The Sunshine State occupies nearly 66,000 square miles of America's southeastern most corner. This peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean offers up more coastline in the contiguous United States than anywhere else and features a sub-tropical climate in the northern half, and a straight up jungle climate in the south. Florida is known for many things, including alligators, manatees, retirees, tan lines, palm trees and NASCAR as just a few of its many commodities. Tourism is among the greatest economic drivers behind America's third most populous state, and mountain biking is working its way into an up and coming role in this regard. Many of you, like me, might at first wonder how a land mass as flat as this might offer any real value to riders. Indeed, the state's highest point above sea level rises a very modest 345 feet, and that particular place is nowhere near where I'd be spending my week. But most of us have come to realize that while mountains might still provide the backbone of our sport and community, good trails can now be found anywhere vision and ingenuity prevail.
Spanish Moss is one of the defining visual characteristics of the northern half of the state.
Ocala is a sprawling area, but the city center has a small town charm to it.
Such is the case in Ocala, where the Santos Trails continue to grow in size and distinction. The lack of topographic opportunities hasn't dissuaded the vast and passionate local contingent from spending most of their free time riding their bikes in the woods. Long known as a winter retreat for the equine community from the north, at around 1993 mountain bike specific trail development began, and shortly thereafter the Ocala Mountain Bike Association was formed by original stewards Vick and Bobby Hart, Bob Michaels, Mike Shields and David Ellspermann among others. What started as a set of illegally built trails would eventually be absorbed by the Cross Florida Greenway, originally the Cross Florida Barge Canal, now a mile wide protected green belt corridor connecting the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
A relic from the early construction efforts of the Barge Canal. These support columns happen to be located on the perimeter of the Santos trails.
The Cross Florida Barge Canal was never completed due to local opposition and is now a mile wide greenway that has actually provided the Santos trails with much of its topography.
As the trails began to grow in popularity, the need for a more organized approach to design became clear. "A while back some people got hurt here, and the land managers helped us, through a grant, to bring IMBA in as (design) consultants." Renee Blaney explains to me over some coffee just before a ride. "We did a huge renovation with those guys, particularly at the Vortex area. I was the president of OMBA back then, and we brought them to the Fat Tire Festival as a show of celebration and thanks. Over time, they ended up helping us with club building, socialization of the club, and really helping us become established. But now, while we’re still a member of IMBA, we’re not a SORBA chapter. We’re not a developing club. They actually model some of their stuff based off of what we do. At this point, it doesn’t make sense for us to share our finances with them because they don’t necessarily offer us any direct benefits. We’re protected by the State, so we don’t even need their blanket insurance policy. We still use their trail building outlines, and respect what they do, we just don’t have the same needs that we used to."
The trail builders here make the absolute most of what the terrain offers. And there are dozens and dozens of miles of these reticulated veins of dirt and sand throughout the area.
OMBA president Jared Hartman has been an OMBA volunteer for 5 years. His only regret is not having started earlier.
Renee still sits on the OMBA board of directors, and to this day is in charge of the state's largest mountain bike festival, the Santos Fat Tire Festival. After spending a few years traveling to California and racing at the pajama party known as the Sea Otter Classic, Renee was struck by the festive atmosphere of the expo area, and wanted to bring a similarly fun and raucous affair to central Florida. After IMBA designated the Santos Trails with the "Epic" appellation, Renee felt that the time was right and after making a few calls and some begging, the first ever event was held 10 years ago as a celebration of what they had accomplished; receiving IMBA's first Epic designation for an entire trail system. The inaugural festival was a relatively mild affair but has since grown exponentially to become not only an event that brings thousands of visitors to Ocala every March but one that functions as OMBA's primary source of funding for the year.
"The festival is our biggest fundraiser by far." Jared Hartman remarks during that same conversation. Jared is a wine and liquor salesman by trade and the current president of OMBA. "As far as the trails themselves go, we’d like to have up to a hundred miles total, but we also want to continue to improve the trails we have now and make them more fun." More fun would seem to be a bit of a challenge in an area where the closest thing you'll find to a mountain is the Mount Everest attraction at nearby Disney World. With trails ranging anywhere between 50 and 75 feet above sea level, it's no small wonder that this place is so popular with the XC crowd, as any speed you want to generate is coming from your legs with virtually no assistance from gravity. Here's the deal: despite the lack of vertical relief, I couldn't help but grin ear to ear throughout the network's sinewy, winding paths amongst the subtropical forest. The Santos Trails are built in part on an abandoned limestone quarry, and manage to make the most of the short ups and downs that digging now affords. The limestone features, coupled with several exposed roots, flat corners and of course, Florida sunshine make for an undeniably fun ride.
Renee Blaney is the former President of OMBA and has been running the state's largest mountain bike festival, the Santos Fat Tire Fest, for a decade.
Jared Hartman is the OMBA president and one of the owners of Brick City Bicycles in town.
