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Off-road bicycle trail debuts in Starkey Wilderness Park

Joe Colontonio, 55, rides the new off-road Magnolia Trail at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park that he and other volunteers helped clear. The trail is open, with a dedication set for Saturday.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Joe Colontonio, 55, rides the new off-road Magnolia Trail at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park that he and other volunteers helped clear. The trail is open, with a dedication set for Saturday.

NEW PORT RICHEY — For years, retired financial planner Rudy Miller scouted parks and state management areas looking for suitable terrain for off-road cycling.

The Hudson resident often pedaled trails at the Croom Wildlife Management Area in Hernando County, wondering why nothing similar existed in Pasco County.

Then about four years ago, at the urging of developer Trey Starkey, Pasco officials suggested that Miller and other off-road cyclists explore the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park a few miles north of State Road 54.

Miller didn't need much coaxing.

"I'd put on my rattlesnake boots and tramp and tromp through everything out there," the 72-year-old said.

For two years, Miller combed the park, tying pink and orange ribbons to tree limbs to identify potential trail sites. Then he would submit his plan to the Southwest Florida Water Management District for approval.

Most often, it would come back for revisions.

"I remarked it so many times I lost count," he said.

Finally, last year, the district approved Miller's map. Pasco commissioners gave their blessing last fall, and in January the cyclists got to work.

Five months later, the first 7-mile leg of the "Magnolia Trail" was finished. A dedication is set for noon Saturday in parking lot 10 at Starkey Wilderness Park, where the trail starts.

"If it wasn't for Rudy, this trail never would have happened," said Starkey, who for years pressed officials about the project and spent numerous Saturdays building it.

About 60 volunteers from the South West Association of Mountain Bike Pedalers, or SWAMP, worked on the trail.

Miller navigated a Bush Hog rotary mower to cut through dense underbrush. Others used a stump grinder and rakes to clear the ground. Chain saws helped slice through fallen trees.

"We were doing it in the winter when it was 55 degrees, but I'd literally be soaking wet," Starkey said. "It was a labor of love."

The result is a scenic 3- to- 5-foot dirt path that winds through pine forests, oak hammocks and scrub palmetto.

A towering magnolia — the trail's namesake — grows about 2 miles from the trailhead. A couple miles beyond that sits a pond dotted with water lilies. The terrain is flat throughout.

"It's an easy trail, but it's very scenic," Miller said.

Ron Zajac, president of SWAMP, said the trail will eventually reach 35 miles, taking three to five years to complete. Work will be done in the winter.

Off-roading poses different challenges than road cycling. The uneven surface and switchbacks challenge riders' technical skills. Plus, there's the scenic element.

"You certainly get fully encompassed by nature," said Zajac, a Tampa architect.

"You also develop a certain rhythm with the trail," he said. "Your whole body is involved. On a paved trail you can just get into a mind-set where you drift off."

In addition to the Magnolia Trail, SWAMP built and maintains four other off-road trails, at the Flatwoods Wilderness Park, Morris Bridge Road Park and Alafia River State Park, all in Hillsborough; and at Croom in Hernando.

Once a month, the club devotes a day to trail maintenance, mostly raking and trimming branches so they don't slap riders' faces.

The club has about 850 members, mostly from the Tampa Bay area. It offers classes and organizes meetups. Go to swampclub.org for more information.

Rich Shopes can be reached at rshopes@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

>>IF YOU GO

Trail dedication

Magnolia Trail dedication, noon Saturday at Starkey Wilderness Park, 10500 Wilderness Park Blvd., New Port Richey (north of State Road 54, east of Little Road), parking lot 10. Park information: bit.ly/tbt-starkey.

Off-road bicycle trail debuts in Starkey Wilderness Park 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 10:08am]
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