Spring 2021. After last years' many 200km rides I felt pretty confident in tackling some very long rides again this spring. With the days getting longer around equinox I was often waiting for a weekend near the full moon phases as opportunities for some big rides. Just a month ago at the end of February I did a repeat of last year's Fort Lauderdale and Lake Okeechobee loop. The bike was running well and I felt good. I just needed to wait for the right weather.
A friend had tipped me off to the WindFinder app: It has a great, intuitive interface showing the forecast wind fields over a map which you can then move with a slider along the timeline of the next 4 days or so. Arrows point the direction, and animation speed and color indicate strength of the wind fields. I have thought about many long distance routes, and I had a few special (read: crazy) trips in the back of my mind. Then I noticed that for the last weekend in March, just in time for the full moon on Sunday, an interesting wind shift was forecast: First from the SE, then shifting to S, then SW and finally W. This would be the perfect constellation for a long loop over to the Gulf Coast and then back, supported in both directions by a gentle tailwind.
Here is the loop I finally settled on:
From past rides I know I can cycle 100km in about 4 hours with short rest stops, maybe 5 hours on very long rides. That should support a 500km loop in 24 hours. I tried a variation of this last year, but aborted the ride after about 310km due to a mechanical defect. Back then I started in Moore Haven in the center, with the route resembling a figure 8 (or somewhat more fittingly, the infinity symbol). But this time I would start at home due to the peculiar wind conditions.
After some preparations and calculations of what wind direction to expect at what time of the day, I decided to leave at 2am on Sunday morning. Better to have 4 hours of sleep than none at all! I'm excited to get up and get rolling. The first stretch is very familiar and there is no traffic on the otherwise busy PGA Blvd.
The weather is great, temperatures are mild due to several days of Southern winds, SE wind is gently pushing (10-20km/h), a few clouds are obscuring the full moon, hardly any traffic. I get into my rhythm and listen to body and bike. All systems go.
At 4am I stop at the turn-off from Southern Blvd (Hwy 80) West of Royal Palm Beach and take a night time photo of the steel bridge over the canal.
As I roll to a stop and get off the bike I feel something a bit wobbly from the rear. Oh no! The tell-tale sign of a flat tire! A dreaded feeling sets in. How am I supposed to fix a flat here in the darkness? Interestingly I had a flat tire last year on the same loop attempt just a few miles East of here on the same stretch of Hwy 80 due to debris in a construction zone. That zone is still there, but the road surfaced and wider, so I was able to ride on the right lane for the most part due to no traffic. The other curious observation is that it's a tiny puncture somewhere, slowly leaking the pressure out. What is going on? Maybe the valve? At least I can roll back a few hundred meters to an intersection with some street lights. Better than total darkness.
I decide to replace the inner tube with my one spare. Within minutes mosquitoes are all over me and make this a real torture. My hands are getting all dirty from the tire and getting the tire off and on the rim is tough on the fingers and skin. But we've been there before. I use up my one pressurized capsule and quickly inflate the tire again. And off we go again. Hopefully this will be my last technical issue of the day! (As it turns out, no such luck!)
As I continue, the first long stretch in the dark (away from any street lights) is CR880 leading West to South Bay. I'm quite familiar with this stretch. The moon is easily bright enough to see the road and any obstacles ahead. One thing I can't see, though, are the little ripples in the road from the many sugar cane trucks driving here all year round. Thankfully, on the long straight roads without any traffic I can ride in the middle of the road, picking the smoothest surface. Occasionally I see an alligator floating in the canal next to the road. There are some country smells, some burnt grass, some citrus fruit and occasionally some rotting road kill. Sometimes I use music, but sometimes i just listen to mother Nature, out here in the sugarcane fields it's quite interesting at night. Various birds can be heard here at night. A little bit of ground fog sets in, but mostly clear and mild air. All in all, a very peaceful and serene atmosphere.
Looking at my watch I calculate that I'd reach South Bay with it's two or three gas stations just around 6am. So one of them should be open for me to buy food and drinks. I buy some disposable face masks as I forgot to bring mine; people seem to ignore the threat from Covid-19 and walk in and out without masks on. Pandemic - what pandemic? (I got my first shot just 3 days earlier, so no sufficient protection yet.)
