Friday, June 29, 2018

Highlands County

We lived for 13 years in a tiny rural community on the south side of Highlands County, a county located almost exactly halfway between the east and west coasts of Florida and at the southern tip of the Lake Wales Ridge. Lots of lakes. Orange groves. Ranches. Wildlife refuges. Large pristine areas of Florida scrub. And, oh yes, rolling hills.

The summer in inland Florida feels hotter than summer in the coastal areas. There is always some wind in Miami where we live now. Inland, the heat can wrap around you like a miserable fur coat. The summer is also the rainy season. Water flows in the ditches along the roads. Acres of land that are dry in winter become pond-like. Which keeps the humidity nice and high.

So we make sure our water bottles are full, and we know where we can go to refill them along our rides. We know where the rural convenience stores are, places to get water and maybe even an ice cream bar snack on a longish ride.

We were in Highlands for just two days of riding, but it was worth the drive from Miami. We heard the booming call of alligators in the marshy woods. We saw sandhill crane everywhere. Osprey. Scrub jay. Vultures. Cattle. Llamas. Miniature goats. Burros. Horses, colts, ponies, and mules. Gopher tortoise. Deer. Even a golden mouse. Critters galore.

We stopped into Archbold Biological Station for water and chatted with some staff who proudly showed off the conference center's mass plantings of native Florida grasses and flowers. Then, not long after leaving Archbold, we ran into one of the standard summer inconveniences of the area. There had been a lot of rain in the past week. We were headed to Venus, but the road was covered in water in spots for a couple of miles. Not a problem for a pickup truck, but not something we wanted to play in on bicycles. We detoured around the water and continued our meandering ride.

Someone once asked me how rural bike riding differed from urban bike riding. The difference I said was simple. Urban riding has scads and scads of destinations, but few good routes. Rural riding has limited destinations, but there are good, scenic routes whichever way you head.

Both are fine by me.
This ranch is now conservation land.
Rainy season problem along some secondary roads.
The old main road to Venus can be tricky for bicycles in the summer.
These signs on the rolling hills never fail to make me laugh.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Running Away from Home on a Bicycle, June Edition

Sometimes you need to find time for yourself. Sometimes all you need is a bicycle. Last month I ran away from home on my bicycle and spent a night down in the Keys. June is full-on summer, and motels are cheaper. Time to splurge and spend a couple nights down in the Keys.

I decided to stay at one of the old cottage-style resorts in the Upper Keys. I like riding 60-70 miles a day which is just about the mileage from my home in Miami to the south end of Key Largo. I wanted a place with a beach, tiki huts, kayaks, and paddle boards. And a guest laundry. I made my reservations before leaving home, snagging a kitchenette unit on the water with a king bed. Here's how the trip played out:

  • Day One. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Took the route from Miami to the Keys via Card Sound Road. Traffic was light. The sun was relentless. Shade nonexistent. It was really hot and humid. The wind picked up and was a gusty headwind as I got down to the Keys. Tragedy! My ice cream shop was closed so I didn't get my key lime pie ice cream cone. Got to my motel, checked in, dumped my bike luggage in the room, found a cold soda, and chilled in a tiki hut on the beach. Pedaled over to Publix and picked up the makings for lunch and dinner. Then I changed into swim wear and splashed around in the water before cleaning up for dinner and the ritual viewing of sunset.
  • Day Two. Coffee and a pastry at the breakfast tiki hut before a ride south to Layton. Loved the tailwind on the ride home. Changed into swim wear and set up in a tiki hut on the beach. Read the papers on my phone and had lunch. Two middle aged German tourists joined me, then a couple from Naples. The German tourists were particularly amusing. Played catch with a small boy who appeared on the beach. Went out on the paddle boards with the German tourists. We weren't very good at the paddle board thing, especially in a gusty wind, so we swapped the paddle boards for kayaks and went for a nice outing. Dinner. Sunset. Packed the bike for the trip home.
  • Day Three. Coffee and a pastry at the tiki hut and goodbyes to the German tourists and the couple from Naples. Pedaled north to the mainland via Card Sound Road. A film crew was set up on Card Sound, and police were making lots of people unhappy with long delays. Many northbound people turned around and rerouted back to US 1. I got waved through. Police "traffic control points" were set up at regular intervals for the southbound lane. I pedaled happily along with almost no traffic in my northbound lane. Pedal, pedal, pedal. I was home. Lunch with Al and a nap.

