Tuesday, May 3, 2016

A Weekend In Highlands County Florida

Highlands County is just a 3 hour car ride from Miami. It sits at the very southern end of the Lake Wales Ridge. The Lake Wales Ridge is the remains of a chain of ancient islands. It starts in Highlands County and runs north about 150 miles. At its northern end, near Clermont, lies Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point on the ridge and a climb famous among Florida cyclists. But at the southern end, in Highlands County, the hills are gentler. They are challenging to cyclists from the flatlands of coastal Florida without being intimidating. The area is picturesque with a myriad of lakes, oaks dripping with Spanish moss, cattle-filled pastures, endless orange groves, and mile upon mile of quiet roads. The perfect place for a weekend of cycling.

We drove to Sebring, the largest of Highland County's three cities, for the Everglades Bicycle Club (EBC) Spring Break Weekend. The event has a history spanning back to the 80s. It is a three-day event. The routes are easy to follow thanks to excellent route marking by Highlands Pedalers Bicycle Club. (And this year they provided GPS for the routes, too!) There is a barbecue one night. The historic Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring is the base for the weekend.

Friday morning we pedaled from our motel to the Kenilworth Lodge. We were going to ride the 62 mile route. A sizable group of cyclists was gathered in the front parking area. Greg Neville, past-president of EBC and host for the event, said a few words and the group formed up for a ride around Lake Istokpoga. The Highlands Pedalers led the group out, and we were off for a great day of riding. Our route led us through town, past pastures filled with cattle, past fields tilled and ready for planting, past nests of osprey (the heads of the chicks sometimes peaking up into view), and finally through miles of orange groves on our way back into Sebring. Wonderful ride.

Saturday we again pedaled over to the Kenilworth Lodge. We were planning to join the group riding the 55 mile route north to Lake Reedy in Frostproof. Again, great route marking. Lovely glimpses of lakes as we pedaled along. We saw a beautiful swallow-tailed kite near Lake Reedy. Lovely route. We debated whether the route had more hills or whether our legs were just a bit tired from Friday's ride. (More likely the case.) Al and I slipped away from the group on the way back to Sebring so I could take a couple of photos. My plan for the end of the ride was to stop at an ice cream and soda store we'd spotted near the old downtown circle in Sebring. Which we did. (I can report that Cappuccino Kahlua ice cream is delicious.) Afterward we headed back to our motel for a shower and nap before the Saturday evening barbecue at the Lodge.

Gathering for a picture in Highlands Hammock State Park.
Sunday was the day for the traditional group photo in Highlands Hammock State Park. We gathered at the Lodge and pedaled over to the park. There were lots of photos taken. Some people were headed for a loop through the park, then back to the Lodge to check out and drive home to Miami. A few (us included) were planning to make it a 45-mile day by following today's southerly route down Henscratch Road to Lake June with a loop back to Sebring. We did it as a leisurely photo tour with a break for an ice cream sandwich at a convenience store in the little community of Leisure Lakes on the north side of Lake June. The critter count was excellent: a turkey with 6 chicks, numerous families of sandhill cranes, a large snapping turtle, horses, and cattle, including my favorite, Brahman cattle.
Brahman cattle
There was a bit of humor out in a pasture. There were wonderful vistas of orange groves. Quiet, canopied roads next to lake (after lake, after lake), picturesque old structures, and winding, slow-moving creeks.
Bigfoot sighting in a pasture.
Vistas of miles of orange groves.
Stop at a creek.

This is definitely a weekend event we will do again.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Pedaling In Suburbia

Al and I are urbanites: We think a skyline of highrise buildings is a picture perfect landscape. We live an area of highrise buildings. We don't much like using our car for anything but travel. We don't know much about metro Miami's suburbia.

The weekend approached. Al checked who was riding where and when. WSSB (the West Side Sunset Bandits) were riding Saturday out of the Miccosukee Golf Course. Sunday they were heading up to Weston, a relatively new (mid 90s) suburb in Broward County. Both were just half-hour car rides from our home. Suburbia. Delightful.