Drinking plenty of gatorade and snacking on some pastries always keeps me going. Next up is the stretch to Clewiston. Not a good road. Still dark, but some traffic, forcing me to ride on the bumpy shoulder. And there it is again - the dreaded soft feeling of the back tire!
At first, it's still dark so I stop at a construction site with a few bright floodlights. At least I can see something, so I won't lose my equipment as easily in the grass. I fiddle with the new tube, not sure why there is another puncture. I put in a patch - thanks to a brand-new patch-kit everything works well. The first attempt fails as I'm not patient enough with the patch and the tube is very narrow, so it's hard to get a flat surface for the patch to bind with the underlying rubber tube. I pump and pump, but it won't get high pressure. Not good. I take the tube out and rip off the first patch, applying more patience and the right amount of glue. Carefully I put everything back on the rim and pump. Finally some traction. I push about 100 times (literally counting out the strokes) and feel good. Packing everything up and rolling again. After less than a quarter mile the tire is flat again! What the f@#%?
I have no choice but walking back 5 minutes to the same spot with the flood lights. This is a bigger test of my nerves than of my physical strength. Ok. Take your time and think! There must be something wrong with the tire. I measure the distance of the puncture from the valve and inspect the tire at those two spots left and right on the wheel. And sure enough, there is a tiny piece of wire, wedged into the thick part of the tire, sticking out a little bit to the inside, just enough to pierce the inner tube. So I need to dislodge the wire form the tire to prevent the tube from puncturing again.
Finally I get it all going again. In the meantime, dawn arrived and the moon is setting in the West.
My hands, legs and jersey are pretty dirty, but hey, it's not an adventure until something breaks and you have to fix it. I walk up to the levee - which is still under reconstruction and the bike path along its top is closed until 2024 - just to see Lake Okeechobee once in the morning sun.
And so I continue, trying to find a good rhythm again. Next town is Clewiston, and I don't even stop for drinks as I have 3 bottles with me today and it hasn't been too long since I last refueled. Next stop is unplanned, but short and a good opportunity to stretch a bit and have a sip from the bottle.
Going West, there is a big turn in the road called the Whidden corner for Hwy 27 going North up through central Florida, heading to Moore Haven in the SW corner of Lake Okeechobee. Today I continue straight West on Hwy 80. I remember this road from 12 years ago in April 2009 when I did a ride to the West Coast and then back over a weekend on my recumbent bike, a training ride for my Panamerican Peaks adventure. Thankfully, the road is a four lane divided highway with good shoulder, something I could also see during planning on Google StreetView.
At around 10am I stop at a gas station to buy some gatorade. Across the street (and thankfully downwind) there is a controlled burn going on.
Just a few miles down the road I pass the sign indicating the hanggliding park "TheFloridaRidge.com". Memories from some 20+ years ago are rekindled. I had some nice flights out here - but also a deadly crash of an acquaintance here in this air park.
Last time I rode past with my recumbent bike, I even stopped in and watched the flights for a while. But not much time today, gotta ride some more miles...
Out here the scenery is rural, quite different from the beaches and densely populated coastal areas.
The next town is La Belle. Time to stop, drink, and eat. I feel like a motorized traveler with a rather small fuel tank and short range (in miles anyway). Frequent stops at gas stations are the norm. At least that way I get to wash my hands, in some spots recharge my phone - brought the charger as Apple phone and watch don't last for 24 hours - and eat small, somewhat varied snacks.
After La Belle it's another 45 km or so to Ft. Myers. The road bends a bit to the SW, and the wind is starting to shift to the S just as forecast for around 11am. Without my 90 min delay from fixing 3 flats in the dark I would be in Ft. Myers by now and would not have to ride in a cross-, almost head-wind. My speed is fairly low despite higher effort, quite frustrating. The 200km mark rolls around just before noon, almost 2 hours slower than I expected at this stage (due to the flats). But if the weather and equipment (and body) holds, this can still work out!
The closer I get to Ft. Myers, the worse the traffic and the narrower the road. It's a relief to pull off this stretch at 12:30pm and take a scenic rest stop at a small promenade next to a condominium tower. One of the big bridges I need to cross is just ahead.
I try to relax sitting barefoot in the shade, drinking and eating a Clif bar - the simple pleasures of life. Sending a few texts and taking photos, I check in with Jill at home for a status update. The good news is that the wind has indeed shifted to S, almost SW already, which should bode well for the next 80km heading North.