Running away from home on a bicycle is awesome.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A New Life for Old Mountain Bikes

We have mountain bikes that we love. But they are a little along in years. They came into our lives in the '90s. They're hardtails with front suspension forks, titanium frames made custom for us by Seven Cycles. We put these bikes to very good use for many years.

Eventually we realized it was time for us to give up off-road and technical stuff. It was bone-jarring, just too much for our aging joints. We decided to keep the ti mountain bikes, making minor changes to them so they were more suitable for gentler rides on trails and pavement. They're slow but very comfortable, sturdy but elegant as mountain bikes go. In other words, nice second bikes for us.

This month we decided it was time to bring the old mountain bikes forward in time, to modernize them a bit and give them some new life.

So we walked over to our local bike shop and had a conversation. Could he make some changes to our old bikes?
  • Replace the front suspension fork with a rigid titanium or carbon fork; and
  • Replace the outdated triple chainring mountain bike setup with a single chainring (1x) groupset, one with electronic shifting.
We talked about how the bikes would be used, and he made suggestions about the chainring and cassette sizes. He took notes. He wanted to make some calls and pull together an estimate. We agreed on a time to get back together.

Walking home from the bike shop I realized that this is almost more fun than buying brand new bikes. 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Running Away from Home on a Bicycle

My favorite bicycle rides all start and end at my home. But since my preferred ride length is a metric century, Homestead/Florida City is as far south as my rides from home usually go. Key Largo, the northern end of the Florida Keys, lies about 25-30 miles south of Florida City. Too far for an ordinary day ride for my tastes.

One day recently, however, I just wanted to run away from home, to be by myself, to be unbothered by chores and routines and obligations. So I packed a few things into some randonneuring/bikepacking bags. Then I set off and rode to the Keys.

Before I left home I did have the foresight to make reservations for lodging in Key Largo. (You can do this run-away thing without reservations, but, hey, why invite chaos and drama into your day.)  Since I didn't have to ride home until the next day, I could max out my miles for the day. So I pedaled past my lodgings and kept going south for as long as I wanted before finally stopping for a quick snack. Then I circled back and checked into my motel.

I had picked a motel on a canal near a marina. It looked to have been originally set up to cater to divers. For a price significantly below the nearby chain motels, I had a condo-like unit with a master bedroom and bath upstairs and a living room, bath, and kitchen downstairs. (Clean and freshly painted and pleasant despite the worn furniture and the wonky but functional drapes.) The place's best feature was a great screened balcony overlooking the adjacent canal. I sat out there and watched dive boats go in and out with their loads of tourists. And the African Queen (remember the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie?) chugged in and out of the canal, too, tooting its horn and making tourists happy.

It was a relaxing, successful trip. I stopped for a bunch of photos. I watched hundreds (yes, hundreds) of motorcycles roll by me on US 1 by Lake Surprise. They had an escort of dozens of motorcycle police. (The cascade of sound from the motorcycles was stunning.) I noodled about in a residential area or two, once finding myself in a delightful conversation with a very funny little woman about her newest gardening project. I chanced into Jon, the Cycling Viking, and rode and chatted with him for a while. (Jon's currently working on a Guinness world record for the longest triathlon. He's quite an interesting guy to know.)

These are the serendipitous little things that make traveling on a bicycle so entertaining. It just never gets old.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

St. Augustine and the 27th Annual Tour de Forts Classic

St. Augustine is a historic old city dressed as a tourist town, its timeworn but stately downtown embellished with wonky museums, weird shops, and popular but plebeian tours. A spot perfect for spending some time by yourself or with family. (Something for everybody.)

