Yes, it’s flat as a pancake and heads straight for hours. And yes, the headwinds can be brutal. But take hundreds of miles of purpose-built bike paths snaking their way through the entire Tampa Bay Area, throw in a rapidly growing craft beer scene, and you have my favorite place for winter cycling.
My parents spend a large chunk of the year down in Clearwater, Florida, giving me the perfect excuse to make an annual pilgrimage. Every time I head down to the Sunshine State, I rent a bike, and each time I land, the bike path network grows.
For more than a decade, community and state leaders have been improving existing greenways and trails as well as building new ones that cater to recreational weekend bikers and diehard cycling enthusiasts alike. These trails range from short, off-road paths to paved courses sweeping the lengths of entire counties. The ultimate vision of the project is a fully integrated state, county, city, and community effort to improve non-motorized access and connectivity between major points of interest and destinations. Cycling utopia if you will.
One of the oldest and most popular trails in the region–the Pinellas Trail–was created along an abandoned railroad corridor and provides almost 50 miles of protected greenspace for walking, jogging, skating, and biking. The Pinellas County Parks & Conservation Resources is responsible for trail maintenance and operating costs. The result is pristine, well maintained asphalt along most of the trail, overpasses and underpasses to route you around major roadways, and even strategically placed water stops. So you may encounter the occasional feral pig, armadillo, buzzard, tortoise, and possibly an alligator or two basking on the trail’s warm asphalt surface, but that’s all part of the fun, right?
On our recent trip for Thanksgiving, we cranked out over 150 miles during the week, all of it on bike paths–we rode the Pinellas Trail a few times, Courtney Campbell Trail, Upper Tampa Bay Trail, and my favorite, the Suncoast Trail. A couple trails on my list we didn’t have time to ride are the 29-mile General James A. Van Fleet State Trail and the 49-mile Withlacoochee State Trail that sits between Orlando and Tampa. This trail spends most of its time snaking through wetlands and wildlife preserves. I can’t imagine anything better.
A few sections of the Pinellas Trail run through small, quaint towns such as Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. For those that want to take a more leisurely ride, you could easily grab a cruiser bike and head out on a craft brewery tour, grab some clam chowder or a grouper sandwich, and take a trip to one of the numerous beaches, all on a bike trail.
My question for California–if a state that LOVES its cars can prioritize an extensive, beautifully maintained multi-use trail network, why can’t we? Everyone, including drivers, comes out winning in the end.
Bike Rental: Chainwheel Drive–We have been renting from this bike shop in Clearwater for years. This time around, we rented Specialized Tarmacs. The nice thing about riding in Florida is since you never have to climb, you don’t really have to obsess over bike weight. In fact, a bit heavier bike can keep you from blowing around too much. I enjoyed riding the Tarmac on the Tampa trails.
Mountain Biking: Although I wouldn’t really call Tampa a mountain biking destination per se, they are building lots of fun, flowy trails. The Croom Trails in Withlacoochee State Forest are the most popular with close to 60 miles of singletrack, and the bike shop employees raved about the new Alafia River State Park trail system. Check out the SWAMP website for all the local mountain bike info.