Saturday at La Casita 
So Saturday we joined WSSB at Miccosukee Golf Course, chatted and prepped bikes, took some pictures, then wheeled down the road in a nice double paceline. We were out for a sweet little 40-mile ride. We were headed to La Casita, a convenience store with great charm, cold water and ice, and good snacks. The weather was perfect, a peasant mix of clouds and sun, with only a hint of the sticky humidity of summer. This was a popular route, but it was my personal favorite because of how WSSB uses the stretch past the Miami-Executive Airport on the way back to Miccosukee Golf Course. I think of it as a speed zone because it is longer than the sprint zones I've done with other groups.

As we approached it, I kept my eye on Al, because everybody needs a rabbit to chase, and I have used Al as my rabbit for many, many years. I never really expect to catch him. The fun is all about the chase.

With one eye on my power meter and one on him, I gave it my all. Pedal, pedal, pedal! I was having a grand time when I suddenly realized I was hovering right at my power red line, that number that warns me to back it off and recover some. I dropped into a safer effort zone, let riders flow past me, recovered some, then punched it again for as long as I could. Of course, I didn't catch Al until the group slowed for turns, intersections, and a stoplight or two. But catching him really wasn't the point. Back at our cars, we chatted and laughed as we packed up our bikes, then headed home.

Sunday in Weston
Sunday we again met WSSB. We parked our cars in a far corner of a large Publix grocery store parking lot. Alex Pruna took the first of the day's many pictures. Joe Cruz talked about the ride and the route. Soon we were clipping in and wheeling out to the road.

I must say here that the roads in Weston bring tears of happiness to a cyclist's eyes. Smooth pavement. Wide roads. Bike lanes everywhere it seemed. Beautiful landscaped parkways. It was glorious. We were off on a very excellent 50-mile ride.

Our first destination (and halfway point) was Vista View Park in Weston, a park with an actual large hill for us to climb. Not to mention we had a speed zone heading to the park. And another long speed zone on the way back to our cars. Fun! I tried chasing Al in the first speed zone, but (phooey!) I didn't have the juice. One of the guys (Alex) rolled by and offered me an assist. I gratefully hopped on his wheel. At the next speed zone I watched Al fade into the distance. I stayed with a group that was doing something I could handle.

One thing I really enjoy about WSSB is the mix of men and women riders. They ride well together. The stronger riders watch out for us other guys, but they let us push ourselves until we ask for some help. Nobody gets left behind. There are always people who form a slower group if needed. I especially like the women. They are focused when they ride, funny when they talk, and fierce in their determination to ride well.

And then, when all the pedaling was done, libations and food at a tailgate picnic. Good riding, good friends, good times.
Sunday in Weston

Monday, April 18, 2016

How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away (Country Western Song, Dan Hicks)

Al and I have been doing stuff together for a very long time. Spending days and weeks alone together in the cramped confines of itsy-bitsy tents and teeny-tiny campers in remote areas, well, it teaches you how to get along without resorting to small or large caliber handguns. It taught us an important thing about relationships: Space is a very important commodity.

When we moved to Miami, we started group riding. Paceline riding. Which is another way of saying riding close to the wheel of the bike in front of you. What you are doing in a paceline is drafting. It lets you go farther and faster with less effort. Which can be a good thing. Or at the very least, a very pleasant thing.

But you don't ride everywhere in a group. Nor do you want to. Al and I ride lots of miles by ourselves. When we are out riding on our own, we don't draft. It is a lot safer on long rides, particularly when one of us (me) is frequently paying more attention to the scenery than the road. And it keeps the weaker rider (yep, me) from getting lazy.

What we have is The 3 to 5 Bike Lengths Rule. We agree on a speed, then we pedal down the road, the second guy staying at least 3 to 5 bike lengths behind the guy in front. With these special conditions:
  1. If I start to get really tired, I can pull up to Al's wheel and draft. Once I recover, I have to fall back. If I can't recover enough to keep up without drafting, we re-negotiate our speed.
  2. If we have to get somewhere faster than I can ride on my own, Al gets up front and "pulls" and I draft. (Very handy when we're running late or trying to beat an approaching storm.)
It's a great rule for us. The best part: We can enjoy riding together without being close enough to get on each other's nerves. And I like it, too, because the rule makes me a stronger rider.

