by Roger Normand
Beneath darkened, brooding skies they gathered at the historic Venice Train Depot for the 6th Annual Tour de Parks bicycle ride, sponsored by the Friends of the Legacy Trail. The weather forecast promised a good day; the misty morning suggested otherwise. Who would be right?
Nonetheless, they came, guided to parking areas by flashlight toting volunteers. They dismounted bikes from their automotive perch: mountain bikes; tri-bikes; beach cruisers; recumbents; single speeds, a few trikes. Many donned clip-in shoes. Others adjusted the brakes or added a few drops of chain lubricant on their bikes. They would be riding 62 miles – gotta make sure everything is just right. Other volunteers staffed a well organized, speedy registration process, handing out a commemorative t-shirt and food wristband for those who had pre-registered but had not picked it up at nearby bike shop Real Bikes the previous day.
Team members assembled. Friends from previous rides greeted each other and caught up on news. Newbies introduced themselves. “How are things at work?” “Have you been training for this ride?”
As in previous years, local restaurant and long time FLT supporter First Watch served bagels, muffins, yogurt and fruit for breakfast along with some fresh Florida OJ and a morning cup of joe: fuel to begin the day’s journey. Yummy. Our corporate sponsors Doctor’s Hospital, Sarasota Orthopedics Associates, Bucket Fillers, Venice Village Family Chiropractors, Bentley’s Boutique Hotel, Florida Ear & Sinus Center/Silverstein Institute set up tables and offered free trinkets and advice.
A quick pre-departure pit stop, and riders started to assemble on the trail, anxious to begin the day’s ride. There was a restless anticipation – let’s get going! As the clock struck eight o’clock, without fanfare, the wave of some 111 sixty-two milers and many of the thirty-seven milers headed north on the trail.
We soon crossed the trestles that span the beautiful, still waters of South Creek and Dona Bay. I noticed many cyclists looking up to eastern skies at the bright morning sun peaking through the clouds and fog as we rode over the trestles. It was a magical moment. It would be a great ride on what would prove to be a spectacular southwest Florida spring day with light winds, and mostly blue skies with just enough cloud cover to keep the temps comfortable.
We had over 425 enthusiastic riders for this year’s TdP, with the rest of the 37 and 15 milers leaving by 9 am. Riders ranged in age from 8 to 85 years. About two-thirds came Sarasota County, with half the rest coming from elsewhere in Florida, and the remainder from states as far as California and Maine. Six riders originated from other countries. About 50 volunteers provided food and drink at rest stops, served as route guides, or provided other administrative support. Thank you to local bike shops Sarasota Cycle and Bicycles International for providing SAG support.
This was my second time riding the 62 mile TdP. Many riders remarked how well marked the route was compared to last year – I didn’t need to pull out my map or cue sheet. The course offers a fascinating scenic diversity. I like riding through some of the many Sarasota area parks. I particularly enjoy the native scrubby plants along Oscar Scherer State Park, hoping to catch a glimpse of a soaring bald eagle, Florida Scrub Jays, or a gopher tortoise ambling across the trail. There are pastures with grazing long-horned cattle. The loop around along the narrow, winding trail through the canopy of hemlocks at Rothenbach Park provides an interesting change of pace.
Thirty-seven and 62-milers enjoy the final loop through Casey Key. Approaching Casey Key, I was forced to stop at the single lane 1920’s era swing bridge that had opened to allow a few pleasure boats passage. It’s a ride, not a race. I chatted amiably with a fellow TdP rider, the unmistakable smell of ocean air filling our lungs. Once on the Key, we rode along the winding, low-traffic ocean front road. It’s fun looking at the mansions of the rich and famous that line much of the road. A light breeze mixed the ocean air with that of the fragrant hibiscus that will brush against if you ride too close to the edge of the road. And then, suddenly, you are greeted with an expansive view of the ocean and bay. Wow.
In lieu of riding through a residential neighborhood after Rothenbach Park, this year’s course substituted a 3.5 loop around Nathan Benderson Park, site of numerous regional and national events, as well as the 2016 International world rowing championships. It’s a no-brainer tradeoff! The spectacular 400 acre lake is quite visible from heavily traveled I-75, which I’ve driven hundreds of times. It’s even better up close, cycling around the perimeter. What a transformation from what was once a borrow pit for the construction of I-75, with more improvements underway or planned.
I returned to the Venice Depot at about 12:30 pm, too late for some of the lunch time events. I’m told former County Parks & Recreation Director John McCarthy gave a rousing endorsement of The Legacy Trail and the TdP, as did Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines. I feasted on the pulled pork lunch prepared by Back Woods BBQ as I chatted with other riders.
Sure I was tired. That was the longest ride I’d taken in the still early 2015 season. But what a wonderful ride, with scenic views and the camaraderie of other cyclists of all abilities. This was the primary fund raising event for the FLT, raising over $10,000. I look forward to doing next year’s TdP. Perhaps you’ll join me.