Due to an ill-advised left turn at Royce Road, my car, the one with the trailer hitch, ended up in the shop over the holidays. I bought a trunk mount for my wife's car and brought the bicycles down instead. In retrospect, the bicycles probably turned out to be the better choice for what was essentially one day of riding.
Googling for "bike trails Tampa" before we left turned up the Pinellas Trail, a nearly 40-mile-long urban rails-to-trails path that starts in downtown St. Pete and wends its way north through the 'burbs.
After three days and 1,300 miles of driving, we got on the Pinellas Trail in the town of Dunedin. Turned out to be a charming little suburban downtown with quirky mom & pop restaurants and shoppes. It was overcast, but 73 glorious degrees. We quickly shed our sweatshirts and sweatpants. Shorts and T-shirts on New Year's Eve — what a treat for a couple of Chicago-area riders!
The trail is paved, wide, in great condition. There's something to be said for the lack of a freeze-thaw cycle. Much of the trail has a separate, smaller lane for joggers. The trail is also very well marked.
On the down side, the stretch from Dunedin for about 10 miles south had numerous cross-streets. I suspect the entire trail is the same way. All are very well marked, and local drivers are extremely courteous and wary of bicyclists at these crossings. But you're not going to maintain a steady cadence on this trail.
We stopped at Pinellas Trail Bicycle Rental and Repair in far south Dunedin looking for a long-shank U-lock to replace the one that apparently bounced out of my rack bag during the long trek south. They didn't have one, but the owner was extremely helpful and talkative. He seemed kind of lonely; if you're taking this trail, please stop in and talk to the poor guy.
It didn't take long until I was in full Mr. Pither mode: blissfully, stupidly happy and fully absorbed in the scenery. Spanish moss, bamboo, blooming hibiscus, banyan trees. A bridge took us over a small bay where curlews probed with mud with their long beaks.
Left: These railroad-signal-inspired sculptures let you know when you've entered another town. In this case, Largo.
A bit of the trail started to look a bit iffy just north of Clearwater. Some very run-down houses, graffiti. Just a short stretch, though. Through downtown Clearwater, the trail jogs through a series of sidewalks and surface streets, then back to the rail right-of way. We stopped after about 10 miles; I didn't want to overtax my wife, who's not a distance biker (Unless she's on a motorcycle).
The sun finally burst through the thin overcast on the way back, and the 10-mph breeze made the return journey just a bit easier.
Bottom line: If the 'Cats find their way to Raymond James Stadium again next year, I want to come down a day or two earlier and do the entire Pinellas trail. It was a very interesting find and a midwinter treat.
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Later in the afternoon, I set out from the hotel to find what looked like a side road or trail along the Courtney Campbell Causeway. This turned out to be a hard-to-get-to, but very pleasant, stretch of pavement paralleling the highway across the northwest lobe of Tampa Bay. To gain access from the west end, one has to ride along the extremely busy highway for a few hundred yards and lift one's bike over the barrier — or — as I discovered on the way back, sneak through the DeVry University parking deck and do a few yards of off-roading.
Either way, the reward is about four miles of smooth pavement along a shallow, calm bay occasionally traversed by Boston Whalers on their way to or from the main bay and the Gulf of Mexico. A few fishermen work the rocky shoreline for snapper.
I rode fairly hard on the way out, working off the fish tacos and wine I was planning to have that evening. I took my time on the way home. It was a bittersweet ride in the fading light of a warm day -- the last warm riding day I would see for at least four months.