Bike Ride from Georgia border to South Florida

The spring of 2020 turned out to be a very good long-distance cycling season for me. The weather was often consistently favorable. The Coronavirus pandemic caused large parts of the economy in the state to shut down, also beaches closed and outdoor group activities banned, but individual recreational activities like jogging or cycling still permitted. This resulted in unusually little traffic - but also increased infection risk at gas-stations when purchasing food and drinks. There were often low wind conditions this spring, which encouraged long closed loop routes similar to those from last year; one recent such ride was the South Florida Midnight Loop Ride in late March. One additional highlight was a full-moon ride up to the Sebastian Inlet in early April. By leaving at 2am I got to the turn-around point just in time for moon-set and sun-rise a little after 7am. There were two large geographic long-distance cycling challenges I had long been thinking about:

Both are a bit over 500 km in distance and as such should be borderline doable in a single day (or 24 your period). This spring in early May we were blessed with an exceptional weather phase bringing cool, crisp and dry air to South Florida for about a week or so. Little did I know that I would end up trying both of the above large challenges within just 4 days of each other! one being aborted after 300+km, the other one completed. Here is the story of the Georgia ride.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Since yesterday I had noticed the weather forecast with strong consistent N winds of about 15-20mph for tomorrow Thursday. In addition, we just happened to be in a full moon phase again. I wasn't really ready for another big ride yet as I had just done the 24 hour ride attempt for the Coast to Coast ride 3 days earlier (Sunday, May 3, 2020) and was still recovering. But as I'm sitting over breakfast around 8:30am I study the weather forecast and realize that the good wind will be tomorrow. Just in case, I check the Amtrak train schedule which I remember from 2 years ago to leave in West Palm Beach around 1:45pm. To my surprise, I see it changed and will depart already at 9:47am. So in just a bit more than 1 hour! A minute of agony, as I hate rushing off and perhaps forgetting something important - but I also fear I will deeply regret not jumping at this opportunity. And I can still prepare mentally during the long train ride. So I flip the mental switch and go into overdrive: Throwing all equipment and clothing into my little backpack, loading the bike in the car and off I go. Thankfully I had changed my rear tire just yesterday as it was showing lots of wear and tear - wouldn't want to have the tire disintegrate on a long ride. Keeping your gear prepped and ready is always a good idea, as you never know how quickly you'll be off to the next adventure. The train leaves on time and the ride is uneventful, although a bit surreal with most passengers wearing face masks (myself included). Thankfully there are electric outlets and WiFi in the train now so I can study Google Maps and recharge all batteries at the same time. I try to relax and get myself in the right frame of mind for what's about to come in the next 24 hours...

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As per schedule I arrive around 5pm, still plenty of time with afternoon sun and 3 hours to sunset. I wait outside the Amtrak station for a called Uber driver to show up. Unfortunately I lose some time here as the first driver's car doesn't have a reclining backseat and is too small and filled with other stuff to stow my bike. So we cancel that ride and I order another ride. Sadly, it takes about another 1/2 hour for the second driver to arrive - all daylight time which I would have rather had available later when crossing the city of Jacksonville.

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It's about a 40 min drive North to the border, mostly on I95. Just a few miles prior to the border we get off the Interstate and follow highway 17 a short stretch North to the bridge over the St. Mary's River which marks the state border between Florida and Georgia. I ask the Uber driver to let me out on the other side - after all, that's the whole point of starting the ride in Georgia. And to document it sufficiently, I roll a few hundred yards North to the state sign on the GA side.

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Rolling back South over the bridge is actually quite scenic, with the warm evening sun painting beautiful colors. My last photo taken from Georgia today:

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At the Florida side at the state welcome sign I take another picture, then reset the odometer on the bike and start the trip on both my Apple Watch and my Suunto Spartan tracker. Let the long ride begin! And just like that, I'm off rolling South on Highway 17.

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Thankfully the road is smooth and has a good shoulder for bikes. The pine forest here has some tall trees, hardly any more sun on the road, but the air is still quite warm (> 80F) and the wind is Westerly, later shifting to NorthWest and North. It's about 30 miles (50 km) South to Jacksonville and then another 20 mi (32 km) East to Jacksonville Beach. I had originally hoped to get to the Beach by sunset and to avoid having to ride through the city in the dark. But with the lost hour due to the Uber ride issues I won't get that far before sunset. Instead I will likely reach downtown Jacksonville Beach at dusk. But I don't let this drive a hectic start. It is what it is. And when you're mentally prepared to ride for 24 hours, it doesn't matter as much where the sun sets and rises again.

