This is my first DGD entry as a new citizen of Sarasota, Florida. Wait, what? Yep, me and the Husboy packed up camp and followed a new job to this land of sand about a month ago. Long story short, Ryan was head-hunted by one of his clients last summer and the idea of uprooting ourselves to come to a place like this took every ounce of our brain power to justify (hence no DGD posts all year). And then the impossible task of telling everyone and then saying good bye was absolutely the hardest thing we both have had to endure. Driving away down I-29, as we've done hundreds of times with friends to fun places, was a road trip we'll never forget. But as soon as we began to see new terrain in Tennessee, Alabama and then northern Florida, the seed for new adventures was being planted. We could do this. We made the choice to take this chance and here we are.
We've slowly ventured out to see what there is to see and have discovered where the bikers are and also that Florida State Parks seem to treat mountain biking as a viable form of recreation. So much so that at Alafia State Park, there is a bike shop IN the park at the main trail head. Many trail systems share the space alongside hikers and equestrians, but so far, there's usually separate trails for all users. We've also ridden at Boyette as well as Carter Road Trails near Lakeland. All of these systems are pretty technical, some with raised wood features, that without, there'd be no way to connect ridge lines. One such trail at the Carter Road trails was a steep wooden climb and yours truly almost fell on her head when I didn't make it to the top and pogo-sticked my way back down so as to not fall down the slope. Luckily, I wouldn't have fallen into a gator-filled pond, but there were definitely places where one could and I pretty much avoided those. I'm out for a bike ride, not an adult swim, and certainly not with large predatory reptiles ready to gobble me up!
All the trails we had ridden so far, from what we were told, were no comparison to Santos. Get to Santos. You'll have a blast at Santos! So, since everyone seemed to be in agreement on the fact that this was the holy grail of mountain biking in Florida, we signed up for the 50 mile ride at the Santos Fat Tire Festival, a fund-raising event for the local trail club OMBA. The website boasted not only awesome trails but food, vendors, camping and all the stuff us dirt bags love. We were in. And not being in any kind of shape we were happy to find out that it was not a race nor timed event of any kind. Just a big ride in the dirt with 800 friends.
Since we were late to register, all the on-site camping was sold out so we got a hotel near by. Not knowing what the day would bring, we packed up sleeping bags, the sleeping mattress from the MTB Wagon (we sold the van last November but kept the mattress b/c it's that awesome) and some snacks and a cooler. We hadn't slept in the Toyota Forerunner yet so this was going to be a test run. We were pretty sure* the mattress and us would fit. ;)
We hit the road Friday afternoon. Driving through central Florida, off the interstate, near the town of Ocala was gorgeous. From what I read, Ocala/Marion County is horse country. Supposedly, it has the most horses and ponies in the US and has produced many champion race horses. But what was so stunning were the estates, with miles of fence parallel to the canopy-covered roads and the homes on these estates that could be seen atop rolling hills, behind regal entrance gates. These were homes of champion thoroughbreds and their owners! It would be a great road ride or motorcycle ride for sure.
We drove to the event site, the Santos State Park. Ryan's mom gave us a Florida State Park pass for Christmas, and so far we've used it more in a month than we used our Nebraska pass in many years. So many state parks here to keep all the tourists busy, that's for sure. We arrived to a full lot and mtb riders and vendor tents as far as I could see. Skills clinics were going on and we could here music playing. We were in our happy place. We got registered, got some intel, bought some raffle tickets, walked around the vendor tents and then went for a quick ride to get a lay of the land. Now, it was super busy since it's a state park open to the public and they were also debuting a new trail built by non other than Cam Zink who was at the park. We didn't make it to the new section but we did see the famed free rider in line at the burrito truck.
The pre-ride didn't give us a very positive feeling about the course. We downloaded the map thankfully b/c many of the directional signs had been torn down by some whipper snappers. It was a tad frustrating so we mentioned it to an event organizer who had told us that they'd been trying to replace them as fast as they could. So, at least they were aware. After the ride, we walked around some more and put many of our raffle tickets into the bucket at the Mulberry Gap tent. A $250 gift card was the best thing going in our opinion and there were only a handful of tickets so we thought we had a chance! We left the park to check into our hotel and get some dinner. We found a Thai place that was pretty busy (found out later it was the annual Ocala Horse Parade) so there were a lot of people in town but the food was excellent and we didn't die so no complaints. We ended the day exploring a local park that had some progressive features in it and a cool sink hole.
The next morning, we were up before sunrise because we were told by an event volunteer to get to the bike park early to get a good parking spot and to start the ride to stay ahead of the crowds. The day before Ryan found out that the trails are home to banana spiders and they like to make webs across the trail so we had to make sure we weren't the first ones out there because having a banana spider hit you in the face sounds like being at the eighth level of hell.
