As I type these words, a hard rain mixed with sleet is pelting my window. This depressing weather is what greeted me upon my return from South Florida, where my wife and cycled from Miami to Key West. Rather than deal with the literally cold realty outside my home, I think I’ll escape for awhile and tell you the tale of our exploits.
Alert readers will be aware that my wife (whom I will call Maureen, since that is her name) completed a three day tour of Provence with Gerry last September (if you’re not familiar with this trip, look no further than the previous post to catch up on events). Given the success of this trip, we looked for a fun way to combine our newfound attachment to bicycle touring with our intense desire (growing stronger each year) to get out of the cold of winter. One cold December day, Maureen showed me a website that advertised a tour from Miami to Key West. “What do you think?” she asked.
“I think I’ve got the perfect wife!” I answered. After all, most husbands have to sneak away for cycling vacations. The best case is usually when the wife relents after repeated pleas from her husband. Here was my wife actually suggesting we go on a bicycle tour – perfect!
Upon inspection, this did seem to be a great fit for us. The tour director (whom I will call Glen, since that is his name) offered a very accommodating package that included picking up and transporting our bikes to/from the tour and variable ride distances to cater to whatever length of ride we wanted. Basically, if the day’s ride to the hotel was 70 miles but you only wanted to ride 20 of them, Glen would cheerfully load you, your bags, and your bike into his truck, drive 50 miles, then gently deposit you 20 miles from the day’s destination. This was very comforting to Maureen, who had never attempted anything this ambitious on a bicycle before.
In short order, we met Glen in a DC-area parking lot as he made his way from the Catskills to Florida. He loaded up our bikes and a suitcase containing our helmets, shoes, and other necessities and cheerfully said, “See you in Florida!” One week later, we flew to Miami and joined him at our tour hotel in Brickell, near South Beach. At dinner that night in a local eatery, we met our tour staff and the other 17 folks who would be riding with us. The next day we woke up and readied ourselves for the first of three rides.
It would be the shortest of the three rides. It would also be the longest ride ever attempted by Maureen.
DAY ONE: Miami to Homestead – 38 Miles
After picking up our bikes in a storage room off the hotel’s lobby, the group’s cyclists assembled outside our hotel and listened to Glen tell us about the day’s route, a 38-miler out of Miami down to Homestead, the last bit of civilization before we would arrive in the Keys the following day.
We were right next to a mixed use path, which I hoped would be our way out of town. I am fine with riding in the streets (actually, I prefer it) but Maureen is less comfortable with risking death by a negligent motorist and was encouraged by the prospect of a trail ride. Imagine my surprise when our route immediately left the path and placed us on the street, in the midst of Miami’s morning rush hour.
Not to worry. The ride quickly moved onto side streets and Maureen handled the unexpected adventure with ease. Still, it was slow going. There were plenty of stop lights and when the path moved onto some paths, we found them to be bumpy. We were putting along at a 9mph, but we were far from unhappy. This was Miami, after all, and the weather was postcard perfect (see below pics of sunny skies and happy faces). We chatted with our newfound riding partners and enjoyed the day.
I discovered people in the group had different ways they preferred to navigate. Glen’s team had painted directions on the streets for key turns. He had also provided GPS routes that could be downloaded onto bike computers. Finally, he provided cue sheets with written instructions for old-school guys like Yours Truly. Each method worked fine, but each was slightly different and caused a couple of interesting moments. Cyclists relying on the paint scheme would occasionally turn when mistakenly following another group’s signs. This would cause confusion with the other riders, who would immediately lose confidence in their bike computer and/or cue sheet. Someone would eventually regain their confidence, then yell to the lost group to come back to the right route. Likewise, riders relying on their Garmin would sometimes be in the street when the precise route called for them to be on the adjacent path (or vice versa). This would mean they would miss the painted sign and would again be confused when their Garmin told them to turn but they couldn’t find any paint telling them to do so.
Let me just say that cue sheet readers were never confused. 🙂
After riding 15 miles through Miami’s suburbia, we came to a nice spot – The People’s Dock. Located next to the Charles Deering Estate (some rich guy from Chicago who settled here in the 1920s, apparently), the dock affords an excellent view of Biscayne Bay. We got off our bikes and enjoyed the water. We then pedaled a few hundred yards to our first official rest stop, a Starbucks. Glen and his team were there to cater to our needs. A bike mechanic fiddled with our tire pressure, shifting, and brake tension. He even adjusted the angle on Maureen’s brake hoods, which I thought was nice.
