Real Trail-Builder Interview – Florida Mountain Biking History

Well, hopefully you’ve all been enjoying a wonderful holiday season and your muscles are nice and relaxed and back to normal after a busy FSC season. We thought we’d spread a little holiday cheer by giving you the story behind Gone Riding, one of our most well-loved local race promoters. Pour yourself another hot cocoa and enjoy!

Instead of our “Real Rider Interview”, we’re mixing things up to present this twist, the “Real Trail-Builder Interview”. We were lucky enough to catch Dave Berger sitting still for a few minutes last Endurance Season to interview him about the history and creation of Florida mountain biking and trail building. I started off the interview while David ran to grab us a few drinks on his bike, which of course, he spilled upon dismount. Throughout the interview, we were enraptured with the stories of now-closed epic trails and often laughing about the common experiences we too could relate to. We hope this gives you a nostalgic feeling, like it did for us. 

I mean, how can you not feel nostalgic with these photos? Wait til you see the ones with the fork springs!


Jemma: Tell me a little bit about your history of mountain biking. You told me earlier you started with motocross and transitioned over.

Dave: Started racing motocross in ‘72, was totally involved with that. In ‘89 I started riding a mountain bike and kind of left the motorcycle behind. I had actually owned a mountain bike for seven years and it had just been sitting in my garage. The tires were rotted all out and everything. So I’d heard about a mountain bike race and I literally went in one week from not riding, to racing.

Jemma: That’s a big transition.

Dave: Yeah, I was still hyped up on motorcycle racing and I wanted something to fill that need. I read a pamphlet and there was a little bike race near Dade City Florida and I jumped in. It was maybe 25 people. It was literally just a track where they took a lawnmower and it went through a field!

While some of Gone Riding’s races start in fields these days, we’re fortunately able to take advantage of a LOT of awesome single track, thanks in part to Dave himself!

Jemma: Haha good story, though!

Dave: So I had to go down to Wal-Mart to get new tires because mine were rotted. I went out and raced and I literally didn’t even know how to shift my bike.

Jemma: So you were just hammering it as best you knew how, huh?

Dave: Yeah, I had a blast and from then on I started racing more and more. I started to get involved. Back then there weren’t that many places to ride and so whoever was putting on a race had to build part of the trail. I got to where I was helping one of the promoters mark the trail and then build it and in exchange I’d get to race for free.

Juniors racing just over 16 years ago, I wonder how many of these are now racing Cat 1 expert in their late 20s and early 30s!

Jemma: Oh that’s cool. Nice setup!

Dave: In ‘93 we started Gone Riding Race Promotions, started doing our own races. It’s just been a hand in hand thing with racing and building trails. Like I said back then, there were only a handful of places. There were a few in South Florida, Santos didn’t exist back then. There were a couple places in Tampa. My first build was at Hard Rock, I started building that in 1990. We opened it up for mountain biking on the weekends for ten years. Then we opened up Razorback after that in 2000 and ran that until 2008 and that again was open on the weekends. Also, we built Carter Road Park which is Loyce Harpe Park now, down in Lakeland. We built that for a race.

We built the first six miles for a race and a club came in after that and started expanding it and maintaining it. That worked well. Santos, although I didn’t directly build any trails, a lot of the people that I knew that formed the original OMBA club were racers and they would race and ride at Hard Rock, so I was working with them and then we started doing races at Santos also. This place here (Haile’s Trails), there was another guy by the name of Jim that built about half of it, can’t remember his last name right now, I’ll think of it. It’s been a long time. He’s a good guy. We’ve expanded it over the years and built new trails. We’ve got a lot of options here. Right now it’s kind of the easy version. (This interview was conducted at the Haile’s Endurance Race 2017)

Here’s part of the “easy version” from the 2017 Endurance Series.

Jemma: Hmmmm. Can you imagine the hard version?

DC: Well, we’ll find out this fall I guess. Haha!

Dave: Then there was another trail in Brooksville called Grand Canyon. It’s near Croom. It’s similar to this, it’s an old mining camp built from the early ‘90s to 2000. A lot of clay, hardly any sand, one of the most intense trails I’ve ever seen. I helped build that one too. Talk about straight down and straight up.  We used to do races there. It was relatively short, about four mile loops. The bad part about that was if it rained it was maddening because it was so slick. We just had so much bad luck, every time we scheduled a race it would rain. You couldn’t even ride the downhills it was so slick. Anyway, Razorback was my biggest pride. We had 14 miles of trail. It was a lot like this, all limestone quarries.

Here’s David climbing up out of one of the quarries at Haile’s this past endurance season.

At this point, Russell Peelman comes up and starts reminiscing with Dave about the various endurance races held at all the old tracks from the 90s and 2000s. He agrees that Razorback was the treasure and the hardest trail of all. Once, while racing, he split his calf right open on his chain ring. He shows us the scar where he got 32 stitches from his sharkbite like wound. Russell tied his spare tube around his calf to “keep stuff from fallin’ out” and got back to the trailhead. Apparently Dave just handed him his first aid kit and got back to what he was working on. Russell drove himself to the ER and then the conversation moves on to another guy (Justin?) who split his face open. There’s apparently a photo of this guy inches from the ground still with his camelbak in his mouth. Undoubtedly, there are many gory glory stories of endo’s and crashes over the years. I suggested that Russell just cover his legs with tubes to be safe this round.