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The first scenic highlight is the crossing of the Nassau river South of Yulee and the marshlands visible to the East. In fact, the entire area North of Jacksonville is marked on the map as the Nassau River - St. Johns River Marshes Aquatic Preserve Outstanding Florida Water area. There is even a scenic road (A1A) through it near the Atlantic Coast which I would have much preferred, as it would have bypassed the Jacksonville urban area altogether. However, as there is no bridge over the St. Johns river you would need to take a ferry boat, and that ferry schedule ends at 7pm on weekdays. So Highway 17 it is. And as it turns out, traffic is not too bad and there will be scenic beauty of a different kind through downtown. The road leads straight South, past Interstate overpasses, power lines, a massive Budweiser brewery and other industrial zones right into downtown Jacksonville and towards one of the few bridges across the wide St. Johns River. I roll to a stop and admire the beautiful cityscape at dusk against the orange sunset hues and the blue illuminated steel bridge.

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It is important to appreciate the beauty or at least the differences in scenery on a long ride. After all, that's the main reason for me to come out and do such rides - to experience the outdoors, see the sights, and enjoy the ability to move considerable distances just driven by my own muscle power.

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Crossing the bridge is relatively slow on a narrow sidewalk, but it offers spectacular views of St. Johns River and the surrounding downtown area. To top it off, the full moon now rises higher on the Eastern horizon. Sun goes down, moon comes up. And just an hour later, on the dark stretches along the beaches South of Jacksonville Beach the moonlight will be bright enough to see the road and possible debris so that no headlight will be required. One of the key reasons to pick a full moon night for night riding. The next stretch is difficult, as I need to ride about 20 miles (32 km) on city streets due East to reach the beaches. I pick the direct line with Hwy 90 - fittingly called Beach Blvd - a 6-lane divided highway with city traffic at night. Not ideal, to put it mildly. But I have a few things going in my favor: The Westerly winds help push me at higher speeds. (Couldn't have asked for a better wind support, first West, then shifting to North.) There is relatively light traffic going out towards the beaches (more so coming back). I also added a redundant head- and tail-light front and back for extra visibility by cars. Soon I'm within a few miles of reaching the beach when I stop at a WaWa gas-station to load up on drinks and snacks. I'm not sure how many such opportunities there will be on the next stretch down to St. Augustine and do not want to run out of drinks in the middle of nowhere going forward. Better to carry one or two extra bottles in the backpack than to run dry.

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Here in Jacksonville Beach Hwy 90 ends and you can't go any further East. I walk out on a little beach access bridge over the dunes and enjoy seeing the Atlantic Ocean and the moon reflecting over the water on the horizon. It's been about 50 mi (80 km) to get to Jacksonville Beach. From here, the route is going to be the same as during the Jax 2 Juno Beach ride in Mar-2018 some two years ago. The scenario is very similar - full moon, moderate N wind, eerily quiet night ride, beautiful landscape, etc. I'm about 2 hours earlier today (last time I started the ride a bit after midnight due to the different Amtrak schedule). And thankfully, it is warmer today (as it is 2 months later in the spring) - in fact, I won't need my long pants at all and the long sleeved shirt only a short stretch just before dawn. And I now already know the route and in more detail what to expect. There are a few other differences as well. In terms of equipment, I now have the Apple Watch as an additional instrument as well as the Trekz Air headset and the additional lights. I brought more charging cables so that my many batteries will not run out later in the ride; if you're looking for them, you can find electrical outlets almost everywhere to plug in your charging cables. But on the other hand, the bike is still the same (since 2002), and most of the bike gear (shoes, helmet, gloves, jersey, etc.) For long rides comfort is much more important than marginal improvements on weight or roll resistance. My Titanium frame Colnago bike is very comfortable and it has served me well for almost two decades now. Unless you want the latest and greatest, cycling is not an expensive pastime... The first 50 km from Jacksonville Beach down to St. Augustine are very scenic. First along the Ponte Vedra Blvd with its many illuminated mansions on both sides of the road. Then along the Guana River Wildlife Management Area with its marshes. I remember the scenery vaguely from having ridden here once before at night some 2 years ago. At one point I see signs of a public parking area which means there must be some beach access. I stop at a pedestrian crosswalk and walk out on the bridge over the dunes towards the Ocean.

