Riding Florida in June

Why would anyone in their right mind go to Florida in June?  The reaction that I’ve gotten from most people in Vermont is something similar to what I would get if I told them I was going to remove my own leg with a butter knife.  Generally, Vermonters carry this understated attitude that we’re tough enough to deal with anything nature has to dish out.  Thirty degrees below zero?  No problem.  Cancel school because of a couple of inches of snow?  Don’t be a baby.  Mud, ice, wind, black flies, mosquitos, tourists… we seem to be able to put up with anything.  Except heat.  Mention temperatures over 79F and people around here seem to wilt and turn into whiners.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Air conditioning in a Vermont summer is about as pointless as an electric blanket in Miami, yet I see homes with units installed in their windows all around the Northeast Kingdom.  Regardless, we made the trip in June despite all the well intentioned warnings about our imminent doom from the heat and humidity.

Resting.
Resting.

My family and I have visited Hanna Park during previous trips to Jacksonville, Florida and we’ve really grown to like the place.  In addition to being located directly on the beach, there is a pretty large campground, freshwater lake and quite a few miles of mountain bike trails packed into the same area.  The beach is only a few minutes walk from the campground and we all love the warm ocean water there.  At a time when the water in Vermont is still capable of creating hypothermia in minutes, it’s beautifully warm in Florida.  I also like the place because the mountain biking is surprisingly good.

The thing that is most amazing to someone from Vermont is that the trails are all basically flat as a pancake.   There actually are some minor elevation changes throughout the park, but the “climbs” are pretty much under 10 vertical feet; small enough that no change in elevation shows up on Strava or any other GPS tool.  You’d think that this would make the biking easy, and it can, but it also means that there aren’t any downhills to coast and rest on; you can keep the gas on the whole time.  This is perfect single-speed stuff.

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More of the South Loop

Coming from the northeast, the vegetation is also pretty interesting.  The trails wind through a dense, semi-tropical undergrowth.  It makes the woods in New England look big and open in comparison.  The canopy of palms and deciduous trees provide shade like the New England forest, but at the ground level it’s crazy. It has a bit of a surreal sensation with palm fronds all over the place, Spanish moss hanging from the tree limbs, and huge tree trunks sprawling up to the green cover above. It really has the appearance that you’re cutting through the jungle even though civilization starts just outside the gate.

just a little undergrowth!
just a little undergrowth! (find the owl)

The trails in Hanna park can be broken down into three main loops:

E line – The E Line trail(s) are found to the north of the main access road to the park.  There are a few options here that vary from the main loop.  This area is the technical middle ground in my mind: a little more challenging than the South Loop but not nearly as tight and demanding as the Z Loop.  For some reason, the way the trail winds around left me a little directionally disoriented.  It took me a few times around this loop to get a real feeling about where I was.  I eventually figured it all out to the point where I could just cruise the loop and know which turns to take.

South Loop –  All of the bike trails in the park have a pretty nice flow to them but the South Loop is probably the most fluid of them all.  Overall, the trail is pretty smooth and very fast as it takes a full loop around the outer edges of the park.  It’s not entirely without any technical challenge with some tight turns, narrow gaps, and frequent rooty sections, but there’s very little in the terrain that will slow you down.  The corners take nice wide arcs and have built up small, natural berms from traffic over the years.  I got into this loop as a way to open up the throttle and rip.  Seriously fun to ride.

Some narrow spots in the south loop.
Some narrow spots in the south loop.

Z trail –  This trail is among the tightest singletrack that I’ve ridden anywhere and, by far, my favorite.  While it can easily be ridden in a relatively moderate manner, it’s best when done at speed.  The frequent direction changes and narrow paths between trees impose restraint.  It ends up being an exercise in power and bike handling.  Accelerate.  Brake. Corner.  Repeat these steps over and over.  A couple of laps on this trail would give my legs that tired, rubbery feeling.  The Z Trail also has an alternate line cut on the northeast portion of its loop, but there was very little sign that it has been used at all.  I’m not sure why that is, because it had a pretty good feel to it.  If it were just cleaned up and some of the brush cut back it would just as much fun to ride as the rest of the trail.

Z Trail junction
Z Trail junction

The park designates the direction that the trails are ridden in.  This is a good thing because without it there would be some serious injuries happening from head-on collisions.  Most of the corners are completely blind and can be ridden at high velocity.  It would be nearly impossible for two riders coming toward each other at speed to be able to react in time to avoid each other.   The other benefit of this imposed direction is that the park swaps it daily.  Riding in the opposite direction can give you the feeling that you’re riding a new trail.  Doing this is almost like doubling the available mileage.

