Five men tear down the sidewalk along North Shore Drive in St. Petersburg, Fla. The group cackles like a villainous biker gang from a Charles Bronson movie. With the mist of Tampa Bay against their faces, they force women to reel in their dogs and bikers to peddle on grass.
The ruffians cruise at 12 mph past the million-dollar homes of the Old Historic Northeast neighborhood north of downtown.
They are kings of the sidewalk. These men ride Segways.
These men — I am one of them — are part of a guided Segway tour along a stretch of St. Petersburg’s Tampa Bay beachfront.
The tour departs from the St. Petersburg Museum of History at the entrance to the Pier.
We go through an intense five-minute training session learning how to use the gray personal transports.
Our guide, Al Dobrzeniecki, is quick to point out that not much skill is required to drive. Lean forward to go forward and back to stop. Lean back to go backward and forward to stop. The left hand controls the turning. Rotate your wrist down to go left and up to go right.
After we have gotten the basic driving skills down, we putter down Second Avenue passing a behemoth of a tree that twists and pulls its multiple arms towards the sky outside of the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
All of us novice Segway riders attempt to push the machines to their limits by leaning into them as hard we can. The machines try to correct for our need for speed and buck the handlebars at us, warning us to slow down.
We maneuver around the construction horses that line the sidewalk as we enter the park along Bayshore Drive.
The shade of the trees is a nice reprieve from the heat of the Florida sun as we turn onto Fifth Avenue North. The Segway shakes like an unbalanced washing machine as it rolls over the brick sidewalks in front of the historic Vinoy Hotel.
We pull up to a rounded section of the parks pathway system. Al pulls out the yellow key. We can now reach the speed of 8 mph. We practice with the new speed as a floating wedding chapel taxis in the bay. Not 500 feet from the couple exchanging vows is a personal watercraft competition off the banks of the Pier. The crafts cut through the water and skim the waves like skipping stones as we travel north, hugging the beachfront.
Families lounging on the beach hear the roar of our crafts — about as loud as the purr of a cat — and raise their heads as we scoot along. With the water on our right, we pass a playground where kids stare at us as we balance our golf-cart wheels and pogo stick steering devices while wearing bike helmets and even bigger smiles.
We’ve finally hit a long stretch of sidewalk as we hear an announcement from the North Shore Pool that Lane 8 is now open. To our right is nothing but water as we force bicycles off their intended paths with our convoy.
The public bathrooms along the coastline are our next stop. The 8 mph isn’t cutting it. We want speed. Al takes out the red keys. The 12 mph keys.
For the remainder of the tour we sound like kids on a carnival ride, laughing and giggling as we pass a man wading in the waters fishing for blue crabs. He scoops one in a net and shakes it into a white bucket, the million-dollar homes of Snell Island behind him across the bay.
We enter the Kopsick Palm Arboretum, which houses more than 100 species of palm trees. Under the shade of green leaves we dismount our steeds and pose for a picture in front of the greenery at Al’s request. Then back on our Segways along the shaky brick paths that line the arboretum.
The tour winds back the same way it came. Past the beach-goers along North Shore Drive to Fifth Avenue North. Past the newly married couple and the racing watercraft.
Our gang slows down as we return to the Museum of History, passing a young hot-dog vendor who looks at us, puzzled. We coast under the maroon awning of the museum as Harvey, one of the gang, lets out a laugh that brings our beach tour of St. Petersburg to a close. Read more