Space is a wonderful thing.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Okeechobee County Line to Port Mayaca Lock And Dam

 The northern paved portion of the L.O.S.T starts on route 78 just about at the county line. There is a large parking lot and restroom.
 A few miles south the trail comes to the route 98 access point. There's a huge parking lot, restrooms, and a fishing pier. Across the street from the access point is a gas station/convenience store/Dunkin Donuts.
 At Taylor Creek, about 2 miles south of the access point with the fishing pier, the trail is diverted to the highway to cross Taylor Creek. If you return to the trail on the other side of Taylor Creek, you quickly pedal up to a gate across the trail blocking users from dike repairs ahead. So stay on the highway for a couple more miles to the next access point. Once you get back on the trail, it is clear sailing all the way to Port Mayaca Lock and Dam.
 In this area of the trail you don't have to get off the trail at water control structures. At this one we spent a good amount of time watching a 10-foot alligator slowly circling in the water below.
 It doesn't get any better than this. The lake on your right, the dike canal on your left, and a wide, straight, paved, car-free trail as far as the eye can see.
It's about 27 miles to Port Mayaca Lock and Dam. Dike repairs put you back on the highway at this point. The smarter move is to head back to Okeechobee.

This is a unique and beautiful South Florida trail. Quiet. Solitude. A great paved trail.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

I'll Think Of A Reason Later (Country Western Song, Lee Ann Womack)

We just needed to get away from Miami. Anywhere would do. We picked Okeechobee, Florida.

Okeechobee is a quiet agricultural town on the northern edge of Lake Okeechobee. It is unpretentious and unsophisticated. Cattle graze a few hundred feet from our motel. Snowbirds fill RV resorts during the winter. The big sport here is fishing.

It is easy to access the longest paved segments of the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (the L.O.S.T.) from Okeechobee. We checked into a motel near one of the L.O.S.T.'s access points. But from our motel we could also pedal over to the unpaved part of the trail.

It's mainly double track gravel. We aren't gravel grinders. To me, that is a faster more competitive ride. What we are is gravel ramblers.

Today we pedaled the double track until the grass got mid-calf high as we pedaled and pollen filled the air. We started to sneeze. We started to cough. We turned around and headed out of the grasses. We finished our ride on the paved trail, hopping off the trail when we got to the access point near our motel.

Even with too much pollen, it's all good on a double track ramble.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Punta Gorda, Pedal and Play in Paradise, and Rest Stop Catnip

It had been years since we had pedaled our bicycles in the Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda is a small coastal community on the southern side of the bridge that spans the Peace River. Port Charlotte is on the north side of the bridge. We used to take our car for service at a dealership in Port Charlotte. We'd take our bikes and pedal south from the dealership just so we could cross the bridge over the Peace River to Punta Gorda. The view as you go over the bridge is pretty great. And Punta Gorda is a charming, bike friendly community.

This past weekend we went to Punta Gorda for Pedal and Play In Paradise. It's an annual ride that benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and TEAM Punta Gorda's Bicycle Friendly Community Initiatives. We were going to do the 62-mile route with friends from the West Side Sunset Bandits (WSSB) team and the Everglades Bicycle Club (EBC). Having a large group to ride with at an out-of-town event is a relatively new thing for us, an interesting and fun new addition to our Florida bike travels.

On Saturday morning we headed to the pre-ride breakfast in the dark of pre-dawn. We munched and chatted, pulled our gear together, and organized ourselves for the ride. At 7:45 they announced that the 62-mile people should head out. Which we did. While it was hot and humid for the beginning of April, the weatherman promised we'd have at least a little cloud cover. There would be some wind, but we'd be back for lunch before it really picked up. So off our group pedaled into the bright morning sunlight.

The first rest stop was only 14 miles down the road. Since the next rest stop was at 42 miles into the ride, we made a quick stop and topped off water bottles and munched. I munched some of the fresh blueberries they had. Blueberries! How great is that? We got back on the road. Pedal, pedal, pedal. We made good time. The wind slowly increased. Alex Pruna rolled up and down our double paceline, taking pictures and teasing smiles out of us even as we began feeling sweaty from the heat. Joe Cruz moved up and down the line, too. He kept tabs on all the riders in the group, making sure everyone was doing OK. As always, there was a group of strong riders that did the lion's share of the pulling. Something that the whole group appreciated on a day when the increasing wind was giving us all a nice workout.

