February 8, 2014

by Meredith Powlison

Ninety miles from Cuba on the island of Key West, Florida, lies a cruiser bike haven. This quirky, laidback, sunny locale?the southernmost part of the United States?is home to what must be thousands of cruiser bikes. Take a spin around town (the island is only 4.2 square miles, so don’t worry about getting too lost) and you?ll be in good company. Others pedal by on well-loved, and often well-decorated, cruisers (think flowers, Mardi Gras beads, and other dollar store finds). Some are out running errands with their trikes. Swarms of tourists on rental bikes gawk along Duval Street and on over by the Ernest Hemingway House. A few tanned locals scour the block for an open bike rack near the juice bar. Others hitch up to signposts and lampposts near the beach or marina. One dodges a few chickens as they cross the road (yes, chickens and roosters roam free around town).

A bike-inspired mural on Petronia Street in Bahama Village

Cruiser bikes are the best way to see, and get around, Key West. They?re also one of the things I look forward to the most when I head south for one of the biggest sailing regattas in the country, called Quantum Key West, in January. After the polar vortex, any day of sunshine and warmth will remind me of the summer, but nothing really brings me back to that laidback summer state of mind than perching on a cushy saddle, pressing my flip flops to the pedals, tossing my bag in the basket, and just basking in it all: the warm breeze across my face, the meditative stretching of my legs, the casual and spontaneous sightseeing along the way.

I?m in Key West for work?as an editor at Sailing World magazine?and one of the first things I do when I arrive for the week is to rent a bike. With numerous rental shops around the Old Town, the question isn’t ?where?? It’s ?why??

Rental bikes are abundant in Key West

Others might consider whether the shop offers free flat repairs, or a complimentary pick up at the end of the rental, but let’s be honest. I want a fun ride. I spot a shop off Duval Street with a handful of cruiser bikes in bright, tropical colors, and a few moments later, I walk out with a bright magenta ride for the week.

A disco ball on the handlebars: why not?

The brighter, the better


The bike is key to getting everywhere for the regatta: from boat call in the morning to the tent party down the street at night, to the restaurant for dinner, and on to the bar with friends. It’s part of Key West’s culture, and it’s also part of the regatta culture. Sit outside a coffee shop on Whitehead Street in the morning and you?ll see swarms of sailors in crew gear riding together from their housing at Truman Annex to the docks. Pull up to Kelly?s, the regatta headquarters, after racing and you?ll be hard pressed to find a spot to lock your bike on the fence outside. Later on, the same bikes will be parked outside the Green Parrot.

Regatta party parking outside a bar

For our photographer, biking was also a big consideration as he planned his trip. Onne van der Wal was staying at a condo that was a little over a mile from the dock where his photo boat was. Walking there each morning with his bulky, heavy plastic case for his cameras was out of the question, and cars weren’t even a consideration (traffic is slow, roads are narrow, and parking is difficult). So before his trip, he created a trailer tongue with some plywood that would attach just below his saddle and latch to the camera case, which had wheels. A little planning went a long toward an easier work assignment.

Photographer Onne van der Wal’s homemade setup

Riding in Key West is the easiest way to commute, but beyond that, it allows you to get in touch with the place better. At a slower pace, you can notice more: the details on the conch house, the bark of the kapok tree, the cocktails on the table of the restaurant’s porch. As I ride, I notice, and as I notice, I take mental notes. Later, when I?m ready for a drink, I?ll come back.

Coconuts fill up this cruiser’s basket

In the occasional free time of the week, the bike is also an escape. A bike path winds its way past Smathers Beach and the southern edge of town, and you can circumnavigate the island if you like. Bike lanes take you to and from Duval Street on one-way roads. Hotspots in town?favorite restaurants, marinas, grocery stores?have an abundance of bike racks. It’s just so — easy.

Wherever your next trip takes you, look beyond the rental car counter. There could be a bike waiting for you.

A cargo solution by Mallory Square, home of the “world-famous” Key West sunset celebration

Meredith Powlison makes her two-wheeled commute from Newport, R.I., each weekday to Sailing World magazine, where she works as the associate editor and volunteer lunchtime yoga teacher. If she’s not on the water, she’s on a bike, a yoga mat, or a mountain.

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