Russell probably got his injury doing something epic like this sweet jump!

Jemma: Back to Razorback, your pride and joy.

Dave: Yeah, there we had the most resources, the terrain was incredible. It was hard-packed for the most part. A lot of variety. It was private property, I could go out there in the middle of the week and work on it. It started out with probably 6-7 miles and by the time we were done we had 13 miles. There was stuff that was so intense that we wouldn’t even put it in the race. We always had an option  – what we called a short loop that anybody could ride and from that it branched off into other sections.

Jemma: That’s nice because you can do whatever you want.  You can have a nice little ride, or you can add in some harder stuff to challenge yourself.

Dave: Exactly. In racing it was really nice because it was a cloverleaf design, you had one easy and then three other loops that branched off in or out. You could make endless choices.

Jeff Miller rounding the last corner after finishing!

Jemma: I would love to know, how does one build a trail and what kind of qualities are you looking for. When you have a raw piece of property, what’s out there, what are you looking to do?

Dave: Well it depends on what you have to work with. Most of my experience is on Florida trail and I know trail-building in the mountains is just totally different. We’re fortunate here that you can pretty much do everything by hand and I try to just first get familiar with the whole property. Walk and ride around as much as I can. I just try to get a basic loop in my mind. To me that’s the first thing. I need a working loop and we can expand from there. The first step is to get where you can walk through it, the second step is to get where you can ride through it, and then you worry about the details. I’m looking for, well, any kind of elevation in Florida is attractive, so we try to take advantage of any type of hill.

One of those few and far between bits of Florida elevation.

Jemma: You might go up and down it four different ways huh?

Dave: Yeah, I used to joke that the guys down in Miami, they build their tracks – they have so little to work with and they do such a great job…. if they find a five foot high mound, they’ll ride over it five times. They’ll figure out a way to do it. So yeah you want to take advantage of the flow. Ideally you have something where you can have a nice sloped climb and then extend the downhill as long as you can. I’ve never been trained in the formal way to build trails. I know that IMBA has some really good guidelines. But I know from trial and error about making stuff that’s straight down, you’re asking for erosion. You want to keep erosion in mind. Even working out there in the rain, you want to see where the water is going.

Jemma: That’s a good idea, work in the rain so you can see what happens.

Racers entering the main course from a road entry somewhere in the mountains.

Dave: Yeah, or go right after the rain to see what’s flowing. I’m pretty much a fly by the seat of the pants guy, when it comes to trail building. I tried to always imagine myself on a bike. And it’s hard, because when you’re on foot, you want to make turns constantly and you want to just zigzag everything and then you get on a bike and it’s a totally different feel. So I’ll bring my bike and even if I can only ride it a quarter mile, sometimes even just sitting on a bike changes your perspective. You start thinking like you’re riding. That’s how I do it anyway. Oh, and there is A LOT of poison ivy.

Jemma: So what does that look like again? Already starting to feel itchy just thinking about it.

Dave: One leaf with three pieces on one stem. When you are using a weed eater and you’re pulverizing the trail, the poison ivy gas, it’s just… ugh. So yeah, the main tools are a weed-eater and a machete.

Lots of family and friends just like today at Gone Riding’s older races.

Jemma: So did you get one really strong arm from all the machete-ing?

Dave: Yeah, and I have permanent tennis elbow in this arm.

Jemma: Aw bummer, not as cool as I was imagining.

…the inside of Jemma’s head.


DC: So, how do you go about getting access to building the trails?

Dave: Fortunately a lot of the state parks are very open to mountain biking, they realize the benefit financially. It used to be almost impossible to get into a state park. Now, that’s a nice place to start. If someone is looking to build a trail, go to the city, county, and state parks and see if they’ve got something available and see if it’s feasible. Everyone is case by case. It really depends on the management. They may have their own unique issues you wouldn’t think of. For private, find out who the landowners are.

Andy Wehmeyer and Matt Hammond in da house!

David: Which would you say you’ve had more success with, private landowners or parks.

Dave: Private is hard because it’s difficult to break the ice. And as soon as people hear mountain biking they automatically think you’re going to be jumping off cliffs like they see in commercials, you know? So that’s the hardest thing. Parks are a little more educated on things like that. Santos, the county commissioners are just loving that. The greenway is owned by the state but the county has a lot to do with it. Ocala, that area has just benefited so much from the people coming from all over the state, all over the country to ride those trails. That’s really probably the best example I could put out there for Florida mountain biking. There’s 80 miles of trail there.

Sure, sometimes parts of our local trails are under water, but that’s what we call a race obstacle or feature, right? Check out this old school pic from Gone Riding’s early days!

Jemma: They could really do that at JD (Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound) too. They have so much land that’s not even touched and there’s actually some gnarly hills there if you go to certain parts of it.

