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.