Come the revolution

“Scooter horror is coming to Gainesville!”

I saw that comment on Facebook. Oh, the humanity!

Soon there will be e-scooters strewn across the sidewalks all up and down Main Street. Anti-scooter vigilantes will be tossing them into Depot Park’s ponds.

And the carnage!

The Associated Press reports at least 11 e-scooter deaths since the beginning of 2018.

“Andrew Hardy was crossing the street on an electric scooter in downtown Los Angeles when a car struck him at 50 miles per hour and flung him 15 feet in the air before he smacked his head on the pavement and fell unconscious,” AP reports.

Having miraculously escaped death, Hardy concluded “These scooters should not be available to the public. Those things are like a death wish.”

Wait a minute. Shouldn’t the takeaway here be the absolute insanity of any motorist in any downtown in any city being able to drive 50 mph?

Still, nearly a dozen e-scooter fatalities in a year and a half sounds serious.

Until you consider that, In 2017, more than 40,000 people died in motor vehicle collisions. Including 6,000 pedestrians and cyclists.

Oh, and bike-ped deaths are on the increase even as traffic deaths in general have been declining. People inside cars are safer than ever, while those on the outside grow more endangered with each passing year.

We’ve seen this movie before. Pedestrians are just distracted jaywalkers, no wonder they’re getting killed in record numbers. Cyclists are reckless rule breakers, so pity the poor motorist who accidentally runs one down. And now lawless scooterers (scooterists?).

Here’s what its come to: We routinely give 90 percent of the public transportation realm (roads, streets, highways) to mostly single-occupant motor vehicle use. And everybody else – walkers, cycles, people in wheelchairs and now on scooters – must cram themselves into the narrow slivers (sidewalks, shoulders) along the edges.

And that’s even presuming there are slivers available to cram into. Often there are not.

No question there are legitimate issues to be resolved regarding e-scooter and e-bike use. Who should be allowed to share sidewalk space or bike lanes and who should get precedence therein? And how do you control e-clutter in ride-share situations when the things can be picked up and dropped off anywhere a respective user cares to begin and end?

All of that conceded, the bottom line, whether one’s personal mobility device of choice be scooter, bicycle, skates, pogo stick or just good old fashion shoe leather, is the same.

We have deliberately designed our public streets for the convenience of people who encase themselves inside fast and powerful motor vehicles. Gainesville’s signature street, University Avenue, is a prime example.

We design everything from lane width to speed limits to intersections to pedestrian crossings to curb cuts to turning radius with the primary intent of enabling traffic to flow as quickly and as efficiently as possible through the urban landscape. Because being forced to stew in traffic is the closest thing to a cardinal sin in autoAmerica.

So now e-scooters are coming to Gainesville. Sound the alarm and hide the children.

But if this innovation city is serious enough to hire a Director of Mobility (yes, I’m looking at you, Malisa McCreedy) we need to give a lot more than lip service to the notion of “complete streets.”

The personal mobility revolution is coming. Is Gainesville ready for it?

(Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Follow his blog at floridavelocepe.com)

Another traffic scam

INVERNESS: On a recent Tuesday I sent 500 cyclists to Crystal River. 

And why not? What we try to do at Bike Florida’s annual spring tour is show our riders the very best this state has to offer. 

And Crystal River is a treasure. A cluster of 50 springs that discharge 64 million gallons of water daily, it is refuge for all manner of wildlife. It plays host to hundreds of manatees and draws fishermen, kayakers and snorkelers by the thousands. 

Still, I had some doubts about sending my cyclists there. And not because I thought Crystal River itself would disappoint. 

No, it was having to send them through 20 miles of suburban dreck that gave me pause. 

Because we – Floridians and snow birds alike – have larded Crystal River with subdivisions and strip malls and fast food restaurants and gas stations and motels and condos. Now you can barely see the water for all the steel and concrete. 

And we let pesticides, fertilizers and the detritus of “civilization” wash into those crystal waters. 

And we wonder where the algae blooms come from. 

And we suck up vast amounts of groundwater to keep our lawns green. 

And then wonder why the mighty Crystal River doesn’t seem quite so mighty anymore. 

We are loving this Florida treasure to death. And I fear the ecological havoc is irreversible. 

So why bring it up?

Because the main driver of all this ugly sprawl is a network of high-capacity highways that tie into the Suncoast Parkway and I-75. 

The Suncoast is a money-losing toll road and I-75 is habitually congested. (Our staff went into near panic the previous Sunday when a pile-up on the interstate spilled thousands of trucks, trailers, SUVs and pickups onto the rural Hernando County road that we had just put our cyclists on.)

The movers and shakers in the Florida Legislature say the way to “fix” this traffic mess is to build still more of the same. More high-speed, toll-financed interstate-scale highways up and down the western side of the state. The better to tie the Suncoast and the Florida Turnpike and I-75 together all the way from Collier County to Georgia. 

And to justify it they are pleading public safety. 

Just in case we ever need to evacuate Florida in case of hurricanes.

