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Beach cruisers are retro cool and fun to ride

You don't need to spend $2,000 on a high-performance bike to get the health benefits of cycling. "The trick is to just get up off the couch and get moving," said Val Tavanese of Outspokin Family Bicycles on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater. "A beach cruiser is a simple and easy way to go." Tavanese sells dozens of different bicycles, from BMX bikes for kids to ultralight road bikes for serious age-group triathletes. But one style of bike, the traditional, single-speed beach cruiser, is a hot seller, especially among women.

"Just look at them," Tavanese said, pointing to the brightly colored bikes. "They are so cute."

The term "beach cruiser" applies to any balloon-tired bike. While they may be associated with sand, they are well-suited for any surface, including concrete, asphalt, grass, gravel, even hard-packed dirt.

The style of bike, which got a boost from comedian Paul Reubens in his cult movie Pee-wee's Big Adventure, has a retro look that will give anybody, regardless of age, a shot of old-school cool.

But what makes these bikes so popular among riders? Two words: comfort and ease.

Retro rules

The beach cruiser design dates back to the 1930s when industry heavyweight Schwinn came out with a durable, pedal-powered bicycle that resembled the popular motorbikes of the day.

These tough but heavy bikes sold well in the 1940s and '50s. But by the 1960s, they had been upstaged by European models that were much lighter and faster.

In the 1970s, off-road enthusiasts resurrected the fat-tired bikes of old for use on mountain trails. These off-road bikes, retooled with gears and hand brakes, became known collectively as mountain bikes.

But purists remained interested in the old bikes, and refurbished classics sold well in collectors' circles. The die-hards loved their cruisers, and in 1985 that passion came to the big screen, when Pee-wee traveled cross-country in search of his stolen bike, Big Red.

The movie grossed $40 million, more than five times what it cost to make, and people began to wonder, "Where can I get a bike like that?"

Fat-tire fitness

Tavanese said many people are attracted to beach cruisers because they make them feel like kids again.

"They are fun to ride," she said. "They are just simple. . . . You just hop on your bike and go."

If you want to ride fast, buy a bike with thin tires. But if you don't care about speed, the beach cruiser is the bike for you.

"You can ride as hard or as easy as you want," Tavanese said. "You will definitely burn calories on a beach cruiser. The more you push yourself, the better the results."

A beach cruiser is the ideal entry-level bike. The wide handlebars, thickly padded saddle and the upright riding posture make them far more comfortable than road bikes, many of which require riders to assume a bent-over position that's a lot more taxing on the body.

"So many people are sedentary," said Tavanese, who organizes a regular beach cruiser ride out of her shop. "If you haven't ridden in years, a beach cruiser is a great way to get moving again and feel better about yourself."

Tavanese has had several customers who have started with beach cruisers and then moved on to multi-geared road bikes.

"Most people end up keeping their cruisers to ride with the family," she said. "There is nothing wrong with having two bikes."

A buyer's guide

Tavanese sells beach cruisers made by Giant, a company that also makes triathlon and road bikes. But there are dozens of other companies that sell the retro cruisers.

Inexpensive models start around $150. But higher-quality bikes will last longer, especially if exposed to the salt air near the beach.

Once you have bought your bike, you can add a bell, horn, tassels or a basket on the handlebars for an even more retro look.

"We have a lot of people who bring their dogs, see if they will fit in the basket," Tavanese said. "Then they buy a bike."

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

Great Cruises

Try these rides yourself, or to show off your hometown to guests visiting for the holidays.

Bayshore Boulevard, Tampa: One of the most popular spots for beach cruisers in the Tampa Bay area, this is the same route used for part of the Gasparilla Distance Classic. Distance: approximately 4 miles.

Bay Pines Memorial Park, St. Petersburg: This short route through the county park is one of the most shaded routes in the Tampa Bay area. You'll be grateful for it in the summer. Distance: 1.2 miles.

St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront: A popular course with cruisers of all ages, this route takes you along one of America's most scenic downtown waterfronts. Public parking at the Pier makes this a good choice for traveling cyclists. Distance (Snell Isle Bridge to Albert Whitted Airport): 2.3 miles, longer if you add in a loop around the Pier.

Pinellas Trail: With dozens of access points and ample parking, this former rail line has many shady spots and hills (overpasses) for cyclists looking to increase their heart rates. Distance: 34 miles.

Memorial Causeway to Clearwater Beach: This well-maintained, paved path runs from the mainland to Clearwater Beach and includes a steep climb up the bridge — Heartbreak Hill — which has broken its share of world-class athletes competing in the annual Ironman World Championship 70.3. Distance: 1.6 miles (along the water). This route connects to the short but scenic promenade along Clearwater Beach.

Dunedin Causeway to Honeymoon Island: Flanked by the Intracoastal Waterway, this offers views galore. Distance: 1.6 miles (along the water).

BIKE RENTALS:

Whether you're trying out the sport before investing in a bike or outfitting visitors, these outlets can set you up:

Tarpon Springs

Neptune Cyclery

13 Safford Ave. S

(727) 943-5805

Palm Harbor

Sun West Cyclery

625 Palm Harbor Blvd.

(727) 785-0110

Dunedin

Energy Conservatory Bike Shop

745 Main St.

(727) 736-4432

Clearwater

Clearwater Cycling

700 Court St.

(727) 443-1500

Largo

Ride N' Roll

1260 East Bay Drive

(727) 518-2453

D & S Bike Shop

11561 Walsingham Road

(727) 586-6437

Seminole

Trail Sports

6572 Seminole Blvd.

(727) 395-0509

Bicycle Outfitters

11198 70th Ave. N

(727) 319-2453

St. Petersburg

ABC Bicycles

6633 Central Ave.

(727) 345-5391

Beach & Trail Bike Shop

7100 Ninth Ave. N

(727) 384-6608

Beach cruisers are retro cool and fun to ride 12/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 17, 2010 3:30am]

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