I can almost see the steam rising off the road as my husband and I walk out of our house and into the predawn light for our Saturday ride. It’s July and Southwest Florida’s stickiness is at its peak. We’ve got 100 miles to go: our last big training day before competing in an Ironman. We mount our bikes and head west, eventually turning onto a deserted Gulf Shore Boulevard. For the next few hours the roads are ours. Merrily we roll along.
More than a decade ago, I joined my collegiate cycling team. Since then, I’ve ridden my bike in 42 of the 50 states—from Maine all the way to Hawaii. Despite Southwest Florida’s high sweat index, it remains one of my favorite places for pedaling.
“It’s totally flat. It’s a great place to ride,” says Jane Cheffy, president of Naples Path- ways Coalition, the local biking and walking advocacy group.
Of all the local areas, Cape Coral seems to be leading the way. Two and a half years ago, the Cape Coral Bike-Ped organization started lobbying to make the Cape the area’s best biking destination. The goal was to create 90 miles of interconnected bike routes through- out the city by the end of 2014. “We’re going to meet that goal,” says group co-founder Carolyn Conant, adding that the city has even managed to make downloadable GPS maps (available on the city’s website, capecoral.net) that give step-by-step directions for popular routes.
But even in super-bike-friendly Cape Coral, most rides include at least a few blocks where you’ll need to navigate traffic—and learning to cohabitate with cars is a must for anyone who plans to ride with regularity in Southwest Florida. However, if you pick the right streets, your Saturday morning ride should be just fine. Here’s where to go and how to do it.
A week before our wedding, a friend snapped a photo of my husband and me pedaling down Old Naples’ shady and scenic Gulf Shore Boulevard. It’s a blissful place to ride, which matched the perma-bliss state we both inhabited leading up to our big day. In the photo our hair is blowing, our smiles swing north all the way to the tops of our cheekbones, and everything seems just right.
It’s a perfect metaphor for this ride: If you ride your bike only once in Collier County, do it here. There’s a bike lane along 80 percent of the route, and a casual 10 mile-per-hour pace offers the perfect tempo for gawking at the multimillion-dollar homes. Start at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and ride south past the Naples Pier (which is a good place to restock with cool water if you run out). Then, when Gulf Shore Boulevard ends, hang a right on Gordon Drive. Cruise all the way to where it dead-ends, then begin your trip north. If you want to add in more miles, turn right on either Kings Town Drive or Galleon Drive. This will take you into the aspirational (and usually traffic-free) Port Royal neighborhood. These roads are mostly cul-de-sacs, so don’t worry too much about getting lost. Finally, as you ride north again on Gordon, consider stopping at 13th Avenue for a coffee and a pastry at Tony’s Off Third, or at Fifth Avenue South’s biker (the spandex, not the leather, kind) hangout, the 5th Avenue Coffee Company.
Mileage: It starts at 9.4, though checking out Port Royal or heading to a coffee shop will add distance.
Safety Concerns: On Saturday and Sunday mornings, the route can be crowded with runners, cyclists, pedestrians and cars—definitely be on alert for other users. There’s also no bike lane at the end of Gordon Drive, but cars are generally accustomed to moving over for cyclists.
Rich King Memorial Greenway
Blissfully car-free, this 3-mile multi- use path runs from Radio Road to Rattlesnake Hammock Road in East Naples. While there’s no designated parking area at either end of the trail, there are shopping centers with ample parking nearby. Flat, mostly straight and following the FPL power lines, the trail isn’t particularly scenic or interesting, but it does offer a car-free experience.
Mileage: The trail is 3 miles each way, or 6 miles round trip.
Safety Concerns: Scorching might be the best way to describe this greenway—there isn’t a shade tree in sight. Don’t do this ride at noon on a particularly warm day lest you risk the rubber bits on your bike melting or your heat-averse husband melting down (been there). Also, dog walkers and kids are common, so watch out for being clothes-lined by retractable leashes and always call out “on your left” before you pass a pedestrian.
