Senior Forester Sonja Durrwachter whose tireless efforts in land acquisition made it possible for this enormous tract of land to eventually be opened for recreational use.

I had attempted this event in 2014, fully intending to complete the full 50 mile version. Under an unforgiving sun and stuck in unforgiving sand, I underestimated the difficulty of the task. I had the wrong tires, the wrong fuel and not nearly enough patience. The Tour de Picayune is deceptively arduous requiring a combination of technical riding skills, endurance and brute force leg power. If you don't have a good bit of everything on the big day, it will break you down. My first attempt ended in failure. I only completed the 28 mile lap while suffering from heat exhaustion. Learning from many mistakes, this time I was determined to redeem myself.

The first mistake was my ride. I needed to something that could handle sugar sand. Luckily the Everglades Edge ECO Tours company rents bikes inside the park. I was told to visit the Edge headquarters, an outdoor lovers dream hangout. This oversized swamp shack has a wide roof, electricity, a full mechanics room and a collection of boats and bikes. I was told to pick a bike that fit me and get to the starting line.

My steed was to be a large Surly Pugsley. This dark grey, fully rigid fat bike came complete with intimidating bar ends and a thudbuster seat post. It was a little long for me as I had to reach for those handlebars but with 4 inch wide tires and a high bottom bracket it was built for the job. Having never ridden a fat bike before, especially a single speed, I knew I was in for a grand occasion. This was going to be an Epic redemption or an Epic fail. Either way, I was going for broke.

The weather was perfect. Wispy clouds and a cool breeze relaxed the throng of riders who had gathered on Miller Road at the start line. Everyone signed their entry forms, paid the fee and got a map of the route. The map included color coded trails and emergency numbers. After a quick bit of instructions from organizers Chris and Janneke, riders took their positions and started the race. Far less than a sprint, they knew that there was a long way to go so the pace was nominal. One unlucky girl dropped her chain on the starting line. She quickly fixed it and caught up with the pack.

The singletrack was labeled with colors - green, yellow, orange and red. The markings included small circle signs on select pinewoods to keep riders on course and large painted arrows on the ground to indicate meaningful turns. You did have to keep your eyes both on the tricky tracks and the tagged trees or you might miss a step. Last year I had to use the map many times to make sure I was going the right way but this year's markings were vastly superior. If you got lost this year, it was your own damn fault.

The green singletrack came first. While it started slow, snaking a long chain of riders who were pedaling tire to tire, it stretched out the moment we hit the first dirt crossroad. It was there I heard a whisper behind me. Two men were teasing about my chosen ride, "Well, at least we're not stuck on a fully rigid, single speed fat bike. That would suck." I turned as they nodded playfully. One guy smiled and said, "No offense, I love my gears." They pulled ahead on the dirt road but once into the next section of Green singletrack I caught back up to them and noticed that the long grass was getting tangled in those gears they love so much. When we reached the next dirt road they had to pull off to fix their bikes while I sped on by.

Barreling through the singletrack was quite fun. The paths were narrow, passing through fields of grass in between palm trees and palmetto bushes. The occasional sharp turn would send a careless rider off course. Thanks to the fat bikes ability to plow through any obstacle, I caught up to another trio of riders. I talked to them for a half mile or so but felt the need for speed and eventually buzzed on. Racing the Pugsley was like steering a rocket truck through a stock car track. The smaller bikes were more nimble where as I just broke through the lines like an unstoppable force. During the first 10 miles of singletrack I passed nine people with a big smile on my face.

For part of that stretch I had been pacing back and forth with another rider. We kept each other in check and maintained a steady rate until it was time to eat. Last year I skipped by the SAG stops merely relying on what I had brought with me, big mistake. The first aid station was a welcome rest as it came 15 miles into the first lap. Just knowing that you were more than halfway through the big loop felt like progress.

