Race Report: Suwannee Bicycle Association

It speaks volumes when a ride is so good it can draw cyclists from as far north as Ohio and as far west as Colorado to a sleepy little town in north Florida. White Springs is located about sixty miles north of Gainesville, where the small towns are better known for their crystal clear waters and the extensive networks of caves enjoyed by scuba divers. As a former diver, I never gave a moment’s thought to this area as a riding destination. I was in for a surprise.

Each November, word travels amongst mountain bikers in the know that it’s time to sign up before the now-considerable list of riders hits its limit of four hundred. I asked Race Director, Hans Guerrero, about the limit, and he explained how it had expanded over the 21 years of Ididaride’s history. When it first began, the Suwannee Bicycle Association had just enough volunteers for the Ididaride to support 200 riders, and all the logistics of hosting so many cyclists. Over the years, as the ride’s popularity has grown, the planners have expanded the number of enthusiasts able to participate. The grand total for the 2015 ride was 437. Those who missed the sign-up were added to a waiting list, in the hopes that someone might be willing to transfer their entry. It fills up fast!

This year’s Ididaride XXI will most likely be remembered for the four inches of rain that fell the night before the ride. After we checked in at the hotel, I got on Ididaride’s Facebook page and found a Youtube video posted by The Suwannee Bicycle Association – it was a HeroCam’s dashboard perspective of a four wheel drive truck blasting through huge water puddles, and set to the Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine.” Even though I’d never participated in Ididaride, I learned pretty quickly that I was in for an entirely new trail experience. Gone were my fantasies of fast, flowing, singletrack trails, with sandy/loamy soil and plentiful berms in the corners to rail while maintaining an insane pace thanks to the absence of any elevation gain.

For an East Tennessee rider, no elevation gain means hammer time. As a result of this kind of thinking, I had favored my road bike in anticipation of the fifty miles of Ididaride’s essentially flat terrain. I expected some roots and rocks, maybe some weird vegetation, and my wife had already wisecracked about riding over alligators and snakes before my friend, Walt, and I ever left Knoxville. The four inches of rain I very definitely did not expect.

A simple truth: when there are no hills, there’s no place for the water to go, so it sits on the trails. A few years back, Ididaride was cancelled and the locals actually paddled the course in kayaks–the trail was six feet underwater. I was completely unprepared on every level for this soggy kind of ride, but even that is part of what makes them so memorable. My paradigm was making a definite shift toward the watery.

Photo Credit: Walt Scarbrough Part of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center Park single-track in Section One.
Photo Credit: Walt Scarbrough
Part of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center Park single-track in Section One.

The ride itself started in the center of the small, quaint town of White Springs, Florida. After a bit of research, I learned that the history of the town goes back as far as the 1530s, when Spanish explorers visited the area. For years, different native American tribes shared the white sulphur springs, believing it had healing powers. Later there was a settlement that was officially founded in 1831, and the spring’s waters were widely advertised as a curative for everything from bad nerves to rheumatism. A hotel and springhouse were soon constructed, making it Florida’s first-ever tourist spot. White Springs is now graced with a number of well-maintained Victorian houses and small shops, as well as the Suwannee Bicycle Association’s clubhouse. I’d never heard of or seen a cycling club with its own clubhouse! How cool is that?!

Photo Credit: Mick Shea Suwannee Bicycle Association’s Clubhouse
Photo Credit: Mick Shea
Suwannee Bicycle Association’s Clubhouse

The morning of the event was cool and breezy, and we were happy to find a spot in the parking area early on. Check-in for the riders and packet pick up was smooth, and the staff was friendly. All the riders around me seemed relaxed and ready to begin. We were all making guesses about what kind of condition the trails would be in. I was praying for packed wet sand covered in pine needles.

The ride was divided into five sections, Section One being the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center Park, roughly 12 miles long with a lot of knee-deep water and sticky, tacky mud. Other areas of Section One were great and had a good flow, but my dreams of fast, loamy berms and speeding through the palmettos became history–fast. In warmer weather, the wading wouldn’t have been much of a problem (except for snakes and alligators). After repeated wading, the ride took on a sort of surreal quality–a story to be shared from rider to rider, around countless future camp fires. What an adventure!

After completing Section One, the trail wound back through town to the start area and then on to Section Two, which was routed through the Swift Creek Conservation Area. A SAG stop (with food, drink, and mechanical assistance) was set up before riders went into the second part. Compared to Section One, Section Two was in really good shape. There were a few places to wade, but overall Section Two was much drier and faster. There were a few rolling hills, which added an extra bit of fun to the trail. After completing Section Two, riders then jumped on Highway 41 and crossed the Suwannee River Bridge before ducking back into dry, fast singletrack. While this section had wet spots, it was great fun cruising around sink holes and weaving through the thickets of pine trees and palmettos. The trail darted back under the river bridge we had ridden across earlier and headed into the Deep Creek Conservation Area and came to the second SAG area–which had a monkey/jungle theme.

Section Three was also part of the Deep Creek Conservation Area, plus Big Shoals State Park and Big Shoals State Forest. The route consisted of singletrack, gravel roads, and another section of Highway 41. Most of the trail was good, but there were some really nasty sections (two miles had been cut from the course due to fast-moving water). Lunch was served at the end of Section Three, and I swear that was the best chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had in my life. The Weather Channel had promised us sixty-degree temperatures with scattered clouds and sunshine–the Weather Channel lied. We rode in low fifty-degree temperatures with a wind chill in the forties. By the time I got to the lunch stop, I was soaking wet and shivering.

Section Four consisted of the Big Shoals State Park, Big Shoals Conservation Area, and back through Big Shoals State Park once more before arriving at the Wine and Cheese stop which was manned by clowns (college-trained clowns, no less)! The fourth section had some great singletrack and dirt/gravel roads, but it also had more of the massive water holes. The final section, “Fantastic Five,” made the return trip to the Swift Creek Conservation Area. It was essentially the same route as Section Two, only in reverse, and it ended back at the Suwannee Bicycle Association’s clubhouse. There, riders checked in, washed bikes, and a few used the club house showers. Once the bicycle business of the day was finished, there was time to enjoy some BBQ chicken and tasty side dishes. And just like that, the incredible 2015 Ididaride was done. . .until next year!

Photo Credit: Mick Shea Rider Trella Lyons cruising through Section Four in the Big Shoals State Park
Photo Credit: Mick Shea
Rider Trella Lyons cruising through Section Four in the Big Shoals State Park

Tips for doing the Ididaride: Pack clothing for temperatures that can vary from the 30s to the 70s. Because of the ride’s layout, you will have the chance to swing back to the center of town and change/adjust clothing as needed. Take lots of food, tubes (or go tubeless), and don’t forget tools. In drier events, a full suspension could be faster and more comfortable, but I would rather ride my hardtail 29er.

The absolute best tip I can give you is to hit the registration deadline, and go do it! Everything about it was a blast, and you will be glad you did. Also, mark your calendars: on April 30 and May 1, 2015, the Suwannee Bike Club will have a mountain bike and paddling festival. It will be a great way to ride the trails and then paddle a kayak or canoe later on. I plan to do both, but hopefully it won’t end up being on the same trails!