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Eastern Pasco, Hernando on fast track to cycling tourism

One look at these cyclists, with their sinewy legs and scrawny arms, and you know they're not wannabe racers who might treat a long ride as an excuse for a trip to Five Guys.

Their bikes are a cut above, too — carbon fiber finished in flat, stealth-bomber black.

They wear form-fitting cycling uniforms — red, white and blue with stars and stripes. And they didn't just roll through the makeshift finish line on the Suncoast Trail on Thursday morning; they pretty much flew.

So, even if you didn't know about cycling, you could probably tell something unusual was going on, something big on the local bike-racing scene.

Learn a little bit more about this group — the U.S. Military Cycling Team — and you'd realize that it might be big for non-riders, too.

Big for how this part of the state presents itself, big if we ever want to make the name "Nature Coast" something other than a punch line for jokes about uncontrolled sprawl.

The team's riders come from all branches of the service and live in all parts of the country.

They could have gone to the mountains of Arizona or the scenic coast near Santa Barbara, Calif. But for the second straight year, they chose to come here for the team's annual winter training camp — staying for a week at the Residence Inn near State Road 54 and the Suncoast Parkway.

Most days, they headed to the hills of eastern Pasco and Hernando for training rides of more than 100 miles. On Thursday, they tested their fitness with a 20-mile time trial on the Suncoast Trail. They were scheduled to finish the camp Saturday with a road race in San Antonio.

"The guys love it," said Sean Coleman, 46, a senior chief petty officer in the Coast Guard who lives in Land O'Lakes and owns property in Hernando.

To a degree, bicycle training is what it looks like to outsiders — torture. Which is why racers like to be compensated with soothing scenery and avoid any additional sources of misery, such as rain, traffic or exhaust.

Hernando and Pasco offer two of the longest, paved trails in Florida — the Suncoast and the Withlacoochee State Trail.

Away from the highways, it's easy to find quiet roads that are more likely to be smoothly paved than rural roads out West. This is one of the few parts of Florida with hills. And the weather last week — dry, cool and clear — is typical for this time of year.

It makes an impression on riders who come from, as some team members did, Wisconsin or suburban Washington, D.C.

It's likely they will go home and spread the word. It's also likely that other racers will listen.

Nearly half of the 25 riders at the camp are on the elite squad. Like this squad's director, Coleman — the 2012 Florida criterium champion — many of them have picked up state amateur titles. One of the elite riders, Coast Guard Petty Officer Jacob Brewer, who is stationed near Seattle and whose father, Toby, is the manager at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, was a top-20 finisher in a national pro championship.

The hope is to expand the team to include riders interested in fitness and recreation, which would mean bigger camps in the future, maybe even several camps to accommodate different levels of riders, Coleman said.

He also would like to find lodging closer to even quieter, more scenic roads, and his eyes lit up when I told him the county might soon be able to rent cabins on Chinsegut Hill north of Brooksville.

If this gets people to come to the Nature Coast to ride the roads, they might find that the area also offers mountain biking, hiking and kayaking. That is, if it stays the Nature Coast, Coleman said, and maintains its open areas and develops bike paths.

"I see this area as having tremendous potential for cycling tourism," he said.

"And not just as a tourist attraction, but as an attraction for companies who want green space and bike trails for their workers and their families."

It's an appealing view of the area's future. Especially if you consider how some people see our present.

Last week, Jay Leno told the nation — or the small portion of it that still watches the Tonight Show — that Brooksville is the kind of place where people get arrested for drunk driving, in a Walmart, on a scooter.

"If that's not the white-trash trifecta, I don't know what is," Leno said.

It wasn't true. The guy on the scooter was charged with stealing beer. No matter. A news outlet twists the story, a comedian adds a moronic stereotype, and, presto, we're known as the home of "white trash."

"Cycling Mecca" sounds a lot better, you have to admit. And Nature Coast better still.

Follow Dan DeWitt on Twitter @ddewitttimes and read his Quick Hits column Mondays at tampabay.com.

Eastern Pasco, Hernando on fast track to cycling tourism 02/09/13 [Last modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 12:55pm]

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