Refreshed from the rest we sped down abandoned roads and into the first section of sugar sand. Again the Pugsley got to shine. The wide tires and low gearing allowed me to pedal right down the middle of the road whereas skinnier tires had to find a harder bank to keep moving. The guy I was riding with said that spinning in this sand was like climbing hills, it sucked away your energy.

From there we turned to more singletrack but this one was distinctly different from any other. Most of Picayune is what I call "Dead Everglades," meaning that during the winter it looks dried up, like a land that lost its soul. However, there are places where you can see, smell and feel the old Everglades. Places where you rolled atop black mud while breathing cool, musty air. These sections of trail twisted and turned through deep green tunnels of thick woods that felt more like jungle. They breathed forth a promise that man's sins against nature would be remedied in time. A promise that the old Everglades would return.

The second aid station was manned by the man himself, race director Wes Wilkins. Myself and two others riders talked with him as we enjoyed grapes, bananas, Gatorade and water then set off for the final stretch of the first loop. Leaving the aid station there is a sign that reads "Snake Pit, 5 miles or so..." Signs like this were strategically placed on course to give a sense of hope, you might be far from the finish but it was coming, eventually.

After a half dozen more miles of gravel roads, sugar sand and singletrack I made it back to the Snake Pit. This was where you either finished the race or started your second lap. To give you an idea of how hard this year's race was, two former 50 mile finishers had already dropped out. They might have been smart to do so because this year the second lap was built on a mountain of hardship. It would be a monstrous challenge. After eating a cookie and downing a fizzy drink it was time to face the killer sands.

I plodded down the Panther path (Yellow trail) and really started to struggle. A rider named Andrew had decided to do a second lap, the music blaring from his backpack gave me a good idea of where he was. He was kind enough to give me a bottle of water when my triceps started to cramp up. Between my tricep cramps and the now regular stops to stretch I was facing the full pains of this journey. At one point Andrew looked at his cyclo-computer and assured me that we were at mile 35, there were only 15 to go. If I had to stop every mile in order to make it through, I would do it.

In 2014 riders were subjected to the killer sands on the first lap. In my opinion, that was the easier burden. This year hitting the endless grit on the second lap was far harder. Bereft of strength, lacking stamina and facing a stubborn headwind left me with nothing. I was a plodding, gasping fool desperate to move inches at a time. If you have ever had a nightmare where quicksand was taking you down and nothing you did mattered, that was the Picayune curse. That is what made this race far more difficult than any other I have ever faced. My only respite were the fat tires of the Pugsley. It allowed me to sit atop those granules and slowly spin my way out of hell.

The end for me came 7 hours after it had begun. I was vindicated by completing the 50 mile course even managing a 9th place finish. Not bad when you consider the truckload of talent that came in before me. Bill Quinsey, last years winner, had managed to retain his title. A feat that has never been done before. Andrew Holland established himself as a top contender, no doubt we'll be seeing his skills again.

The Snake Pit campground was the perfect ending for an amazing day. Beer was on tap, food cooking on the grill and a gathering of finishers applauding anyone who was courageous enough to tackle this challenge. The Tour de Picayune is truly an Epic race. There are many people who can ride 50 miles but not like this, not when the earth itself tries to swallow your will. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life and I will never forget it.

The most telling quote came from a new rider who was finishing his first lap. He got off his bike to limp under a tree branch and then asked my wife how far it was to the finish. She said it's just around the corner. He replied, "Thank god! I have no idea how people can do two laps of this."

If you enjoyed this article be sure to get my book of mountain bike stories, Twisted Trails.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A MTB Race for those who Don't Race

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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The End of Unknown Trails

The world often changes without us noticing right away. Hindsight is the lens through which we identify when something new had started. Only then do we appreciate its significance. Many years ago in New England I was exploring the woods in an area that was somewhat off the grid. I heard a rumor that people used to ride mountain bikes there so I wanted to look for signs of old trails.