Thankfully the bridge has a wide shoulder next to the 3 lanes and traffic is only moderate. Some nice views, but brief considering it took 10+ hours to get here...
After another 20 minutes or so I stop at the first major gas station so as to not run low on fluids. I also find a fitting place with two electrical outlets, so I can recharge both my phone and my body.
The next stretch is hot and somewhat busy with traffic. But since there is a wide shoulder of good quality I don't mind so much. And the tailwind is helping to keep speeds up without having to work too hard.
Soon I arrive in Punta Gorda. At 250km this is about the halfway mark and the Western-most point of this route. I look forward to sitting in the shade and watching the panoramic view of the water in Charlotte Bay, with the big bridge between Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte.
I'm pretty tired, now after 250km and 12.5 hours. The thought of riding back home that same distance is honestly quite daunting. At some level there is this challenge to really test your own limits. And if every ride you plan goes off as planned, well then you're probably not planning big and bold enough! Last year it didn't work out, so will it work out this time? I don't know how I'm going to be able to finish this; maybe I'll have to give up later if I get too tired, but for now I'll just continue to the next leg, I'm not done yet!
The next leg is a bit to the NE to the town of Arcadia. Since I decided to go around Lake Okeechobee, I need to ride almost that far North anyway, so I might as well do it here near the West Coast as there are better roads (with good shoulders) and the wind is aligned perfectly today. On this stretch I get the fastest speeds due to good tailwind and occasionally additional draft from passing trucks. There is just the sheer joy of moving along silently and with little effort, yet at much higher speeds than if you had to walk. I find that just very rewarding - so simple, yet so subtle.
The scenery is suburban, many developments and communities along the road, passing a massive Walmart distribution center with hundreds of delivery trucks streaming in and out. Occasionally the road passes over small tributaries to the bay, like the Shell creek flowing into the slightly bigger Peace River.
I reach Arcadia just short of 300km around 4:30pm. I roll around the town grid of oneway streets to find a good spot to rest and drink something. The best thing I can find is a CVS - and I get a cold Starbucks Frappucino with a chocolate bar. Deee-lish!
I'm sitting on the floor because there is a phone outlet low on the wall, there is shade and I'm tired. I'm thinking I should be able to make it at least to Okeechobee town, roughly 100km to the East. It's basically one long straight road. I'm riding with the sun and the wind at my back on a flat and straight road, ideal conditions. But still, when I compare this to a "normal", long 200km ride, I wouldn't recommend starting it as late as 5pm with only 3 hours of daylight and little muscle power remaining! Hey, nobody asked me to do this, I signed up for this myself. So we get going again, only the camera is looking back as the late afternoon sun is getting lower.
Somewhat unexpectedly, this next stretch turns into the most enjoyable part of the entire route. The light is beautiful. The wind did indeed switch to W, which means more tailwind. I expected this from the forecast, but it is truly remarkable nevertheless, a rare weather pattern. And riding with the sun at your back is both more scenic and more safe (as drivers will more easily spot you on the road).
The first half of this long stretch is to the intersection with Hwy 27, running North-South along the central ridge of the Florida peninsula. There is no town there, but most remote highway intersections have at least one gas station.
Right after this brief stop I roll down some small hill, with tailwind and sun in the back it feels like I have an external engine, effortlessly rolling downhill, topping speeds over 50 km/h. I know I won't make it to Okeechobee town before dark, but I might as well make
hay miles while the sun shines. There are some cloud bands, but every now and then the low sun comes through and bathes everything in this yellow, almost surreal light.
Sunset is around 7:30, every minute before is precious and full of scenic beauty. The day is saying goodbye, as if painted on a canvas.
I notice I haven't seen a single cyclist outside of the towns, and not one cyclist on a road bike. Cycling on these roads is not a popular sport - or maybe it's just the best kept secret around?
Over the next 20 minutes it gets dark, with the full moon rising blood orange right at the end of the road on the horizon! Then the last 45 minutes into town turn pretty bad: Still some traffic, narrow shoulder, hard to see in the dark against blinding, oncoming headlights, hectic when traffic was passing. I can afford no mistakes now, despite the fatigue of nearly 400km and 18 hours elapsed time. (Without the flat tire delay I would have gotten there before sunset, nearly perfectly timed.)