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It's completely quiet and peaceful out here. With the eyes adjusted to the darkness I can easily see enough detail in the full moon light, which also reflects off the water on the horizon and the small waves along the shore. The only other light comes from the St. Augustine lighthouse some 15 miles or so further South.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Just around midnight I reach St. Augustine, my first noticeable stopping point. This time it is all eerily quiet due to the many closures from the Coronavirus pandemic - unlike two years ago where this was a party scene even later in the night at 2am. I still stop at the Castillo National Monument and take in the sights of this historic place.

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I'm in pretty good spirits, my legs feel great and the conditions are near perfect, especially the air quality and temperature. That said, I remember from last time that the upcoming stretch down to Daytona Beach is long (90 km) and can be hard at night without many places to stop and fill up. So I eat and drink a lot at a convenience store and bring plenty of bottles and food in my backpack for the next stretch. For a while on this next stretch down to Crescent Beach the A1A state road does not run along directly on the coast and one does not see the beaches. Then near the town of Palm Coast the road swerves a bit inland. On this stretch around 1:45am I come upon what looks like a roadside restaurant, closed and buttoned up, of course, but illuminated and with some electrical outlets. Looking at the numbers, I realize I have been riding for 7 hours, having covered 165 km (103 mi). I can use a brief rest and plug in my iPhone and watches to recharge for 20 minutes or so. Steady drinking, eating and periodic resting are key to prevent hitting the wall physically later in the ride.

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Only South of the town of Palm Coast does A1A again go directly along the Ocean, starting around Flagler Beach. Here I have one of the most beautiful "Flow" moments of the entire trip: The road is freshly paved and runs directly along the beach, slightly elevated, such that when riding on the left side of the road I can see the waves in the moonlight. It is quiet, absolutely no traffic at 2am with full moon overhead providing enough light to roll quietly through the dark, gently pushed by the 10mph N wind. A really cool song comes on on Pandora's music stream in my ear and I just get the goosebumps. Everything is going so smooth it is hard to believe. I turn around occasionally so as to not miss a potential car coming up behind - but on these long straight stretches one does see car headlights literally from miles away. I think to myself what an adventure - and what a privilege to be able to experience this. Physical and mental fitness are required for such an experience, but they are also the direct result of it - a positive feedback loop. It also seems so nonlinear, in that the best adventures are not just a little better, but just in a whole different category, a league of their own. This will be my longest ride in Florida, my third-longest ride ever. And probably the most scenic ride of them all! Even though there are many moments of discomfort on a long ride like this, the overall joyous experience will be remembered for a long time, likely forever.

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Around 3:30am I reach Daytona Beach, 210 km (130 mi) down. From memory of the last trip, I had a much needed breakfast here, and I remember it was colder and just before sunrise. Today it is 2 hours earlier, but thankfully fairly mild, so I can continue wearing just the short-sleeved jersey.

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Quick stop at the famous beach sign for a photo. Interestingly, the beaches are open in Jacksonville Beach, but still closed here in Daytona Beach. Every county decides for itself, with limited guidance from the state level. I sit down at the nearby Landshark Bar & Grill restaurant overlooking the illuminated beach and plug in my various electronic devices while eating and drinking. Good thing I bought enough reserves and packed it in the backpack for this stretch - another reason why riding through the night is harder - very few places are open so you have to be more forward-looking and self-reliant. Shortly after this 25 minute break the road goes back over the bridge towards Port Orange and then South on US1 as there is no outlet going further South on A1A towards the Ponce de Leon Inlet and Lighthouse. Still, it is dark and thankfully hardly any traffic on US1. Shortly after Port Orange the road crosses the Spruce Creek Preserve with wide bodies of water and marshland on both sides of the road. With the moon now getting lower on the Western horizon I put my Nikon on a wall and take a self-timed nighttime shot.

