Tampa Bay Times

Just along for the ride and – oof! – the bumps

- STEPHANIE HAYES Columnist

This pandemic has pushed mankind to his outdoor limits. We are testing our mettle, because we’re bored. We have become Survivorma­n ,or at least the Michael Scott version who almost dies eating a wild mushroom.

Today’s exhibit is mountain biking. The cycling industry has been one of the biggest winners of the COVID era. Sales of bikes and bike equipment went up dramatical­ly in 2020, and shortages persist.

We discuss these woes often in my home. My husband is a cyclist who takes 20-mile relaxation rides, while I get the wine deep breathing for dinner. Lots of stuff he wants is backordere­d, and his cycling magazines are a ruthless tease.

You would think all was lost, but it wasn’t. I forgot about rentals. When he said he wanted to try family mountain biking at Alafia River State Park, I said, lovingly, “You need to manage your expectatio­ns.”

Perhaps you have explored the sport of mountain biking. Oh, you have not? Let me tell you about it. This activity reveals the unique way adrenaline registers in your body. For some, it’s like, “whee!” For me, it’s a constant fixation on the cost of my dental work.

Indeed, there is mountain biking in mostly flat Florida. Alafia’s trail system is built on a former phosphate mining site, providing world-famous elevations for cycling enthusiast­s. There are three levels of difficulty: Green, Blue and Black. Black is home to portions called, and I am not kidding, “Frankensta­irs,” “Gravitron” and “Twisted Sister.” Green sounded great.

A friendly guy at the rental stand told us to hop on the bikes. He did a maneuver to test, I assumed, how far we might bounce off into a borrow pit. He then explained the gears. They are different from the ones on my bike at home, which include “to brewery” and “back from brewery.”

Still, he gave clear instructio­ns, such as, “Press this to make it easier and press this to pedal faster.” He also said, “Don’t press this one.” Then, I promptly got on the trail and pressed That One.

It’s not a good sign when, on the first tenth of a mile, you have misunderst­ood the gears so intensely that your bike locks up and you have to scream “GUYS” to whichever guys are down the trail. Once I got it moving, I decided not to touch the gears. If it was my time, it was my time.

Mountain biking with a group is a losing game. Once you have built up momentum, the person in front will have stumbled over the tiniest twig, stopping the line.

Or, you will have fallen so far behind that your group waits to check on you. When this happened, I yelled, “GO, GO, GO,” but they could not get started in time, which led to the most embarrassi­ng fall, the kind that’s not even cool. I’m talking about falling at 2 mph.

I persuaded my husband and 9-year-old stepdaught­er — both Whees! — to tear off without me. This allowed me to commune with nature at my own pace. If you listen, mountain bike trails have a special sound. It is the melody of someone getting

punched in the gut, coupled with the noises from The Blair Witch Project.

The two-hour rental period was plenty of time to explore the Green area, take moderate dives off tree limbs, learn to lift out of the seat to save the gluteus, and watch more experience­d people attempt sick jumps from a distance. There was even time to shut it down when the child asked if we could “just go on Black for a little bit.” I’m not one to discourage adventure, but some things can wait for the next pandemic.

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