Because the best place to be during a hurricane is in your car. Storm-hardened shelters are way too dangerous. 

This is a scam, people. 

It’s a greed-driven scheme to spawn more sprawl, sow more subdivisions, subsidize more strip malls, fuel more car dealerships and create more condos up and down vast stretches of the most rural and unspoiled (read “developable”) lands Florida has left. 

Which brings me back to Crystal River. 

Personally I think it’s too late to save it. But it’s not too late to save Wacissa, Aucilla, the Suwannee and Wakulla (the only Florida spring cluster larger than Crystal River). 

It’s not too late to save Steinhatchee or Cedar Key or St. Marks or Fakahatchee or Big Bend or the rest of Florida’s out-of-reach-out-of-mind rural treasures. 

You want to see The Villages to stretch all the way from Ocala to Cedar Key? Build those new highways. 

You think we need to bail out the billionaire who bought half a million acres of land in Dixie, Taylor and Lafayette counties? Lay down that asphalt.

But don’t tell us it’s good public policy. It’s just more taxpayer subsidized despoliation (toll roads don’t always pay for themselves). 

We may be gullible but we’re not stupid.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and route coordinator for Bike Florida.

The sign guy tells all

So there was this dead armadillo in the middle of East Gobbler Road. Clutching an empty can of Lite beer in his cold little paws.

“Definitely alcohol-related,” chuckled John, the retired Army master sergeant from Indiana who drives me around the back roads and country lanes of wherever it is that Bike Florida happens to be having its annual spring tour. In this just-concluded tour, that meant the best bike routes we could find in the Brooksville and Inverness area.

Anyway, we left the tipsy little guy where he lay for our riders to see. Presuming the turkey buzzards didn’t get to him first. 

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But I cannot tell a lie. John himself put that beer can in the critter’s paws. Because he’s acquired a bizarre sense of humor honed over years of drilling and terrorizing raw recruits. And because when you are driving endless miles in the wee hours of the morning, any little diversion is welcome.

Oh, I’m the sign guy. 

I’m that guy who rises at 5 a.m. each day during BF’s annual spring tour – setting out in the predawn darkness with a pickup truck full of bright blue-and-yellow directional, cautionary and information signs. 

Some hours later hundreds of cyclists follow in my path. Many will be riding the day’s metric (60-miles plus) route, some the shorter (usually 40 miles or so) route. And one day of the tour there will be century riders going the distance – presumably for the smug satisfaction of being able to say “Yeah, I rode 100 miles today, what did you do?”

Regardless of which route they choose, those riders will find the appropriate directional sign strategically positioned at each turn they make. 

Or they might notice the cautionary signs I often line up alongside of the road in traditional Burma Shave fashion. One announcing “Riders On The Road.” Another saying “Watch For Cyclists.” Intermixed with “CAUTION,” and “Three Feet Please” signs for good measure.

All of the above signs placed to be seen, not by our cyclists, but the motorists who are sharing the road. I’ve noticed that while guys in big pickup trucks can blow by one of our signs in complete oblivion, they tend to take note when there are five or six in a row. 

I have “Rest Stop” signs. I have “Obey All Traffic Laws” signs. I’ve got “Oncoming Traffic” signs. “Road Work,” signs, “RR Xing” signs, “Wrong Way!” signs, “Route Change” signs, “You Can Do It” signs, “You’re Not Lost” signs and more and more and more. 

We’ve got several oversized triangular bright orange placards proclaiming “Mass Cycling Event.” The better to let motorists know that something special is happening on this road on this day.

And on the odd occasion when I encounter a road condition that we hadn’t planned for, I’ve got blank white sheets and black Magic Markers on which I can write my own warning signs. “Bad Road Ahead” maybe. 

Signs, signs everywhere a sign.

Listen, I’ve posted signs in the driving rain. My flimsy signs have been bent over double and flattened against the ground by punishing winds. Once a roadside maintenance guy shredded several of my signs as he ran his giant mower up and down the roadside. And of course, our signs are often stolen by people who think that if they simply remove them, it will keep bicyclists out of their neighborhoods. It won’t. It’ll simply cause lost and confused riders to linger longer than they otherwise might have. 

Then there were the teenagers (probably) in Hastings who kept moving our signs around for the fun of it because – well, what else is there to do in Hastings? 

Once my driver and I had to think fast and improvise when, on a dark, dark morning in the Florida Panhandle, we suddenly ran into a thick wall of smoke and realized there was a forest fire blazing. We had to summon the police to head off cyclists already on the way and then reroute the entire tour in a different direction.

We’ve encountered horses and cows asleep on rural roads. In Port St. Joe I was repeatedly swarmed by no-see-ums each time I stepped out of the truck to plant a sign. I’ve had dogs howl and growl at me, a suspicious stranger, as I’ve gone about my merry signage ways

Sometimes its hard, dirty and even dangerous work. One morning in St. Augustine I was putting out signs well before sunrise when I began to notice blood smears on several of them. What I hadn’t noticed, at first, was that the blood was mine. Seems I’d stabbed myself in the arm while pulling a wire tine-side up sign from my truck.  