Each year the North Florida Bicycle Club holds the Tour de Forts Classic. 2018 marks the 27th year for the event. It's a well organized event from top to bottom. The routes are excellent.

Our 70 mile route included all the best features of the area:
  • The forts and historic St. Augustine;
  • Lovely Anastasia Island with its lighthouse;
  • The inland agricultural areas;
  • A section of the area's terrific trail system; and
  • The road along the river with its huge live oaks draped in Spanish moss.
With 800+ riders, there weren't the congestion problems that trouble the really big event rides. Police support was excellent.

There was something special at the last rest stop. People were hot and getting tired. And there it was: SNOW CONES! Total genius.

A view of St. Augustine and the Bridge of Lions from the base of the Castillo de San Marcos.

Riding in the agricultural section of the county.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Everglades National Park

Riding a bike through Everglades National Park can be an easy adventure with some basic precautions. The simplest way to take a ride is just to go along the highway from the entrance near Coe Visitor Center to the campgrounds at Flamingo. It's just 40 miles, but 40 miles with stunning scenery and lots of wildlife. Alligators, vultures, roseate spoonbills, hawks, egrets, herons, swallow-tailed kites, and wood storks were just part of the critters we spotted on recent rides.

We aren't hardy souls. The Everglades can be very hot and humid. The biting insects are fierce during the summer months. We pick our time for rides in the Everglades with care. Here's our list of things to keep in mind if you plan to go:

  • The first 8-9 miles of highway after entering the park are old and bumpy. Really bumpy. Graveler bumpy even though it is pavement. Beyond that the road is newly surfaced and excellent riding.
  • There is no water between the entrance (Coe Visitor Center) and Flamingo. That's 40 miles, so bring lots of water or make arrangements for a friend to meet you along the way with some water. (Or use a hydration pack in addition to the water bottles on your bike.)
  • Don't count on calling anyone on your cell phone. Most of the area does not have cell phone coverage. (Just remember to tell someone where you are going and when to expect you back.)
  • There's always a light but steady amount of traffic on the road to Flamingo. In other words, you aren't leaving civilization, so it's a pretty tame adventure as adventures go.
  • Bring a camera. The place is beautiful.
  • Is 80 miles a bit too much? Consider driving in to spots 10 or 20 miles from Flamingo for a shorter bike ride.
  • Still wanting something even tamer? Bike or drive to Royal Palm Visitor Center down a side road just a few miles inside the park. From there you can ride over to a relic of the Cold War, the historic Nike Hercules Missile Site. Not as much wildlife as the road to Flamingo, but if you are a history buff, you have the chance to see a well-preserved relic from the Cold War era.
Just remember it is the little things that make this ride enjoyable: carry lots of water, wear sunscreen, and don't forget the insect repellent, just in case!

Thanks to Tom Burton for taking this picture of Al and me last week on a ride with him in ENP. We have Tom to thank for introducing us to bike riding in ENP.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

I love it when the coffee kicks in and I realize what an adorable badass I'm going to be today. (Anonymous)

Coffee is dandy, but what I crave on bike rides is the perfect biking fuel: espresso. But a good espresso can be hard to come by on a ride. Sometimes it's because a convenient coffee shop isn't in the area. And sometimes it's because we want a snack break at scenic spot like the beach, a quiet park, or a pretty view on a quiet rural road.

Well, our caffeine problem has been solved. Recently while picking up a few things at our local Publix grocery store we spotted a treasure: tiny thermoses made just for carrying espresso.

Al makes our espresso in a traditional stovetop espresso maker. He likes his espresso black with sugar. I like mine lightly sweetened and laced with steamy almond milk. Which means we own two little espresso thermoses for our bike rides so that we each can have exactly the mix we crave. Each thermos holds the perfect amount for a mid-ride break. The little thermos cap serves as your cup. (As you can see from the photo, it's the size of a typical espresso cup.)

Espresso. It can really do wonders for your attitude.