Messenger Archive: Spring 2004
For a good-time getaway take a Florida bicycle trail
by Fred Mays
Looking for a fun weekend getaway ride? Try one of these bike trails. They offer good rides, fun locations, and the opportunity to get out and explore Florida.
A bike ride on the Pinellas Trail should be enjoyed like a fine wine…slowly, quietly, and shared with good friends. Save the beer chugging, hammer-the-pedals ride for another trail, another time.
This is an urban trail, slowed by cross streets and traffic, often congested on weekends, studded with boutique shops, yogurt stands, antique stores, and restaurants in downtown communities that offer opportunities to explore, entertain and enlighten on your journey.
Paved and with slow gentle curves, the Pinellas Trail is an abandoned railroad bed that was converted to a trail about 10 years ago. You encounter long stretches of peaceful isolation, shrouded by trees, buffered from the city sights and traffic sounds only a few yards away. It is flat, safe and unchallenging. Overpasses carry users safely over major highways.
Probably nowhere does the trail come more alive than in Dunedin. Here the trail rolls through the downtown area, serving as a focal point for shops and restaurants along the Main Street, and for several blocks in each direction.
The city provides bike racks, public restrooms and parking for trail users. The trail is the center of bustling downtown activity on weekends.
At Curlew Road, a three-mile spur runs west along the Dunedin Causeway to Honeymoon Island State Park. There are beaches, kayak rentals, fishing from bridges, and a ferry service to take you to Caladesi Island State Park.
Park your bikes, take the ferry and enjoy the soft white sands of Caladesi. It is one of the prettiest beaches on Florida's Gulf Coast.
The current end-of-the-line for the Pinellas Trail is in Tarpon Springs. On weekends tourists crowd the sponge dock historic district on Dodecanese Boulevard.
There are gift shops, Greek restaurants, sightseeing boats, and fishing party boats. The docks are a couple of blocks west of the trail on the north side of Tarpon Springs.
In the spring of this year, an extension of the trail will open across the Anclote River, connecting the trail to the Tarpon Springs Nature Park.
Withlacoochee State Trail
The Withlacoochee State Recreation Trail follows an old rail bed along the western banks of the Withlacoochee River through parts of Polk, Hernando and Citrus counties.
Like most "Rails To Trails" bikeways that used to be a railroad right-of-way, it is paved, generally straight and flat. Call it an illusion, but no matter which way I go, I always seem to be climbing uphill. Still, this is not a hard ride and you see people of all ages, shapes and sizes riding everything from high tech racing bikes to old beach cruisers.
The trail rambles 46 miles through rural countrysides, small towns, the Withlacoochee State Forest and the city of Inverness. The most popular starting points are the Ridge Manor Trailhead just off State Road 50, east of I-75, or in Inverness.
The town of Floral City greets trail users with water fountains at the north and south city limits, and a small gazebo that offers a shady rest stop downtown.
This is a good place to get off the trail and tour oak lined streets that aren't clogged with traffic, or stop in shops or restaurants.
A country store in Istachatta has covered tables at trailside where you can relax with cold drinks and a snack.
Several community parks are located along the trail. Fort Cooper State Park is nearby.
Florida Keys Historic Trail
Many of the guidebooks caution you against biking in the Florida Keys because of the traffic. People who take that advice are missing out on one of the most beautiful and historic bike trips in the country. Many of the Keys are already connected with bike trail or bike paths that separate you from traffic on U.S. 1 [also see Dale Lally’s keys odyssey, Winter, Spring and Summer ’03, and online beginning at www.floridabicycle.org/messenger/msgronl0103].
The ride is one of the most scenic anywhere. In some places you have spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Florida Bay on either side.
The bridges offer the most spectacular views, and some have separate bike and pedestrian crossings so you can take your time and enjoy the scenery.
Even the famed 7-Mile Bridge has an eight-foot pull-off lane that serves as a suitable bike lane. You want to use caution and move quickly at the smaller bridges because these are where riders and traffic come back together again. There are also places where the bike trail alternates between the east and west sides of U.S. 1, and crossing back and forth can be dicey.
Each mile marker along the way takes you past historic benchmarks. You can almost hear the sound of the pile drivers working on Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad.
The monument to the 500 people who died in the great hurricane of 1935 is located near Mile Marker 81 in Islamorada.
Just south of Marathon you can take a short side trip on the old railroad bridge that takes you out to watch the sunset at Pigeon Key. The bridge is now used as a fishing pier and jogging trail.
Another great side road trip is on the Atlantic side of Sugar Loaf Key, where you ride nearly abandoned roads past a handful of ocean-side estates.
The road connects with an abandoned 4-mile paved loop that offers riders and hikers unfettered freedom to bird watch and enjoy the vistas of secluded bays and mangrove forests.
Another isolated road at Torch Key leads you 8 miles westward into the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.
This is a short ride, but a great weekend getaway. The signature feature of the Gasparilla Trail is the destination, the town of Boca Grande.
This former millionaire's hideaway sits on the Gulf of Mexico, at the entrance to Charlotte Harbor. The trail used to be a rail line that allowed rich industrial barons of a century ago to ride to their beach mansions in their private rail cars.
Many of the locals now use the trail to commute around the island in their private golf carts. You can travel it on your private carbon fiber racing bike, or even that old private Huffy you bought at WalMart 20 years ago.