Crayton Road and Pelican Bay
The crescent moon-shaped neighborhood of Pelican Bay provides some of the shadiest riding in town. In the late afternoon this route is particularly nice, as the live oaks cast long shadows over the entire roadway. If you want to add more miles to your ride, consider starting at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and head north on Gulf Shore Boulevard. Hang a left at the first light, which is Crayton. Follow Crayton until Seagate Drive (where you’ll have to cross the road and jog through the parking lot by the Naples Grande Beach Resort tennis courts). Once you pass the tennis courts, the entrance to Pelican Bay will be half a mile up the road; go left.
Mileage: Pelican Bay is 3 miles each way. Starting at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club and riding to Pelican Bay will add 4.5 miles each way.
Safety Concerns: Crossing Seagate Drive requires a few feet of either against-traffic riding or traversing a sometimes-busy sidewalk—definitely be on the lookout for other riders and walkers as you cross. Pelican Bay also has some sections where roots are pushing the pavement upward causing mini-speed bumps. It’s nothing a typical bike can’t handle, but definitely keep your eyes on the road.
The Surfside Loop, Cape Coral
The Cape has no shortage of cycling routes; you’ll see signs directing cyclists all over the sprawling city. Veterans Parkway has a multi-use path that offers a safe option, but because it parallels a major roadway, it’s not particularly peaceful or scenic. For a bit more serenity, take Veterans Parkway to Surfside Boulevard, which parallels a canal and the Matlacha National Wildlife Refuge. The road goes about 5 miles before ending—and you can either return the way you came or continue on, following the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce (notated as C.C.C.C. on signs) loop, which tours the south side of the city.
Mileage: About 10 if you ride from Veterans Parkway to the end of Surfside Boulevard and back. The entire C.C.C.C. loop is more than 20 miles.
Safety Concerns: The northern part of the city has had several car-on- bike incidents this year and citizens are organizing to get both more sidewalks and lights installed, but the southern part of the city is generally considered safe for riding.
The Gordon River Greenway
This 2-mile pathway has been in the works for more than 20 years. Finally, it’s here. Visitors are able to walk, cycle or even rollerblade on the trail, which is part asphalt path and part raised boardwalk. Much of the area is home to the threatened gopher tortoise, so keep an eye out as you ride. “I think people are going to be really, really pleased when they see this,” says Melissa Hennig, a senior environmental specialist for Conservation Collier, which helped plan the trail.
Eventually, the Gordon River Green- way will connect to Freedom Park and a new pathway being installed at the Naples Airport by the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust. The City of Naples also has plans to extend the path onto city land, but the timeline for that is unclear.
Mileage: This route runs 2 miles one way.
Safety Concerns: Most who use this pathway will be coming for wildlife viewing, so pass with care, as birders may be distracted. Also, because the boardwalks can be slippery when wet, this is not the place for speed racing.
With bike paths covering almost the entire island and a few attractions being accessible only by bike, two wheels trump four when exploring Sanibel. Start your day by pedaling Wildlife Drive, inside the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. While cars pay $5 to enter, you’ll scoot in for just a $1. The Wildlife Drive loop is 4.25 miles and eventually leads back to Sanibel-Captiva Road. From there, either turn right on Sanibel-Captiva Road to head north to Blind Pass, or head back into town for refueling at one of the island’s many eateries. Once you’ve topped off the tank, make sure you take the Middle Gulf Drive bike path to the Sanibel Pioneer Cemetery. Since you can get here only via bike, this small cemetery offers a quiet retreat from Sanibel’s high-season hustle.
Mileage: Depends, but the island has nearly 25 miles of trail, so you can go all day and not ride the same road twice.