Oh yeah, and after spending four or five hours in the morning putting all of those signs out, I get to go out again late in the afternoon and pick them up. 

At my age, 71, I’ve often considered that being a sign guy is a young man’s game. But I’ve been putting them out and picking them up so long that I’ve come to consider route signage more an art than a science – and certainly not a routine, plant by the numbers affair. 

Question: How do you position a turn sign so that outgoing riders can see it but inbound riders cannot? Answer: Artfully, very artfully.

So I keep signing because, well, I fancy I’ve gotten pretty good at it and I want to make sure our riders get where they are going safely and without incident. 

I hate it when, on that rare occasion, placing sights gets so unexpectedly complicated that riders begin to catch up with me. And I’ve never understood the cyclists who rise before dawn and set out in the darkness to get a jump on the day. 

Once near High Springs I discovered several of our cyclists riding on a road that simply wasn’t on the route. When I stopped and asked them why, I was told they had stopped at a local restaurant where somebody assured them that our route was too dangerous and there was a much safer way to go. And never mind that we had spent months in planning and exploring, and consulted with plenty of experienced local riders, before deciding on a route. 

On the other hand, technology is making the job easier than it used to be. No more following paper maps or calculating distances by odometer. GPS now tells us exactly where we are and shows us exactly where the route turns are. 

Oh yeah, and I hate the DOT.

Most of the time I hate the DOT because its traffic engineers habitually supersize our roads and highways so motorists can drive as fast as they want – and kill as many pedestrians and cyclists as might happen to get in their way. 

But on spring tour week in particular I really really hate the DOT for its fiendish alchemy – it’s uncanny ability to turn roadside grass and dirt surfaces into almost concrete like surfaces.

Really, I don’t know how they do it. All I know that that half the time when I’m trying to drive the wire tines of my Share The Road directional signs into ground the wires just crumple under the unyielding resistance of the rock-infused roadside grassy strips. 

I have an impressive collection of bent, mangled and mutilated wire sign supports. 

Which is why I use a prodigious number of zip ties. I just find a strategically placed stop sign or route sign, or even a utility pole, and, zip!, my signs are on securely affixed and on prominent display.

Also, duct tape tends to come in handy as well. 

But that’s pretty much true of all of life’s situations. Right?

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The Ancient City Ramble

I’ve always maintained that the best way to see a city is on a bicycle. And in the past few years I’ve had the good fortune to be able to tour Ottawa, Edinburgh, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Montreal, San Francisco, Helsinki and a few other great cities on two wheels.

But, listen, one of the best city bike tours you can take is right here in Florida. Try this 26-mile  self-guided Ancient City Ramble to experience the best that historic St. Augustine has to offer (sorry, New Mexico, Virginia and Mass, but we’re still No. 1 on the oldest city list).

Leave from the Ocean Pier on St. Augustine Beach. Why? Because it’s a great spot for a start-of-ride photo.

0.9 miles: Where the white crosswalk crosses Beach Blvd. look for a short unpaved footpath. Turn right there to get off A1A and into a lovely tree covered old Florida neighborhood. 

2.2 miles: That’s the St. Augustine Amphitheater on your right. There’s probably a concert there tonight. We’ve seen Willy Nelson, Steely Dan and a few other oldies but goodies there. 

2.9 miles: Stop and take the walk to the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Best views in the city.

3.9 miles: The Conch House is one of the better known restaurants in St. Aug. Think a fish house on steroids. 

5.1 miles: Cross the historic Bridge of Lions. Take your lane, the cars behind you will wait.

5.9 miles: If you haven’t seen the honkin’ big Castillo de San Marcos, now’s your chance. Bristling with cannon and history.

6.6 miles: That’s the Great Cross on your right. Mariners can see it from miles out at sea. Great photo opportunity. Beautiful grounds. 

7.0 miles: The Fountain of Youth is not nearly as tourist hokey as it sounds. In fact, it’s a beautiful stroll along the Matanzas River and an informative walk through early Florida history.

6.6 miles: Yeah, you’re gonna cross that really tall bridge. It’s the only way to get to the quaint seaside community of Vilano Beach. 

8.8 miles: Well, you did the hard work of getting over that ginormous bridge. Might as well take a quick spin through Vilano before you have to ride back over it.

12.5 miles: That lovely campus on your right is the Florida School For The Deaf and Blind. 

13.8 miles: You are at Ft. Mose Park, site of the first free African settlement in North America. The fort is gone but there’s a museum there preserves its history and a really beautiful boardwalk stroll will lead you out into the marsh to the original site. 

14-14.3 miles: Exercise CAUTION on this left turn onto U.S. 1 quickly followed by another left  to get off of it. It’s a four-lane divided highway so take your time and execute these turns carefully and safely.

16.1: You’ve reached the Old City Gates and all of the Ancient City attractions on the pedestrian-only Spanish Street. Park your bike and take a stroll through history.

16.6: Flagler College is another excellent place to stop and walk. I recommend the guided tour, which will take you to the roof for great views.