Finally we came to the last rest stop. Where the ride organizers had put out a bit of cycling catnip for the riders: A big poster of two cartoon cyclists with holes where the faces should be. Hmmmm. Riders eyed the big poster. Then they slowly began gathering near it. Soon the clowning began.
How can you stay serious with a fun cutout poster and a lot of people with cameras?
It didn't take long for the silliness to begin...I was slow at getting there for pictures, but I did get a couple of photos worth sharing...
Carol and Ruben.
And Judy and Pepe.
Then we were back on the road. Pedal, pedal, pedal. And we were back at ride headquarters for lunch, libations, ice cream, and socializing.

Pedal and Play in Paradise is well-organized with good, well-marked routes. It is definitely one of the rides we will recommend to friends.

Not to mention that Al will be talking about the ride for a long, long time. There were drawings for prizes at the post-ride lunch. And Al, who has never won anything before in his entire life, won two free three-day tickets to the Mt. Dora Bicycle Festival! Happy dance time!

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Three Team Ride

We saw the event posted on the WSSB Facebook page. The West Side Sunset Bandits, Cycling Family Broward, and Dutty Ridas were getting together for an Easter Sunday ride, Miccosukee Golf Course to Robert Is Here and back, with a pot luck tailgate affair afterward. It would be about a 50-mile ride. We checked our calendar. We would home in Miami that weekend. Would we go? Darned right we would. We'd be fools not to: It sounded like a lot of fun.

Al and I hadn't done any rides with Cycling Family Broward or Dutty Ridas. We knew a couple of their members, heard a CFB presentation at a recent EBC club meeting, and we'd seen posts on Facebook. We knew that a lot of these guys are fast. But Saturday is usually their day for fast riding. A Sunday ride was our opportunity to meet some of them for a more casual group ride. Perfect for us.

So Sunday we drove over to the west side of Miami and Miccosukee Golf Course. We pulled into the parking lot in the dark pre-dawn. As the sky lightened, we saw that there were a lot of people getting their bikes ready to ride. We wandered about chatting with friends. It wasn't long before it was light, and the ride could begin.

One note for my non-bikey friends. The West Side Sunset Bandits don't just ride bikes. They are heavily armed with GoPro cameras. When you ride with Alex Pruna and Joe Cruz of WSSB, you can be sure you'll never have to worry about having photos for your Facebook profile picture. And, most importantly, their pictures are good! We gathered for the beginning of the ride and the traditional group photo. Alex Pruna had outdone himself this time. He brought a super tall tripod, one tall enough to get even the guys in the very back into the group photo!

We clipped in and wheeled out. It was a great turn-out for an Easter morning. 50 to 60 riders. Within a block we heard a loud BANG! Someone's tire had blown. That was the one and only mechanical for all of us for the whole day. That, in and of itself, was a message that the cycling gods were smiling on this inaugural three team ride. The tire issue was quickly sorted out, and we were on our way again.

The weather was good. Nice temperature. A bit of wind, but only enough to make sure we'd get a decent workout. The teams rode well together. There were plenty of strong riders, many of whom did the bulk of the pulling for the group. Which let riders like me tuck in the middle of the group and save energy. For the first part of the ride the wind was either a headwind or crosswind depending on the road. I had a strategy and I stuck firmly to it. I found a nice steady strong rider, and I stuck to his wheel. At intersections and such, I'd watch a gap start to open in front of me...so I'd shift to a bit easier gear, spin faster and catch back up to that wheel.

We had a short sociable stop at La Casita, then continued on to Robert Is Here for another short break. Lots of photos, snacks, ice and water refills, chatting with old friends and new acquaintances. Then we all rolled out and headed back to Miccosukee Golf Course. Now, of course, the wind was more often a tailwind, always a good thing.

We navigated through the crowds that are Easter Sunday at the two large churches on our route. Soon we were on the road that circles Miccosukee Golf Course. Then we were back at our cars.

The Cycling Family tent went up, coolers appeared, and food put out. We chatted and nibbled and lounged about, enjoying the day and speaking a bit with people who will, for certain, become future friends. This was the first time the three teams had come together for a ride of this sort. It was definitely fun. I certainly hope it will happen again.
Many photos and videos were posted by people on the ride. Alex Pruna posted many of them. He also put together a video I really like. I'm including it in this post because it captures the ride better than words. Alex, thanks for all you do.