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The moonlight is really special, even if the photo doesn't render it as well. From the metadata it is easy to reconstruct later where and when the photo was taken. It is 4:49am, about 10 hours elapsed time and 230 km down. The moon with its position above the horizon is my indicator as to how much longer until sunrise (and moonset). I think of this 24 hour ride as two half-days back to back, one with moon, the other with the sun wandering from East to West over the cloudless sky. Somehow I'm craving some hot food now, perhaps missing that breakfast. In New Smyrna Beach I see a 24-hour open McDonalds restaurant and stop for some takeout. During this 40 minute stop I consume a hot coffee and 2 hot burritos satisfying my craving for warm food. Although tasty and warming from within, on this next stretch I need to put on the long-sleeved jersey as I cooled off during this longer rest and feel cold with the sweaty jersey. Thankfully I can put it away after just a few miles as the temperature is still in the high sixties (close to 20C) and once moving again it is actually quite comfortable without the extra jersey. The upside of the longer break and warm food is that for the next 1h 45m I make good progress, without any rest stops, the sun comes up bringing warmth and yellow light. I take a few pictures of the setting moon and the rising sun as well as the long shadow riding next to me.

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It is hard to overstate the morale boost from the rising sun after riding all night. When deciding the time of day to start a 24-hour ride, one factor for today was that I didn't want to get into the dark again near the end of the ride. Hard enough to ride 10 hours in the dark at the beginning... Just before Titusville is a stretch of a rails-to-trails converted bike path next to US1, which provides welcome relief from having to ride on the rough shoulder of US1 now that traffic increases again. And the wind is nice and steady, having shifted as forecast from W to NNW. In Titusville I roll to the Indian River and stop at a park bench just South of the tall bridge of the Max Brewer Memorial Parkway to take in the view.

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The air is dry and clear, with excellent visibility. The massive cube-shaped Vehicle Assembly Building in Cape Canaveral is perfectly visible, although almost 10 miles (16 km) away from this point. I take my shoes and socks off to air out my feet and provide relief for my left foot which tingles after a long time due to the shoes being a bit too small. But soon I move on to rest at an upcoming gas-station and again charge my batteries. Better to charge them while resting and having plenty of food and drink than to lose valuable time sitting here - although clearly the view and scenery is pretty nice here. With 15 minutes at the bench above and then another 30 minutes at the gas-station I fall a bit behind my schedule. Soon thereafter I reach the 300 km mark at 8:45am (14 hours elapsed time). I end up doing some calculations comparing today's times with that of the previous ride 2 years ago. Not much difference, a bit slower today, but also 80 km more and the entire night riding, with different start times and now longer daylight hours. The next 50 km are not very scenic, all on the shoulder of US-1, past some old and new power plants and various causeways connecting Merritt Island to the East with the mainland. Eventually I get to Eau Gallie Blvd in Melbourne where I plan to jump across the Indian River and finally get back to A1A again. The climb up the tall bridge without tailwind is slow and hard. But the view from the top is rewarding.

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I have reached the 350 km mark at 10:20am. While at the beginning of a very long ride I don't think much about the remaining distance, now I start to gain confidence from the fact that well over half the distance is behind me and less than 200 km are remaining. Another helpful aspect is the fact that the further South I go, the better I know the terrain. At the bottom of the Eau Gallie Blvd bridge I see a Panera Bread restaurant open for business. They only opened up 2 days ago, with seating restricted to 25% of their tables. It's almost empty, and I take my face mask from the backpack and enter to get some bagel, pastry and coffee.

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Again, time to recharge both body and batteries. This will be my last longer rest where I charge the batteries to full so they will last the rest of the trip. I stay for a full hour - longer than any break I usually take on such long rides. Even time for a few emails from my iPad (which I brought to read during the rain ride yesterday). Well rested and recharged I put on sunscreen and continue down South on A1A. A traffic sign indicates the distances to Sebastian Inlet (18 mi) and Fort Pierce (47 mi).