17 miles: St. Augustine Distillery. You know what to do.

18.1 miles: That compound to your right is where the horses live when they are not pulling carriages up and down Ancient City streets.

18.1: You have arrived at one of St. Augustine’s best kept secrets, Freedom Park. Its circular bike-ped path gives you great views of the San Sebastián and Matanzas rivers, and there are great sculptures depicting the city’s African American heritage.

19 miles: You are in the heart of St. Augustine’s historic African American neighborhood. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested near here. Check out the Civil Rights House.

19.4: The coolest neighborhood in St. Aug. is the quaint waterside neighborhood of Lake Maria Sanchez. 

19.9: Lightner Museum on your left. The restored San Marco Hotel (great bar) on your right. 

20.2: Why did the cyclist cross the Bridge of Lions twice? To finish the ride of course. 

22.2: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park. In addition to a swampload of reptiles this place boasts a world class rookery (birds like it here because the gators protect them from predators that can climb trees).

22.8: Can’t visit St. Augustine without seeing Anastasia State Park. You can rent kayaks and paddle boards on the salt run. Or walk for miles on its car-free beach. 

25.4: Thousands of motorists pass the St. Augustine Beach Sculpture Garden every day and don’t give it a second thought. But that’s their loss. This quirky collection of statuary clustered on the edge of a small lake is very cool.

26.2: You’re on Beach Blvd. Tons of great restaurants in case your hungry. 

26.4: Back at the Ocean Pier. You took a beginning-of-ride photo, might as well end the same way to commemorate a memorable urban ride.fba5f828-c6ed-49b3-9d37-6f7a394f98a2 Continue reading “The Ancient City Ramble”

A land so strange

Jean Ribault was The First Coast’s First Tourist. 

The French explorer made landfall, on April 30, 1562, where the placid St. John’s empties into the Atlantic. There Ribault discovered a “faire cost, streching of a gret lenght,” and an “infenite number of highe and fayrc trees.” 

Hey, the guy was from out of state. 

But never mind that. The point is that, thanks to public ownership of the Talbot Islands and the primitive wetlands of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, much of the coastal landscape between Mayport to the south and Amelia Island to the north remains pretty much as Ribault must have found it: Miles of deserted beaches, wide stretches of palmetto scrublands broken up by forests of salt-sculpted, moss-draped oaks and stands of palms…all of it sandwiched between the ocean and a wonderland of twisting creeks, sloughs, mud flats and rookeries. 

Which is why this is one of my all time favorite Florida bike rides – a 40-mile trek up the Talbot Islands to Fernandina Beach and back. 

Start riding at the entrance to Little Talbot Island State Park, my all-time favorite winter camping ground.

For the first mile and a half you share A1A with some fairly fast moving traffic. But it’s got bike lanes and there are only two place, both narrow bridge crossings, where you briefly have to share the road with cars. Just be careful.

Mile 1.5: A quick right jog and you’re off the highway and onto the Timucuan Multi-Use Pathway. This is a beautifully designed off-road bike/ped path that runs the rest of the length of Big Talbot all the way to Nassau Sound. Winding and tree covered, it is a gorgeous trail.

Just after the 4 mile mark, you’ll arrive at Big Talbot Island Boneyard Beach. If you’re on a hybrid or fat tire bike you can ride down to the Boneyard  – so named for all of the fallen trees strewn along the shoreline like bleaching whale bones. If you’re on a road bike it’s still worth a short hike to the bluff overlook for the amazing view.

Leaving Boneyard Beach the paved trail soon becomes a wooden walkway. There are two covered bird watching shelters here overlooking a beautiful expanse of shallow blue water and mangrove swamps alive with – what else? – birds. 

Mile 5. You are crossing Nassau Sound on the long, slender Coastal Highway Bridge. To your right are awesome views of the Atlantic. To your left fishermen are lined up along the old George Crady bridge….long since closed off to traffic and now reserved for anglers. (I used to write about then-Rep. Crady when he was in the Florida Legislature, back in the ’70s. He would bring his guitar to the House floor to entertain fellow lawmakers while they were waiting for the leadership to hammer out a budget agreement.)

Now you are on Amelia Island, home of the rich and shameless. There is a separated bike path running up the southern stretch of the island, but using it necessitates frequent stops at the entrances of hotels, resorts and condo communities. I prefer to stay on A1A, which has perfectly adequate bike lanes.

Mile 9.6: Hang a rightcf447d95-09e9-4958-8fde-18663c56e8aa960c28f2-7028-4a00-84b8-3dcfad8ca4b6 on Burney Road and head to the beach. In this case, historic American Beach.

Why historic? Because in 1935, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, president of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, bought up this stretch of beach so his employees could vacation there. For decades it was one of the few Florida beaches where blacks could afford to live and play. Now it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a relatively modest and quiet beach community. 

Mile 11. You’re on the Amelia Island Parkway, a two-laned, low speed canopied road that takes you past the Ritz Carlton. Hey, stop for cocktails if you have a fat wallet. 

