Riding a Midnight Loop in South Florida

Last year in March and April I had done some nice loop rides from home in South Florida. This winter season I joined a cycling group for early morning rides from Juno Beach up to Stuart, typically on Tuesdays and Thursdays before work. These are fast 80 km (50 mi) round-trip rides with a stop at a bakery for a quick coffee, pastry and chat with friends. They make for good training rides and lots of fun memories. After riding about 900km a month between October and March I was in good shape and enjoying cycling as much as ever. There has been this strange allure of a really long day-ride again, perhaps somewhat similar to my longest ride in Florida two years ago in Mar-2018 from Jacksonville Beach to Juno Beach (440 km). So I had been contemplating a very long loop ride, this time again including Lake Okeechobee for some change in scenery - similar to the 300 km ride around Lake Okeechobee from home back in Mar-2017. After studying Google Maps, I planned the following route for a ~ 400 km Lake Loop:

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March and April seem to be the best months in South Florida for long day rides. The air is often dry, temperatures are still moderate and not too hot during the day, there is again a bit more daylight and there are many days with reliable sunshine and no rain or thunderstorms. For a loop ride you want as little wind as possible to avoid a long headwind stretch. Typically the wind on sunny days is a light Ocean breeze from the SE. My plan was to start near the Northern end of the loop, ride down SE to Fort Lauderdale at night with hopefully calm winds, then NorthWest towards Lake O during the morning with hopefully some tailwind, then around the lake in the afternoon back to the start. For a 400 km loop ride (i.e. no tailwind assistance), I figured about 4-5 hours per 100 km or roughly 18-20 hours elapsed total time. If I started the ride at midnight, it should allow me to get back to the start before sunset around 7:30pm, just under 20 hours later... Lastly, I wanted a full moon to assist with the night time portion of the ride. The first weekend in April would probably have been the best time, but due to the coronavirus pandemic I was concerned more severe restrictions would not allow such free rides any longer for a while. So I decided to go for it on the last weekend in March. Where to start the loop? Of course it would have been easiest to just start the loop from home and not drive by car anywhere. But two aspects made me change: Firstly, coming back into the SE headwind late afternoon would be really hard. And secondly, the stretch on the NE side of the lake up on the levee should be a perfect way to finish a long ride, with the low sun against the Western horizon creating a mellow mood at the end of the ride. After some bike prep work I leave home around 11pm and drive to Port Mayaca at Lake Okeechobee West of Indiantown some 65km from home.

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There is very little traffic on the roads and only a few patches of fog are building. It is mild, about 70F, almost no wind, ideal conditions to ride. Due to the moon just having set it is pitch black dark out here, with hardly any lights nearby. The stars are out in a very clear sky. I hope the two battery powered lights front and back will work well as I set out just a few minutes after midnight. Let the long journey begin. The bike runs smoothly and quietly - literally a well-oiled machine. I settle into a comfortable rhythm and listen to the various sounds of nature surrounding me out here in the countryside. Hardly any cars means I can ride most of the time in the middle of the lane, smooth surface and less risk of debris like in the bike lane.

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The first two hours pass quickly. Here I stop for a self-timed flash-light photo at the familiar Sandhill Crane park access on PGA Blvd less than 15 km from home. In fact, I swing by at home for some food and drink around 2:30am. After perhaps 15 minutes I continue on South - got a long way to go! Unfortunately, here along the coast there is a more noticeable Southerly wind, which slows me down quite a bit. I did not expect that and it's forcing me to work harder and just to be patient. It will be about 100 km down to Fort Lauderdale into this headwind!

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I stop briefly (here in Delray Beach) to rest, drink and eat the two bananas I had brought from home and stuck into the back pockets of my jersey - no backpack needed as it won't get cold or rain today. This stretch mostly down A1A along the Ocean is very familiar to me from the many tailwind rides with the TriRail train taking care of the upwind leg, some of these rides just earlier this year in January and February. It helps to know the route, especially when riding at night. Also there are lots of street lights, and the many mansions along A1A are beautifully illuminated, a somewhat different look as I usually don't ride here at night. Reminds me of the first section from Jacksonville Beach down to St. Augustine along A1A up there some two years ago.

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After many hours of riding in the dark it always feels good to see daylight and sunrise approaching. Here I reach the beaches in Fort Lauderdale near Las Olas Blvd. Due to the pandemic, all the beaches in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami Dade county have been closed about 10 days ago. There are also relatively few cars on the road, with more than usual police cars enforcing the various shut-downs and park closures. At the Port Everglades inlet the road leads over the 17 St Causeway Bridge right next to the Convention Center and the port for the cruise ships. I stop to enjoy the view and take a few pictures.

