By Carlos Harrison
Gliding under a canopy of trees beside a shimmering river, Frankie Reilly hunches low over his racing bike’s handlebars, knees pumping furiously. In this place of dappled Florida sunlight, serenaded by the hiss of his sleek cycle’s tires and the rush of wind in his ears, Reilly recovers the feeling he thought he had lost forever.
He knew it from the very first time.
“It was one of those things where I felt that same adrenaline riding the bike as I did if I jumped out of plane at 25,000 feet,” he said. “Something that I'd been missing since my injury was then again restored to me; being out in nature.”
Jumping out of a plane led to Reilly suffering the accident that led inadvertently to his becoming a world-class competitive cyclist — and to the discovery that becoming a person with a disability can open a new world of possibilities.
He was a career Air Force Pararescue jumper on what should have been a routine training mission. His foot got tangled in his chute’s risers. His leg twisted. His knee snapped.
“It felt like a burning sensation, a severe heat, like an iron on the top of my foot and on my leg.”
Despite years of rehab and surgeries, including a nerve transplant, his right leg remained partially paralyzed. It affected his ability to walk and run, his self-esteem, and his career. It forced him out of the job he loved and, eventually, out of the military.
Then, in 2017, the Department of Defense invited him to participate in a sports camp for wounded service members and veterans. He tried cycling, liked it. Within months, he took a bronze medal in his first Warrior Games cycling road race, a 20-mile all-out endurance test with a field of 35 competitors. A year later, he took gold. Since then, he’s won three state championships and competed in Australia in the international Invictus Games founded by Prince Harry, taking seventh place overall.
In the process, competitive cycling has become pretty much a full-time job.
With the support of several wounded veterans’ foundations, Reilly has two state-of-the-art, custom-fitted racing cycles equipped with a cutting-edge radar warning system, wireless electronic shifters, power exertion meters, and carbon fiber frames — and a coach who helps him design his training session goals, his nutrition regimen, and his recovery work.
Basically, five or more hours a day, five or more days a week, pushing to meet his metrics.
“Cycling is the hardest sport,” he said. “It will tear your soul apart.”
He found the perfect place for it. Florida offers a variety of accessible activities — everything from wheelchair-friendly nature tours and windsurfing to fishing and scuba diving (see VISIT FLORIDA’s Accessible Travel Hub).
But living at Patrick Space Force Base between the Atlantic Ocean and the Banana River just south of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, Reilly sits at an ideal intersection for some of Florida’s most scenic bike trails, suited to riders of all abilities.
Among his favorites:
Spanning 52 miles in total, this Central Florida route is a major piece of both the 250-mile Florida Coast-to-Coast Trail and 260-mile St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop. It has miles of rural straightaways connecting coastal urban centers, a ghost town, and one of the state’s few remaining green sulphur springs. One end links to the Spring-to-Spring Trail, the other to the East Coast Greenway.
“It’s just open wide open nature,” Reilly said. “You can start in Titusville and go all the way to Lake Monroe and back without interruptions — maybe a couple of stop signs, no other obstacles. You can just ride and be in nature. And some of it goes through, like, little towns and stuff.”
Hit the hills! In a state known for being mostly flat, this 13-mile paved stretch winds over the closest you’ll come to heady heights. Running from the end of the West Orange Trail in Orlando to the shore of Lake Minneola in Clermont, this one offers lush nature and dazzling lake views. It’s also part of Florida’s ambitious Coast-to-Coast Connector, a nearly 250-mile-long network of paved trails running across the state’s midsection from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
“If you want hilly terrain, you go to Clermont, Florida. That's where my coach lives, right on Lake Apopka there. So I go ride with him out there and do hills and stuff,” Reilly said.
Stretching 50 miles from St. Petersburg through Tarpon Springs and north to the Pasco County Line, this multi-use pathway meanders through a verdant linear park and over dozens of pedestrian bridges. It offers picturesque panoramas of the Gulf of Mexico and charming urban landscapes.
“It's just beautiful,” Reilly said. “Just very friendly, not a lot of traffic on it. Obviously, there's people that walk and run and all those things, but, I mean, everybody's pretty cordial so you can ride for miles and just enjoy it.”
Not so much a formal Florida bike trail as a spectacularly scenic local favorite that runs along an oak- and palm-lined roadway, South Tropical Trail, between the Indian and Banana Rivers. Most mornings, a steady stream of riders — solo and in groups — can be found pedaling past the mansions dotting the sides of the road.
“There's houses, but it's right along the river. Then you can go all the way down to that Mathers bridge, which is that rotating bridge down there, and then turn around and come back or you can keep going down. And then right along the river through Melbourne Beach. You can also ride all the way down to Sebastian, go down to the inlet. It's only a 30-mile ride down there and 30-mile ride back.”
Of course, as a retired service member living on an Air Force base, Reilly has access to paths, and views, few of us will ever see — streaking between the river and the runways, the sun sparkling on the water, fighter jets shrieking into the sky.
“It’s almost like I'm Tom Cruise, because the planes will be taking off and I'll be riding my bike hauling — you know, the scene where he's on his motorcycle. Yeah!”
For a look at Florida bike trails from the tip of South Florida to the end of the Panhandle, check out Florida Trails: Biking, Hiking and Paddling.