Mile 13: You’re on South Fletcher Ave., a two-laned road with narrow bike lanes that runs for several miles along the beach. But don’t count on seeing too much ocean…literally hundreds of beach houses block your view. 

Mile 18: That’s Ft. Clinch State Park on your right. I know I said this was a 40 mile ride (out and back) but if you want to chalk up still more miles take a detour through that long, skinny state park to its Civil War- era fort. The fort is spectacular and the views along the way are breathtaking. It’s about three miles in and three miles out if you go all the way. You might even catch sight of some of the wild horses that live on nearby Cumberland Island. 

After passing Ft. Clinch you’ll cross Egan’s Creek. That elegant tower off to the right is Amelia Lighthouse, one of the oldest in Florida. 

Mile 20: You have arrived in the heart of historic Fernandina Beach. A classic old Florida downtown. Need lunch? There are a ton of great restaurants and cafes. A beer maybe? The Palace claims to be the granddaddy of all Florida saloons. 

And just before you get to the waterfront stop at the Visitor’s Center in the old railroad station on Front Street. That gent sitting on the bench is David Levy Yulee. He doesn’t say much – heck he’s bronze after all – but Yulee has a fascinating history. He opened up the Florida frontier when he built a railroad from Fernandina to Cedar Key. He was a U.S. Senator for a while, but also got tossed into prison for supporting the confederacy.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to visit the Shrimp Museum and take a walk on the waterfront. 

Then get on your bike again, turn around, and head back to Little Talbot. The return ride is every bit as scenic and spectacular. 

 

Brunch on two wheels

Sunday brunch has gotten to be a big deal in Gainesville. 

And what’s not to like? Mimosas. Eggs Benedict. Meeting up with friends to see and be seen.

But, really, anybody can drive to brunch. Why not turn your Sunday brunch trip into an adventure on two wheels? A journey of exploration? 

Here’s a leisurely Sunday brunch bike ride that will show you the best Gainesville has to offer on your way to your favorite cafe or restaurant.

Mile zero: Begin at Depot Park of course. Take a pre-brunch lap around the ponds and past the Cade before heading south on the Depot Avenue rail-trail.

Mile .07: Take a brief loop through Porter’s Quarter to see the shipping container house.

Mile 1.8: Cross the DNA Bridge. Take a selfie under its orange strands.

Mile 2.5: Cross Archer Road and enter UF campus for a lap around Lake Alice.

Mile 4.1: Stop and stroll the boardwalk though UF’s Natural Area Teaching Laboratory. It’s a short walk through green serenity. 

Mile 4.2: Arrive Museum of Florida History and The Harn. Hey, would a little culture kill you? And butterflies!

Mile 4.9: Selfie at the Baughman and the bat houses. Maybe see if you can spot any real gators in Lake Alice.

Mile 5.8: Get your photo taken perched on the big gator outside the football stadium. If you’re really feeling ambitious, take a pre-brunch stadium hike all the way to the top tier of seats and back down.

Mile 6.6: Century Tower. You know what to do.

Mile 6.8: First brunch opportunities on University Avenue. The Swamp, The Social, etc.

Mile 8.2: You can leave the route just past GPD and take a left on the rail-trail. Just one block north will take you to Afternoon, another prime brunch spot. Then back to the route.

Mile 8.7: Take a stroll through the Thomas Center Gardens.

Mile 9.5: Enter downtown Gainesville, a brunch target-rich environment. Emilianos, Harry’s, 

Boca Fiesta, Paramount Grill, the Top, etc.

Mile 9.6: Hang a left at The Hipp. Grab a cuppa at Starbucks or Maude’s.

Mile 9.9: Take a ride through Sweetwater Park.  

Mile 10.3: Selfie at GRU’s giant water ball.

Mile 10.4: Daily Green on left. Last brunch opportunity of the route.

Mile 10.8: Back at Depot Park. Continue on route for a post-brunch beer at First Mag. BTW: If you like the ride so much you don’t want to stop yet, just head east on the Gainesville-Hawthorne Tail to rack up some bonus miles. 

12.2: Back at Depot Park again. Time for some Sunday Raggae at The Boxcar. The Cade should be open by now, and that’s always worth a visit. Plus, there’s usually a flea market at the park on Sunday. 

Is Sunday brunch in Gainesville great or what?

North to Craggy Gardens

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the top of Craggy Gardens.

Everything suddenly went black.

Well, not black, exactly. More like gray.

The black part only lasted while I was riding through a tunnel on the Blue Ridge Parkway that ended just about one mile distant from the Craggy Gardens Visitor’s Center – my goal for the day’s ride. My flashing white and red lights barely registered in the darkness….but you could make out the light at the end of the tunnel.

You could also see the steep hill – just the latest and hopefully last ascent that would take me up final 300-or 400-feet up to the nearly 6,000 feet elevation point that marked the Visitors Center.

I would have liked to have made it. It was so damned close.

Yet so far away as things turned out.

What happened was that at the top of that final hill I ran into a thick bank of gray fog that was rolling across the top of the mountain.

