Saturday, October 19, 2013

The General James A. Van Fleet State Trail

The Van Fleet State Trail is a rail trail, a former railroad corridor re-purposed as a multi-use recreational trail. It's up in Polk County, and it runs 35 miles north from tiny Polk City to the minuscule town of Mable. A third of the trail slices through the Green Swamp. It's a rural trail with wildlife and wetlands, piney woods and pastures, meadows and wildflowers. We first saw the Van Fleet Trail on a Florida map more than a dozen years ago. But fate was not kind. Each of the many times we headed out to ride the Van Fleet, our efforts failed due to weather, illness, or schedule conflicts. It became our White Whale, the trail we became obsessed with riding.

Last winter Al saw that, for the very first time, Polk City was sponsoring a trail ride, the Van Fleet Trail Cycling Challenge. And so we decided to miss one of our favorite rides, the Homestead Speedway Century, so that we could put the bikes on the back of our car and drive north about 4 hours to Polk County. We decided to put the trail on our ride calendar one more time. One last chance to snag our White Whale, the Van Fleet State Trail.

The first year of any event ride is usually filled with difficulties and assorted rough spots. There's a learning curve for the sponsors. The best approach is to go with the humor of it all, rather than letting yourself become annoyed by shortcomings. Registration and sag stops opened at 9 a.m., but they acknowledged that people would be out on the trail before that. Just pick up your registration packet before you go home at he end of your ride, an email instructed.

We were unloading our bikes in the southern end of the ride just as the sky was filling with the rosy reds of dawn. There were a dozen or so other people there. We headed down the trail. We had almost two hours before sag stops opened. Without the registration packet information we really didn't know the distance between sag stops. To compensate, we packed our own snacks, fluids, and electrolyte tablets for several hours of riding. That turned out to be a very good thing. The sag stops had only bottled water, bananas, and some bite size energy bars. The people manning the stops were eager to please, but totally clueless about what riders would need other than water and bathroom facilities.

It was a very hot day with little cloud cover. We took our time checking out an alligator and some gopher tortoises. A couple of wild turkeys paraded out in front of us at one point. A fat rabbit did a suicide run at Al's back wheel, angling off at only the very last second. By the time we reached the turn around point, we started seeing the beginning of a problem at the sag stops. The supply of bottled water was ominously low. They seemed to have a some re--supply issues.

The real problem of the day had nothing to do with the organizers. The Van Fleet may be the flattest and straightest trail ever. No dips, no inclines or descents, no turns. Which meant no natural shifting of body position. It was like being on a stationary bike for hours and hours. My hamstrings began to ache from the unrelenting rhythm of the pedalling. Arms, shoulders, and other parts were soon crying out for relief. It wasn't about the length of the ride or our speed. This was one of the hardest rides we've done in recent years.

As we finally neared the southern end of the trail, we stopped to conference. Our plan had been to add a 30 mile loop to make the ride a century. I voted to cut the ride short. I was hot and tired, and the straight, flat terrain both hurt and bored me silly. Luckily Al was having the same thoughts. We pedaled our bikes to our car, popped them into the bike carrier, and happily motored off to our motel.

We had snagged our White Whale. We had finally ridden the Van Fleet Trail.

Did the ride. Got the t-shirt.