BYOB: Bring Your Own Bicycle To Tampa Bay

Eager to take in the vast array of scenery the Tampa Bay region has to offer? With so many options, you might have a hard time deciding where to begin. Fortunately, a few of Tampa's most avid cyclers have some suggestions.

Bicycling safety instructor Sharon Monahan takes advantage of light early morning traffic to ride around her Lake Keen neighborhood with her 3-year-old daughter secure in a trailer hitch.

Monahan, a bicycle rider with 25 years of experience, moved from Milwaukee in 1992 and looked forward to taking advantage of Florida's year-round riding weather.

Penn's Cycling School, started last year, is a way for Monahan to provide safety workshops and to introduce kids into recreational riding. She hopes to create another program by the end of the summer called Teenspeed -- a weekly class suited for the 10-18 age range.

The forthcoming class is just another sign of the lifestyle changes young adults are making to improve not only their health, but their Earth.

University of South Florida Bicycle Club President Jessica Brenner wasn't always one of those adults.

"I was lazy," she says, "and I never had a reason not to drive to campus."

But she found herself in a predicament during the summer of 2009 when her car broke down.

"I couldn't afford a new car, so I found a bike," Brenner says.

Relying on a new mode of transportation proved to be a humbling and sweaty experience, but she's grown to love her two wheels.

"It's nice to be self-reliant," she admits. "People are always offering me rides, but I'd rather use my bike."

Members of the Bicycling Club -- resurrected last year when Brenner decided to take on the role of club president -- are hoping more students get the itch for cycling when the club finishes creating a bicycle map highlighting the best surrounding paths for riders.

The map will cover USF's campus and include areas as far south as Busch Boulevard, and  north to cycling hotspot Flatwoods Park and out to I-275 and I-75.

"We want to show students which roads are good to get to the mall, grocery store and other local businesses in the area," she says.

Upon its completion, she hopes that businesses will install extra bike racks, provided by the club, outside their doors to entice cycling customers.

But students should know they aren't limited to the area surrounding the university's campus, according to Bike Club and USF Cycling Team member Michael Suver.

"We'll carpool from USF to the athletic center ballpark near downtown San Antonio," he says. "We meet there with a group of 50, maybe 60 people."

While Hillsborough has family-friendly Flatwoods Park, a 7-mile one-way loop, northeast Pasco County around Dade City and San Antonio is loved by cyclists like Monahan and Suver for its hilly terrain.

Riding Out Of Town

Head farther north to Hernando County and west to Pinellas County, and you'll find an even greater variety of options including the Withlacoochee Trail, Suncoast State Trail and the Pinellas Trail.

If you're looking for scenic views and shaded areas, these are the places to check out, according to Alan Snel, director of South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers (SWFBUD) and co-founder of the Seminole Heights Bicycle Club.

"The Pinellas Trail is a big favorite -- it's a classic Rails-to-Trails venue," he says.

Washington D.C-based Rails-to-Trails is a nonprofit organization devoted to turning former railways into pathways for cyclists and pedestrians.

The Pinellas Trail, opened in 1991, spans 47 miles from Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg.

"You can connect to it from different neighborhoods and even turn out and head out to the Gulf through various roads," he suggests.

If you're brave enough to get even closer to the water, Snel suggests biking over the Courtney Campbell Causeway on the side roads.

"The span on the causeway has a shoulder of about 4 feet and it's a bit unsettling with traffic," he warns. "But if you ride the side road you get incredible access to the water."

If you're looking to get to Downtown Tampa by bicycle from the north, consider the surprisingly efficient route of Nebraska Avenue, which Snel points out is practical despite being less aesthetic and having a seamy reputation.

Brenner and the Bike Club are partial to Florida Avenue when heading downtown, including trips to the new Tampa Art Museum on the Hillsborough River.

Hub Grub: Eating And Riding

Getting there can also take you through Seminole Heights, a neighborhood known for its shaded streets, historical architecture and an abundance of local businesses. The neighborhood was the scene last spring for popular bicycling events Snel organizes and dubs Hub Grubs.

"It was like riding through Portland -- the bicycles went as far as the eye could see," Snel beams. "I think it was a watershed moment for the Tampa Bay area."

The first Hub Grub in February attracted 120 cyclists, including Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor. Bicyclists arrived from USF, South Tampa, St. Petersburg and the Seminole Heights Bike Club, and stopped at neighborhood restaurants The Refinery and Gluten-free bakery Viitals along the way for complimentary food and drink.

Snel says events like this are emblematic of what the bike club is all about. They inspire people to get on a bicycle for the first time and bring together a group of bicyclists with different skills and backgrounds to connect with businesses in their neighborhood.

"We look at bicycling as a fun, efficient way of transportation that makes you closer to the community you live in."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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