Riding Coast to Lake – Redcross Benefit Ride March 2011

I had been doing several long training rides up and down the Coast over the last two months or so. On one of those rides I met Valerie, a friend who used to ride with the Boca Raton group many years ago but who I hadn’t met in maybe a decade. Among other things she pointed out a 100 mile Redcross ride in March – it sounded like a challenge worth checking out. (www.redcrossriders.com)

The route begins in Jensen Beach at the Ocean, then heads West over to Lake Okeechobee (at 75km), follows the Lake shore for about 25km, and then crosses back to the NE some 60km along Indiantown Road and Kanner Hwy to Stuart and out again to Jensen Beach. A route map can be seen here:

On the one hand Jensen Beach is about 50km North of Palm Beach Gardens and thus required a pre-dawn drive. On the other hand I have done so much cycling up and down the Ocean Coast between Fort Lauderdale and Fort Pierce that any new route is a very welcome change. A Coast-to-Lake route certainly was new for me.

I get up at 5am and soon drive up along I95 to the start in Jensen Beach. It is 54F cool with patches of fog as the so-called ‘Super-Moon’ (biggest full moon in 18 years) casts a bright light on the surroundings. I’m early and can afford to stop for a coffee and pastry at a gas-station in Stuart. I get to the Beach Park in Jensen Beach just before 6:30am.

Not much to do after the initial registration, where I learn that more than 200 riders have signed up, a few more being expected to register this morning like myself. With the moon setting and dawn approaching all cyclists get ready for the start briefing. Shortly after 7:30am we are off to the 100 mile loop, thankfully with a police escort for the first 25km or so through the Stuart area until West of I95. This is comforting since large groups of cyclists can behave rather irrationally when confronted with traffic lights or STOP signs…

The group settles into a good pace and crosses several bridges over I95 and Turnpike which give a bit of a view of the otherwise flat surroundings. The morning sun provides warm light and creates a comfortable temperature for cycling. At 40km there is a red light left-turn where the entire group stops, behaving rational for once. Thereafter the route follows Highway 714 West in a straight line of 35km almost all the way to the Lake.

Some riders pick up the pace and there is a lot of stretching and bunching going on in the peloton, similar to a rubber band being periodically stretched and allowed to contract. This requires a lot of attention to not fall behind or ride up onto the wheel in front of you, all at speeds above 40km/h. There is not a lot of time to take the eye of the other riders and enjoy the scenery.

It’s often useful to watch the riders two or three ahead and adjust the speed accordingly. The speeds now fluctuate widely between 35km/h and up over 50km/h. Nobody wants to be left behind, as finishing such a long distance without a large group is rather hard work and frustratingly slow, especially on the last 60km into a stiff headwind. I stay near the front of the pack to minimize the risk of any potential pile-up further back and also the risk of getting dropped by a large break-away at the front.

At about 75km we reach the first turn in the road after an hour or so and weave our way through a few more turns to the 441 Highway around the Lake. A sharp left turn at high speed requires full concentration, but luckily there is no traffic at the time the group passes this intersection. Now we are following the lake shore, but unfortunately one can’t see the lake as it’s behind the levee.

There is unrest in the group since a small group of strong riders has broken away and rides about a quarter mile ahead; some try to organize the front of the peloton, but many riders are near their own limit – as am I – so there is no well organized chase and the gap stays about the same. The riding is fairly fast and our average speed has now reached about 40km/h. So the big bridge at Port Mayaca is coming into view just after 10am.

I remember this bridge well from several previous rides around Lake Okeechobee such as in March 2008 and October 2005 (right after Hurricane Wilma) or from the 200 mile tailwind ride from Orlando to Palm Beach Gardens back in 2007. When doing a solo-ride I would certainly stop here to enjoy the view, a high-light of the day. But today is no such time, as the group is always pressing on…

After the crossing the route turns 90 deg left (actually 270 deg to the right) to follow the Canal via Indiantown Road and later the Kanner Highway 76. Here at 99km is the third rest stop. Since I am both low on fluids and have to pee I decide to stop, as do about a dozen other riders. The main group keeps going, which means that we are all dropped and won’t see them again. But with fresh water and empty bladder we are soon resuming our ride for the last 60 km. Unfortunately there is a breezy headwind, and working into that wind is where a larger group would have made a difference. A few stragglers are passed by our group, which itself is starting to thin out as a few riders drop off or decide to wait for their friends further back.

Eventually our group of a dozen whittles down to just 5 riders as we approach Stuart and pass over the Turnpike and under I95. We are counting down the km and taking turns to battle the headwind. After more than 4 hrs of almost non-stop fast riding we are all getting tired, some complain about leg cramps. I feel ok, positively surprised about my own not-too-tired legs. The many training rides have helped prepare, as did the huge portions of Spaghetti for dinner last night.

Between Stuart and Jensen Beach on Hutchinson Island there are two tall bridges to cross. On the first bridge one of the 5 riders, Gavin, attacks hard to break the group apart. I just barely manage to hang on, the others are all dropped. As Gavin catches his breath over the top I ride away and find myself alone in front up the second bridge. But Gavin manages to catch my wheel again on the top of the second bridge and so we jointly continue the remaining 5km to goal. We’re both happy to reach the finish line at around 12:15pm, after 4h34min ride time and 4h41min elapsed time, about 15 mins behind the lead group. My overall average speed dropped to 35.5km/h, which is still quite respectable given the windy conditions.

After packing away the bike and washing the sweat and sunscreen off my face I walk over to the shade of the food tent and enjoy fresh orange juice and a coke as well as some pasta and salad. This was a great ride, in near perfect weather conditions, with good organization, plenty of friendly volunteers and the proceeds going to the American Red Cross. I’m glad I added this Coast to Lake ride to my South Florida cycling repertoire.