Now I saw it, now I didn’t.

In fact, I literally couldn’t see much of anything beyond my handlebars. And that’s not a great situation to find yourself in when you are on a narrow, two-lane, twisty mountain road much favored by cyclists, automobiles, motorcycles and RVs.

So, conceding defeat, I turned around and headed back the other way, downhill. Luckily, the fog did not follow me.

The Visitors Center will still be there for some future ride.

And the long, steep, descent between Craggy Gardens and the distant Folk Arts Center – at about 2,200 feet just outside Asheville – is reward enough.

Really, how often do you get to ride at speeds of up to 35-plus MPH (could have gone faster at points, but I get skittish at a certain velocity and start feathering the brakes) for mile after mile? Certainly nowhere in the vicinity of my usual Florida stomping grounds.

Having climbed steadily and doggedly for upwards of two hours, that return ride seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes.

In my previous blog, I criticized the National Park Service’s “ride on the right side of the road” rule for bicyclists on the Blue Ridge Parkway – aka its “suicide by bike” requirement. Which criticism I stand by.

But I also had some not very flattering things to say about cycling the segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Asheville area. That last complaint calls for clarification.

So here goes: There’s nothing wrong with riding the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, indeed it is recommended – providing that you are headed in the right direction.

In fact, cycling north (in the direction of Mt. Mitchell) on the Parkway out of Asheville is a delightful experience. Beginning at the Folk Arts Center, the climbs are challenging but not especially punishing, the descents are thrilling and the scenery is spectacular. The traffic tends to be light, at least earlier in the morning, and not nearly as intimidating as what you would encounter riding south.

It is riding south out of Asheville (toward Mt. Pisgah) that should be avoided, most especially during the week days. The first several miles is essentially a forested local road which is used by commuters to get to work and back or wherever, thereby avoiding the city’s more heavily trafficked surface roads. You can tell it’s a local road not only by the volume of fast-moving traffic but also by the roadside litter that is all too common along this stretch of the Parkway. It isn’t until after you cross the French Broad River, about 10 miles into the ride, that the trip south begins to seem as pleasant as the trek north. (Ironically, right after crossing the river we saw construction signs advising cyclists to go no further because of loose gravel on the road. Sometimes you just can’t win.)

Judging by the number of cyclists I was able to observe, the locals know this north-south divide very well. Over several days we passed (or were passed) by dozens of riders headed north. Only a hardy few were evident on the one day we ventured south.

And most were headed north for reasons of safety and scenery. The overlooks at Haw Creek Valley, Craven Gap, Tanbark Ridge, Bull Creek, Lane Pinnacle, Potato Field Gap and so on all make for scenic water stops that more than compensate for the hard work involved in riding steadily uphill in the direction of Craggy Gardens.

Listen, I’m a Florida flatlander who does most of my riding at sea level. But this summer I’ve had the opportunity to cycle in the mountains of western Virginia, the uplands of southern Scotland (more about that in a future blog) and on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. All are recommended.

Life’s a journey, folks. Just make sure all of your gears are in working order – not to mention your tires, brakes and flashing lights etc.

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Live center or die on the edge?

I wasn’t aware of the National Park Service’s “Suicide By Bicycle” rule until I cycled the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Asheville, N.C.

Actually it was on the third day of cycling the Parkway when, headed north, I pulled over just after crossing the French Broad River to read a colorful sign proclaiming that I was about to encounter the “highest, most rugged elevations” of its entire 469-mile length.

There was lots of other information as well, including fairly specific instructions for bicycles. Among them that cyclists must “ride single file on the right hand side of the road.”

This next to an illustration showing a single rider hugging the road’s edge so closely that his right ankle was surly being tickled by the grass.

I’ve got no problem with the single file part. But anybody on a bicycle who follows the “right hand side” rule must have a death wish.

Why? Two reasons.

One: Sitting on the right edge seems an invitation to lead-footed motorists coming up from behind to pass you without bothering to move over onto the oncoming traffic lane….even if that means squeezing by within inches of your vulnerable body.

In fact, a sheriff’s deputy in his SUV cruiser did just that to me without bothering to either slow down or edge across the yellow middle line. Thanks John Law.

Second, hugging the right edge of the road similarly invites impatient drivers coming in the opposite way to view the remainder of your lane as a “window of opportunity” to pass the slowpoke driver (or drivers) in front of them.

No thank you.

I mostly stuck just to the right of the center of the lane. With my fluorescent yellow jersey, flashing red tail lights and white head lights, I was visible enough to give oncoming motorists ample notice that they needed to slow down until they could pass me safely employing the oncoming lane. Even if that meant waiting until there was no approaching traffic.

As it happens, very few of the numerous cyclists I observed while riding the Parkway seemed to adhere to the bicycle suicide rule. And if that sounds like cycling anarchy, I would also observe that many of the motorists who shared that narrow road with us didn’t bother to observe the Parkway’s 35-45 mph speed limits. And Parkway traffic enforcement being apparently rare to nonexistent, there seems little incentive for motorists not to speed.

