By TERRY TOMALIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000
WILDERNESS PARK -- Somewhere in the woods, Sparky the Wonder Dog waited to pounce.
"You never know when he'll get you," Woody Hamilton said. "But sooner or later he will."
The mountain biking trails of this county park system are safe and well-maintained. Perhaps a little too safe and well-maintained for the likes of Hamilton and his friends.
Florida, with its miles of flat, monotonous trails, is hardly known as a "mountain" bikers' mecca. That's why Hamilton and other off-road enthusiasts look for ways to stay entertained.
Sparky, the mountain bikers' equivalent of Jimmy Stewart's 6-foot, 3-inch rabbit in the movie Harvey, is blamed for everything from a flat tire to that bump in the trail that sends bikers flying into a palmetto thicket.
"He keeps life interesting," the veteran mountain biker said. "Sparky usually shows up when people start getting bored."
Mountain bikers always have been nonconformists. Some might say they are even a little crazy.
They trace the origins of their sport to 1953, when a college student sick of riding around campus ripped the chain guard off his two-wheeler, installed some gears and caliper brakes, then took off for the woods.
Twenty years later, some equally imaginative maniacs in San Francisco (where else?) carried their heavy cruising bikes to the top of a mountain, then charged full speed down twisting roads.
"The first real mountain bike, the Specialized Stumpjumper, came out in 1981," Hamilton added. "That bike is now on display in the Smithsonian Institution."
But mountain biking didn't get the respect it deserved until 1996 when it joined "real" sports such as badminton and synchronized swimming and became an official Olympic event.
Out here in the woods, where Hamilton and Co. play, however, the Olympics Games might as well be a world away.
"Arf, arf, arf," Hamilton barked as he bounded down the trail. "Sparky's going to get you."
Road riders might scoff at the antics of these fat-wheeled brethren. But you need a good sense of humor when you spend the morning plowing through mud and 6-inch deep sugar sand.
"The right fit and the right equipment make all the difference in the world," Hamilton said. "The bikes we ride now have come a long way since the old days."
And Hamilton should know. He has seen both sides of the biking industry. Before he became a fat-tire enthusiast, Hamilton crossed the country three times on a road bike. "They are the smallest RVs in the world," he said. "You have everything you need right there on the bike."
Ten years ago, however, he traded in his toe clips and skinny tires for an off-road vehicle and never looked back.
Today, as manager of Chainwheel Drive in Clearwater, he sells far more mountain bikes than road bikes.
"They have become more affordable," he said. "You can get into a name-brand, front suspension bike for about $299."
A full suspension bike (both wheels have shock absorbers) costs about $900, but even that is coming down.
"Trek is coming out with a full suspension bike that will cost about $500," Hamilton said. "That is what you used to pay for a cheap mountain bike in a department store."
Once you have a bike, you'll need a pair of shoes to fit your clipless pedals, a good helmet and a hydration system to keep your fluids up on those hot Florida trails.
Don't forget a good padded seat. "They cost about $35," Hamilton said.
And perhaps most important, buy a pair of tight-fitting cycling shorts with an extra-thick pad in the crotch area, as this writer learned the hard way.
"Not feeling too well?" he was asked after a hard morning's ride. "Sparky got you ... and in a bad place too."
1. Ride on open trails only.
2. Leave no trace.
3. Control your bicycle.
4. Always yield the trail.
5. Never spook animals.
6. Plan ahead.
To learn more, contact the SouthWest Association of Mountainbike Pedalers (SWAMP) at (813) 985-5021. Check http://www.swampclub.org for trail conditions.
For local racing information, call Gone Riding at (352) 873-9279 or check http://www.goneriding.com.
The Wilderness Trails Association helps maintain the trails at Wilderness Park. To join or lend a hand visit http://home1.gte.net/hoak/wta/index/html or contact Sharon Noll at (813) 968-6309.
Trout Creek Site, (813) 987-6200
Morris Bridge Site, (813) 987-6209
Flatwoods Site, (813) 987-6211
-- Sources: International Mountain Bicycling Association, Chainwheel Drive, Oliver's Cycle Sports, Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation and Southwest Florida Water Management District.