The one downside I found to riding in this part of the country is spiders.  Every night these big, nasty, creepy-crawly spiders spin large webs that span the trails.  Their webs are made up of thick strands that have the elasticity and strength of lightweight fishing line.  There were a few mornings where I was the first person out on the trails for that day and I returned from my ride with my helmet coated in webs.  The spiders themselves often ended up on my arms, chest or head but they will abandon ship as soon as they realize that they’re on you.  Of course, this means that they’ll crawl around until they find a way off, which isn’t my favorite sensation.  I would often wait until later in the morning to start my ride, hoping that someone else has gone through to clear out the webs before me.  Sometimes that worked, but not always.

What the spiders really looked like.
What the spiders really looked like.

As I was warned, Florida was a bit warm in June.  But, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.  Seriously.  Never been so drenched in sweat from riding my bike.  By the end of any ride, literally, every thing on my body was dripping from sweat.  I could squeeze my shirt or shorts and they would stream sweat on the ground.  It was awesome.  My bike was spattered all over the bars, stem and frame.  I was slightly dehydrated for days in spite of drinking water constantly.  I didn’t really recover until I returned to Vermont.

Lots of sweat.
Lots of sweat on the downtube.

One of the cool things about riding in a new place is meeting new people.  Everyone I talked with was pretty friendly and all had suggestions about where else to ride in the region.  It seems that there’s definitely more to explore in the long run.  We’ll see.  After a couple of weeks in the area we had to pack up and head back north.  During the time we were in Florida we had seven inches of rain and two frosts back home.  No regrets on missing part of my Vermont summer.

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I sometimes steal KOMs here, but not this trip.

 

 

 

Florida Single-track

While casually driving around northern Florida in an RV, I decided to stay at Hanna Park in Jacksonville, FL.  The really cool thing about this park/campground, aside from the fact that it is right on the beach, is that it is surrounded by single-track.  The park is run by the city of Jacksonville and is only 450 acres.  Considering the limitations of its size, they really maximized the use of the land for trails with a pretty nice design.

Hanna Park TrailheadSince we had some down time, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to get out and ride.  I tooled around the parking lots warming up and noticed a few people either heading out or returning from riding near the entrance of the park.  I decided to take one of the trail heads there to see where it went.  I soon caught up with another rider on the trail, Joe, who was keeping a reasonable pace.  I followed his line and generally took in the trail.  We talked a little while we rode, and he was kind enough to act somewhat as a guide for me.  He gave me a tour of the “South Loop” and “E-Line” trails.

Hanna Park Trails Map
The trail map.

I rode the South Loop first.  This trail meanders around outside of the southern part of the park circling the campground and lake.  The trail winds all over itself and had a great flow to it.  There were lots of sandy banked turns, tree roots and the occasional small limestone ledge. There were enough big tree roots to keep things technically interesting.

On the north side of the park was the E-Line trail.  This trail likewise had a great flow to it. The major difference was that it had a few more up and downs  and was slightly more technical than the South Loop.  This loop officially changes direction every other day by park policy.  Very cool idea to keep accidents to a minimum and provide some variety.

Typical Trail
This is what the trails looked like.

It felt and looked like I was riding under the canopy of a deep jungle – something like you’d see on Gilligan’s Island.  These trails twisted around on themselves repeatedly but really seemed to encourage speed.  Unfortunately, tropical storm Beryl had gone through Jacksonville just a few days prior making a mess of the woods.  There were numerous trees down across the trails, and everywhere the ground was littered with small branches from the winds.  The downed trees really broke up the rhythm of the trail in numerous places.

Elevation change throughout the park was pretty much  non-existent.  This wasn’t particularly shocking since we’re talking about Florida.  Any vertical changes were brief and didn’t gain an elevation much greater than the height of my handlebars.  They were more rollers than climbs but definitely added some technical fun to the terrain.  The few people I encountered were all riding in their big chain ring.  I was thinking I could have comfortably used a 34 or 36 tooth ring up front to go with my 18 tooth cog.  I needed to work on my spinning anyway.

I hoped that I might have time to get back out on the trails before we left in the morning.  Thankfully, Joe warned me that the spiders will build webs across the trails in the night.  He said they’re small this time of year, but get about “this big” (he said circling his hand into a much too large of a representation of their size).   Some people hate snakes and others hate spiders; I fall into the spider category – even small ones.

After a day behind the wheel in crazy traffic, this was a perfect mental recovery.  Altogether, I put in around 13 miles on the trails in about an hour.  After riding, I spun down the road about half a mile and joined my family on the beach.  I was able to ride on the beach too but decided that cooling off in the water would be better than slogging around on the beach sand.  This is Florida after all.

Hanna Park Beach
The Beach!