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It's about 7am when I roll down the bridge and stop at an Einstein Bro.s store to get some fresh bagels and water. No more dine-in, but one can still take out food, thankfully. You have to eat and drink enough to keep going all day, especially for the next hours when it will get hot. And it's always good to stay ahead of getting really hungry or thirsty. The next stretch going West through Fort Lauderdale is not ideal for cyclists. However, a couple of things are going in my favor right now. No more headwind, rising sun illuminating from behind, very little traffic on a Sunday morning and due to general shutdown, and first highway 84 parallel to the big I595 freeway, then a specially designed pathway for non-motorized vehicles called the New Greenway all the way West to Markham park.

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At first, it feels a bit out of place to be riding along side these big freeways and under those overpasses, but due to the scarce traffic this morning and the dedicated bike lanes and Greenway path this is a nice change of scenery. Only near the Western end at Markham park do I need to backtrack a bit as the Greenway is blocked with Markham park closed. From Google Maps I had located a gas station just across the canal from the Markham park entrance at Weston road. I stop there to both buy gatorade and pastries, but also to recharge my Apple Watch. For that purpose I'm carrying my iPhone and Apple Watch USB charger and cables in the little extra frame pocket on the bike. While good for a normal day at work, the Apple watch battery doesn't last for 20 hours with tracking activity.

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After almost an hour rest I continue for the long stretch NW across the Everglades up to South Bay. After a few km there is the intersection of I75 (Everglades Parkway) going East-West and US27 going North-South. Normally there is one more stopping point at the Sawgrass Recreation Park where they offer airboat rides. But with all parks closed I just keep going. The scenery opens up and you just see those long straight roads and some sugar cane fields. I know this stretch from a tailwind ride back in Jan-2013 (see photos). It's about 65 km (40 mi) through the middle of nowhere, without any rest stops or stores. Better fuel up and bring enough to drink for this stretch!

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The 200 km mark is reached at 9:45am. My legs still feel pretty good. There is a light SE tailwind helping me roll along at speeds around 35 km/h without much effort, perfectly fine to cover long distances. So far my calculations and expectations re wind and weather are playing out as planned. What's not going so well is that the bike lane is pretty bumpy and rough, tempting me to ride in the right lane more often for comfort and to reduce tire puncture risk from debris. However, unlike at night when you can see cars and trucks approaching by their head lights, I often have to turn around to ensure that the road is clear and no two trucks passing each other are approaching. This adds a somewhat hectic element to the otherwise peaceful ride. I also once get passed by a motorcycle so loud and fast that I close my left ear for protection - must have done speeds upwards of 200 km/h, not that there are any turns for a while... Several times I get up from the saddle to relieve the saddle pressure on my butt and coast for a few seconds. At one point I look at the sheer endless straight road with the hot air reflecting the light as if it were wet - and I actually get a momentary upwelling of anxiety as if claustrophobic: If you wanted to get away from this quickly, you simply couldn't. You have to be quite relaxed and comfortable with yourself on a long solo ride like this. And comfortable in the often unpleasant sensation of fatigue, thirst, or aches in various body parts. Just remember to be patient, that moving along at a steady pace is the only thing which gets you out of there and closer to your destination. The 250 km mark rolls around late on this segment at 11:15am. After a light turn to the North I know it's only going to be another 10 km or so to South Bay. I mentally count down those km and soon I stop at the first strip mall at the beginning of the town. There is a subway, closed for dine-in, but open for take-out. I go in, plug in my Apple watch and iPhone, order my sandwich with a large drink, wash my hands and face and then sit down outside in the shade to enjoy the refreshing food and drink.

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I need to re-apply sunscreen on my face and legs - for the arms I have the thin sleeves, very useful for cooling and UV light protection. If I had run into trouble here or had gotten too tired, I could have cut the ride short to just a bit over 300 km by riding back to Port Mayaca counter-clockwise around the lake, via Belle Glade on the SE corner, rather than around the NW side of the lake. But I feel pretty good and continue on.

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On this next stretch to Lewiston and then to Moore Haven, I get up on the levee twice because it is so much nicer to ride up there than in the bike lane on this busy stretch of US 27. You get a smooth surface 1 lane road, no motorized traffic, and you see both the lake to the North and from some 30 ft above the plane you see the road and sugar cane fields in the distance. This stretch reminds me of a nice 2-day ride Coast-to-Coast across Florida I did in May-2009 as my last training ride before the big Pan-American Peaks adventure. Back then the levee was uninterrupted. For the last few years, however, there have been restorations to strengthen the aging levee in case of a hurricane and storm-surge. After all, some 2,000 people die back on 16-Sep-1928 when a hurricane broke the dike and flooded the surrounding areas. There are many tomb stones on a cemetery very close to Port Mayaca where I start and end my ride today. And these restorations now frequently block passage on the levee road. Twice I get up there - once just walking up and later down the 30 ft or so through the grass from the highway just below. Especially the long stretch between Clewiston and Moore Haven would be much more scenic on the levee, but unfortunately it is closed. So I follow US 27, with moderate traffic. The 300 km mark rolls around at 2pm and it is getting really hot now.

