In golden late-afternoon light and with a soft breeze on their faces, eight cyclists round Lake Morton – passing its families of geese, ducks and swans as well as the bungalows, Craftsman-style homes and old oak trees ringing the lake.
They then pedal through Lakeland’s historic districts and neighborhoods of brick streets toward grand Lake Mirror and its neoclassical stone promenade, balustrade and seawall.
Along the way, Beth Geohagan, the leader of this tour, stops at landmarks, such as flower-filled Munn Park, to explain city lore – for instance, that many of the swans seen around town descend from a pair that were donated to the city by the queen of England.
“I’ve lived here for 11 years, and I’ve never seen this,” says Tamara Lee, 40, as the group weaves toward Lake Hunter after passing through a neighborhood of red-brick homes dating to the 1920s.
When Geohagan launched her new bike tour business in this Central Florida city off Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, she was joining a movement of sorts. In the fall of 2012, Lakeland won its first designation as a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, becoming one of nine Florida cities to hold the honor.
Cycling enthusiasts with the BikeLakeland club had helped pave the way for the application with needed background data, turning to the city to spearhead the process and build on its efforts to improve bike trails, promote bike lanes and add new bike racks throughout the city.
Around the same time, Geohagan, a Lakeland native, dreamed of combining two loves – biking and city history.
“To me, that’s the best way to see an area, by bikes,” says Geohagan, 35. For years she cycled through the city with her son, sharing stories about its history with him.
“So I just combined my passion for bicycling and showing off the city to friends and families,” she says. She quit her job as a receptionist with a financial planning office, drew on savings, credit and planning advice from a development center for small businesses. She named her new business BeFly Bike Tours – for her love of butterflies and the feeling of flying when cycling – and bought a cache of “lake cruisers,” bikes in vibrant purple, banana yellow and lime green.
Longtime residents, temporary visitors and cycling lovers unfamiliar with the city’s bike trails can choose from five biking tour packages: a lake tour around several of the city’s dozens of lakes; a park tour; an art tour that includes galleries and the Polk Museum of Art; an architectural tour that includes collections of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings at Florida Southern College; and a romantic tour at sunset with a delivered picnic. Standard tours run $30 per adult and $20 per child.
“Burn, baby, burn,” Kevin Branham, 42, jokes with Lee, his work buddy, and Lee’s son and family friend as their leg muscles labor up a slight hill on the lake tour. “Disco inferno!” Lee yells back laughing, picking up the reference to the classic 1970s song.
Such camaraderie built between friends or strangers while on the tours was one of Geohagan’s goals.
Other bike groups in town have the same idea. Around the time the city won a bike-friendly designation, BikeLakeland, one of about a half-dozen bike clubs in the area, started monthly Pub & Grub bike tours through various neighborhoods with stops at different restaurants and bars.
“There’s the social aspect,” said Richard Perez, the city planner. Perez was instrumental in the application process with BikeLakeland director Chuck Welch, and also gave the club the idea for the pub crawl after enjoying one in Tampa.
“They might not ride with roadies with spandex going 25 mph,” Perez said of cyclists on the pub crawl. “They like to ride and try new restaurants.”
Welch is thrilled with all the biking activity around Lakeland.
“I think the more people are biking, (residents) see bikes and think, ‘A bike is something I can use instead of a car,’” he said before heading out with a few dozen cyclists on a pub crawl that would end that night with pizza and beer. “We have a love affair with the car. Once gas gets closer to $7 a gallon, we’ll see even more people on bikes.”
IF YOU GO…