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Bike ride of 166 miles covers Suncoast, Withlacoochee State trails

After the grand opening ceremonies for the Suncoast Trail that runs along the Suncoast Parkway, bikers and a lone skater head north on the newly opened trail, at a bridge over State Road 50.

Times (2003)

After the grand opening ceremonies for the Suncoast Trail that runs along the Suncoast Parkway, bikers and a lone skater head north on the newly opened trail, at a bridge over State Road 50.

Rolling onto the Suncoast Trail, I saw a walker wearing a T-shirt with a nasty but appropriate message:

"Did you have a bowl of stupid for breakfast?"

It seemed that way, considering what I had in mind: Pedal every inch of the Suncoast and Withlacoochee State trails as well as the roads in between. And do it all in one day.

I had only a vague idea of the distance of this route, though when I left Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill at 8:15 a.m., and read a sign warning that it closed at sunset, I wondered if I'd make it back in time.

I also knew little about the traffic I'd face, other than that I could reasonably expect it to be awful. Recently released federal statistics showed Florida, as it often does, led the nation in cycling fatalities in 2007 with 119.

That this trip would be long and treacherous was, in fact, partly the point.

Though I don't have a death wish and promised to call my wife if I got in real trouble, I know most people aren't interested in the state of our local cycling resources. Throw in the possibility of an accident or physical collapse, I figured, and a few more of you might read to the end.

So, that's what led up to this trip three weeks ago Friday. And this is how it started: After dropping a son off at school and packing three king-size PayDays with a total of 1,320 calories in my jersey pocket, I set off on the southern 22.5 miles of the Suncoast Trail.

Right away, I was treated to the sight of a football-field-sized swath of yellow wildflowers in the median of the Suncoast Parkway, which runs parallel to the trail. Farther south, I saw vast pastures that ended abruptly at stands of cypress. As the trail skirts the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park in Pasco, it dips pleasantly behind patches of flatwood — pines and palmettos.

But, considering you never escape the sight of the parkway, scenery is not really what the Suncoast is about.

"It's for people who are serious about training on a road bike,'' said Alan Snel, director of a regional cycling advocacy group. "They don't have to worry about traffic. They can go on it and just hammer.''

Sure enough, northbound cyclists riding alone or in groups of up to a half-dozen appeared as reliably as spawning salmon. Even on a weekday, I saw packed parking lots on the trailheads at State Road 54 and Lutz Lake Fern Road, the southern terminus, which serves about 800 riders every week, according to the Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation Department.

This popularity is a wonderful thing, except for what it implies about riding on the surrounding roads — that it's terrifying.

Heading east on SR 54 (and yes, doubters, I first pedaled to the end of the trail and doubled back), I was buzzed by an unrelenting line of cars and trucks, their drivers understandably clueless that the shoulder I rode on was my space, darn it!

That's right. Paved shoulders on most state roads in Florida are designed as bike lanes, though for years the local district of the state Department of Transportation refused to mark them. It recently reversed this policy, but hasn't gotten around to putting up bike lane signs on a main road connecting two of the longest and busiest trails in the state.

I'll talk later about an idea that might get this done faster, but first let me tell you about my passage from cycling hell to heaven.

Turning left onto Curley Road east of Interstate 75, I almost immediately cleared the cluttered, exhaust-clouded SR 54 corridor. The road was quiet and flanked with pastures and pink phlox. Up ahead, jutting above a tuft of distant oaks, I could see the old-fashioned, cylindrical water tower marking the town of San Antonio.

At the time, state lawmakers were busy in Tallahassee trying to gut the state's growth management laws, supposedly to boost the economy. San Antonio shows how lucky we are this didn't happen. It's a confined cluster of houses and businesses surrounded by real farmland, which is how these laws say Florida is supposed to look.

It's pretty, and pretty sells. Sightseers, cyclists and motorcycle riders regularly stop at San Antonio, and at two of the busiest small enterprises I know of, Pancho's Villa Mexican Restaurant and the San Ann Market, where I ate a bowl of chicken and rice and drank several quarts of sweet tea.

"This is a wonderful community, and I put it down to City Hall and the (City) Council,'' said the market's owner, Cheralyn Gupta. "They fight anything that might change (San Antonio's) character.''