Indeed, you're going to have to do some pedaling if you want to move with any semblance of speed, but this place can be a total playground if you're a willing participant. If you happen to have an aversion to pedaling your bicycle, maybe riding in the woods ain't for you.
Additionally, Jared and the rest of OMBA have been the beneficiaries of one man's decision to spend his winters in Central Florida. "We had to change the culture here." Ray Petro says between bites. We're grabbing dinner at his favorite Italian restaurant in town. My eyes were quite a bit bigger than my stomach, so I'm happy to have a reason to sit back and listen as I deal with the repercussions of my massive portions. "A lot of guys here were dirt roadies for a while. They’ll go out and crush this 45-mile epic, some will do it twice on a Saturday. You have to pedal the whole time. I will tell you this, there ain’t no mountains here but these guys are dead serious about their riding. These guys will go race in the mountains and crush dudes who live in them because all you can do here for speed is pedal hard."
Jared and Ray discuss plans for a new set of trails in a city park.
Originally, this area was full of trash and litter. Today, bits of it remain as a reminder of just how far this place has come over the years.
Ray Petro's work has brought a fresh flavor to a predominantly cross country oriented culture here.
If you spend your winters riding frozen trails between freeze-thaw cycles, the Santos trails offer an amazing respite and opportunity to let your bike dance beneath you without having to bundle up.
Ray is the founder of the now legendary Ray's Indoor Bike Parks located in Cleveland, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in 2013, he paid Ocala a visit for the first time. From that moment on, his impact has been significant, as Jared has given Ray full creative autonomy and the results are pretty astonishing. "There are a lot of XC guys here, and Florida has what they call “hill envy”, so they make the trails go up and down. A lot. That way you can get a workout in. So when I build trails, I try to build as much flow as the land will allow for, otherwise, it can get kind of choppy. The challenge with Florida is the sand that sits about 3 inches below the topsoil here. So you can’t really dig too far because of it. The organics in the top 3 inches are what hold the trails together, so you can’t take a Bobcat and build a big dirt berm like you can back in Ohio. Before I got here, these guys were taking truckloads of clay and building their berms that way. Well, after a summer of consistent rains, they were essentially washed away. People would ride them while they were wet and leave these big tire ruts. They just destroyed themselves within a year. That’s where the wood came from. It’ll hold its shape and will last for like 20 years here."
The aforementioned Fat Tire Festival pulls in more cash than any other event or fundraising effort for these guys throughout the year, and they use roughly 10% of their annual funding on the rough cut lumber Ray prefers to use for his constructions. And what does Ray charge for his services? "He volunteers 100% of his time. We couldn’t afford to pay him otherwise." Renee says. "Those features wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t completely volunteering his time."
Ray is building some amazing trails in and around Ocala, and affecting the bike culture while he's at it. He's someone who truly believes that bikes can be a tremendously positive force for people.
"Ray could have chosen to live anywhere in the country, and he chose this place." Jared adds. "This is where he wants to retire and spend his winters. Overall he’s had a very positive impact here. Some people will make comments here and there and it’s mostly about the wood. We often use it for sustainability purposes, but there are always options to go around. 90% of the riders here love it, but there are some folks who don’t want to see any features when they ride their bikes in the woods. I follow other mountain bike clubs in the state, and now you’re seeing more and more areas adding wooden features in their own regions, so his style is impacting the rest of the state. In the 5-6 month period he’s down here every year, he does 500-600 hours of volunteer work."
Ray Petro's woodwork is appreciated by riders of all ages.
As it turns out, Ocala is a two-bike destination. Bring your trail bike, and if you've got one, bring your dirt jumper. Santos boasts two pump tracks, and several skills areas, including a set of beginner-intermediate dirt jumps, and a set that includes the largest jumps in the state. The jumps were first built in 2003, and at the time did in fact, feature a progressive set of lines from beginner friendly to massive, but after a couple of years during which local riders continued to slap dirt onto any and all lips throughout the sets, the progression disappeared and all that was left were big jumps built for a decidedly small amount of riders. Ray had an impact here as well. "I learned a concept from my AA sponsor, it’s called the 80/20 rule. 80% of the population are nice people, 20% are...not. When I apply that to my indoor parks, I apply it to rider ability. 80% of the people can have a blast when riding the terrain built for their ability. The other 20% are pros or elites, and only 20% of the park is for them. Whenever I build something, it has to be built for the regular people who make up that 80%."
Reaching for some of the day's last light, high above the big set.
In order to encourage newer and less experienced riders to try some jumps out, Ray and some others built a brand new jump line featuring 3 and 4-foot wooden lips at the entrance to the Vortex, and a set of wooden tabletops that runs alongside the largest set of gaps in the park. Those tables are also made of wood, and all of them feature 5-foot lips. This allows for the intermediate riders to get a feel for the speed of those lines, and to get comfortable in the air. Both the mid-sized and large jump lines end with a beautifully built wallride that steers riders into an additional set of features.
Mike Nau sends 'er into the sunset.
Ash Nau is midway through the wallride that sits below the intermediate and expert jump lines in the Vortex area.
