Bicycling the Keys is well worth the effort

With one of my favorite sporting events, the Tour de France, under way, I was inspired to take a ride I’ve been meaning to do since I moved here. So I made my way up to Key Largo, took the bike off the rack, strapped on my helmet, and headed down the highway on a “Tour de Keys.”

I must confess I stopped for the night in Marathon, but the next morning I woke up and rode straight to Mallory Square.

Everyone I know thought I was crazy, but it was by far the best experience I’ve ever had on a bicycle. Sure, I had sunburn and sore legs for a few days, but it was worth it just to take in the beauty of the Keys at that pace.

Along the 106-mile route are a plethora of parks and wildlife refuges, as well as a number of gorgeous beaches, where you can rest your legs and enjoy the view.

One of the most incredible vistas can be found by stopping on the hump in the Seven Mile Bridge — one of the 42 bridges riders have to cross — and simply taking it all in. Pedaling up that incline and getting a chance to look around is a breathtaking experience. The crystal clear ocean water surrounding you for miles makes it easy to understand why people come from all around the world to visit our tiny islands.

A word of warning to the uninitiated: Anyone who wants to ride the length of the Keys has no choice but to ride on the shoulder of the Overseas Highway for much of the way. Depending on a rider’s level of experience, this can be a rather harrowing experience.

Eventually, the Overseas Heritage Trail will run alongside the highway from Key Largo to Key West, giving cyclists and hikers a dedicated path on which to travel.

At this point, though, there are only 30 miles of trail built, the majority of which are in the Upper Keys. There are long stretches of road from Anne’s Beach at mile marker 73.5 to Marathon and from the Seven Mile Bridge to Key West where there is no trail whatsoever. Below the Seven Mile Bridge, the trail consists of two half-mile stretches on Big Pine and Summerland. The trail resumes when you reach mile marker 15, but it is covered with so much debris that riding on the shoulder is still a better option.

Randy Smith, construction manager for the trail, a project of the state’s Office of Greenways and Trails, is optimistic the Key Largo-to-Key West route will be completed on schedule, but he acknowledges that a lot of work remains to be done. “One hundred percent completion, contingent on funding, I would say would be within three or four years,” Smith said.

The majority of that funding — $42 million for the trail’s design and construction —comes from the Florida Department of Transportation, with a portion coming from Monroe County as well.

Ultimately, the Office of Greenways and Trails envisions the trail as an “integrated system of educational kiosks, picnic areas, scenic overlooks, fishing piers, boat ramps, water access points, as well as a myriad of small business and services in the nearby aria that support these uses.”

When finished, the Overseas Trail promises to be an awesome sight. It will make touring the Keys by bicycle an incredible and, more importantly, a safer experience.

“The bike paths themselves are OK, but they need to connect them up,” says Marty Baird, owner of Big Pine Bicycle Center. “It’s really not adequate enough for someone who wants to tour the Keys because they have to continually get back out on the highway, and if you don’t like the highway you’re not going to make the ride.”

Laura Hallam, Executive Director of the Florida Bicycle Association, has ridden extensively in the Keys and feels if proper precautions are taken the ride can be enjoyable. “Because there are a lot of tourists down there, you need to be sure to follow traffic laws,” she said.

“Otherwise, I think the Keys are a wonderful place to ride because they’re so beautiful. If anything you can get distracted by all the beauty that surrounds you, so keep your head up and watch where you’re going.”

In fact, Hallam prefers to be on the road as opposed to a bike path.

“People often say ‘That’s so hazardous,’ but the reality is a safe road is based on the behavior of motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians,” she says.

Hallam says people who don’t have a lot of experience with road cycling should avoid parts of U.S. 1 where there isn’t much of a safe shoulder.

Like Hallam, Anthony Hughes, owner of Tavernier Bicycle and Hobbies, says that riding the Overseas Highway is all about one’s comfort level.

“You’ve got the die-hard riders that’ll ride the road and that’s the only way they’ll ride,” he says. “Then you have the others that will not touch the road with a 10-foot pole. So you’ve got to be open to both ways.”

Key West is the southern gateway of the East Coast Greenway, a primarily off-road bicycle and pedestrian trail planned to link all major cities on the East Coast. The 2,950-mile greenway will run from Calais, Maine, and is scheduled for completion in 2010.

By that time, the Overseas Heritage Trail should be completed, and cyclists can travel the length of the Keys without ever having to be on the highway. If their legs are feeling up to it, they can ride straight to Calais.