A 325 km Bicycle Ride across South Florida
from Orlando to Palm Beach Gardens

 

 

Ever since I moved back from North Dakota in 2005 I contemplated a long tailwind assisted bike ride down here in South Florida. Naturally, the options are limited, as you run out of state fairly quickly in every direction except the North-West. That leaves principally two possibilities: Going up NW towards Orlando with a SE wind, or coming back down from Orlando with a NW wind. What weather patterns would support such a ride? The former would be possible perhaps with a strong version of the frequent seabreeze - not including tropical storm systems (it ain’t hurricane season yet…) The latter would require a cold front pushing down South, typically only happening in winter and spring time.

 

Sunday, April 15, was just such a day: There was an intense cold front moving across South Florida, pushing a well-defined line of strong thunderstorms (with local Tornado warnings). Here is what the satellite picture looked like on Sunday morning on the MSN weather page:

After finishing my taxes at home during the morning of this rainy Sunday I decided to go for the Orlando to Palm Beach ride the following day. This would also make for a nice training ride for the 2007 South Florida MS150 ride this upcoming weekend (see also the trip report of the 2006 MS150 ride).

The usual preparations kick into effect: Notifying the folks at work about taking the day off, researching the proper mode of transportation (here Greyhound bus), packing the bicycle in a card-board box (“procured” from the dumpster of the local bike shop), preparing backpack and – most importantly – getting into the right frame of mind (as well as a good dinner the evening before). All seemed familiar, if only a bit rusty, as I hadn’t done a long tailwind ride in 2 ½ years…

Using my Mappoint software, I came up with the following specific route: From Clermont (1) (about 30 km West of Orlando) down South, passing Haines City (2), following Hwy 27 in the middle of the State down to Sebring (3), then more South-East towards Okeechobee (4), along the very nice Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail on the levee to Port Mayaca (5) and finally following the St. Lucie Canal cutting across from to the Atlantic Coast in Palm Beach Gardens (6).

At least some part of this ride (the last third) I had done before; for example, check the trip report from circum-navigating Lake Okeechobee in October 2005. Other parts / road conditions are unknown and will have to be explored.

 

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Greyhound bus leaves Palm Beach at 2:05am! This means no sleep for me other than sitting in the bus for about 3 ½ hours. Jill drives me to the busstation where I take this picture at 1:47am.

After an uneventful drive with no comfort and no real sleep it feels way to soon when we arrive in Orlando. Luckily there is a cab waiting outside so that I can quickly get to the starting point about 20 miles (30 km) to the West of downtown Orlando.

It is still dark outside and people here complain about the unusual cold weather – it is around 50 F (10 C) and probably the last cold spell like this until next fall / winter. I ask to be dropped off at the nearest gasstation to the Hwy 27 intersection, since I will need light to re-assemble my bike.

I finally get on the bike and on my way at around 6:30am, roughly ½ hr prior to sunrise. There are plenty of rolling hills in this area, and the night sky is starting to glow with the huw of another day.

Already plenty of traffic – after all this is a workday – I’m glad to have purchased another blinker for my bike to remain visible in the dark. I am full of anticipation for the next 12 hours or so. Will the traffic be manageable? The road free of construction? The bike without flat tire or other problems? I guess I will find out…

The sun comes up just after 7:00am and prompts me to stop to take a picture:

 

(Colnago and Gatorade should sponsor me for all these commercials!)

I’m riding in full clothing as it is definitely cool, if not cold. I remember pulling the long sleeves over my wrist-watch, as it’s metal wrist-band makes it feel very cold against my skin.

Here is also the worst part of the entire ride, as it is rush-hour and we’re getting close to the I-4 Interstate highway. On this particular stretch a dedicated side-walk substitutes for the shoulder or bike lane, and it is prudent to use the side-walk with this much traffic. I hope traffic will subside quickly once I get South of I-4.

