Northern Virginia was hit with seven inches of snow on Wednesday. Ordinarily, that would put a damper on my cycling prospects. However, I have discovered a technique that allows me to cycle when these storms hit: Don’t Be There. In this case, I was in Tampa on business. I guess the old saying is true: timing IS everything.
While I was in town, I was hoping to get in a bike ride. I read that the MacDill Air Force Base Outdoor Equipment Rental Shop leases bikes for $3.50 a day. Incredible! I couldn’t imagine what that measly sum would get me, but I was willing to give it a try.
My first opportunity came Tuesday afternoon, but fortune was not smiling on me. A severe thunderstorm raced over the city in the late afternoon, wreaking havoc. I retired to my hotel room and watched it rain sideways, while tornado warning sirens blared across the base and lightning streaked across the sky.
Wednesday afternoon, I zipped over to the shop and finally got a look at their stock of bikes. Yikes. There were only six of them, four of which were children’s sizes. Of the two adult bikes, one’s front brake was broken and the other’s gear shifter was dangling from the handlebar. One of the kids’ bikes had a rear flat. I wasn’t expecting much for these rates, but I was hoping for a bike that actually worked. I told the very nice lady who was minding the store that she really shouldn’t be offering these bikes to anyone, regardless of the price. They simply weren’t safe. While she agreed, I didn’t see her doing anything to remove the bikes from the rental area. The lady did have a helpful bit of information – the base gym would let you borrow a bike for FREE, but you had to return it by 4:30. Since it was 4:15, this wasn’t much of an option, but it did give me hope for Thursday morning – my final day in town.
Thursday dawned clear, windy and cold. With temps in the mid 40s, it was almost arctic by Floridian standards. At 7:30AM, I presented myself to the clerk at the gymnasium’s Family Wellness Center and successfully borrowed a Columbia Pathway comfort bike. It was even in working condition! The bike came with a helmet and a lock. I was all set.
I headed to the marina on the south side of the base. Immediately, I noticed that the incredibly massive tires were underinflated. The tires were 26 x 1.95 inches with a max PSI of 65. I’d guess that they were inflated to around 50. By way of comparison, my Trek is inflated to 120 and Old Ironsides is at 100. Low PSI means higher rolling resistance and more work. I tend to think of my hybrid bike as being lumbrous and slow but the Pathway made Old Ironsides seem like a rocket ship. However, the thing was free and it was working and I’d be damned if I was going to let a little challenge like this stop me from checking out the cycling scene.
After pedaling by the base marina and RV park (jammed to maximum capacity with Snow Birds) I began my trek towards Tampa by moving up the eastern side of the base. MacDill AFB sits on a small peninsula and is bordered by Hillsboro Bay and Tampa Bay. Oddly enough, the City of Tampa sits on Hillsboro Bay, not the bay that shares its name. The base road I was on skirts Hillsboro Bay and afforded some great views of the water and the city in the distance. There weren’t any bike lanes or sidewalks but traffic was light and the vehicles were moving slowly. After five miles, I reached the gate on the base’s north end and headed off into the suburbs of Tampa.
As a visitor one hates to be critical, but it must be said that Tampa has not exactly embraced the idea of cycling infrastructure. Bike lanes are few and far between and roads are built with little or nor shoulder. I did not see any bike or walking paths during my four day stay. It appears that cyclists are expected to ride on the city’s sidewalks. The road out of MacDill AFB had a sidewalk that featured unexpected breaks which force a cyclist into the road at inopportune moments. It was my fervent hope that I could traverse this mile unscathed so that I could get to Tampa’s great redeeming feature: Bayshore Linear Park.
Situated alongside the curving coast of Hillsboro Bay, Bayshore Linear Park features a wide sidewalk over six miles in length. It is a fantastic place to walk, run, roller blade, fish, and even ride a bicycle. I weaved my way through dozens of joggers/walkers and was treated to outstanding views of the bay and the stately homes which line the opposite side of the street.
As I moved closer to the city, I noticed the preparations were well underway for Tampa’s annual Gasparilla Festival. The festival celebrates the life of a supposed pirate, Jose Gaspar, who may or may not have patrolled the waters of Western Florida in the later half of the 18th Century. Why a city would embrace the life’s work of a criminal is generally not reflected upon by its residents. The focus is on the party. I pedaled past bleachers, corn dog stands, radio/TV trucks, party tents, and scores of porta-potties. Everything seemed to be progressing nicely.
I noticed very few cyclists on my trip – about five of them over a six-mile stretch against about 100 walkers/joggers. Every bicycle I saw was a mountain bike, which I found very amusing as there is absolutely nothing resembling a mountain in the entire state. Perhaps there are a lot of off-road enthusiasts in the area. Eventually, Bayshore Blvd ended and I found myself crossing a bridge over the Seddon Channel into the city center. I looked for signs of cycling life: bike lanes, bike racks, cyclists, anything at all to suggest people often traveled by bike in this area. Nothing. The few pedestrians I saw often seemed surprised to see a cyclist in their midst.
I crossed the Garrison Channel and tried to pedal onto Harbour Island, but this turned out to be a haven for gated communities. There were some lovely views but very few roads open to the public. I was beginning to run out of time at this point, so I turned myself around and headed back to the base. The wind was now at my back, allowing me to achieve speeds on my jalopy of a bike well above 12 mph! Of course, weaving through the pedestrian traffic on Bayshore Blvd didn’t help my pace at all.
Back on MacDill AFB, I stopped by a monument to U.S. Airmen. There were several plaques on a small walkway which takes visitors past a B-50 Superfortress, F-4 Phantom, and F-16 Fighting Falcon. It’s a nice little park that is worth a short stop if you should find yourself on base.
And thus concluded my ride. I pedaled back to the gym, returned the bike and helmet, and thanked the lady for their use. Although the bike was a far cry from a top-end machine, the bike loan program is a pretty cool idea which I was very grateful for. I was hoping for warmer weather, but I’ll take 50 degrees any day that it is snowing back at home!
Florida Historical Marker Segment!
Yes, they have historical markers in Florida. I thought the ones in Virginia tended to be a bit verbose, but this one is a veritable encyclopedia of information. In it, the city tries to put a positive spin on a New York City couple’s financial ruination.
Equally verbose is this marker, detailing the legend of the Pirate Jose Gaspar. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t consider this a marker but rather a commercial tourist sign. But since the city seems to have embraced this fellow’s story, I’ll throw it in here. The referenced ship was not present. I suspect it was being prepped for the weekend’s festivities at a dry dock somewhere in the harbor.