All cycled UP
Bicycling clubs offer camaraderie, safety in numbers and a way to keep fit for South Florida riders
HOW COULD YOU GO WRONG? YOU LIVE IN a state that sees at least a few hours of sunshine roughly 250 days each year. This isn’t Ohio or Michigan.
You’re surrounded by marked roadways, park trails, community sidewalks and specified bicycle paths from east to west and north to south.
So you clip into the growing sport of bicycling, as good a fitness and fun endeavor as any on the planet, especially for aging bodies — one that offers a great deal else, as well.
Bicycle riding clubs offer experienced advice that might help the rest of us, from beginners to talented competitors.
Don’t claim it’s too flat to have fun, here.
Though Florida has no mountains, that doesn’t stop riders like Leigh Masimore of Naples Velo from finding a mountain occasionally.
Now in his 60s, Mr. Masimore was riding the flat country and the mountains around Dillon, Colo., elevation 9,000 feet and up, just last week, coming into those rides from his several-days per week riding regimen in Naples.
“When I got to Florida (from Nashville) I connected with Naples Velo,” he says. “It has fast rides for experienced riders, but part of the mission is to be a club for a lot of different riders.”
At Naples Velo, rides through different parts of Collier County may be “moderate” — 20 to 22 miles per hour for 30 miles, say — or they may be more demanding: For those who can ride at 25 to 30 mph, or faster.
“One of my friends described being dropped off the back of a (group) ride at 36 miles per hour,” he recalls. Those rugged rides maybe 50 miles or longer.
For Rick Slako, captain of Team StormRiders in Miami-Dade County, hill training requires bridges, but the joy is simply in the discipline — four days a week averaging 30 to 60 miles — and the dynamic camaraderie of the team, where he’s even seen romances and marriages form, or dissolve, he says.
Mr. Slako started riding in the 1980s when he lived in West Kendall. He was racing then, but without much success.
“Finally I started seeing this group on the road, and I’d hook onto the back — it turned out to be Team StormRiders. I kept trying (to keep up) and getting dropped, trying and getting dropped, but eventually, I stayed on and got to know them.”
Like Naples Velo, Team StormRiders has rides for different skill levels and goals, including leisurely rides just to get in shape.
Staying fit, not racing, is now his goal. “I’m a cancer survivor, I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006 and had surgery. Recovery from that was not easy, I had to go through chemo and radiation and it took a lot out of me. But I got back on the bike.”
And a year later he was, by his relatively demanding standards, up to speed.
The safety factor
Safety on the roads and interactions with drivers are key elements for any Florida bicyclist, and for good reason: Florida ranks number one for per-capita deaths of bicyclists. Four Florida cities — Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami — rank the four most dangerous in the U.S., followed by number five Sacramento, Calif., statistics show.
“I derive the most pleasure in bicycling from a group ride where everyone in the group is respectful of cycling law, watches out for each other, and all finish safely together,” says Bud Gaunce, president of the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Riding Club, well-known both for its exceptional safety practices and for its insistent inclusivity: Everybody sticks together. No one ever gets dropped.
The Sunshine State had 6.2 bicyclist deaths per 100,000 people each year between 2007 and 2016, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a rate 60 percent higher than the second-worst state for safety, Louisiana.
Experts site careless driving, distracted driving, drunk driving and older drivers who may or may not know the roads and the rules.
Cindy Mannis, safety director and vice president of the SMBC, is aggressive about safety but cautious about reading too much into the statistics.
A retired nurse, she and her husband, Tom Mannis, a retired doctor who rides about 10,000 miles a year, are safety-certified by the League of American Bicyclists. The certification requires a three-day intensive course in Washington, D.C., that includes everything from road laws and etiquette, to first aid, to basic bicycle maintenance — how to change tires, repair and reinstall chains or put on new brakes, for example.
“Most places we ride have bike lanes or shoulders where we can ride safer,” she says.
“We’ve never had any fatalities in the five years we’ve been here at the SMBC. We’ve seen some accidents involving broken legs or other bones. If you ride all the time, it’s not ‘if’ you’re going to have a fall or a crash, it’s ‘when.’”
As for the fatalities, she postulates, Floridians can ride all the time, not just four or five months a year, so their risk factor goes up.
“And a lot of people commute to work on bicycles, and they’re usually not trained to be safe. They might not have lights on their bikes or wear helmets. It’s not usually the people in the bike clubs who get killed.”
Still, too many Florida drivers don’t realize bicyclists on most roads have the same right to be there as motor vehicles.