Finally I see some traffic lights on the horizon and know from the odometer that this must be Okeechobee town. And what do you know, I have the wobbly feeling on my back tire again. Am I paranoid about this now and starting to hallucinate? I take no chances and pull in to the first brightly lit gas station at the beginning of town. And sure enough, my back tire is soft again!
But the good news is that this didn't happen 10 km earlier, in the dark, I would have been in a really bad place. Here by contrast I have bright lights, can buy food and drinks, use the restroom, and even charge my phone and one of the two headlights. First I need some food so that I can think more clearly. And in some weird sense, since it's already dark and I knew from the outset that I would be riding for a while in the dark, I am not in a hurry any more. I first buy a footlong subway sandwich and lots of water. Meanwhile I'm texting with friends and providing status updates. To my own surprise, I'm not too tired yet and feel like I might be able to finish this thing. I know the remaining route quite well, it has stretches with no traffic on the levee and then after midnight very little traffic on the Beeline Hwy. So my spirit is good, all things considered.
After dinner I need to break out my patch kit again. Time to fix the flat rear tire.
I calculate my arrival time at home to be about 2am. Another 4 hours of riding under the full moon. is this the time to dig really deep? Mobilize some reserve to endure yet another series of long hours in the saddle? Somehow I thought it would be harder than it feels at the moment. Not that it is comfortable, and I need to stand up often to just roll along. But I often think this is the one time you may be able to just get it done. How often would the weather cooperate like this? So let's just hang on a little longer and finish this tonight!
And it is so peaceful along the levee, with perfectly mild temperatures, the full moon giving enough light to ride without lights. At times there are some critters getting away from the unusual late night visitor. One of them may have been a wild pig from the size and noise it made disappearing into the bushes at the bottom of the levee.
I'm content with having come this far, and happy about my rear tire pressure holding, happy about my rear bottom pressure not being unbearable yet, happy about all electronics working well, happy about moving out here. There is a certain freedom to this kind of adventure, just going out and riding for 24 hours, so simple, yet so unusual and opening so many experiences.
It is exactly midnight when I pull up slowly to the bridge at Port Mayaca. I look at my Apple watch just at the moment when it resets the three fitness rings at midnight for the new day.
You have to be very comfortable being out alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere on a ride like this. Just a quiet confidence that you'll be able to deal with whatever happens, on your own. Of course, you can always pick up your phone and call for help, if you really have to. In that sense you're never really that remote or off the grid. But still, come prepared. Don't try a ride like this as your first foray into long-distance cycling. Build up your physical stamina and your psychological confidence. If you don't enjoy being out there, you won't get very far and the temptation to bail may be too great to resist. That happened to me once in Patagonia due to extreme headwind and isolation. Everyone has their limits, and those limits are not the same from one day to the next. Probing those limits is a thrill, despite the discomfort. And I realize that with my 56 years of age this may well be the single largest loop ride of my life. Isn't that a thrill right there? (Maybe a late midlife crisis? Or rather a celebration of life, as I mused on my Panamerican Peaks blog.)
I'm chewing on my last Clif Bar, drinking frequently (thanks to the three bottles I carry this time), and enjoy some music again. The emptiness of the long straight Beeline Highway helps to "close the loop". At 2am I turn onto PGA Blvd and head East back home. I roll to a stop at the Sandhill Crane park, where I turned South some 23 hours ago and where Jill and I had a nice kayak outing just 36 hours ago. Life is good.
Shortly thereafter while crossing the bridge over the Turnpike the Garmin odometer ticks over to 500km. Nice! I have ridden further only three times, and always tailwind-assisted in just one direction. As far as loops go, 400km was the high watermark so far. Well, thanks to the unique wind situation and the patience of a 24 hour day on the bike, I was finally able to ride Coast 2 Coast and back in one day.
I stop by our Juno Beach access directly at the beach, taking a final picture there at 2:48am. Back at home at 2:56am. An hour late, tired, sweaty, dirty - but a set of lifelong memories richer.
Below are some metrics from the Garmin, both by distance and by time. And here is the Strava link.
It's Monday morning (a workday for me), almost 4am by the time I get to bed after shower and some cleanup. I know that this (work)day won't be my most productive at the office, but I will cherish the memories of this day trip for a long time! Adventure can happen for all of us - just go out there and do it!
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