A path meant for peddlers

As a 12-year-old military brat at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, I often rode through the adjoining hills of the Black Forest on a trusty Schwinn bicycle. Occasional flat tires, roadside spills and derailed chains didn’t slow me down for long.

Now decades older and nearly 5,000 miles across the Atlantic in my Clearwater abode, bike riding still lights the ole’ fire. I don’t ride as far or worry about negotiating steep inclines as in my youth, but rolling along the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail in my adopted hometown delivers an abundance of fresh air, sunshine, exercise and the exhilarating rush of being outdoors.

You’ve likely encountered the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail – known locally as simply the trail – many times when driving around the western part of Clearwater. Traffic barriers separate the trail from the roadways with signs warning vehicles to stop to let bicyclers or pedestrians cross. Running nearly the length of Pinellas County, inquiring minds want to know when the trail started and what benefit it serves?

In 1983, an emerging need coincided with a land-use problem that resulted in a practical solution. A group of outdoors enthusiasts longed for a place where they could peacefully walk, skate, jog or ride bikes amid an area booming with car traffic.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County planners wondered what to do with an abandoned, unsightly railroad corridor stretching from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs that cut through the heart of Clearwater.

Voila – the evolution of a continuous 47-mile trail that’s evolved into a protected greenway enjoyed by about 70,000 users each month. The trail, maintained by Pinellas County Parks & Conservation Resources and named in honor of former county administrator Fred Marquis, links the county’s neighborhoods, parks, cities and coastal areas.

Businesses near the trail benefit by way of thirsty, hungry or “let’s-take-a-break” bicyclists. Clearwater resident Jared Murray, 31, commutes each day on his bike to a workplace that also caters to a steady stream of trail users.

“Riding the trail is great because you’re not weaving in and out of traffic all the time. Plus it’s a good way to soak up some rays,” said Murray, who works as a waiter at Nauti-Nancy’s, a popular Clearwater eatery paralleling the trail at 700 Eldridge Street. “People pull their bikes inside the patio to relax a bit and enjoy lunch or dinner before resuming the ride.”

In addition to refreshment stops and service stations all along the trail, Clearwater bike rental operators flourish. City Cycle and Supply at 703 Court Street — (727) 443-1500, — and The Path Bicycles And Ride Shop at 647 Cleveland Street — (727) 216-6726, — do a brisk business. Rental fees are similar at both companies, ranging from $10 per hour to $25 for all-day use.

“Each rental comes with a helmet, a lock and a trail guide,” said Mike Riordon, the fourth owner of City Cycle and Supply since the company’s inception in 1955. “We offer a selection of 45 bikes including a tug-a-lug attachment to safely take along kids.”

Electric wheelchairs excluded, trail rules include a ban on electric bicycles, horses, headphones, motorized vehicles and alcoholic beverages. All users under the age 16 must wear a helmet (although it’s encouraged for all ages) and minimum age for bike riding is eight. Dogs are allowed if kept under control and on a six-foot leash. The trail is open only during daylight hours.

Anyone using the trail should first visit or call (727) 464-8200. You’ll pick up many valuable tips on how to safely enjoy the trail and learn where to obtain the excellent free guidebook titled “The Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail.” The guidebook contains a flipchart detailing every portion of the trail and the nearby amenities.

Karen and Mike Maudlin of Largo peddle their bikes north on the trail once or twice each weekend through Clearwater to Tarpon Springs and back – about a 40-mile trek.

“It keeps us healthy and in shape,” said Karen. Asked what supplies each carry along, Mike replied, “Three liters of water, sun lotion, rain gear and a can of pepper spray.”

My bike forays on the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail aren’t as ambitious as that of the Maudlin’s, but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of steady peddling while burning some serious calories.

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