Thursday, December 31, 2009

Pinellas Trail, Florida - New Year's Eve!

When the Northwestern Wildcats won a spot in the Outback Bowl in Tampa on New Year's Day, we thought: Road Trip! The original plan was to trailer the motorcycles down for a couple of days of midwinter riding.

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.

* * *

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.

dsj 091231

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cold toes!

OK, so it's 32 degrees, I'm bundled up and I get about five miles out and suddenly my big toes are smarting from the cold. I mean, ouch!

I wonder if the toe cages aren't conducting heat away from my feet. Next ride: wool socks. If that doesn't work, maybe I need to reinstall the basic pedals. Bummer.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Going stir-crazy on a Sunday morning, I decided to give some cold-weather distance riding a try. Based on previous, overdressed and overheated attempts when the temperature was in the 40s, I didn't bundle up as much: just a T-shirt, sweatshirt, balaclava and winderbreaker/shell. Fleece sweats, thick insulated gloves, ski helmet. Trés fashionable.

Figured I'd stay close to home and do the Springbrook Prairie trail (see previous entry on this trail). When I arrived at the trail head, I slipped on my secret weapon: ski goggles left over from the same Breckinridge vacation catastrophe that produced the helmet I was wearing. On previous cold-weather rides, the icy wind made my eyes water heavily -- not just unpleasant, but dangerous since it was like trying to see oncoming traffic through a waterfall.

I snapped the goggles on and started down the trail. The crushed limestone was hard as pavement in the 32-degree morning. A light southwest breeze was starting up. The prairie was a sea of muted browns and grays under weak sunlight filtering through a milky sky.

The goggles were a godsend. Not only did they prevent the eye-waterfalls, they kept the upper half of my face warm. Soon I had to stop and lose the thick insulated gloves (an Ace hardware bargain-bin bargain at $4.99!) and open then armpit vents on the shell to let some of the heat out.

The trail wasn't as deserted as I thought it would be. I onyerleft-ed several joggers and nodded to biker or two as I circumnavigated the forest preserve.

Once I warmed up, the ride was actually pleasant despite the freezing temperatures. "I can do this," I said to myself. There's no reason to store the bike away all winter and content myself with a stationary bike at the gym or the trainer down in the basement. A 10- or 15-mile ride in two or three times a month will go a long way toward helping me maintain my sanity through the long winter.

And maybe those lunatics at Bike Winter are on to something.