After several trips I finally stumbled upon what can only be described as an illegally built freeride park. It was full of high jumps, wild rollers, daredevil skinnies and a ten foot high wooden berm. It had long since been abandoned with no sign as to who the builders were or if they would ever come back. The nails had rusted, the wood had grayed and cracked. The story of how it all came into being might be lost forever. That was the world before Strava.

The internet has changed the way we shop, date and do business. It has also changed the way we ride. Or more specifically, it has changed where we ride. It used to be that in order to discover new trails you would have to explore endlessly. You would often chase bad directions, ghosts of paths past or rumors of new construction. You could also hit the local bike shop and find a guide but still that meant being reliant on other people. That would be fine if not for the fact that other people can be quirky and complicated or merely time consuming. You just want to go for a ride.

Now you simply visit You look up the name of the town or the trail and in seconds a map appears with much the information that you need. You learn who has ridden there, how fast and long the ride can be plus you can follow the map on your GPS so as to avoid getting lost. While Strava has been criticized as the App for speed junkies who throw down bone rattling times, it has also developed a very important function that benefits everyone. A trail, no matter how well manicured, will never be properly appreciated until it is on Strava because this is the ultimate way of advertising the whereabouts of active trails. This service has become the blinking neon sign that reads "Ride Here!"

It was with this in mind that the Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR) put together a "Strava Party" on March 15th, 2015 at Myakka State Forrest. The idea was to introduce the public to the Palmetto Trail Loop, a newly designed route that SCORR had built, and to record electronic times that would mark the place for future users. 25 riders attended the event, many with the required technology. After a brief speech to explain the terrain everyone set off for the first 7 mile loop.

The Palmetto Trail starts at the East River Road parking area and can be accessed any time of year with a $2. parking fee. It was completed in 2014 and deemed as a place that stays relatively dry while the summer rains flood other parks. SCORR volunteers put numerous hours into crafting a swerving path that crosses and touches a double track giving riders bail out points. The riding is appropriate for the beginner level but it does have its share of technical spots.

The "Strava Party" was a success! Most riders enjoyed two laps of the Palmetto Loop while many of them recorded times. The King was Don Pence with 37:42 and the Queen was Sierra Stafford with 49:31. Many others took top rewards in the smaller segments. Afterwards they gathered back at the trailhead for a cookout.

In the past it could have taken years for the reputation of this trail to leak out to new riders. People might have lived within minutes of the park and not known that it contained singletrack but thanks to this brilliant technology, any rider, anywhere in the world can go online to seek it out. Hopefully with the expanded use of social mapping systems like Strava, we'll never have to lose another trail to obscurity.

Be sure to check out the following links on Strava and give this trail a try.

If you enjoyed this story be sure to check out my book of mountain bike tales, Twisted Trails.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The 2015 Santos Fat Tire Festival

All year long I have been reading posts on social media from Ray Petro, the man who created Ray's Indoor Mountain Bike Parks. Apparently Ray likes to spend a lot of time in Florida and his recent expeditions down here had nothing to do with beaches and martinis. Ray was working with the Ocala Mountain Bike Association (OMBA), building ride elements in the Santos bike park. From what I saw, they have been really busy.

This was my first trip to Santos. Friends have been telling me to visit for a while. They said I'd love the place and their recommendations were right on the money. If Alafia is a MTB playground, Santos is an amusement park. Add to that a special event, the Fat Tire Festival and you've got an amusement park with a field full of vendors and a monster crowd that flocks to fun. When they said 500+ people fill the trails, they were not exaggerating.

First off, the park is super easy to find. If you start from Interstate 75, it's two turns off Exit 341. Second, the parking area is huge but on a day like this it doesn't matter. It was packed. I pulled a little further down, past the campground and found a spot in the in overflow field usually used for equestrian events. Everything was close and accessible - bathrooms, bike wash, trailhead, vendors, food trucks, kids track and a skills area full of skinny's and rollers.