Safety Concerns: The paths are truly multi-use, so watch out for walkers, joggers and strollers. Also, because many of the paths are set off from the right side of the road, you may not be in the immediate line of sight for a car turning right. Be careful and watch for traffic before crossing into intersections. Also, while cyclists can travel on the Sanibel Causeway, there is no bike lane and it can be a harrowing experience.
Caloosahatchee Regional Park and Pepper Ranch
If you find the hum of tires on pavement lulls you into a stupor, add a bit of adrenaline by opting to ride on dirt. The Mudcutters, a local group of mountain bikers, has built miles of trails at Caloosahatchee Regional Park in Lee County and Pepper Ranch in Collier County. Most are suitable for intermediate-level riders, but come ready to hop over at least a few roots and rocks. Also, helmets are required for all riders at these two parks.
Mileage: Caloosahatchee Regional Park has about 10 miles of mountain bike trails, while Pepper Ranch has only 4.5 miles completed with 15 total miles planned.
Safety Concerns: While you don’t need an expensive mountain bike, you do need one with fat tires—this isn’t the place to test out your new road bike. Trails for experienced riders are clearly marked and whether you ride clockwise or counter clockwise on trails changes from month to month, so check signs before departing the parking lot.
Get in Gear
It’s true, bicycling takes more equipment than running or walking, but being properly outfitted really does result in a safer and more comfortable ride. Here’s what you need:
A bike: Sure, you could spend $8,000 on a purebred racing machine, but for casual riding that seems a little excessive. Find a bike that fits you well—any bike store professional will be able to tell you what size you need and how to adjust the seat and handlebars to the right height. One word of warning: If you do opt to buy a bike from a big-box retailer, your first stop on the way home should be at a reputable bike store. The people who assemble bikes at big-box retailers are not bike mechanics, and often bolts are not tightened the way they should be.
A helmet: Technically, anyone over age 16 isn’t required to wear a helmet, but why wouldn’t you? Besides, brain safety is sexy! Like a bike, proper helmet fit matters. The helmet should be snug but not tight, and make sure it covers your forehead. Also, if you ever crash and hit your head, replace the helmet.
Padded shorts: These are optional, but if you spend more than an hour in the saddle they become slightly less optional—especially if you want to walk normally the day after you ride. (Also, bike shorts should be worn without underwear—this is the one time you can ignore what your mom said about never leaving the house without underwear.)
Lights: Florida law requires any cyclist out after dark to have a white light on the front of his or her bike and a red light on the back. Buy one that blinks—it’s more noticeable to drivers and it majorly extends the light’s battery life.
A flat tire repair kit: Even if you don’t know how to use it, bring it. The biker code of ethics requires more experienced bikers to help newbies, but only if they have their own spare tire.
Identification: Just in case the unthinkable happens, having an ID on you is crucial. Your driver’s license is one option, or consider ordering a RoadID, an engraved bracelet that lists all of your medical conditions and who to contact in an emergency.
The Basic Rules of the Road
Ride with traffic: Runners and walkers should travel facing oncoming traffic, but cyclists are considered vehicles and should travel in the same direction as traffic.
Know the dangers of sidewalk riding: “Get on the sidewalk!!!” is the No. 1 thing cyclists hear yelled at them, but the sidewalk isn’t really a safe place to ride. Because you’re out of the line of sight of most drivers, riders on the sidewalk are much more likely to be hit by someone turning right. In many municipalities it’s even illegal to ride on the sidewalk because of the danger it poses to pedestrians.
Stop at stop signs: As annoying as it is to come to a complete stop when no one is around, it’s the law. Bicyclists have to follow the same rules drivers do—even when no one is looking.
Pass on the left: When passing slower riders or pedestrians, call “on your left” and then make your pass when it’s safe to do so.
Know what you’re entitled to: Cars have to give 3 feet of space when they pass a cyclist, and if there’s not enough room for a car to safely pass, the cyclist may take the whole lane. Still, it’s best to try to let cars pass you as soon as it’s safe—sharing the road goes both ways.