Once I reach the I-4 overpass I stop for breakfast in a local Denny’s. Just prior to rolling into their parking lot there is a bit of a scare for me when I hear a loud “Twang” from my back wheel, followed by a noticeable wobble in the wheel. For a second I’m very concerned that some of the spokes may have broken and that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to continue this ride. But luckily, I can fix the wobble quickly thanks to the tools I always carry with me and no spokes are broken.

After a breakfast of coffee and a banana muffin I feel better, freshly caffeinated. The intense sun is warming up so I can continue without the long-sleeved jersey, and the tailwind is increasing in strength. For more than 2 hrs I hardly take any pictures. At times, the tailwind helps me to push my speed upwards of 25 mph (40 km/h), which helps me to get back to my average rate of 100 km for every 4 hrs of elapsed time (including stops).

The day is young, the sky is blue, the wind is intensifying to about 15 mph (25 km/h), my speed climbs, traffic subsides and all is good. I am reminded again of why I do these rides: At times like these I am in flow.

I stop at the next gasstation since my bottles are near empty and I need to give my butt some rest. I also can shed the long pants now – and need to apply sunscreen generously, as the 13 hrs of sunshine today require adequate skin protection.

The air on the backside of the cold-front is extremely dry, which means there is not a cloud in the sky today. It also creates excellent visibility, which will later be especially noticeable on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Lastly, it creates increased fire hazards after the prolonged drought in South Florida – prompting corresponding advisories on the MSN page the day before.

After another 45 mins or so I reach the lake near Sebring at 125 km (78 miles). The wind is strong, but its direction worries me a bit as it is more North, almost North-East (rather than the forecast North-West). This could become a problem on my next leg from Sebring to Okeechobee, which follows a South-East direction. For now, I’m sitting at the shore of the little lake in Sebring and look out over the water with white caps.

From here I send a quick status update from my BlackBerry to Jon Schaubhut at work – team captain for the upcoming MS150 ride – as well as to my girlfriend Jill and finally my dad (who I tipped off to this trip via email the evening before). 11:30am, 5 hrs, 125 km down, 200 km to go!

Just South of Sebring I leave Hwy 27 and turn left to follow Hwy 98 on a more Easterly heading towards Okeechobee. The road passes Sebring’s well-known Racetrack, but I don’t have the time or energy for detours. I do take the time, however, for the occasional picture capturing the more rural character of central Florida.

This road is less travelled than Hwy 27. There is not much happening on the road, with at times very long straight-aways, plenty of time to reflect upon the ride and the entire experience. I take time to setup a self-timed picture while crossing a bridge over a small canal.

I also start “reflecting” more and more about the physical discomfort which starts to seep into the experience – something I tend to forget and write less about after the fact. But during the ride it can actually get quite frustrating, the desire to just stop pedaling and call it quits, coupled with the knowledge that only the bike will take you far enough and quick enough to reach the planned destination by end of day…

So you shift your position on the bike, get out of the saddle and coast for a little bit, then resume the monotony of pedaling, while watching the scenery and counting down the miles.

I also take several pictures of the passing trucks to break the monotony of a 10+ mile straight-away!

 

Shortly after 1:00pm I stop to relax in the shade of a tree. Thankfully the air is fresh and crisp, almost a bit chilly in the shade with the breeze.

 

Like so often in the past, mentally I start to break up a very long distance into smaller segments. Each of those is easier to handle. So in this case I look at my next goal of reaching Okeechobee at a bit over 200 km (120 miles). One of the other intermediate goals is to negotiate a short segment after crossing the Kissimmee river where the road bends left towards the North-East for a short segment. This could prove to be hard work in case of a NNE wind.

Turns out though that the bend is shorter than the Mappoint map made it look -  I had anticipated a struggle far worse and longer than the actual effort for this section of the road. To the left and right of the road there are many more signs of the rural environment here just North of the big lake.

I’m thinking, what a difference to the Florida down in Fort Lauderdale I see most other days! If it weren’t for this idea of the long ride, I would be sitting in my office at this time!

I finally get to Okeechobee at about 2:30pm, still by and large on schedule with now about 8 hrs elapsed time for 200 km.

