As the Wheel Turns in Fla.

By Barbara J. Saffir
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 20, 2002

They were the words this weekend cyclist with fortysomething bones, and a twentysomething spirit, longed to hear: "City Girl is handling the trail pretty well."

"City Girl" was the nickname I'd earned from my fellow riders after biking along a leg of Florida's 46-mile Withlacoochee Trail. Perhaps they'd doubted my prowess because of the grimace I had failed to conceal when they told me how far we'd be riding that day (30 miles!). Truth be told, biking the flat, well-groomed path wasn't difficult at all, but deciding which of Central Florida's bicycle trails to pedal had been.

Within an 80-mile radius of Orlando, there are five paved trails 16 miles or longer. Two more lie just a tad beyond that. Since I could devote only three half-days to a ride, I opted to limit myself to one locale.

Should I amble along the Pinellas Trail on the Gulf Coast? It starts in the velvety green fishing village of Tarpon Springs and meanders south for 34 miles to St. Petersburg. Or could I cover the grueling, 29-mile straightaway through the sun-baked Green Swamp on the Van Fleet Trail? Maybe I should choose an easier 29-mile course along the Suncoast Parkway Trail north of Tampa -- or try out Orlando's newly extended 19-mile West Orange Trail near Walt Disney World.

Nope, I decided. Even though I'm only a recreational rider -- my usual jaunt is 14 miles along Washington's Capital Crescent Trail -- I opted for Florida's longest-paved path, the Withlacoochee Trail State Park, which follows two defunct 1890s railroad lines.

I longed to pedal and pedal and pedal. And that's just what I accomplished, setting a personal best by biking that 30 miles the first day. With the path seldom rising above a six-degree grade, I never felt a bit of pain.

I was also drawn to the trail because much of it is isolated from Florida's tourist-trodden circuits, and it boasts a Wild West flavor from its turn-of-the-century boom towns. Plus, it cuts through the 154,368-acre Withlacoochee State Forest, dubbed by the World Wildlife Fund as one of the "Top 10 Coolest Places You've Never Seen in North America."

The Withlacoochee -- which takes its name from an Indian word meaning "crooked river" -- seems to retreat through time. Its northern trail head appears firmly planted in modern-day Florida, beginning in a somewhat Fellini-esque setting of asphalt roads plotted through empty lots in a housing development. Toward the trail's midsection, the landscape -- with its 1960s-era towns -- starts to resemble Old Florida. Finally, in the cowboy community at the trail's southern end, time has downright stood still: Trilby, with its pink wooden church and petite post office, appears unfazed by 21st-century worries and Disney, a little more than an hour east.

Although I was staying at a friend's house near the northern trail head, I began the first day of my excursion closer to the Withlacoochee's midpoint in Inverness. I joined a bike group headed by Chris Trangos and Ken Spilios, members of Rails to Trails of the Withlacoochee, the nonprofit association that helps maintain the path.

Nearly every Thursday morning, the group invites riders to wheel along with them from Inverness to Istachatta, a teeny outpost of about 65 residents along the banks of the languid Withlacoochee River. Typically they chow down on biscuits and gravy or other rustic fare at Istachatta's General Store and then loop back. Although their trek attracts the occasional tourist, it's mainly residents, retirees and snowbirds who ride the out-of-the-way trail.

This 15-mile stretch is the trail's busiest point, as bikers share the lane with in-line skaters, walkers and the occasional baby stroller. Virtually the entire 12-foot-wide asphalt pathway, which is fashioned with thousands of recycled tires, is handicapped accessible, including most of the picnic pavilions along the way.

Inverness is the biggest "city" on the trail. Its 1912 courthouse-turned-museum, with its copper-topped cupola, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Elvis Presley filmed part of "Follow That Dream" here in the summer of '61.

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