Central Florida Cycling - The first 30 days!
Some of you may know that I have recently moved from Colorado to Florida, the Tampa area to be more specific. It’s now been 30 days since my first ride and here are some of my thoughts and opinions about a cycling westerner transplant.
In the past 30 years, I have ridden all over the US, from west coast beaches of San Diego, the deserts of Barstow/Joshua Tree in California, the Red Rocks of Nevada, all throughout the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and now the gator filled preserves of Florida. With elevations from Sea Level to the top of Pikes Peak at 14,114’. Rides as short as an hour to overnight bike packing trips. Sand, snow, mud, dirt, rocks, hard pack, asphalt & concrete – my adventures have been awesome and I am blessed with the ability to keep riding even at 52-years-old and all that that brings with it!
Let me say that this is not a fair assessment of the overall cycling in Central Florida, because when I got here their “worst” weather months had started and has limited my ride time. However, with an 8-month drought just finishing, the past 30 days have seen actual temps as high as 104°, average high humidity floating around 95% and a total of 12.54” of rain! I am told this is the worst of the worst time of the year for “typical” weather – the worst of the worst…hmmm…this is nothing, I still managed over 156 miles in 10 rides!!
A little background
Riding here is a lot different than Colorado (duh...), but it’s also different than San Diego, and well…just about everywhere else I have ridden. Every location comes with positives, negatives, obstacles and challenges. Cycling, for me, is about being outdoors and enjoying the ride. It’s not about racing or training. It’s not about a KOM or a PR on Strava. It is about riding alone or with a small group of friends and just having a great time outdoors!
Where I relocated to: We moved to Riverview just southwest of Tampa proper. We are about 4 miles from the west side of Tampa Bay in an older well established neighborhood that is very quiet and peaceful. Riverview is a very small unincorporated community of about 80,000. The west side is booming with new commercial and residential development, while the east side remains mostly agricultural with citrus groves and livestock sharing space with gators and palm trees – way too cool!
Riverview was founded in 1885 on the Alafia River's north shore. However, in the 1830s settlers arrived on the south side of the river at an area formerly known as "Peru" because Peru was an indigenous name for "straight part of the river". Peru existed for nearly 100 years and was one of the oldest settlements in central Florida. It wasn't until the 1940s that Riverview absorbed Peru, and now claims the south side of the Alafia River as well. The Peruvian Mining Company, which mined phosphate from the Alafia, took its name from the settlement. The term "Alafia" is translated as "River of Fire" due to the phosphorus on the early river bottom glowing at night.
Why is this important? Mountain biking is my first love. I started road riding for diversity and cross-training to help me mountain bike better and just east of Riverview contains two of the most popular off-road cycling areas in Central Florida and both are reclaimed phosphorus mines. I bet the miners never saw that coming!
Mountain Biking or Biking on a Mountain Bike?
Alafia River State Park, pronounced “AL-uh-fi” is a 6,260-acre park and home to one of the most challenging off-road bicycling trails in Florida. Located on what was once a phosphate mining site, the unique topography of the reclaimed land offers some of Florida's most radical elevation changes. Alafia State Park is home to 20 miles of bike trails, ranging from beginner to advance with the opportunity to explore mixed hardwood forests, pine flatwoods and rolling hills. The abundance of wildlife found along Alafia's trails will delight any nature enthusiast. Click for directions to trailhead: https://goo.gl/maps/H2URku5z6Vz
Balm-Boyette Scrub Nature Preserve is a 5,723-acre preserve consisting largely of abandon phosphate pits with a large area of undisturbed scrub habitat. During the 1960s (and prior) the land was pitted with phosphate mines. The natural water flow had been altered from its original state into a series of stagnant pools. The park contains over 22 miles of biking trails. The area got its name from the three creeks that run through portions of the property—Bell Creek, Boggy Creek, and Fish Hawk Creek, all of which flow into the Alafia River. The preserve has a mix of wetland and upland habitat types, including pine flat- woods, wetland forests, and improved pasture areas. It is home to many rare species of plants and animals including flakelet fern and grass-pink orchids. Click for directions to trailhead: https://goo.gl/maps/geXEUTtjW3A2
The SWAMP MTB Club is responsible for keeping and maintaining the trails of these two locations and at least six other in Central Florida. All maintained in excellent shape with the help of its volunteer members. Kudos to them for an outstanding job!
All SWAMP trails are rated Green, Blue, Black and Double Black. The greens are flowy and mostly flat with high visibility. As the trails go up in ratings, they become a little more technical at each step with more elevation changes, tighter turns, limited line-of-sight, rocks & roots. Honestly, I haven’t really seen anything all that technical that I would label Black or even a Double Black, but I do understand the need for letting folks know they’re about to get into something their skill level may not be able to handle – it’s a good system and works well here. The rocks & roots are standard MTB terrain, easily navigable on most any hardtail bike, but can be a little slippery when wet. The Blacks & Double Blacks come with the warning of “extreme elevation changes”. While that phrase is somewhat subjective, here in these areas, means steep 10-ish-foot drops with immediate 10-ish-foot climbs, literally! Now add in some very deliberate sharp turns and man-made obstacles, yes, some skill is needed to negotiate these trails.
Don’t get me wrong, you still need to know how to ride, handle a bike and need to be in descent cardo shape to ride these trails. Like stated above, it’s different here and comes with its own set of challenges. Without the presence of altitude, you are constantly peddling and that in itself can make things a bit challenging. There is no gravity to get you over the rock & roots or up the other side of the “sudden” drops in the trail. So respect what it here or you may find yourself flat on your back or worse, off the side swimming in one of those gator filled ponds!