I pedaled my bike slowly through vendors village with one thought in mind. I needed to find a place to sell my book Twisted Trails. I figured I could find someone who might be willing to spare a few inches on their table for a stack of paperbacks. Atlantic Bicycle Company had three tables full of gear, helmets and bike parts but they were kind enough to spare a corner. With my books in full view of the passing crowd, I thanked my new friends and set off for a riding adventure.

There was a tiny map the size of a postcard being given out but to be honest I couldn't make heads or tails of it. The one thing I heard from several riders was that the blue markers pointed out while red markers pointed back. I didn't know if that was true but I was here to explore so, whatever. I started at the trailhead and followed the blue markers.

While I'd love to comment on the peculiarities of individual trails, I had no idea where I was. The singletrack swerved back and forth through the woods crossing other trails with no warning. It was mostly smooth and flat with grooves in corners that acted like mini-berms allowing you to keep speed with little effort. It was uber fun to ride and could be tackled by most anyone. Better yet, it was full of little surprises. Every once in a while you would suddenly stumble upon a wooden element to play upon, like this one...

After about seven miles of following the blue markers I finally found a larger map that indicated where I was. I had gone about a mile past the jump area, which (Armed with a camera) was my ultimate destination. I retreated back in that direction and saw riders on the hills but couldn't find an entrance. I cut through the woods and ended up on an experts only trail and then rode it until the sky opened up to the full expanse of the Freeride park.

Santo's Freeride area is known as the Vortex. It contains a compilation of elements that would give most jump junkies wet dreams. There was a fenced off skills area with various lines of table tops and lips for continuous mid level showing off. Further into the park there is a single monster jump line where the riders can reach nearly twenty feet in the air. Further still there were face drops, blind drops, a two story corkscrew and multiple 90 degree wooden rollers. Here the crowds gathered to watch fearless young people soar into the stratosphere. I filmed a couple clips from the Vortex but somehow I kept missing the best shots.

After the freeride show I was ready to head back but once again, I didn't know how. A very nice couple who lived in the area let me follow them for a couple spirited miles which spit out back at vendor village. I took some time to lust after bikes that I'll never own before stopping by the Atlantic Bicycle Company tent to sign an autograph. Then I decided to look for something to eat. The food trucks were packed with people and my hunger pains were becoming unbearable.

Then it happened, the most terrifying words I have ever heard. A man from the brick oven pizza van held up his arms and said, "We are out of Pizza!" I froze in place waiting for a riot to break out, for people to started running and screaming. That's what I wanted to do but I bit my lip and held tight preparing for the rush. However, nothing came of it. Most people shrugged their shoulders and wandered off. Clearly they were not as hungry as I was.

The end of my day had come quickly. I met some friends that I normally only see on Facebook so it was nice to connect in person. I sold some books and rode some trails, though there are a great many paths I missed out on. More importantly I finally got to experience Santos. This place is ranked by the IMBA as one of the top mountain bike parks in the country. Given its wide variety of trails and elements I can see how they got that designation.

In the end it went by too fast. This is the kind of place where you could spend days exploring everything. I was there for five hours but it felt like five minutes. Now that I know where it is and how to access it, I'll be looking for any excuse to return.

If you enjoyed this story, be sure to check out my book Twisted Trails.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Benefits of Small Events

Often times I'll come home from an event and comment that while it was fun, it wasn't worthy of an article. However, after a good night's sleep the meaningfulness of that day would slowly sneak up on my consciousness and tap me on the shoulder. The truth is that there is always something to write about. There is always a story. You just have to look for it.

On March 1st, 2015 there was a unique event held at the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve in Venice, Florida. As many of my regular readers know, this is the park where I have worked with the Sarasota County Off Road Riders (SCORR) to build mountain bike trails over the last few years. Previous to this day, there had only been one race event held at the Carlton. Piggy's Revenge is our annual ride/race which raises money for SCORR and introduces people to the park. This year we had our biggest turnout with 160 riders. The elevated level of publicity sparked the desire for yet another event to be held on those same trails. This bring us to the Sasquatch 15K.