By the time I reached the southern end of the Withlacoochee State Trail, I'd ridden 41 miles since leaving the Suncoast, which is one way of measuring the distance. Another way is that I'd gone from a SuperTarget on SR 54 to George & Gladys' Bar-B-Que north of Dade City — a whole different territory, rural and quiet. And the farther north I rode on the trail, seeing cattle, wild turkey and miles of dense woods in the Withlacoochee State Forest, the calmer I felt.

But the more tired.

In Floral City, 90 miles into the ride and at the halfway point of the Withlacoochee trail, I came to an inviting shortcut — a peaceful, familiar east-west road that shoots like an arrow to the north end of the Suncoast. My hands were blistered and my back and backside ached. The PayDays were gone, along with my appetite for all the sweet junk cyclists need for fuel. I thought of the drab north end of the trail and asked myself if I really needed to see Holder again.

No. But, after cooling off in a convenience store and forcing down a bottle of Gatorade, I decided I did need to see Inverness.

It's amazing to think, for all it's done for this town, that the 46-mile Withlacoochee cost only $5 million. It opened in 1995 and last year attracted 189,000 users.

It has brought higher property values to homes in Inverness with trail access, customers for stores and restaurants and — even if the visitors are just retirees riding up from Trilby — a feeling of adventure to an otherwise fairly isolated town.

So what's good for bikes is good for the general public. Add in the fact that bikes put little stress and take up little space on our roads, Snel said, and "they should actually pay us to ride our bikes and remove our cars from the roads. To put up any barriers to riding bicycles is ridiculous.''

He said this when I mentioned my idea for an annual state cycling license or a small sales tax on bikes to pay for signs and facilities such as Brooksville's long-delayed Good Neighbor Trail.

Considering the low priority usually given to cycling projects and that a lot of riders think nothing of spending $5,000 on a bike, I think those of us who can pay should.

The sand pits around Holder were as dreary as I remembered. Citrus Springs, a massive development built by the same folks responsible for Spring Hill, is still mostly scrubland, with few people and many birds. I sat at a picnic table for a few minutes listening to them sing at the deserted north end of the trail.

The names of all the places I'd been to started to run together in my brain as in a verse of I've Been Everywhere. But Lecanto, about halfway on my journey back to the Suncoast, stands out as by far the most frightening. Pickups, SUVs and newly emptied school buses flew by on a shoulderless, two-lane stretch of County Road 491 close enough that I could feel their breeze.

Stopping at the Circle K on SR 44 and watching customers file out with their weekend 12-packs under their arms, I had two thoughts: A cold beer would sure be nice, and I wonder how many of these drivers are drunk. It was time to call home, I told myself, unless things get better right away.

They did. The highway spread out to four lanes and passed a row of government offices, so it was nearly empty by 5:15 p.m. Farther south, I rode past another long, dense stretch of the Withlacoochee State Forest. Turning west on the road that had tempted me in Floral City, I passed real ranchland, with big rolling fields and white-faced, black-bodied cattle grazing and casting long shadows.

By the time I hit the final 19-mile stretch of the Suncoast, I was slightly delirious with relief and fatigue. And if you happened to be on the trail that day, and heard me singing along to Emmylou Harris on my iPod, I apologize.

Just before sunset, and after 166 miles I arrived safely, which hopefully doesn't disappoint you.

The only time I had to call my wife was to say I was ready for pizza and a glass of wine, the drier the better.

11 hours, 30 minutes; 166 miles

The route: From Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill, south for 22.5 miles on the Suncoast Trail to the southern terminus at the Lutz Lake Fern Road trailhead. • Doubled back to State Road 54. • East on SR 54, which then turns into SR 56. • North on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, back to SR 54. • East on SR 54 to Curley Road. • North on Curley through San Antonio (lunch stop) until it hits St. Joe Road and turns into Jessamine Road. • North on Jessamine to Blanton Road. • East on Blanton to Trilby Road. • Trilby north and east to the Withlacoochee State Trail, then turned south for 1 mile to end point, and then north for 46 miles on the trail. • At northern terminus in Citrus Springs, doubled back to County Road 491 in Citrus County. (The name changes from N Lecanto Highway to S Lecanto Highway to Citrus Way, but it heads southwest and then south to W Oak Park Boulevard.) • West on Oak Park, then left to Oak Village Boulevard. • Southwest on Oak Village to U.S. 98. • Southeast on U.S. 98 to the Suncoast Trail. South on the Suncoast Trail for 19 miles to Anderson Snow Park.

Bike ride of 166 miles covers Suncoast, Withlacoochee State trails 05/16/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 16, 2009 1:03pm]
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