Ray might have been the catalyst for change in the Vortex area, but the primary "keepers of the jumps" is a father-son duo out of nearby Mount Dora. Mike (more well known as Crash) and Ash Nau discovered Santos for themselves just a few years ago during the 2012 Festival. "These jumps weren’t here at that time," Mike says during a break from a late afternoon session with Ray and Ash. "But we were blown away by how many people were here to ride the trails. The jumps that were here at the time were replaced the next year by the current set, and Ashton got through the set in that first year, when he was 11 years old. It took me a couple of broken bones but I finally got through it."
Ash with a little sunshine foot plant. The 14-year-old phenom wasn't about to let a bout with strep throat keep him from a sunset session alongside his best friend and father.
He might go through a new set first before I go through it, and he will give me pointers on the jumps. If he knows I can not do something, he will just tell me: Dad, do not try these right now. We are just having fun in the woods together. Every weekend. - Mike Nau
Both Mike and Ash ride for Black Market Bikes and Profile Racing, and spend much of the season traveling around the country filming and riding on some of the best jumps in the U.S. But it's here in Ocala that their respective hearts lie. "Everyone thinks that because it’s Florida, there’s no scene here." The 2014 Volunteer of the Year and current board member remarks. "We ride a lot of different places around the country, but with the pines here it doesn’t really feel like you’re in Florida. Plus there’s so much singletrack here and for so many levels of riders. There are a lot of places where this wouldn't be allowed, but we’ve been grandfathered into state protection due to having been a park for so long. With the woodwork Ray’s been putting in, it has really helped people get more and more comfortable hitting jumps and progressing the big line. We would have been stuck out riding around in circles around a BMX track if it wasn’t for this place. I never volunteered for much in my life before I began volunteering here at Santos, but now I lay in bed at night wondering if the jumps were covered at the end of the day. The work that we’ve put into this place has brought my son and myself so much closer because we both know how much it has taken to get this place to where it is now."
Like father, like son. Or perhaps it's the other way around, as Mike readily admits that Ash is often the first between the two to guinea pig a new set of jumps.
Crash Nau watches proudly as his son works his way down the massive dirt jump set.
Whips for days from the 14-year-old native Floridian. This kid surely has big things waiting for him in the near future.
The Santos trails started off as a modest and unassuming endeavor by a handful of roadie converts and has over time become one of the crowning jewels of the Sunshine State. As OMBA continues to optimize the trail network's reach, Jared, Renee and the rest of the central Florida collective now begin to look towards the future, both in terms of trail development, and the next generation of riders who will be using these trails on a regular basis. Steve Mace, an OMBA member and Brick City Bicycle's business partner to Jared, founded the North Florida Junior Development Squad a few years ago in order to cultivate a talent pool of young, junior XC racers.
There are several jumps in the "Vortex" area of the Santos trails. Running alongside the largest set, Ray has built a set of several tables with 5-foot tall wooden lips
You're going to see this stuff everywhere. Spanish Moss feeds on nutrients and water found in the air. It's abundant here and lends a quiet beauty to the region as well.
"The purpose," Steve says. "was to create a localized race team that would support talented juniors who wanted to compete at the National level. As more and more kids and families found out about the group, the purpose shifted to not only serve kids already racing competitively but to introduce the sport and the skills necessary to enjoy it to any kids who wanted to learn." Now called Florida Devo (short for developmental), the undertaking has grown from a small group of 10 kids originally, to now upwards of 40 children on any given Wednesday afternoon, which is the preferred day of the week for the group to meet. Ages range from anywhere between 4 and 18 years, and there are 4 coaches to help the varying ages and ability levels, including Steve, Brian House, Mike Reppe, and Chris Fernandez. And, much like the services provided by Ray Petro, participation in this initiative is free of charge. The group raises funds for this through a variety of means, including washing bikes, selling t-shirts, and water bottles at the Fat Tire Festival, as well as through private donations.
Kids listen attentively to instruction prior to taking off for an hour long ride. We're about to see a tidal wave of talent come from this decidedly innocuous corner of the country.
The future is looking very bright for the region.
In the few years that I've been traveling and producing East Bound and Down content for Pinkbike, any inclination to travel to the deep south for riding was always overcome by a stronger desire to explore other, more mountainous options. I don't live in an especially hilly part of the world, but I do have some genuinely brilliant trails surrounding my home, so I've long known that mountains are no longer a requirement for mountain biking. I'm not sure what was holding me back, but after a week in Ocala, I'm sorry I didn't decide to make the trip sooner. Are my legs a little sorer after days of hammering the mostly flat terrain, punctuated by short and bursty ups and downs? Yes, they're thrashed. Am I a little bit bummed that I didn't see a single gator despite my best efforts? You bet I am; as visions of tire tapping a man-eater will have to wait another day. But have I found a reason to head beyond the southernmost reaches of the Appalachians when the time comes next winter to stretch my legs and work on my farmer's tan? Absolutely.