The old railroad station in Boca Grande now holds restaurants, boutiques and artsy gift shops. There seem to be art galleries in every block. Tarpon fishing is the big attraction here in the spring and summer. Tournaments offer prizes in six figures for the biggest fish. Come hungry. Boca Grande is full of small, locally-owned, one-of-a-kind restaurants that range from quick lunch stops to gourmet dinners.
The Gasparilla is probably the only trail in Florida where you have to be ready to swerve and brake for iguanas darting in front of you. Descendants of house pets who escaped to freedom, some of them are up to three feet long.
The trail's end is at the Gasparilla Island State Park and Lighthouse, which is also a good starting point. A round trip up the island and back is only about 13 miles. Ending at the park lets you use the restrooms and showers to clean up before you head into Boca Grande for lunch and shopping.
West Orange Trail
The most popular ride in the Orlando area is the paved 19-mile long West Orange Trail, which starts near the Lake County line and runs northeast to Apopka. Much like the Pinellas Trail without the urban congestion, the West Orange Trail runs through small towns, subdivisions and rolling hills west of Orlando.
Family restaurants, antique shops and boutiques line the trail in Winter Garden. The trailhead at Winter Garden Station is the most popular access point. It has plenty of shaded parking, restrooms and vending machines. There is a bike rental concession at the trailhead in Oakland, just off State Highway 50.
There is an entrance to the Oakland Nature Preserve Park near the west end of the trail. A number of small parks and an equestrian park are located along the way.
The trail borders subdivisions, golf courses, business parks and citrus groves. Some stretches are heavily tree shaded, offering a welcome break from the beating sun in the summer.
Fred Mays is a career television journalist and freelance writer on environmental and eco travel topics. His website, www.floridaunplugged.com, has lots of articles about great Florida getaway locations.
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Have fun building a bicycle culture
by Mighk Wilson
In my last column I touched on the idea of building a “bicycle culture.” I believe this is one of the most important things we can do to advance the interests of bicyclists.
What do I mean by a “bicycle culture”? It’s a community in which bicycling is perceived as normal, where bicycles are used for a wide variety of purposes and by a wide variety of people.
This sense of normalcy is critical. It's the only thing that will negate the sense that cycling is dangerous, only for children, the poor and the athletic.
We can have fun building this bicycle culture. Indeed, having fun is probably the best way to do it.
But the fun needs to be targeted. At our recent FBA Off-Road Powow (see story), Suwannee Bicycle Association leader Rudy Miller noted how their program to train ride guides resulted in a number of people getting together learn new skills, but they also had a great time and inadvertently created a “social network.”
Ultimately it's this social network that strengthens the organization, develops its leaders, and helps it engage still more people.
Many cycling advocates focus on the “build it and they will come” philosophy. They believe countries like The Netherlands have strong bicycle cultures because they built extensive bicycle facilities.
Actually The Netherlands built extensive bicycle facilities because they had a strong bicycle culture; about 15 percent of its people biked regularly for transportation before they built their bikeways.
Floridian cyclists seem to have a tough time sustaining and growing local on-road bicycle advocacy organizations. These nascent groups normally focus on getting people to meetings and addressing how the government ignores the needs of cyclists.
Burn-out is an all-too-common outcome. People have to come first, not issues.
Yes, there is truth in the oft-repeated Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
But an all-important question is how did they change the world? I'd be willing to wager that most of those small groups change the world by becoming bigger groups, not by convincing a few elected officials or bureaucrats to change the way they do business.
An excellent resource on how people can be effective working for change is the book Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, by Paul Rogat Loeb.
It can be simple or sophisticated; anything you can do to bring people together is positive.
Organize a neighborhood ride. Hold an “art bike parade.” Hold a “parking lot reclamation action” by covering a few parking spaces with Astroturf and making a temporary mini-park.
Whether you agree with the concept or not, the Critical Mass movement does an excellent job of building bicycle culture.
We can struggle against the status quo to build some utopian future of bike lanes and paved paths tomorrow, or have fun today making friends, improving skills and showing our communities that bicycling matters.
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FBA holds its first 'off-road powwow'
by Mighk Wilson
FBA invited leaders of Florida's mountain bike clubs to its first ever “Off-Road Powwow,” held the weekend of March 13 and 14 at Alafia River State Park.
Participants included a number of members from the upstart Airborne Mountain Bike Club in Ft. Pierce including president Paul Johnson, John Brigan of the Ocala Mountain Bike Association (OMBA), vice-president and treasurer of SWAMP Julianne North, North Florida representative for the
International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) and SWAMP founder Wes Eubank, South Florida IMBA representative Bill Klausmeyer, former Suwannee Bicycle Association president Rudy Miller, former Suwannee Bicycle Association (SBA) president, former FBA board member, and former Florida IMBA representative Bob Michaels, and former mountain biking director of the Florida Freewheelers Bruce Martin.
The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm ways in which FBA can help Florida's mountain bike clubs and to generally advance the interests of mountain bikers. Attendee experience was extensive.
What became very clear during the meeting was that Florida has a couple of highly successful clubs—SWAMP and SBA—that can serve as models and mentors for the newer and smaller clubs, and that FBA can facilitate that sharing of experience.
FBA can also serve by making key connections at the state level that can help local clubs deal with issues with statewide agencies.
Copious notes were taken at the meeting and it will take time to digest all the possibilities; in the interest of getting this article to press we'll have to dispense with the details.
Suffice to say that FBA members can expect to see a stronger focus on mountain biking topics and issues in the near future.
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