The morning was pretty chilly but typical of fall weather rides that we're used to where it's warmer later, so summer kit it was. But since there were no hills to warm us up, and lots of shade, we were pretty chilly for the first hour. And as predicted from the day before, we had to rely on the digital map to find our way. Many intersections were not marked and at one point we were on the trail that we were supposed to take to get back later that day but Ryan with his stealthy trail seeking skills got us back on target. We made it to the end point and then was told lunch was waiting for us on the way back at this one sag stop. Cool.The ride back was signed better but we had to deal with riders coming at us in sections. One thing we had to contend with was not only the sand but all the leaves on top of the sand: brown ice as they call it here. Feels kinda like you have a flat tire or riding on jello. And as I predicted would happen, I took a pretty good stab to the quad from my bar end when I hit the deck on a corner. Got a bit of whiplash with it to really make the sleeping in the Forerunner a good time. But the bright side, I haven't been this soar since BT Epic last October and I didn't care one bit. It felt good to be riding bikes in the woods or jungle-forest, in this case. The best part about the whole fifty miles was the new snack we discovered and will now make sure it a staple: peanut butter and banana on an Oreo cookie. Yes, it's fucking delish and I ate 3 of them at one aid station and was pissed when the next one didn't have them. Just plain Oreos. WTH?
So, our friends who are in the know about this trail system will be disappointed that we didn't ride any of the cool stuff. Not the Vortex, not the new Indigo Blue or whatever that was partially built by Zink or any of the stuff that the knee-pad wearing crowd was there to shred. We decided we'd leave it for another day. After 50 miles of pedaling, we were done being on bikes. The trails we did ride weren't really all that memorable so we'll have to come back to see what the "real" trails are like. We changed out of our bike clothes and jumped in line behind 20 other hungry bikers and proceeded to wait in line, as seems to be the norm in this state. But the food was worth the wait and as we ate, we chatted with the ladies who were running the skills clinic and we got some intel on the ladies' group rides around the state and trips they take (mental note). As the food settled, all I wanted to do was go into a post-lunch, post ride coma. The warm sun and the cool breeze was calling my name. To stay awake, we walked around the vendor village and put in some more raffle tickets at the Mulberry Gap tent. There were many more tickets in their bucket than the day before but since we put the rest of our stash on top, and we had some near the bottom, I was convinced we had great odds.
The vibe around the place was just electric. Kids were everywhere, riding the pump tracks and progressive features, women on bikes, like legit-bikes, not the hand me downs. There were several bike brands sporting full demo fleets and people were riding the crap out of them for sure. Families just having the best time. It was definitely a festival.
And we didn't want to leave so Ryan, doing what he does, bought his way into the camp site and we had a great time. Part of the camp fee covered a bbq dinner and hot breakfast. And after dinner, as we were sitting around, a truck came by blasting over a loud speaker that they had left over lunches from the 50 mile event so we grabbed two for our lunch on Sunday. What a deal! The evening concluded with a movie under the moon in the middle of the camp ground. Chilly, spring air was keeping us all in coats and under blankets so in other words, it was the perfect set up.
After the movie, we piled ourselves into the back of the Forerunner. The mattress was too wide and too long actually but we squished it in so that it was more like sleeping in a hammock. It wasn't the best but it wasn't the worst either and I was self medicated enough to just want to go to la-la land. Let's just say, I visited it a couple times.
Due to day light savings, we got up at 8am! Late for us and we were almost too late for coffee but we got the last of the 4 large coffee dispensers along with some sausage with biscuits and gravy. We sat with one of the trail's volunteers and got the scoop on the club and the park and all the momentum of the weekend. Great people, great passion. We could tell they were in it 100% for all who came to ride and camp. It was worth the admission despite the XC trails being pretty lack luster. Meeting folks of similar mind about events and sharing the stoke is reason enough! Soar and too tired to ride, we decided to pack up and head out and see what there was to see on our way home.
We saw on Google Maps that Silver Springs State Park wasn't to far away and I read that had awesome natural springs so we headed over and it turned out they were having their annual Spring Festival. We were there before church got out so it wasn't yet busy. We bought a couple tickets to take a glass bottom boat tour of the spring and learned ALOT! Seems many movies were filmed there, most popular being the Creature from the Black Lagoon! Also the spring is the 3rd largest in the world and water from it takes about 2 days to get to the ocean. And it's made up of rain water that seeps in to the ground, which takes about 20 years to cycle through the aquifer up to the spring so the water we were floating in was from rain in the year 2000! We only saw fish but manatees do come in the area when it's cold other places b/c the water is constantly 72 degrees year round. After the tour, we hiked a bit and was hoping to see some gators or wild monkeys but neither appeared. It was still a wonderful place to discover and hope to return to do some kayaking!
OH - I almost forgot. On our way home, I missed a call. We WON the gift card to Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Resort!! We've been wanting to go there for the last 3 years but we could never make it work. Well, we're going to this year! Look for that post come this fall!