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Thankfully the wind is still blowing somewhat from behind and helps keep up a good pace. Anything above 30 km/h I consider pretty good for a solo ride. And of course, now at 2pm I already have 14 hours elapsed time and some 11 hours of ride time in my legs, so it's all about taking it nice and easy and steady. The next landmark is the big bridge over the Caloosahatchee canal at the town limit of Moore Haven. It's one of the two tall bridges around the lake - the other one at Port Mayaca where my car is parked under the bridge.

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I roll down the other side of the bridge into town and stop at a McDonalds. Here I pick up a large Mocca smoothie with whip cream, my super-fuel for these long rides. Almost too cold to slurp down quickly - getting a painful sensation in my throat due to too much icy fluid going down too quickly. Need to take a bit more time and actually enjoy the drink! A father with two sons rolls by in a jeep with three mountain bikes strapped to the outside of the open jeep; he asks how far I had been riding already? 180 miles, I respond. "Really?" He can hardly believe it. Yup, have been at it since midnight... The next stretch North on the West side of the lake is monotonous, but initially still fairly smooth. I'm almost surprised that things are going so well and the plan unwinds like clock-work. One things which didn't go as planned is that my Suunto fitness tracker runs out of battery. I'm bummed because I knew that its GPS tracking function would not last for 20+ hours unless its GPS accuracy and frequency would be lowered. I had changed its configuration settings to give it some 36 hours - that's why I didn't bother bringing its special charger cable - but apparently I made a mistake and these settings didn't take, so it ran out of juice after some 15 hours as advertised. Another wrinkle in the plan is that near the little resort village of Lakeport the road turns to NE and what feels like all of a sudden I face Easterly headwind! Oh no, I'm too tired to ride all the rest about a third around the lake into headwind. I stop at an empty warehouse with an ice-machine out front and an electric outlet in the shade. I sit for 15 minutes to recharge my Apple watch and drink plenty of fluids. It's a different country out here (first Hendry and then Glades county). Farmland and fishing villages, not a lot of traffic, some tourism related to water sports, that's about it. Rumbles in the road designed to alert drivers when they leave their lane create loud noises when the pickup trucks with boat trailers swerve into the oncoming lane when they pass me in the bike lane. Other than that it is fairly quiet. The 350 km mark rolls around at 4:30pm, and at 5pm I cross the Kissimmee river into Okechobee county.

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This is the major tributary into the Lake from the North. Without the dike the area of the lake would be a large swamp, a slow moving wide fresh water river flowing South towards the coast. With the levees and pump stations this water can be used for irrigation and devastating flooding can largely be prevented. I know from my mental map that it's only a few more km to Okeechobee. Soon I can leave the main road and ride on the levee again which up here is not at risk of breach and not in need of restoration. Soon I arrive at the Lake Okeechobee park where I have stopped so many times on previous loop rides.

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Today I don't ride down to the water; instead I stop at the nearby gas station for more gatorade, pastries and recharging the Apple Watch again. Better a couple of 15 min charging intervals than running out of battery!

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I rest for about half an hour as I'm not in a hurry. I leave at 5:45pm for the final 40 km. Should be no rush with almost 2 hours of sunshine remaining. What's ahead is the scenic highlight of the entire trip, the NE section of the lake with a good stretch up on the levee. To my great relief the SE wind has all but died down and it is almost calm by now. The late afternoon sun reflects off the lake to the SW and it's just very peaceful and serene in this last 1.5 hours.

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  As I get back up on the levee after a short stretch along the road the scenery is optimal, the low sun creates beautiful colors and my endorphins are flowing.

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I know now that short of a technical defect or some other unforeseen problem the ride will soon be completed.

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I can see the tall bridge at Port Mayaca from some 15 km out, the evening air is dry and clean with great visibility. Just like I had imagined, the last couple of kms are just stunning. And there is the 400 km mark at 6:45pm. Everything has fallen into place, I'm tired but no severe aches or pain, so all still good. And the mind is a powerful thing. The fatigue recedes into the background, I'm just in flow. Paradoxically, I don't want these last km to end, so beautiful is the mood along this last stretch.

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I ride up to the top of the bridge for one final panoramic view in the evening light.

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This view doesn't get old. My car is parked at the park on the right side of the bottom picture just under the shade of the tall bridge. All I have to do is roll down the bridge, load up my bike and drive home. At 7:15pm I'm back, having closed the loop after some 412 km (254 mi) in 19 hours elapsed time and some 15 hours of ride time with 27.5 km/h (17 mph) avg. speed. Not my fastest ride, but definitely my longest loop ride (as compared to a one-directional tailwind-assisted ride). No wonder I'm all smiles as I roll down the bridge and close the loop!

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