Finding Gnar at 75 Feet Above Sea Level

The trails in Ocala, Florida are a reminder that fun is a word you can use in flat states too.

As I edged my front wheel closer to the edge of the massive ramp, my stomach knotted even tighter.

“Don’t feel obligated to ride it,” the voice called out from the other side of the wooden monster nicknamed Papa Bear. The 12-foot ramp features a steep 58-degree drop-in, immediately followed by a second, 48-degree roller and a couple of smaller ramps ideal for grabbing air. Imagine a breakneck wooden roller coaster, but you’re the stoned carnie in control of the ride.

A devout Hoosier cross-country rider, I abhor descents, particularly ones with a steep penalty for failure. But with my riding companions and a few amused locals looking on, I was determined. If anything went wrong, it would only make the story more interesting, right?

I tried to cry out “For MTB Project! For Journalism!” as I pushed off, but only a garbled yell escaped my throat as I plummeted down the chute.

Just a few days earlier, the cold Indiana winter had forced me and a few friends south, in search of warmer climes. As we rode through Chattanooga’s Raccoon Mountain trails, with a brief stopover at the excellent Coldwater Mountain singletrack outside Anniston, Alabama, our spirits rose with the climbing mercury. Finally, we rolled into the orange groves and the cypress forests of the Sunshine State. We’d heard amazing things about Santos Bike Park, so we took advantage of Ocala Mountain Bike Association President Jared Hartman’s gracious offer to show us around.

A video posted by Seth (@sethsbikehacks) on

The Bronze-level IMBA Ride Center is a great example for other purpose-built trail networks–the easiest trails, designated by yellow markings, looped around the entire park. Inside of those trails, you’ll find both intermediate (blue) and expert (red) trails. Every expert trail meets up with a piece of intermediate singletrack, so if a rider feels overwhelmed or is injured, they can quickly make their way to the easier trails. Suffice it to say, the builders responsible for this system could teach classes on expert trail planning.

Leaving the Santos campground, we were in the woods in just a few short pedal strokes. Warming up with a few blue-level trails, we were taken by the gorgeous scenery surrounding us–massive pines covered in Spanish moss formed a canopy over us, letting in just enough of the warm Florida sun. Marshmallow Trail lived up to its sweet and airy namesake, as we picked up speed over the fairly simple singletrack, railing the wide turns at a breakneck pace. Up next were Sinkhole and Rattlesnake Ridge, two technical, twisty trails littered with roots and jagged chunks of limestone. We managed to make it through unscathed and without dabbing, but not without a lot of muscling our bikes through the chunky rock gardens. The main park’s 25 miles of trail was built on the remnants of a limestone quarry, so it’s no wonder there’s so much of it poking out of the ground.

My home state of Indiana is notoriously flat, but we’d managed to travel to one of the few states that’s even flatter. Santos makes do, however, thanks to numerous wooden ramps, rollers and corkscrews spread throughout the park. Ray Petro–yes, the eponymous Ray from Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park–lives in Santos for half the year. He can’t help but build these massive, lumbering creations–skinny boardwalks and bridges raised a few feet off the ground in the interior of the park and huge ramps for getting massive air on the outskirts. Which takes us back to Papa Bear.

Dropping in on Papa bear! Photo: Robert Annis

Determined not to endo, I was so far behind the saddle that I felt my 29-inch rear wheel grind against my shorts. As is often the case with best-laid plans, things quickly turned south. I was too far back so as I ascended the second rise, my sternum slammed down hard against my saddle, cracking the carbon seatpost and breaking off the mount. I rolled to the top of the next ramp, trying hard to catch my breath. As I dismounted, the broken saddle tumbled from the bike onto the ground with a dull thud. I’d narrowly avoided becoming a human donut.

A photo posted by Scott Malling (@stm_twin) on

After a quick self-evaluation–no holes, no broken bones–we were all able to laugh about my Papa Bear biff, although I was not relishing prematurely ending my ride. Luckily, Jared only lived less than a half-mile from the park, and he thought that he might have a 30.9 mm seatpost in his parts bin. A short, standing pedal up the road later, we were in Jared’s garage, installing the new post, thereby saving my ride.

We weren’t even finished with our second loop when my buddy David suggested making annual pilgrimages down to Santos each winter. As I swooped through another fast, bermed turn, the excited roar of my tires gripping the dirt was all the answer he needed.

[Bonus Miles] Santos hooks up to the OMBA Epic trail system, stretching out nearly 100 miles. Starting at the Land Bridge trailhead, the 49th Street Trail isn’t particularly difficult, but features some beautiful examples of Florida horticulture and a few flowy features that make the most of the area’s limited topography. And while the only animals we spotted were a few squirrels and an owl nearly hidden in a hollowed-out tree, one of our riding companions spotted a Florida panther crossing the trail in front of him about two weeks before. (Don’t worry, they won’t bother you. Probably.)

[Sleep] The Santos campground is located a few short pedal strokes from the Santos trailhead. Be sure to reserve a spot early, because they do fill up fast in the winter months. One site is reserved for day-of campers, but it’s a roll of the dice whether you’ll get the spot. The Shangrila campground is located within a 1.5-mile connector trail of the middle of the OMBA Epic trail system. Be aware there are no electric options at the individual campsites, but there are bathrooms and showers.

[Get Serviced] Brick City Bicycles, about seven miles away in downtown Ocala, features one of Florida’s premier wrenches, Thomas Deaner, and a nice selection of bikes and gear. Santos Bike Shop has a 1-mile connector trail leading to Santos and often leads weekday volunteer sessions as well as group rides. If your bike snaps on the trail or you’re just getting into town and need a rental, Greenway Bicycles ((352) 351-3475) will hook you up. Best of all, they’re located just across the road from the trails.

[Fuel Up] The Mojos Belleview is about two miles south of the Santos trailhead and serves slightly upscale bar food with a decent beer selection. About seven miles north on Hwy 441, you’ll find Taco n’ Madre, which serves cheap and authentic Mexican dishes. Be sure to order the coconut horchata.

B D Beans, located about four miles south on Hwy 441 in Belleview, serves the best coffee in town, along with great omelets, soups, and sandwiches. Infinite Ale Works serves Belgium-style craft beer from its downtown Ocala location, seven miles north of the trailhead (and one block from Brick City Bicycles).

Greenway Bicycles is more than a bike shop; they sell a wide range of cold beer (nothing on tap, just bottles and cans) just yards away from the trailhead. It’s the perfect place to roll into for a post-ride beer, although with just a few stools in the shop, you’ll likely have to drink them elsewhere.

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