Mountain Biking: Picking Up Speed
By Brenda Eggert Brader
Riding mountain bicycles off-road over rough terrain while averaging 13 mph holds a fascination and thrill for the thousands of bikers who have discovered this grueling sport. And yes, the sport is growing.
“Mountain biking has grown a lot in the last three years alone,” says Steve Strickland who manages Bents, a bicycle shop in Lakeland. “It has always been growing and seems there is a lot of riding there now and I see more people out on the trails. The rider count for the racers has been up a lot for quite a while. One of the largest promoters in the Southeast is not complaining about attendance anymore.”
Mountain biking falls in basically two categories: trail and cross country.
Strickland calls mountain biking a great stress reliever as he tries to go biking at least five days a week to favorite sites like Carter Park and Loyce E. Harpe Park in South Lakeland.
“Seems like people are paying more attention to fitness and a lot of people in their 40s and 50s participate. The 40-49 age group in a race is usually the largest class,” Strickland says.
“As a kid, I road my bike every day and when I got married and had kids I stopped,” Stickland adds. “And then I said, ‘Wow I miss those days. I am going to get a bike.’ There are too many places to go to ride. The wife and I bought bikes and entered races.”
Enthusiast Katie Pobjecky Molin, too, is thrilled with mountain bike riding, finding her way there through running foot races.
“I am really into it,” Molin says. “I have always been very athletic and I was a runner and played tennis. I liked off-road running racing and I did a running race off Carter Road. Some people said you should try this (biking) as you seem to like the adrenalin flowing.
“People wonder why you mountain bike in Florida where it is flat,” Molin says. She bikes in the Mosaic area parks where hilly trails are available because of the phosphate mining back in the day, where pits were left unfilled, and ridges in the landscape eventually formed. “We go to Carter Road in Mulberry and Loyce E. Harpe Park.”
The Harpe park trail consists of about seven miles of varied terrain including technical single track. Most of the trail winds through old phosphate mine land and therefore the trail has a good mix of terrain. The most unique aspect of the Carter Park trail is the narrow single track through mined “spoil piles.”
“You must be physically fit,” Molin shares. “I was fit and I started running again to get my fitness in shape. Yes, you have to be in shape to be pulling yourself off your bike and pumping the pedals.”
She has found mountain biking means taking chances.
“The first time I took a trail that I was not ready for, I went over my handlebars and into water that was complete muck and had roots at the bottom,” she says. “I have had a lot of injuries doing this. I have scars all over me, from my wrist to my elbows, and both knees have scars. But your adrenalin is flowing and you get up and get on the bike and go.”
Molin has had so many bouts of poison ivy – she laughs that her doctor has given her a large size container of salve to fight the rash.
“I just love riding and I love nature and the athletics of it,” Molin says. “There is no TV and no one distracting you and you are out in nature. When running you can’t wait for it to be over. When you are riding your bicycle, you don’t think about when it is going to be over. You care about the course and things like – oh my goodness – there is a rock there (on the trail).”
Ray Wells owns the Bartow-based Red Trail Racing and has been mountain biking his whole life.
“I am so busy doing this that I also race another person’s races,” Wells says. “We schedule around each other so we can race in each other’s races. I don’t do any road racing. I really fell in love with mountain biking to get competitive.”
But he does enjoy road biking.
“I got the love of riding on the road again because in Bartow you can ride with only seeing maybe six cars on one road. I think of myself as a cyclist. Some call themselves a ‘roady’ as they are road riders. Typically nine to 12 hours a week I am on the bike. That is kind of difficult for someone who is competitive and tries to stay up with these fast rides we have,” Wells adds.
Strickland advises that the sport is so addictive if someone really gets into the racing, they should encourage family to join in because the racer is so busy “you may never see them.”
Local and National Bike Races
There are other trails that are very popular around the state. One is Haile’s Trail near Gainesville with special motor cross trails that are just for mountain bikes. Unique among all other trails, it is privately owned and exclusively open only two weekends per year, once in spring for the South Eastern Regional Championship (SERC) race and once in the fall for the Florida State Champion (FSC) race. The FSC series runs from September to December, Molin says.
Molin likes the Markham Trails in Miami and has biked those in August when “you are so very hot you are drenched.”
And at a 50-mile ride near Gainesville, Molin says bikers see lots of nature at the Tour de Felasco, which is not a race, but an endurance event through a challenging series of trails, according to the website. Many people compare this ride to the difficulty level of a hilly century (100 miles) road bicycle route. The ride tests skills in rolling hills, short climbs, sinkholes, creek crossings and log bridges.
“The USA Cycling is the largest governing body for biking, period,” Strickland says. “When you get a racing license to enter USA Cycling-sanctioned races, the license comes with insurance for each event. You get a yearly license so you can race and as you do well in races you get points earned. When they have their national event, if you win a lot of races all year, you get called up for the front row in the national races because you have proven to be the best and fastest in consistently the most races.”
Wells’ Red Trail Racing holds basically six to eight events a year and the main focus is on mountain bike racing.
Wells says he partners with the City of Lakeland and does an urban mountain bike race. The course includes a parking garage and down the front steps of city hall and around Lake Mirror.
“Picture a kind of mountain bike on city steps and urban areas,” Wells says. “We are the only one that does this type of event that I know of in the country.”
Most state races are typically around $25-$40 per entry fee, Wells says. Races are held nationally and worldwide.
Typically a rider gets a medal in the races, gift cards for prizes that gets the bikers into a bike shop, and Wells builds custom awards for all his events.
Mountain races are color coded with yellow, red as extreme and blue. A six-hour red trail is extreme, but a corporate course is a lot easier so anyone can race and have fun. Since a mountain bike race path is only two feet wide, you have to break up the racers so they are not all starting at the same time. Wells has contestants participate in a sack race first to gain position.
Gear & Bikes
Using specially made bikes for the terrain courses, the bikes incorporate features enhancing durability and the rough terrain.
When shopping for the sport Strickland suggests getting started with a $400 bike. Riders have then been known to come back because they have really gotten into the sport and want a better bike so they trade up.
In addition to the bike they need a helmet, bottle for water, clothing including shorts that are padded and jerseys that breathe and contain pockets. Riders also must get properly fitted to a bike.
The biker can purchase a bike for $300-$500 that will fill the bill, but the bike needs to be professionally fitted to the rider.
“We put electrodes on your knees and a camera watches you bike and tells the fitter how the bike needs to be fitted to your body,” Strickland says. “You will be very comfortable and get more power. We cover nutrition. They don’t listen to you about nutrition until they go out on a trail and discover the work it is.”
The type of bike is important and most have suspension that has a shock in the back.
“People are the dynamics of it, training, nutrition, coaching and using power meters,” Strickland says. “Power meters tell you your power output measured in wattages. It tells you where you are pedaling badly and how to increase your power output overall. We sell a lot of power meters. A bike coach can tell you how to fix the pedaling.”
As for the future of biking gear, Strickland says it’s difficult to say as the bike companies are making changes all the time.
“They used to have 26-inch tires and now they are 29-inches and average 27.9-inch tires,” he says. “Nine-speed and 10-speed bikes are now 11-speed, and it is rumored there will be an 11-speed shifting bike, and also bikes with battery operated electronic shifting that is very smooth.”