When Team StormRiders is out, “folks have thrown stuff at us or run us off the road,” says Mr. Slako. “So we’re heavily involved in working with law enforcement agencies and county commissions to increase awareness about rules of the road. There are very few bike lanes, there’s just no room on either side of the road to widen it in most cases — and most of the time it’s financial: they can’t afford to widen the roads.”
But they can put up signs or “Share the Road” arrows, for example, and state authorities should begin to require any drivers getting a Florida driver’s license to know the rules of the road protecting bicyclists.
“But the state of Florida is not easy to get to,” Mr. Slako notes.
Sometimes even county commissions aren’t easy to get to, either.
Doug Saxton — a member of both BikeWalkLee as an Estero representative and the bike-walk committee of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization or MPO — is also a part of Bonita Estero Safe Travelways, or BEST, a local bike club.
As an advocate, he says, “We want safe links between the towns, cities and villages of the region.”
In general, those don’t exist.
As an experienced Lee County rider, he describes his ultimate goal as this: “To open your garage door and be able to ride someplace safe. Whether you want to do it for exercise or run errands or visit a friend, you should be able to make that choice. But you can’t do that here now.”
As a result, his favorite ride is not in south Lee with the clubs, but in Venice, on the proclaimed Legacy Trails (also popular with the SMBC) where he and his wife, Barbara, sometimes drive with their mounted bicycles
“It’s an old rails-to-trails path for bicyclists where you’re not riding on the side of a road,” he explains. “You’re on a many-miles trail just for bicyclists and pedestrians. It’s beautiful. And safe. Every state has these. Florida as well.”
People ride for many reasons, he acknowledges; when he lived in Connecticut it was an exercise thing. “I used to do duathlons — the run, the bike, the run — to stay healthy.
“And here at first I lived in a condo behind Coconut Point and it was great. I’m not one who goes on the long rides. Most of my biking was to run errands or play a game: Let’s see how long I can go without putting gas in the car.
“I was able to get my haircut, go to the chiropractor, my parents lived a few miles away and I could bike over there.
“But we wanted a home with a pool, and now we’re on Estero Parkway. So now I don’t ride as much anymore.” Riding along Estero Parkway is a lot less safe.
So instead, he’s become an advocate as much as a rider, a crossover cyclist of sorts.
And now, he admits, “I can understand why some people never go out of their communities — they just ride around and around in circles. Because it’s safer.”
The joy of riding
David Timm, president of the Bonita Bay Bicycle Club, a private club for residents of Bonita Bay in south Lee County, has become a serious road biker after his arrival in 2012 — but he, too, sympathizes with club members who stay inside the gates.
And the club works hard to teach members safety and to welcome newcomers and make them feel safe, he says.
“We have a safety director who offers to take you out on an introductory ride. My first time on a 20-speed road bike with the handlebars you’d expect on a road bike, my first time clipping into the pedals, was an experience. The great thing about a club like this is they offer experienced people who are willing to mentor you. And we have enough club members to have rides available for all kinds of riders.
“We have miles of roads with less traffic throughout the community.
Some don’t want to go out — they can ride 20, 30, 40 miles in the community and never be more than three or four miles from home.”
For riders such as Court Nederveld at the Peace River Bicycle Club in Charlotte County, or Isobel Hitchcock at the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club in Lee County, the club lifestyle is just as important as riding locations — it’s an opportunity both for fitness and for engaging in a social life with people diverse, disciplined, adventurous and healthy.
They often start or end rides at the local businesses supporting bicycling — the Paradise Bicycle Shop in both Fort Myers and Cape Coral where fit-looking bicyclists of various ages can often be seen coming in, or stopping at a nearby café; or the ACME Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda, for example.
“Cycling helps keep me fit, and it’s also a big social network,” says Ms. Hitchcock. “Our club consists of over 375 individual and family members. Cycling is very inclusive, so you will see all different body types at all different skill levels, with people from all different walks of life. It truly reflects the melting pot that is Southwest Florida.”
For beginners or the curious, she says, there are beginner or casual rides, all of them described with mileage on the club website. There are charity rides, summer bicycle camps for kids that teach safety, and a host of other activities.
Starting out? Mr.
Nederveld has two simple bits of advice: “Step one has to be getting fitted for the right size bike regardless of riding preferences such as road, off-road, single speed, triathlon, gravel, touring and so on. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend on a bike, if it doesn’t fit you won’t ride it very long and invariably it ends up on a wall or ceiling, hanging in the garage.
“My second suggestion would be, buy a good quality bike from a (local bike shop). Not only will they help with the sizing, but they will offer a plethora of helpful suggestions and advice about where, with whom and when to ride.” ¦
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