I actually stop just 1 mile short of this picture to buy more water and food, since I know that the following course along the levee trail and further East of the lake does not feature any gasstations or reststops. Hence I load up on two fresh bottles on the bike plus one extra in the backpack.

Unfortunately I seem to have broken the lense cover of my Canon PowerShot camera during this last stop, so I have to manually open the lens cover and keep it that way to allow for ongoing pictures to work.

Soon thereafter I reach the Northern tip of the lake and ride up to the levee. I stop at a little pavillion which I recall from my last ride around the Lake in 2005.

From here I send a second email update and also call my dad in Austria and chat for a few minutes, sharing the excitement across the Atlantic. I pause for about ½ hr here, now falling a bit behind my usual rhythm and tempo.

After eating, drinking and applying more sunscreen the ride continues. The following 22 miles (35 km) or so are some of the most scenic miles anywhere in South Florida.

Not only do you see half of the lake due to the high vantage point on the top of the levee and due to spectacular visibility of the dry, fresh air today…

… but also do you see the occasional wildlife, like for instance the big alligators soaking up the heat of the sun on the sandy beach.

 

The next intermediate goal is the tall bridge over the St. Lucie canal at Port Mayaca, which I reach at 4:50pm.

 

It’s a bit of a challenge to get up there, with the head wind on the approaching road as well as 150 miles (240 km) in my legs by now. Once up on the bridge, the view to all sides is very rewarding, however!

 

 

 

 

The last picture shows some smoke in the distance (right side of skyline) which I think could be from a forest fire. What I don’t know yet is that this fire will cause a considerable amount of change to my plan!

I depart from this high perch and get on the road East to connect with another Hwy 710 near Indiantown. As soon as I reach Hwy 710, I learn that this road is closed due to fire, and all traffic must re-route! That’s a tough blow for me, as I am getting really tired by now and would like nothing more than a quick direction back home. In the end, this causes me to re-trace 710 back a bit and then continue East towards Hobe Sound considerably further North than Palm Beach Gardens. The estimate for this “extension” is about 16 miles (25 km). Unfortunately this means I won’t be getting home during daylight this evening. While riding on the detour I am reminded of how important the mindset is to accomplish such long-term goals – mind over matter. As I stated in How I do those rides: It’s about 70% mental, 30% physical.

It’s 6:00pm and the sun is starting to get low. While this makes for very nice evening mood right now, I also know that it means getting dark not soon thereafter and I still have about 30 miles (50km) to go!

I stop one more time at the turn-off of Hwy 708 to connect East with Hobe Sound and I-95 / Turnpike.

I remember this intersection vividly from a previous 200 km loop from Wellington when I had run out of fluids due to lack of gasstations or shops along the way. At 6:50pm I cross the Turnpike.

And then I chase my own shadow heading straight East in the final kms for the 300km mark in Hobe Sound.

I find myself letting the odometer dictate my speed, largely due to the fact that I am closing in on 300km and want to stay under 10 hrs of ride time, i.e. average speed of 30 km/h. I’m on pace for that, but strangely, at 299.42 km the odometer stops working! This might be due to some interference with its wireless connector, but in any event it’s very annoying! No amount of mechanical fiddling will fix it, so I continue w/o odometer, only to find that about 10 km later it starts working again. As I said, very frustrating.

The low near-setting sun prompts me to stop and arrange for one more self-timed picture with beautiful colors in the evening light.

The next couple of miles I follow along US-1, with a few final hills caused by sand-dunes adding to the challenge. A beautiful sunset greets me when passing the bridge over the Jupiter Inlet.

The last rays of light see me stopping in Juno Beach for a self-timed picture of a happy rider near the end of a long ride.

As if timed exactly that way, Jill just parked her car coming back from a long day at work when I pull into our community at 8:30pm, 14 hrs after starting the ride in Clermont some 325 km (203 miles) away. Anything I can do for you? Sure, how about taking the last picture!

Adventure can happen everyday if you imagine it; it is up to yourself to make it happen!