I hesitate to make too much of this. Cycling remains a popular activity on the Parkway and for good reasons – spectacular mountain vistas, challenging climbs and exhilarating descents to name just three.

But given the presence of so many SUVS, RVs, pickup trucks, motorcycles and such, the intent of the ride-on-the-right-edge rule seems less intended to protect the lives of people on bicycles than facilitate the swift and uninterrupted flow of motorized traffic.

A worthy goal on a wide, high-speed multiple laned highway, perhaps. But wholly inappropriate within the tight confines of what amounts to America’s longest, narrowest linear park.

Don’t get me wrong. I still loved cycling the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I would advise anyone who wants to give it a try to avoid the stretch running through the Asheville area. It’s clear that many local commuters use the Parkway as a convenient, time-saving option to avoid the traffic lights and congestion on the city’s roads. Looking in my helmet-mounted rear mirror and seeing a line of 7 or 8 cars coming up behind me and showing no signs of slowing down tends to….well, spoil the moment.

Not to pick on the Park Service, but I think the Parkway’s right-side rule is dangerously misguided. Check out what the American Bicycling Education Association’s Cyclingsavvy website has to say on the subject:

“Driving in the middle of the lane actually protects bicyclists against the most common motorist-caused crashes: sideswipes, right hooks, left crosses, and drive-outs.  A bicycle driver’s top safety priority is to ensure he or she can be seen by motorists with whom they might potentially be in conflict, and bicycling in the middle of a lane is one of the most effective ways to do that. Most overtaking crashes involve a motorist who attempts to squeeze past (illegally) in a lane that is too narrow to share.”

If ever there were lanes that are “too narrow to share” you’ll find them on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Sorry, ranger, but I’d rather live as a rule-breaker than die in perfect compliance.

Just find a trail and ride

We get it. You want to ride. 

You long to get out there on your bicycle, to explore the best that natural Florida has to offer. To exercise your body and your mind. To leave your sedentary existence behind, if only for the day, or perhaps just a few hours. 

But you are not comfortable riding on the roads. Traffic worries you. You don’t feel safe occupying the same space with cars and trucks and distracted drivers with cell phones.

Not to worry.

The really cool thing about Gainesville is that it is pretty much the epicenter of Trail Country. If you have a bike rack, or enough on-board cargo space to stow your bicycle, you are within easy driving distance – an hour or so – of at least four quality rail-trails. 

No need to share the road. Just get on a trail and sing along with Queen: “I want to ride my bicycle…..”

Here they are in order of proximity.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail: This one literally starts at Depot Park in downtown Gainesville and runs for more than 15 miles, all the way to downtown Hawthorne. Along the way you can stop at the Boulware Springs Trailhead for water and restrooms. You might want to take a bit of time off the bike to stroll the walkway into Alachua Sink at Paynes Prairie. There are rolling hills and scenic prairie overlooks. You can stop at Prairie Creek and watch the fishing, or maybe even cross under the Hawthorne Road bridge and take a peek at Newnans Lake. You can explore tiny Rochelle, cross Lochloosa creeks and, when you get to Hawthorne, maybe have lunch at Diane’s Old Time Barbecue, or visit the Historical Museum before heading back to Gainesville – where you just might consider a cold beer reward at First Magnitude, conveniently situated at trail’s end. This is one of Florida’s oldest rail-trails and it never loses its charm. 

The Lake Butler-Palatka Trail: Just a 35-minute drive east will take you to the trailhead at Grandin, in Putnam County. From there you can ride either west toward Keystone Heights or continue east toward Palatka – or better yet, go first one way and then the other. Either way the ride will take you through the heart of this area’s sand hills and lakes country. The important thing to remember is that this 47-mile corridor is very much a work in progress. As this is being written, construction continues on a trail extension that will go all the way into Palatka. Once that is completed, it will be possible to connect with the Palatka-St. Augustine Trail that will take you over the St. John’s River to the farm town of Hastings, the charming trail-communities of Armstrong and Elkton and then on to the very outskirts of the Ancient City itself. 

Nature Coast Trail: It’s a 40 minute drive west from Gainesville to Old Town. From there the Nature Coast Trail runs for 32 miles – west to Cross City, south to Chiefland and east to Trenton and extending in the direction of Newberry. This trail runs through the heart of a slice of old Florida that was once connected to the rest of the world by steamboats and railroads, and the highlight of the trail is a Suwannee River crossing via an one-time iron railroad bridge. The trail is in close proximity to Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, so a quick dip in cold water, or a time out for a bit of kayaking is not out of the question.

Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway Trail: A 56 minute drive south on U.S. 441/301 will take you through Ocala to the Santos Trailhead and the recently opened 23-mile Cross Florida Greenway Trail. What makes this trail different from most others is that it was not constructed on a former railroad right-of-way, meaning that it doesn’t run straight and true in typical railroad fashion. Rather this trail takes delightful twists and turns though the deep forest and over the low hills of the Cross Florida Greenway Corridor. Instead of crossing busy roadways, the trail dips under them via a series of tunnels. And when you get to I-75 can keep riding west unimpeded thanks to the trail’s attractively landscape “land bridge.” Oh yeah, along the way you will pass the Florida Horse Park, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself sharing the trail with a number of earnest looking individuals who are in the process of training their mounts for upcoming races. On the drive back, consider stopping in Ocala’s restored downtown for lunch in one of its many restaurants. 

(I wrote this piece for the latest edition of Gainesville Magazine.)

A visit to a mobility revolutionary

THORNHILL, SCOTLAND: If you intend to make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of a mobility revolutionary, best to do it in proper fashion.

Say, perched on two wheels. And self-propelled.

Jill and I were just wrapping up a week-long bicycle tour of southwest Scotland, beginning at the Mull of Galloway lighthouse – perched on rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean – and ending in this tidy little farm town all but lost amid the rolling green uplands and low stone wall-partitioned pastures of the sparsely-populated Dumfries-Galloway region.

It had been a splendid journey along wild coastlines, through picturesque villages, past ruined churches and grand castles.

And on this, the last day, there was one final destination to check off our must-bike to list.

Leaving Thornhill’s town square we enjoyed a brief, exhilarating coast down steep Boat Brae and then crossed the River Nith, not far from a place where tourists briefly climb out of their cars to photograph an ancient Celtic cross that rises in a field amidst grazing cows.

From there we turned onto a single-tracked lane that threads its way among postage stamp sized farms in a land where sheep and cattle far outnumber either cars or people.

Soon we crossed a bridge over a rocky creek….and almost missed it. A simple wooden sign bearing his name:

Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

Not there yet, though. Dismounting we walked several hundred yards along a weedy path to a woody glen where an ancient iron fence surrounds a even older graveyard.

But how to find him amidst scores of leaning, weather-eroded tombstones? Some of them had been there for centuries and were barely legible.

Fortunately, previous visitors had trampled a discernible trail through the carpet of overgrown grass. Just follow the depression and there he is.

What to say about Kirkpatrick Macmillan?

Well, we learn from his tall white headstone that he was the village smithy hereabouts. That he died at the age of 65, in 1878. That his wife, Elspeth passed when she was just 32, and that his progeny died in infancy or early childhood.

There is much more of the Macmillan family history crammed onto that stone. But it is the final line, seemingly an afterthought, that explains why pilgrims like us continue to this day to visit Kirkpatrick Macmillan.

“Inventor of the Bicycle.”

Innovators it seems can be found nearly everywhere. And even simple men who spend their days fashioning horseshoes and plowshares can change the world – often without ever knowing it.

Seems that in the early 19th century there was a new toy that was all the rage. They called it the Hobby Horse. Not a bicycle, exactly, just two wheels and a saddle attached by a wooden frame. You could “make it go” by straddling the contraption and then alternatively running and coasting.

Macmillan apparently saw one in action and had a radical idea: Why not attach pedals and eliminate the running?

Macmillan’s smithy shop, less than a mile beyond the cemetery, is still standing. A display mounted to the wall informs us that his “solution was to hang treadles from the front, driving cranks on the rear wheels by means of long connecting rods…” and to make “the rear wheel big enough to provide a useful ‘gear ratio.’”

His clever idea, in this remote place, touched off what amounted to a worldwide personal mobility revolution.

On one occasion, we are informed, Macmillan “rode his bike all the way to Glasgow and back (about 120 mile) which on poor quality roads must have required great strength.”

“In fact he is reputed to have beaten the mail coach at about eight miles per hour.”

The man never patented his personal mobility machine. Indeed his original vehicle has been lost to history because Macmillan apparently never realized its potential let alone tried to cash in on it.

“Kirkpatrick acquired a reputation for innovation,” the signage poses, “so was he too busy with other inventions to pursue what to us was his revolutionary one?”

Call him the original open source innovator. It would be left to others to take up and improve upon his design. Gradually, inevitably, chains and sprockets and wires and gearing and tubing and ever lighter and more durable materials would transform the toy Hobby Horse into a practical, reliable and increasingly more efficient self-propelled mobility machine.

And what would Macmillan have thought if he could have known that one day – and not all that many many decades into the future – two latter day bicycle innovators half a world away would take the technological evolution of his crude treadle-powered contraption and launch it into the very air on a windswept beach called Kitty Hawk?

Oh, I know, in our auto-obsessed age too many of our species still consider bicycles to be little more than toys. But we who have traveled countless miles under our own power on our finely crafted machines, who have been privileged to observe the world from a vantage point that few motorists could imagine let alone appreciate, know better than that.

Ours are not toys. Ours are Freedom Machines in the most literal sense. With them we may go where we please without benefit or burden of internal combustion generated power.

Viva la revolution!

(Ron Cunningham is a cycle commuter and former executive director of Bike Florida who lives in Gainesville, Fla. He has cycled widely in the U.S., Canada and Europe and will continue to do so as long as he can manage to propel himself on two wheels.)