A few weeks ago, two new bicycle shops opened less than 3 miles apart from each other on Dale Mabry Highway. The news was so peculiar that a magazine editor more than 2,500 miles west in Laguna Hills, Calif., heard about it and was baffled.
"What is going on in Tampa?" Lynette Carpiet asked her staff at Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
Tampa is not Portland or San Francisco or Boulder, where cycling is part of the culture. Tampa, despite its sunny climate and flat terrain, is known as an "unfriendly" place toward cyclists, Carpiet said. Few bike lanes. Drivers unaccustomed to watching out for cyclists. And dangerous: 13 riders were killed in Hillsborough County in 2012.
With the two new shops — Outspokin Bicycles, a business based in Clearwater, and Performance Bicycle, a large chain — bike stores in South Tampa now number about a half dozen, with many more shops throughout the rest of the county.
Carpiet was intrigued. Even in areas with a strong bike culture, brick and mortar shops have struggled against the Internet. Independent stores are also competing with heavyweights such as Walmart and Sports Authority. In 2003, there were 5,358 specialty bike shops nationwide, she said. Last year, it was down to 4,089.
Yet Tampa is growing.
The new businesses, she said, are a signal.
"They go into markets where they see growth," she said, "or the potential for growth."
Performance Bicycle has more than 100 stores and the Tampa store is one of five opening in Florida this year.
"We have a strong base of e-commerce customers in Florida in general," chief executive officer David Pruitt said via email when asked why he chose this area for a store. "Tampa in particular has always been among the strongest Florida cities for us."
Growth is what the city has been working toward achieving. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn campaigned on the promise of making the area safer for cyclists and is drafting projects intended toward making the city bike friendly. This fall, a bike share program is launching with 300 bicycles, to be rented by credit card, at 30 parking stations around downtown, Ybor City and Bayshore Boulevard. The city's plans for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods include bike lanes and an east-west "green spine," a trail running from the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, down Nuccio Parkway, through downtown, over the river, past the University of Tampa and out to West Tampa.
Tampa also has been chosen as a site for a national bike safety summit in April sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, said Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is slated to attend. Clarke, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he suggested Tampa for the summit because of its dangerous past and its potential.
"It's about creating a city that people want to move to and creating a vibrant culture in the city," Clarke said. "That's what those new bike shops represent."
He said in an increasingly mobile society, where people have a choice in where they live, many seek communities where they can walk and bike safely.
"If Tampa is going to compete, it's going to have to take advantage of those incredible attributes," he said. "Otherwise, people are going to go elsewhere."
Craig Caswell, manager of the new Outspokin Bicycles, said his family chose to stay in the Tampa Bay area after he finished a 22-year career with U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base because of the camaraderie in the bicycling community.
"It's some of the best riding I've ever been involved with," said Caswell, who also lived throughout the states and Europe.
He said the area has drastically improved for cyclists.
"Ten years ago, you would fear for your life the minute you rolled out of your driveway," he said.
There are more events, from local mainstays such as City Bike Tampa's Urban Restaurant Tours to larger ones, such as the Cigar City Criterium, which was held downtown on March 16 and hosted more than 500 professional and amateur riders. Caswell said Outspokin hosts events aimed at introducing families to cycling and sells everything from kids' bikes with streamers and training wheels to professional, $15,000 racing bicycles. He teaches cyclists about following the rules and being safe, such as avoiding busy roads.
"You have to plan accordingly and be realistic. You can't say, 'I'm on my bicycle. Everyone worship me,' " he said. "If you do that, you're going to be a hood ornament."
Caswell rides about 200 miles a week with a few different cycling groups. They meet in the early morning, 5 a.m. during the week and 7:30 a.m. on weekends, so there are few cars on the road.
"It's a different way of pushing yourself and finding your limits," he said.
While Caswell primarily rides for exercise, many experts are hopeful the area can become one where cycling is so integral to the community it's no longer just a sport, but a way of life, like in Denmark and the Netherlands.
"There are plenty of people with potbellies who cycle," said John Pucher, professor of urban planning and transportation at Rutgers University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "These are not super athletes," he said. "These are average, everyday people."
Pucher has spent years researching cycling trends and recently co-authored a book, City Cycling, published by the MIT Press. He sees the ability to walk and bike safely as a human right, one many of Florida's retirees should demand. Pucher, who is 62 and has arthritis, said bicycling — leisurely, with a wide, comfy seat — is great for joints and it gives independence to those who can no longer drive. He said people in Denmark over age 70 make 15 percent of all their trips by bike. In the Netherlands, the statistic is 24 percent.
"The idea that when people get older, they physically can't bike anymore — it's just baloney," he said.
He said studies show the physical, social and mental health benefits of cycling outweigh traffic dangers at least 10 to one.
"If you want to be happier and live longer, get on a bike," he said.
Surprisingly, Florida outranks all other Southern states in the number of people using bicycles to commute, with an estimated 0.6 percent of the population biking to work, according to the 2011 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census. The same percentage of people in Hillsborough County are estimated to commute to work, though the number increases to 1.2 percent in Pinellas. Pucher said this puts Florida on par with states like Vermont and Massachusetts.
"I don't think Florida is doing so bad," he said.
He said cycling is increasing among men ages 20 to 50, but it needs to increase among women, senior citizens and children. To do that, he said, communities need to not only install bike lanes, but physical barriers between the lane and the road.
He said several cities in the nation either have them or are planning to get them. An organization called the Green Lane Project, a group facilitating a partnership between Austin, Chicago, Memphis, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, DC., said the number of these protected lanes — or "green lanes" — doubled in 2012 and is expected to do so again in 2013.
"It is really the trend," Pucher said. "Everyone has come to the conclusion that, unless you install these, you are not going to get a broad distribution of cycling."
Jim Shirk, chairman of the Hillsborough County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, agrees. He is happy that Tampa has some of these protected bike lanes included in its plans.
"You get a whole feeling of comfort that you don't get riding with traffic," he said. "It takes away a lot of the trepidation."
Thursday evening, Kyle Stamm took his busted-up bike to Outspokin to see if it could be fixed. The 34-year-old South Tampa resident was hit by a car while riding on Hillsborough Avenue on March 19. He said it was still daylight and he was riding on a sidewalk when a car tried to turn into a parking lot and sent him flying. He said he had severe bruising and the driver took off. Stamm, who has been cycling since 2006, said from now on he's putting his bike on his car rack and driving to trails to ride. He doesn't foresee changes the city could make to change his mind.
"It was enough to scare me off road biking forever," he said. "It's not worth it."
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.