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Traffic is moderate, a bit more than expected. A pleasant surprise is that the temperature is still fairly comfortable in the seventies, despite this being at noon in May - it could easily be much hotter this time of the year in the high eighties or even nineties. This helps prevent overheating and sweating too much. Still, my UV-protection arm sleeves are by now standard issue on most rides including the intense sunshine hours between 10-4pm. Not too much to look at during this next hour, past the Ponce de Leon landing memorial, and thankfully with really nice tailwind. I get into this mindset where I imagine flying in a hang glider over the Alps, and without having to work hard I can maintain high altitude (a ka high speed on the bike), and I marvel at how good the conditions are to literally blow me South towards my goal. As mentioned earlier, the outdoor conditions are nonlinear, and there are a few rare days with extremely good conditions - today is one of those days. Before long I see the sign of the Sebastian Inlet State Park coming up. And once up on the bridge over the inlet the familiar view is very nice.

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It literally seems that this is the same osprey which is always sitting on those fence posts, probably surveying the water below in search of fish. As you can see, while the State Park is closed, some people park along the highway and walk out to enjoy the beaches (which are presumably open here in Indian River county). From previous rides to the Sebastian Inlet I know the distance (135 km) and the details of the remaining route fairly well. Shortly after this brief stop I reach the 400 km mark. Me legs are still doing ok, the worst discomfort now is in the crotch from sitting on the saddle for too long. Hence I often stand up to coast for a little bit. All too familiar for the long-distance cyclist... And again I take a brief 10 minute rest near Wabasso Beach to take the shoes off and sit in the shade of a large tree right next to the road. The remaining stretch to Fort Pierce is quickly covered. Unlike the last ride I decide this time to cross over to Hutchinson Island, mostly because there will be less traffic and a much better bike lane to avoid narrow traffic passes. The cost for this, however, are the two tall bridge crossings. Riding up into a NE headwind is like cycling with the brakes on, frustratingly slow and hard. Then stopping at the familiar Ft. Pierce Inlet, with some kiteboarding action going on.

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It's 3 pm and I'm now at 440 km - the entire distance of the previous ride from Jacksonville Beach. The additional 80+ km or so from the Georgia border now come into play. But thankfully the N wind is still blowing pretty strongly and somehow I'm not too exhausted to finish this trip. The 30 km down Hutchinson Island pass by quickly. I stop at the Publix at the Southern end of the island for one last refueling stop to buy food and drinks. Definitely don't want to dehydrate near the end and then develop leg cramps. One more text to my wife Jill at home to give her my location and expected arrival time. From here it feels pretty familiar and my confidence is growing. Only a technical defect would now prevent me from finishing in under 24 hours. Just 8 days ago I did a 100 mile loop where I also stopped by the Southern end of Hutchinson Island. Same route home, two bridges, Sandsprit park, Stuart, Gomez Road. Today I decide to take US1 instead of Jupiter Island - partly because that means better tailwind support and also because it saves two bridges and means a bit shorter distance.

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Past Hobe Sound at 5:30pm I cross the railroad tracks and head down towards Jupiter. Just 5 minutes earlier I passed the 500 km mark! Only twice before have I ridden this far in a single day (Fargo to Sioux City and Iowa to Canada back in 2004). Definitely feels like the home stretch now. I also thought it amazing that this highway US1 which I followed for so many miles much earlier in the day is the same highway which passes right by our community in Juno Beach. One could theoretically ride down the entire distance from Daytona Beach on just this one road. Past the Jupiter lighthouse, then just the last 5 miles or so along US1, and just after 6:10 I can turn off US1 into our community in Juno Beach. I am overjoyed to have arrived at home and to have done it.

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The trip in numbers: By comparison, almost to the minute the same ride time as the Sioux City trip 16 years ago, but a few miles less. And some 83 km (52 mi) more than the Jax 2 Juno ride two years ago, although a bit slower average speed today. Here are two charts from the Suunto tracker:

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Distance on x-axis, speed on y-axis.

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Elapsed time on x-axis, temperature on y-axis. This shows the rest breaks along the timeline.

With the two other long rides last Wednesday (168 km) and last Sunday (311 km) I ended up cycling 1,003 km in 3 rides within 8 days - pretty crazy distances due to spectacular weather conditions. Somehow I had the desire to do a 24 hour ride in my system building up over the weeks this spring. Glad to have been able to do it and to get it out of my system. Now I'm happy to call it the end of the long-distance cycling season for this year.

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