Monday, December 9, 2013

The 2013 Escape to the Keys Ride

Christmas was just weeks away. Most of the country was covered in snow and ice. Here in South Florida it was warm. The sun was shining. Best of all, we were gonna ride our bikes to Key West.

The sun was barely up Friday morning when riders began arriving at Miami Homestead Speedway, the start of the 2013 Escape to the Keys ride. Soon it was time to put luggage in the luggage truck and check in at the registration table. We put on our yellow ride wristbands, and a couple hundred riders gathered for the start. Rafael Acosta, the ride coordinator, welcomed everyone and gave last minute instructions. Speed groups coalesced and pacelines pedaled away.

Al and I had biked the length of the Keys before, but never with a large group. I was nervous. We were doing the whole ride in a paceline. Friday we would be riding 81 miles, much of it into a brisk headwind. (Gulp.)

Happily first we rode a few miles to a special continental breakfast treat. Sticky buns! The out-of-state riders had to be told about the sticky bun tradition. A roadside store in rural Miami-Dade has been a destination for club rides for many years. The family that runs the store are Dunkers (a sect of German Baptists), and their sticky buns are warm from the oven and utterly delicious. A guy from the Midwest muttered that he wasn't sure he should eat one before riding. I laughed at him a short time later when he accepted part of a second sticky bun from a ride companion before leaving. He smiled. "Just helping her out. Really!" he said as he munched.

Our group wheeled out and headed south to Card Sound road. Our group was lucky to have some strong riders who were willing to do far more than their fair share of the pulling. The route south was a challenge because of the wind, but we were doing a respectable pace. One rider had a flat tire, and we pulled over while things were sorted out. A bit farther down the road we passed another group off to the side dealing with a mechanical problem. I was tucked in close on the wheel of one of the guys, protected a little from the worst of the wind. Then we rolled up to the bridge over Card Sound. It was a moderately steep and long bridge, and the wind was brisk and straight in our face. The group splintered as some went up the incline faster than others. I was gasping and wheezing at the top, and I made the mistake of slowing as I got my breathing back under control. When I regained focus I saw that what had been a smallish gap was now a monster one. And they were slowly moving away from me. "Pedal!" Al yelped. I put my head down and pedaled for all I was worth. The gap did not get smaller. A few riders passed us, and we hitched on behind them. Despite a lot of hard work, our original group was still out of reach. Miles later, we pulled to the side of the road for a short water break. We were a very small group. We were hot and sweating and feeling discouraged. We continued riding. The road had turned some and the wind was definitely better. Then came the call from the back, "Paceline passing!" A long fast group wheeled past. We saw some riders we knew from our weekend rides! We hitched on to the end of the paceline. The group was moving fast, but we could keep up! So we rode the rest of the way to the first rest stop with this large group. We slowed and turned into the SAG stop. Shade! Cold watermelon! Munchies! Gatorade! Water! I don't think I've ever enjoyed a SAG stop as much as I did this one. I was red-in-the-face and much in need of a cool down.

We located our original riding group. Refreshed and cooler, we started down the road with them again. The wind was less of a problem, but now we needed to adjust to the rough pavement of this section of the Upper Keys. Road work made for some challenges. Uneven pavement in areas. Weird washboard pavement that went on and on and on. But we were back with our group. The banter was pleasant. We had some strong, fast guys that were up front pacing us. I was determined not to be the weak link in the group, and that thought, shared by a bunch of us, kept us pedaling briskly along. Soon we were at the third rest stop. Munching on watermelon and other goodies. Refilling water bottles. Enjoying the wonderful shade of the scrubby Keys trees. Then it was pedals up for the final stretch. Pedal, pedal, pedal. As we moved out of the Upper Keys, we began having longer and longer stretches with sparkling water on both our left and our right. This was quintessential Keys. It feels like biking on sparkling waves.

All too soon there was a sign for Duck Key and Hawk's Cay Resort. We wheeled in. A shady parking lot next to the hotel and villas had been converted into a hotel registration area for our riders, the luggage truck nearby. And there was a lunch buffet of sandwiches (cheeses, ham, chorizo, and bowls of tomatoes and lettuce), more bowls of potato and plantain chips, and (joy!) cold beer and sodas. We munched, socialized, and relaxed. For some of us it was our longest ride. For many it was certainly the longest ride at that speed. After a while, smiling, we headed to our rooms for a well-deserved shower.

Hawk's Cay Resort is an easy place to love. Behind the main hotel there's a beautiful free-form pool in a large sweep of patio with deck chairs for lounging. Just beyond this is a salt water swimming lagoon and a separate large dolphin lagoon. The show dolphins swim lazily around their lagoon, sometimes doing impromptu performances for resort guests. At night the scene was magical. Palm trunks were wrapped in multi-colored light strings. A patio water fountain was transformed by a flickering gas fire in it's central fire pit. The music was lively. Riders relaxed and enjoyed drinks and dinner with friends.

The next day started at a bit after 7:30. There was a continental breakfast in the same shady parking lot next to the luggage truck. We put our luggage into the truck, munched, and located our riding group. Then it was down the road again. But Saturday the wind was a tailwind! What luxury! We pedaled through the Middle Keys, over the 7-Mile Bridge, our speed effortlessly moving into a range I hadn't dreamed possible. We stopped for a SAG stop just beyond the 7-Mile Bridge. Many pictures were taken with the big bridge as a backdrop. Finally we were off again. Rolling through the Lower Keys. Nearby spans of the old Keys highway, narrow and battered by storms and salt water were re-purposed in spots for fishing. In other areas spans were just left for the seagulls, cormorants, and pelicans. There was a SAG stop at Baby's Coffee before the final miles to the edge of Key West.

Riding with a police escort into Key West.
At the edge of Key West, riders gathered in the shade of trees along a bike path. We waited for our police motorcycle escort into Key West. I must admit, that ride into Key West was perhaps the most amazing moments I have ever had on any tour. People waved and cheered. Tourists riding on passing tourist trams clapped and cheered us on. Tourist took pictures. People called out and asked us about our ride.

So this is what a few minutes of fame feels like!

The end of the road, mile marker 0.
Our day ended at Dante's Raw Bar where the music was loud and the beer was cold. We chatted with new friends, socialized with old friends, took pictures, and shared ride stories. Then we pedaled off to our various hotels. After dark we headed to Duvall Street. We were lucky to be in town for the big holiday parade. And Key West knows how to do a parade. Key West residents, many with well-mannered dogs in tow, lined the streets shoulder to shoulder with tourists. Children happily chased down candy and beads thrown from parade floats.

The next morning we wandered Key West. Al and I had a leisurely breakfast (and later lunch) at our favorite little cafe, browsed a few stores, then wandered back to the Spanish Gardens Motel where the truck packed with our bikes was waiting. The buses taking us back soon arrived. We boarded and relaxed as we drove back home.

Al and I are newcomers to Miami. We've been on lots of supported tours. Some very large, some quite small. The Escape to the Keys ride is special. Most supported rides have lost their unique sense of place. They enclose their riders in a bubble that isolates the riders from the place they are touring. You see the scenery and you visit towns. But to use a food analogy, it's like biting into a delectable looking appetizer ...only to discover it bland and utterly tasteless. The Escape to the Keys still has the warmth and colorful style of Miami. It keeps things going, but lets riders work out the details. It's not over-programmed or overly choreographed.

 Rafael Acosta, you and your people have put together one great ride.