The Sasquatch 15K is the brainchild of lifelong runner and Sarasota resident Thierry Rouillard. Thierry greatly enjoyed Piggy's Revenge and thought it would be equally fun to have a trail run in the same location. Just to make it interesting he also included a mountain bike race. Having promoted other similar events like the Community Haven 10K and the Sun-n-Fun 5K, he was well prepared with excellent sponsors. The date was set.

Everything seemed to be ready, except for one important thing, the oxygen. Allow me to explain. Florida has become a Mecca for outdoor athletic events, especially in the winter months. On any given weekend there might be as many as 150 different competitions across the state. When too many of those events take place in the same region, on the same weekend it can shut the window on new developments. It is like sucking all of the oxygen out of the room.

I had signed up for the Sasquatch as soon as I saw the flyer online. Competing in a MTB race on the trails I helped build? Yes please! I thought it was a great idea so I shared the flyer on Facebook. Then I got caught up in my own projects and basically put it in the back of my mind until the night before the event. That evening I was talking to a new friend named Lisa who was looking for somewhere to train on Sunday. I told her about the Sasquatch and she agreed to come. That turned out to be a great decision.

Upon arriving at the pavilion there was only a smattering of runners and no riders except for me and Lisa. I immediately knew what had happened - no oxygen. Still, it didn't sour anyone's spirits. There were about 12 runners ready to go. This included a well known couple of local ultra-runners, Sally and John Libonati. The group was a bunch of happy, energetic people who were thrilled to get out there and explore the park. Their excitement was infectious. The weather was fantastic. This race was on!

Thierry gathered us together, placing myself and Lisa at the front as he started the clock. We took off at a high rate of speed. It was important for the riders to get some distance on the lead runners so they would have room to maneuver. Some of the trails can be narrow in areas and they were a little wet making it harder to keep a high cadence. Luckily adrenaline assisted in accomplishing that goal. We blazed up the red trail and took a left onto the south power lines.

One benefit of being in the front of a trail race is that you get to see the animals. There were 2 deer wandering on the first section of power lines and then 2 more after we crossed the road. On the second lap there was a bald eagle sitting atop the wires watching us pass by. The big attraction in this park is the animals. Very rarely do you miss out on seeing something beautiful.

I have to give praise to my riding partner. I had prepared for this event as if it were going to be epic so my desired speed was a bit high for Lisa. Halfway through the first lap she informed me that this was her first time riding off road. In addition she had a heavy Walmart bike. Plus, the gears didn't work so it was essentially a singlespeed. All of these disadvantages conspired to make her push really hard. When I finally realized what she was up against, we slowed down and started enjoying the sights a little more.

Another benefit of small races is that Lisa and I didn't have any pressure to perform. She was going to win overall female and I was going to win overall male just for being there. The ride became a tour of the Reserve. This included the first section of our singletrack trail - BoldlyGo. We slowed down enough so that the fastest runners, including Sally, could pass us on the way to the end. There was even one runner going the wrong way, on purpose. I understand that she went exploring and had a little adventure of her own.

While it didn't attract a big crowd this year the event was otherwise very organized. Due to flooding the day before, Thierry (With the help of SCORR Member Tim Reifschneider), put together a last minute race route that fixed the problem. In addition, there were water/Gatorade stops at two locations. The inflatable finish line was complete with a digital clock. The swag bags had fantastic gear including a summer hat and tech shirt. There was plenty of food and drinks for all. You got your money's worth plus all of the proceeds went to charity.

Back at the pavilion everyone raised their arms as they came through the finish line. We were all talking, laughing and cheering for the runners who were still pushing on. At an event this small you get to know everyone a little easier. You make jokes, you make friends. It's almost like your shared experience was heightened due to the unusual circumstances. At an event this small everyone walks away with an award, a smile and a story. The thing about events like this is that they never stay small for long.

Keep an eye out for Thierry's other events at his website:

If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out my new book Twisted Trails.