For George Feliciano riding his bicycle is not just an escape. It’s a way of life.
He has spent at least $15,000 on bicycles since he adopted the hobby in 1999. And he now owns five: two road bikes, two mountain bikes and a special edition retro bike.
As he gained expertise, Feliciano began to ride with friends. In 2003, he co-founded Team Sindacato, a group of about 25 aficionados, ages 35 to 55, who wear professional cycling clothing and are not afraid of speed. With the help of sponsors, they have traveled to competitions in places like Mount Dora, in Central Florida, and La Vuelta, Puerto Rico.
“We are enthusiasts,” Feliciano, 51, said. “Some of us are fitness freaks, but it’s really about adopting a lifestyle.”
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For those like Feliciano who enjoy the camaraderie of riding in a cycling group, there are thousands of choices in Miami-Dade. Some ride for exercise or to socialize, while others see cycling a way to promote issues like environmental conservation.
In the streets of Miami-Dade, there is safety in numbers. Cyclists say South Florida is among the most dangerous areas in the country in which to ride a bike.
“It feels safer to ride in a large group because people definitely see you and people work to give you more room,” said Collin Worth, the bicycle coordinator for the city of Miami. “Where if you ride alone they might harass you and not treat you with the dignity that you deserve.”
Before joining a group, experts suggest, beginners should buy an inexpensive bicycle and try short distances on easy trails. As the comfort level increases gradually, the need for a better bike will too. Riding groups usually require some safety training.
“You need to understand how to ride with people who are in front or behind you. You don’t want to hit some one’s wheel, because it can cause an accident,” said Xavier Falconi, the president of the Everglades Bicycle Club.
The Everglades Bicycle Club, founded in 1976, has a reputation for embracing beginners. The group of about 500 has several subgroups. Members pay a $25 annual fee or a $30 fee for a family of more than two.
“We classify the groups according to the speeds people ride,” Falconi said. “There is a lot of communication in a group. Others have to know if I’m turning or if a car is passing by. Over time we grow to trust each other. Our lives depend on it. It’s like being in a relationship. You slowly grow into knowing the other person.”
Worth, 32, likes groups that “grow organically” and considers himself a hipster when it comes to his preference for old bikes that are rebuilt.
The reason why many cycling enthusiasts own more than one bike, Worth said, is because there are so many different types of trails. A mountain bike is used in rough terrain, so it has suspension on the frame, gears, powerful brakes, larger tires, and heavier wheels.
In Miami-Dade the best place for this type of bike, Worth said, is at trail that the Virginia Key Bicycle Club put together at the historic Virginia Beach park. Worth and other club members worked to get the trails in 2011. The park now has a reputation among riders for having some of the most beautiful views in the country.
Adam Schachner, the co-founder of Emerge Miami, a group of about 150 that has been around since 2007, said Miami has some of the most exciting neighborhoods to explore.
The group’s rides of about a dozen usually begin at a Metrorail stop, include children and are not competitive. Schachner who learned how to ride a bicycle while growing up in Kendall, has helped to organize tours of Little Haiti, Midtown and the Design District. The group rides also promote farmer’s markets, vegetarian restaurants and advocate for “more amicable” public transportation.
“We focus on strengthening social bonds among progressives,” Schachner, 33, said. “We also like to help promote small local businesses that perhaps people would not know about otherwise.”
To promote a sense of community, Schachner and Worth like to joins forces with other local groups like Green Mobility and Bike SoMi for Miami Critical Mass, a group ride held on the last Friday of every month. The Critical Mass movement began in San Francisco in 1992 and it is now an event held in hundreds of cities around the world.
In January, Miami’s Critical Mass had thousands of cyclists participating in a 12-mile ride blocking traffic on Biscayne Boulevard.
Some of the riders added colorful lights to their bicycles to increase visibility, others added speakers for music and some even glued plastic flowers, glow sticks and glitter to their bikes.
But Miami is far from becoming a bicycle-friendly city. The bikers and drivers clashed at Northeast 36th Street.
The cyclists were traveling south on their way to Government Center in downtown Miami, while some northbound drivers were turning left on 36th Street on their way to Midtown. The light for the drivers’ left turn was green.
Beep. Beep. Beep. About a dozen cyclists ignored the red light. Beep. Beep. Beep.
A driver in a black Nissan-Maxima accelerated and braked abruptly a couple of times. As he attempted to find a gap in between the cyclists, he opened his window to shout insults at a cyclist and got through.
But there were still hundreds of more cyclists all the way past 54th Street.
This is why the Ruiz family is grateful that their small Miami Beach group ride gets a police escort. The Ruiz family sells, rents and repairs bicycles at Miami Beach Bicycle Center, 601 Fifth Street.
Alex Ruiz enjoys riding with his 15-month-old son Giovanni — especially during the 15- to 16-mile Saturday morning group ride that his father Jack Ruiz started in 2002.
“The ride is free for everybody, we provide water and the police volunteer,” Ruiz said. “Some people have been coming for several years. ... We do it for the love of cycling.”