Biking the Croom trails in Withlacoochee State Forest, FL

    By Saundra Amrhein

    The sun was steadily climbing toward the treetops on a Sunday morning as Ron Zajac and four friends clipped on their helmets, slid on their gloves and adjusted shoulder-strapped walkie-talkies and hydration backpacks. After gliding their mountain bikes over a small branch in a quick “bunny hop,” their rope-muscled legs pumped up a small incline, steering deep into the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest.

    The Croom trail at this former phosphate mine, near Brooksville in West-Central Florida north of Tampa, offers off-roaders some of the tight technical turns, nail-biting descents and thigh-burning climbs as challenging as any trail systems in the region. But it is known and loved most for mile upon mile of flowing single-track riding through a forest of oak hammocks, longleaf pine, palmetto scrub and wildlife. And unlike some other Florida mountain biking trails, rain can improve conditions in Croom – packing down the sandy trails.

    There’s also plenty to do near this state forest – dubbed one of the “Ten Coolest Places of North America” by the World Wildlife Fund – once riders disembark from their bikes, including camping, hiking, kayaking and horseback riding on the equestrian trails. If the off-road biking proves intimidating, there’s also the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail, the longest paved rail trail in the state, and which passes through small towns and nature preserves.

    Zajac and his friends sometimes finish off a morning ride on the paved trail. But for Zajac, it is the ride through Croom, hours focused on the earthy path and every turn in front of him, swallowed in the hush of swaying trees and crunching pine needles below that can bring him into “the zone.”

    Elias Sanchez, 50, calls it a form of therapy. “Sometimes if I get depressed I come over here,” he said.

    All five are members of the SWAMP club, or the SouthWest Association of Mountain Biking Pedalers. With some 700 members and in existence since the early 1990s, the club labors to maintain four off-road trail systems in the Tampa Bay region, including Croom, the Alafia River State Park Trail, Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve Trail, and Wilderness Park Trails, which include contiguous trails between three parks.

    Croom is by far the biggest of all of them, with almost 60 miles of single-track mountain bike trails. The network includes a 35-mile loop, a 12-mile loop and connectors in between, thanks to cooperation between the Division of Forestry and the SWAMP club, whose members marked, mapped and continue to maintain the trails. Club members work one Saturday on each trail system to keep them up.

    They also offer free guided tours every weekend, rotating on each trail system and breaking down typical groups of 40 to 50 people into beginners, intermediate and advanced riders. They also offer workshops and clinics for each group on the finer points of balance and technique when negotiating turns, small branches and steep hills in the forest, and stage monthly social gatherings and annual getaways for rides in places like the mountains of North Carolina.

    One of SWAMP’s big annual events is right here at Croom, said Zajac, who is club president and joined in 2004 to help clean up the trails after a series of tropical weather systems passed through the area that year and downed branches throughout. The Croom 35/50 Mile Florida Mountain Bike Challenge is usually held every February and draws in several hundred people from around the state and nation.

    But it’s the routine camaraderie that charges many of the local riders.

     “Try to keep up,” Marty Eubank, 69, called playfully over her shoulder to her younger friends on this Sunday.

    “Oh, it’s on,” Zajac, 50, and an architect during the week, replied.

    Eubank is married to Wes Eubank, 65, one of the founders of the SWAMP club.

    “We discovered off-road biking and sold our road bikes and never looked back,” she said.

    Sanchez, a personal trainer, recalled meeting the couple several years before on another trail and thinking, “Look at this little lady.” Quickly, he realized that though Marty never left him behind, he was winded and wiped out while she looked as if she was just getting started. Soon the couple became like parents to him as he got his wife involved.

    “I’d never been off road or seen a root, let alone know you can even ride over it,” said his wife, Pat Sanchez, 60, after the five finished guiding a newcomer through the easier parts of Croom.

    Nearby, Jose and Sherry Tarrio, of Spring Hill, were wrapping up six miles of riding through Croom with their two sons, Evan, 9, and Maxim, 6.

    “I liked doing the steep hills and stuff,” Evan announced as they loaded into their SUV.

    His parents loved the huge oaks and wildlife, including the deer they spotted. “I like being in the woods,” Jose Tarrio said. “It’s that feeling like you’re away from everyday life.”

    If you go…

    For more information and directions to the access points to the Croom Tract, call the Withlacoochee State Forest at (352) 754-6896 or visit the website.

    Also, you can find more information and maps through the SWAMP club at their website.