DC: Yeah so at a place like JD. You know the trails? There’s so many trails there, to expand it…. I’ve ridden all of it that there is to ride out there, jeep and horse trails, you could cut in and out of those. How would you go about expanding it there?

This looks a bit steeper than what we have in Florida, must be a SERC or GSC race.

Dave: Most state parks are aware it’s a money maker. It’s a relatively safe, non-disruptive activity. Even more than horses, horses really tear up the trails, hiking tears up trails as well. Some people skid on the trails but most races, they’re riding the most efficient tight line and it’s hard packed. You’ve got skilled riders lookin’ for the fastest way through. That’s the biggest misperception is that we’re going to tear up the trails. You go in after a race and it’s not the case at all. You don’t have people all over the place crashing into trees, well, not most of the time.

So if you’re trying, a state park should be relatively easy as long as they’re open minded, because there’s a wealth of information out there from Santos, from Oleta, and San Felasco is a State preserve. Ft. Clinch too, they all have MTB trails and races.

Judging by the Spanish moss and the dust, this has to be Florida.

Terry joins in now that registration is slowing down: Alafia too.

Jemma: Yeah, I heard from the guys at Alafia that they really appreciated you guys bringing the races back to their trails.

Terry: What was really nice about that was that those shops all jumped on to support. Even a couple we’ve never worked with before who couldn’t make it out, they worked to support it.

Another great finish!

DC: When you’re trail building, what role do local shops and riders have?

Dave: It can be huge. Especially at the state and county parks. Their problem is that they don’t have the staff and they don’t have any money to put into it. If you can get local groups started and bike shops – that’s the hub of our sport. That’s where people interact. If you can get a shop to say, hey we’ll help get a club off the ground, we’ll help sponsor it, maybe bring food for the volunteers on work days, give them t-shirts, whatever they can do to support it, spread the word, that’s a great place to start. Those shops know that that’s going to benefit them back, especially if they can get the name of the trail synonymous with their shop, you know, like Bike America helped build that trail.

Can you believe these forks? This bike showed up in a lot of photos, looks like it was a popular one! Who had one? Raise your hand!

Park managers, they don’t want to get a nasty letter from anyone, so they’re worried about how you use it, any damage, how much it’s going to cost them. If you can go in and say to them, this is going to be no cost to you, we’re a club (especially an IMBA club with the liability policy covering things), and it’s not going to get messed up they’ll be more receptive. Most state parks are going to shy away from anything commercial, so you have to be careful with that.

Man, let’s bring back the days when we got a bottle of wine for a prize, I bet we could get a lot more ladies racing!

Jemma: Is there anything interesting you think would be cool to share about what you do now?

DC: Yeah! So you run the Florida State Series, the Georgia State Series, the SouthEast Regional Championship, and the Coconut Cup and now the Florida Endurance Series.

Dave: Yeah, we definitely want to grow with the FLE, with more people. Next year, we’ll try to get our classes to match the whole series, but it was important that we just kick it off. We were already doing both events anyway. Red Trail Racing turned over several events to us so we’re doing El Lagarto and the Alafia Classic now.

We have a few Xterra’s that we do, which is an off road sprint tri with a half mile swim, ten mile bike, and a five mile run. We had one recently, Fort Yargo. And we do one in Tsali. This summer we’re going to do a 12 hour race in Tsali this year too at the end of June. The next day is the Xterra.

Cute kiddos winning their SERC race!

Jemma: Terry do you have anything to add to this whole story of how this racing has impacted and benefited your family?

Terry: Our family is a close unit because of that and when we see mountain bikers, we’re treated almost like family. Somebody summed it up really nicely at Tallahassee at the opening of the Florida State Series. “Look at all these people, it’s like going to a family reunion but with people you wanna see.” And it’s true! When we do the state series we see a lot of people that we might not see too much throughout the rest of the year. We got down to to South Florida for the Coconut Cup and we see a lot of people we normally wouldn’t if we weren’t down there for the races. They welcome us when we go out of state. We’ve been very fortunate and very blessed that we’re in this sport.

Recognize any little racers in this photo from 16 years ago?

Jemma: I agree, I feel like cycling definitely gives that family vibe. You just kind of have this inherent trust that people are decent and are here to have a good time. It’s very welcoming.  

Dave: Yes, very welcoming and very inclusive. There’s a lot of sports I’ve been involved in, I won’t name any, but it’s kind of exclusive. You have to prove you’re at some level before you’re accepted. But here, there’s guys that showed up today with flat pedals and no helmet, so we loan them a helmet.

Another dustbowl start, where could this be from?

Terry: It is a very wonderful sport to be in as far as community. We’re really lucky.

Jemma: Well thanks for your time and for sharing your story with us! It was great. Let us know if you remember Jim’s last name too.

Terry: Jim who?

Dave: Jim Gabriel! That’s it. I remembered.

Jemma: NICE!

Thanks to Gone Riding and the Berger family for this awesome glimpse into the history of Florida mountain biking and racing as well as some insight into trail-building. We hope you’ll all join us for the Florida Endurance Series starting January 7th in Lakeland at Carter Road/Loyce Harpe Park! Get out there and race your bike! 

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