The spark of the sun cracks the ocean horizon, going from a speck to a sunburst. In spring and much of summer, mockingbirds, wrens and cardinals begin their chorus, sounding the start of the day.
With my feet on the pedals and hands grasping the handlebars, I see the world awaken and witness the nuances of Mother Nature at dawn.
A bike ride provides more than physical exercise, although the legs seem to do all the work. It's medicine to clear my head; it's stress relief. Cycling lets me notice everyday things that I miss when breezing by in a car.
If the roads are dry and the mercury hasn't dipped below 30 degrees, the wheels on my 21-speed hybrid - with tire widths between the thick treads of a mountain bike and super-thin rubber on a racing bike - roll almost every day. Riding before the sun's UV rays intensify at about 10 a.m., or after dinnertime, I spare myself the dangers of sunburn and the need to splash myself with sunscreen.
The Grand Strand boasts a growing number of options for cycling on paved surfaces such as bike lanes and recreation trails. Whether across the city of Myrtle Beach, which continues to add bike lanes - 38th Avenue North, west of Robert Grissom Parkway is next - or where the Bike the Neck (www.biketheneck.com) grass-roots group is expanding its 12 miles of trails in northeast Georgetown County, or in the city of Conway with its three Greenways Bike Trail share-the-road routes, the pleasures of pedaling are within reach for anyone.
Myrtle Beach has retrofitted South Ocean Boulevard from about Sixth Avenue to 27th Avenue with bike lanes straddling the one lane of traffic in each direction. Whenever cruising that stretch, which gets busy during the day and evening, pardon my peering at the ocean as I look for brown pelicans flying single file, hugging the shore, as they reappear between each high rise.
A funny feeling brews, though, cruising at 14 to 15 mph, when I pass lines of traffic backed up as travelers arriving in town slow down to find their hotel or wait a moment to turn left.
A bike path along Robert Grissom Parkway from U.S. 501 north to 48th Avenue North veers off road at 48th Avenue North, going through a meadow to 62nd Avenue North. Cross U.S. 17 Bypass west at the traffic light and proceed around the new Claire Chapin Epps Family YMCA, with its own series of paths that connect to the south and west with the 1.6-mile-long Bob Bell Pass Trail that ends along S.C. 31, off Grissom Parkway. It's among the many segments the East Coast Greenway ( www.greenway.org) strings together from Maine to Florida.
Hills in Myrtle Beach?
Pedaling Grissom west as it turns into International Parkway, over S.C. 31 and the Intracoastal Waterway, and after managing a few miles south along the bermless, two-lane River Oaks Drive, I move on to George Bishop Parkway, crossing U.S. 17 Bypass again, onto Harrelson Boulevard. I scaled probably the only two hills in Myrtle Beach, but both are gradual grades, with plenty of room separate from the highway lanes.
Speeding down toward Harrelson, I enjoy the view of the runway to Myrtle Beach International Airport - a shade of exactly what a pilot on approach must see just seconds before touching down. On the city's bike path along the east side of Kings Highway between 27th Avenue South and Farrow Parkway, on the other end of the airport, I like breaking for sips from a water bottle and watching planes land or take off right over my head.
Nearby on Farrow Parkway, I follow its wide sidewalk southwest all the way across the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, by Warbird Park, Grand Park Lake and The Market Common, and rack up an easy 3.6 miles. I turn left into the Emmens Preserve development, and take the first right onto the former lone access road from the base's back gate. Birds, crickets and katydids provide the soundtrack, and cars are rare sightings.
Southsidewise, a favorite road ride on weekend mornings leads seven miles south on Ocean Boulevard from the Holiday Inn in Surfside Beach, renamed Waccamaw Drive through a lone traffic light in Garden City Beach, and to a dead end in Murrells Inlet. The anchor restaurants along the inlet's Marsh Walk look so small from this road, but it gets more peaceful the further south I go. Bicyclists and runners here often wave; it's nice to feel like I'm part of a fitness-fueled fraternity.
Another odd feeling emerges when I'm riding as fast as golf-cart drivers astride my lane between Garden City Beach and Surfside Beach. I wonder if the youth in the rear-facing back seat wished they were on their own bikes.
I always stop at red lights, look both ways before crossing an intersection, and yield right of way accordingly. The road is no place to be a hot shot or rude. Also, a cyclist easily draws the eyes of children in an automobile; I never want to be a bad role model, for there's room in the street for all of us.
The redolence of tidal salt marshes always make me thankful to live near so lovely a part of the coast. A detour up Cypress Avenue in Garden City Beach is always in order, as I look for the fiddler crabs in sand banks off each side of the causeway, the males flexing their pincers up and down like they're playing a violin.
Winding through woods
Back on U.S. 17 Business through Murrells Inlet, the path Waccamaw Neck Bikeway spearheaded through the woods on the western fringe of Huntington Beach State Park looks popular with families with children. It's a great, curvy proving ground for little ones to work on steering, slowing down and anticipating oncoming bike and pedestrian traffic. Another detour into the state park brings other options, including the causeway with salt water to the north, fresh water - and alligators - to the south, and a straightaway old road west from the Atalaya castle almost back to the highway.
In Conway, three bike routes - 4.3, 7.4 and 25.4 miles - are well-marked with signage in sharing the roads, and they all depart from the Conway Marina by the Waccamaw River. Doing the middle route one morning last week, with the map folded in my hand - www.cityofconway.com/departments/ visitors/ Bike%20broch.pdf - I soon find myself led out of the historic district.
I found my thrill around Crabtree Swamp, where trilling male toads cut the only sound in the serenity of the morning. The bike route comprises a nice way to tour some neighborhoods of Horry County's seat, with some small hills to boot. This route wound up as a warm-up ride for me, but it could be a nice introductory ride for someone interested in trying an organized, longer distance experience, especially because it has plenty of places in the shade to rest and beautiful scenery.
Steve Tanner, Conway's senior planner, said city officials are seeing more bicyclists on the road, and work continues long term on expanding the routes and off-road trails. "Kind of a central theme in the plan is to create a spinal route and spurs off that," he said.
Rich Kerner, owner of Bicycles-N-Gear (www.bicycles-n-gear.com) in downtown Myrtle Beach, estimated last week that he has pedaled 6,000 miles this year, triple my tally through about July.
"I get up early," he said. "It's like there's an alarm clock in my brain that wakes me up. I haven't missed a day since June."
Kerner organizes several morning rides during the week, often 40 or 50 miles each, and he enjoys having vacationers join the group. He puts in his work, healthwise, before he opens up shop for the day.
"You just feel energized," he said of his staying ahead of every sunrise. "It just makes you feel good all day long."
I know what he means. On a day I don't have the usual morning commitments, I'm eager to awaken even earlier. Without my wheels rolling, my life skids to a stop.
Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.