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Iowa cyclist's description points out Hernando's potential to attract riders

Matt Levy, who escaped frigid temperature up North to visit his stepmother, raves about the cycling opportunities in the county.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times

Matt Levy, who escaped frigid temperature up North to visit his stepmother, raves about the cycling opportunities in the county.

Hernando County doesn't have a real beach.

It doesn't have a theme park or a huge, historic hotel built by a railroad magnate.

It's doesn't have a bunch of upscale boutiques and destination restaurants.

What it does have is two of the longest paved bike trails in the state and — in the Withlacoochee State Forest — one of the biggest networks of mountain bike trails.

It has quiet roads on the rural east side of the county.

It has hills.

Combine all this with warm weather, and the conditions for cycling are "marvelous," according to Matt Levy, 55, of Silvis, Ill., who visited his stepmother, Mary Ellen, in Timber Pines last week.

The summerlike days he lucked into were "fantastic," he said, especially compared to the single-digit temperatures he left behind.

The Suncoast Trail, according to Levy, is both "great" and "beautiful."

In other words, he completely agreed with me that while Hernando County may lack some typical Florida tourist draws, it's perfectly positioned to grab the growing niche market of cyclists, especially avid, frustrated northern cyclists who want to train in the winter.

Levy should know because he's about as avid as any cyclist I've ever met. In fact, if the ability to judge the quality of cycling territory is determined by time in the saddle, Levy is as authoritative as they come.

"There's a tendency to think I'm a little crazy," he said.

Every year he rides at least 20,000 miles, about 50 per day commuting to and from his job as a financial planner in Davenport, Iowa, and on many Wednesdays and nearly every Saturday, he rides more than 100 miles. Among cyclists, rides of this distance are called centuries. He fit in three of them in his three days in Hernando and tries to finish 78 per year, a total he finds numerically satisfying for a reason that I won't explain both because its complicated and it wouldn't make much sense to any of you without at least a slightly obsessive nature.

Having ridden this much or more for about 40 years, Levy's personal cycling odometer is just about to roll past the 1 million mile mark. He also competes in ultra-endurance events that make even the notoriously grueling Tour de France seem almost humane.

At least Tour riders get to stop for the night and eat a solid breakfast and dinner. In France's Paris-Brest-Paris and its North American counterpart, Boston-Montreal-Boston, Levy and most of the other riders get by on road-side naps, energy bars and a few ham-and-cheese (jambon et fromage) sandwiches handed out by the hospitable folks in the French countryside.

You can see the effects of all this riding in Levy's slim upper body and legs so large and well-developed it's hard not to be reminded of a frog's.

But it's a mistake to think that this devotion to fitness leaves him no time for anything else. Besides his job, he has raised five adopted children and leads a Catholic youth ministry that consumes about 25 hours a week.

He also makes time every year for the noncompetitive (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, which gives him a special insight into the possibility of drawing cyclists to places without a lot of obvious tourist appeal.

Not only does RAGBRAI, as it's commonly known, bring roughly 10,000 riders to the state for a week, it has helped transform the old image of Iowa as one big, flat cornfield to that of an undulating, super-friendly cycling paradise.

Speaking of which, Hernando is set to add even more amenities for riders. A new five-year transportation work plan shows the Good Neighbor Trail between Brooksville and the paved Withlacoochee State Trail will be completed in 2015. There is gathering momentum for a cross-Florida project that would link the Withlacoochee and Suncoast trails. Work is rapidly progressing on the renovation of the magnificent Chinsegut Hill Manor House, which is blessed with nearby cabins that even the slightest marketing effort could keep full of cyclists all winter long.

And how will Levy describe Hernando if all this happens? Well, I believe even he might run out of adjectives.

Iowa cyclist's description points out Hernando's potential to attract riders 12/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 13, 2013 7:12pm]
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