Greens and some Blues allow traffic in both directions, while some Blues and all Black are one-way. I did ask a local “who has the right of way”? In mountainous areas, the right of way goes to the rider climbing – but it’s all flat here…his response was, “Hmm, I don’t know, that’s a good question”. It’s also my understanding that the bike trails are for bikes only and hikers and runners are not supposed to be on them.
The Culture & Nuances
Alafia has a main parking lot right in the middle with several amenities that one would expect in a State Park; parking, restrooms, picnic pavilions and campgrounds, yup, they are all here. Additionally, there is a bike rinsing station, a self-serve bike maintenance station and at the time of my ride, SWAMP (I believe) just opened a mini bike shop for those that need more professional service or basic parts.
The trails here are short 2-4 mile treks that mostly leave and return at the main parking lot. However, it is laid out with additional connections so that you can group them together to make longer runs. By the inherent nature of this close-knit design, the culture is very social. Lots of people from beginners to experts all riding and collaborating, it’s very cool. Picnic tables and pavilions line the parking area along with tailgating make riding here more of an event than just a morning out on your bike. Access fee to the park is $5/vehicle, or you can get a yearly pass.
Boyette is much more secluded. No facilities at all and parking limited. There is a 2-mile ride in on double track before you even get to the trails! Early morning rides are almost guaranteed to be filled with local wildlife including white-tail deer, gators, fox, snakes, lizards and a plethora of birds. The trails are challenging, long and flowy and well-marked. With a simple plan before you ride can easily yield a 15-20-mile ride without riding the same trail twice. There are a few picnic tables strategically placed for a little break when needed. I have ridden here twice and both times the parking overflowed into the streets – yet while on the trails, I saw few if any other riders. This place is truly the place to go and get away from everything – if you ride with music, turn it off for a while and just listen to the natural sounds of “nature” at its best! One last note: If you’re looking for a place to take a true beginner or someone that is looking to build on their skills – this is the place. With the long green/blue trails and the limited contact with other riders, you’ll have a playground minus the typical psychological intimidation. Access to the preserve is free, but if you ride here often, hook up with SWAMP and put in a few hours, they’ll be greatly appreciative.
Roads, Causeways & Paved Trails
There are not a lot of designated paved trails throughout Central Florida – and they defiantly do not inner-connect so unless you are willing to ride just out-n-back routes, you’ll have to have to get on the road at some point. But let’s talk about the two main routes that seem to be the choice of most cyclists.
The Courtney Campbell Causeway is a vehicle highway that stretches approximately 9.9 miles from eastern Clearwater to Tampa's Rocky Point island and subsequently to the mainland of western Tampa. The topographical causeway is broken by two elevated spans that allow watercraft access to and from Old Tampa Bay and there are two beaches at either end. In 2007, the Florida DOT enhance the Causeway with the addition of a recreational trail, supplanting the less-used frontage road on the north side. As a huge multi-use trail that follows along the Bay, you’ll encounter everything from cyclists, rollerblades, hikers, walkers, families Barbecuing and yes, even the little tikes on their big-wheels!
This was my very first ride here in Tampa and it poured rain, warm rain and I went ahead and rode out 8.5 miles before I got a little nervous watching a huge storm coming in from the Gulf. I have ridden it several times since and even on the 4th of July it was not too packed. A side benefit is once you get to the top of the man bridge, there is always something to see in the water below from your typical fish to huge schools of Sting-Rays. There are all kinds of connecting bike paths and interchanges (via vehicle roads) making this a single destination or part of a much longer route. Parking at the beaches is $0.50/hr.
The Suncoast Parkway Trail is a 41-mile multi-use paved recreational trail that was constructed parallel to the western side of the Suncoast Parkway. For most of its length, the Suncoast Trail stays close to the parkway, separated by fences, grass, and in some places concrete barriers. Bridges that cross rivers and streams were built with enough width to accommodate trail users. This seems to be the place for serious cyclists to train, with its out-n-back totaling 82 miles. There are several parking lots that support this trail and at only $2 a car they are typically packed – but surprisingly the trail was not.
Sharing the Road
I’ll have to say, everywhere I have ridden, these roads are in the most excellent condition! Smooth, virtually pot-hole free and mostly clean and free of tire-flatting debris. Now I am talking about the roads east of Riverview, I have yet to ride in Pinellas County (Palm Harbor, Clearwater & St. Pete - the Gulf Coast or anywhere in Tampa proper. Out here there are some “actual” bike lanes, a lot of shoulders called bike lanes and lastly no bike lanes or shoulders at all. Traffic on the weekends and weekdays has been light, but like any common-sense rider, I avoided the “rush hours”. It’s only been 30 days, but the drivers have been mostly tolerant of me, slowing and allowing for plenty of room when passing. I say mostly because there has been the occasional “drive-by” and honking, but for the most part I am encouraged that road riding here is and will continue to be awesome!
In conclusion: As a Mountain Biker that has moved to Florida I am pleasantly surprised at what I have found in my first 30 days. There is enough off-road biking to keep me and my fatty happy and the country road riding will keep me in shape and provide enough diversity to keep things from getting boring. The cyclists I have met here, no matter what their skill level, have been exceptionally nice and kind and have had no issue showing me around the local trails. Even though I am slower than most, on the road or in the dirt, they don’t make me feel beneath them and I haven’t felt like a burden when they stop to wait for me – not something you’ll easily find in Colorado. I am excited to continue exploring more trails and roads to cycle – Florida has turned out to be an excellent choice!