Gulf of Mexico Drive
Cyclists who are looking for fitness and don’t mind a little (or a lot) of sweat love this ride. Two-lane Gulf of Mexico Drive, which stretches 11 miles up Longboat Key, is the perfect point-to-point cycle with no turns, no lights and good bike lanes. The barrier island is gorgeously landscaped, especially at the five-mile mark where the wall-to-wall hotels and condominiums vanish for a short stretch and the Gulf of Mexico bursts into view. But even though it’s a straight ride, remain vigilant. The bike lane can be crowded with other cyclists, and you also need to watch for cars that might cut you off as they turn into a golf course. The asphalt is smooth, though, and void of potholes, so you can really fly. That’s why it appeals to the many fit folks and cycle club members who make this ride every weekend in their multicolored spandex onesies, riding bikes that cost upwards of $8K.
22-mile loop |Any bike will do, but a road bike would be best. | If you are going to do the whole loop, especially in the heat, you need to be in shape.
Tucked in the northwest corner of Bradenton, just east of Anna Maria Island and south of Tampa Bay, is the 682-acre Robinson Preserve. This ride keeps you close to water. The trail is paved, but don’t go too fast. You’ll be sharing it with lots of pedestrians, children and dogs, so this is not a ride designed to break a sweat. Pedal through mangroves and see a breathtaking view across Tampa Bay with the Sunshine Skyway on the horizon. Fortunately, there are plenty of benches and shade so you can stop and take in the scene. And the dozen or so wooden bridges you’ll bike over create a pleasant sound and fun rhythm that make you want to turn around and do it all over again. This is a beautiful ride at sunset. The colors make the bugs worth it, and the bugs will inspire you to keep moving.
7-mile loop | Any bike will do | Easy to moderate
Alafia State Park
After spending an afternoon at Alafia State Park (in Lithia, about 10 miles southeast of Tampa on County Road 39), you’d never guess that it was built over the remains of an old phosphate mine. Nature has so vigorously reclaimed the area that you might mistake it for untouched Florida forest. But the mine transformed the landscape, giving the area unnatural elevations that created small bodies of water and little hills that long since have been turned into the area’s best mountain biking course. The trail, nearly all dirt and dead leaves, serpentines through various ecosystems from cool, shaded canopies of pines, palms and oaks with vultures flying overhead to open, dried scrub with turtles shuffling in the leaves. The only downside is that you can’t really spend too much time looking at this beautiful place. To look any direction other than straight ahead could spill you into a manmade pond or dwarf palmetto.
A couple of dozen labeled trails of varying difficulty; roughly: 20 miles | Mountain bike recommended (I used my touring road bike and nearly ate it several times.) | 8 a.m.-7:30 p.m. | $4 per vehicle | Recommended for experienced riders.
All About Nature
Myakka River State Park
Myakka River State Park offers one of the easier, more picturesque bike rides. Parking is ample at the southern entrance, where you can immediately hop on your bike. A main paved road winds through the park’s palms and live oaks where tufts of Spanish moss hang like ghostly drapes from branches. Bicyclists share the shaded road with deer, turtles, raccoons and the occasional car, but it’s mostly a quiet, pastoral ride that makes you fall in love with Florida. If you’re in the mood to explore, park your bike at one of the many bike racks and explore the trails. These pit stops offer brief jaunts into the Myakka wilderness. Make sure to visit the lake or climb the lookout tower. It’s the ideal ride for a family picnic or a first date.
14-mile loop | Any bike will do | $6 per vehicle | Easy. Bring the whole family.
North Sarasota to Lido Beach
You really can ride a bike safely from north Sarasota to Lido Beach, and you’ll feel virtuous as you breeze past cars stuck on the bridge. Plus, it’s good to think about the bike as urban transportation and not just recreation. Start from New College of Florida on Bay Shore Road, where for two blissful miles, you’ll ride through one of Sarasota’s older, tree-lined neighborhoods. When you reach Indian Beach Drive, cross U.S. 41, pedal by Ringling College, and take a right on Cocoanut Avenue until you reach the bayfront. Head toward John Ringling Causeway, where a wide lane is designated for bikers. Pause at the summit for an unmatched view of the city and the bay. Then follow the road until you reach St. Armands Circle and the beach. You can walk your bike along the North Lido Beach shoreline or head to Ted Sperling Park at South Lido Beach. After the sun goes down, you’ll speed past sandy tourists in their cars as they wait in gridlock to get back into town.
7 miles to North Lido; about 8.5 to South Lido | Any bike will do, but if you don’t have gears you might want to walk your bike up the bridge. | Leave the little ones at home for this one. You’re sharing the road with traffic.