Hopping on your bike can be an invigorating way to see parts of Florida, engaging your legs while being easy on your joints. But Florida is a state with a terrible reputation for keeping cyclists safe.
A good compromise can be finding a scenic bike ride away from traffic. Studies have shown that a bike ride, versus a tour in the car through the countryside, can decrease stress, increase muscle tone and may even improve the immune system.
Now a company that specializes in guided bicycle trips around the world, Escape Adventures, has made its first foray into Florida, expanding opportunities for local cyclists. (See tours, far right.) Escape Adventures has set up seven tours in some underappreciated gems around the state, like the Withlacoochee Trail, about an hour north of Tampa, and the hills of Clermont.
Taking a bicycle out while on vacation is a popular side trip out West or in the lovely countryside of New England. But Florida has consistently led the nation in bicycle deaths, so bicycle tours are rarely offered even with record tourism.
Two years ago, a National Complete Streets Coalition report named the Tampa Bay region one of the worst metropolitan areas for bicyclists and pedestrians. The same report dubbed Florida the most dangerous state for riding a bike.
The metropolitan areas are making baby steps, even earning kudos recently from Bicyling magazine for adding more bike lanes and trails in recent years.
Meanwhile, there are some jewels in Florida that Escape Adventures thinks are worth exploring on two wheels. Tours, designed to suit any speed, cater to both locals and tourists looking for a day trip.
Cyclists pedal new Specialized road bikes with extra wide tires that offer smooth and stable rides. They are delivered in a tricked-out minivan and guided by Alan Snel, a former Tampa Tribune reporter who has been an avid bicyclist for more than 20 years.
Snel was a longtime Tampa Bay bicycle advocate who co-founded the Seminole Heights Bicycle Club. He quit the Tribune in 2006 to create SWFBUD (South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers), a bicycling advocacy group.
After a three-year return to journalism in Las Vegas, he met Jared Fisher, who owns an international bike tour business and bike shop. Snel persuaded him to expand east, and Escape Adventures Florida was launched in early December.
"These are my favorite bike rides that I've cherry-picked from years in Florida," Snel said.
The trips are:
• The "Alps of Florida," what Snell calls the rolling scenery outside Clermont northwest of Orlando. At its peak, Sugarloaf Mountain Road reaches 312 feet.
• The Withlacoochee Trail ride is a paved and shady trail, a 46-mile ribbon that is the longest rails-to-trails path in Florida. The mostly flat path begins in north Pasco County and ends near Dunnellon in Citrus County. "It has a beautiful tree canopy, and you have small towns like Inverness and Floral City every 10 miles or so to take a break," Snel said. "You have this beautiful canopied kind of wilderness scenery, and you don't have to worry about vehicular traffic."
• You can take a 20-, 40- or 60-mile trip on the Pinellas Trail. One of the most scenic stretches of this trail is the quarter-mile-long Cross Bayou Bridge that spans Boca Ciega Bay.
• The Vero Beach A1A ocean ride pedals along the Atlantic Ocean to the Sebastian Inlet bridge that offers a perch for spectacular views of the ocean and the Indian River Lagoon.
•The Ormond Loop offers 25 paved miles about 90 minutes northeast of Orlando pedaling through a tunnel of oak and swamp maple tree foliage.
• Lake Okeechobee puts riders on a paved trail atop a 30-foot earthen berm that encircles one of America's biggest freshwater lakes.
• The Jungle Trail is a hard-packed dirt road that runs along the Indian River Lagoon north of Vero Beach, about two hours north of Miami, and leads to the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's first national wildlife refuge featuring stunning bird life.
When Scott Sofferman was visiting his sister in Boca Raton in December, the retired veterinary surgeon and cycling enthusiast booked Escape Adventures for its tour of A1A.
"I've ridden all over Europe and California, but I do know Florida has that dangerous reputation," Sofferman said. "I didn't have that much time and I wanted a relaxing ride."
Sofferman said he liked that Snel had a local's eye for knowing the less-traveled but scenic spots.
"I think people are surprised to find such beautiful rides here," Snel said. "The people who are in charge of promoting tourism in Florida really need to show off that bicycling element."
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at [email protected] Follow @SharonKWn.