We were now out of suburbia and into the country. Sort of. There was still plenty of traffic as we made our way west, then south to Homestead. We were sharing the road with semi-tractor trailers and other menacing vehicles. Maureen handled the challenge wonderfully. She later reported that she felt (relatively) safe because she was nestled between myself in the lead and a new-found tour friend who followed behind her. I was happy she got through the experience unscathed and her confidence growing.
About seven miles to the finish, we came to the embarrassing (for me) part of the ride. My Garmin battery died. You read that correctly. For the first time since I don’t know when, I actually let my Garmin battery get so low that it didn’t have enough juice for a four hour ride. That’s a rookie mistake and I’m better than that. You can see the exact location of this travesty on the above map, annotated by, “Oops!”
There. I feel much better having unburdened myself to you.
The last seven miles were spent on a very straight road into Homestead. I was last in Homestead in 1992, when my Army unit was sent there to help after Hurricane Andrew leveled the city. I’ll never forget how devastated the town was and I am happy to report that after 27 years there are no signs of hurricane damage. We stopped at a nondescript fruit vendor called Mr. Tutis Fruties and enjoyed (courtesy of Glen, of course) some great smoothies.
After the smoothies, we pedaled for about a mile to our hotel, got cleaned up, then joined the group poolside for some refreshments, then dinner at a local Mexican restaurant. Then it was off to bed. Tomorrow, we would see the Keys!
People’s Dock, A bike path out of Miami, Two Happy Cyclists with the Miami skyline in the background, and “The Grand Depart”
DAY TWO: Homestead to Duck Key – 73 Miles
We knew this was going to be a big day. First, there was 73 miles to cover. Second, the forecast called for rain. Worse still, the rain was supposed to be thunderstorms. I can tolerate some rain, but dodging lightning bolts is where I draw the line. Finally, my friend’s sister happened to be vacationing on Key Largo and we all thought it’d be fun if I dropped in for a quick visit. I was wondering how Maureen would feel after riding further than she had ever gone before. I was very proud to hear her announce she was ready to beat that mark by two miles.
So we hatched a plan: I would go the entire distance, starting as fast as possible. I would meet my friend’s sister in Key Largo, then race to pick up Maureen, who would be patiently waiting for me 33 miles into the ride (with 40 miles to go). Glen would drop her off at a Starbucks and I would arrive without her waiting too long. And nobody would get wet because our plan was for it not to rain.
Amazingly, the plan worked!
About ten of us elected to go the entire route and we left at 7:00am to avoid some forecasted thunderstorms. Eventually, eight of us settled into a paceline on roads that were still wet from an earlier shower. This was fun! The group did a great job working together and we averaged about 21-23mph for over an hour. The group broke up when we climbed the tall bridge over the Card Sound, and I was lucky enough to be near the front when this happened. Four of us pressed on for another 20 minutes before I blew a gasket and fell off the back. Still, I was VERY happy. I covered 27 miles at a great pace and I was just pulling in for my social call on Key Largo when Maureen texted to let me know she had arrived at the 40 mile drop off point.
After an extremely short visit (what, exactly, do you do when you show up at an acquaintance’s vacation home, dripping with sweat and announcing you have only a couple of minutes for some pics and small chat?) I pedaled down US Route 1 and linked up with Maureen at the Starbucks at Mile Marker 100. The sun was shining.
Riding Route 1 through the Keys can be a challenge. When I mentioned our trip to a (noncyclist) friend who once lived in the Keys, he asked, “Are you crazy? Do you know what kind traffic you’ll be in?” I replied, “Well, a guy on the Internet who I’ve never met is running this tour and he says I’ll be fine.” In the end, all was well. Cyclists have a basic choice to make – ride on the shoulder and enjoy being close to cars, or ride on the paths and take the inevitable bumps and occasional oddity, such as the path mysteriously ending for no good reason, or having a construction vehicle parked on it, or having a huge portion eroded away. In the end, I usually stuck with the roads and Maureen quashed her fears of street riding and stuck on my wheel.
Did you catch that last bit? Maureen stuck on my wheel. The road is flat enough and straight enough that she got the confidence to draft me. This greatly increased our pace and it was fun to work together as a team. Maureen learned all the hand signs that cyclists give each other when they are riding close together and she provided me helpful tips like, “Sweetheart, if you are going to suddenly stop when I am six inches away from you, some advance warning would be extremely helpful.”
Not only did Maureen learn how to draft, she also had the opportunity to see me change a flat tire! I somehow picked up a truly large screw while riding over a bridge out of Plantation Key. The tip of the screw actually penetrated my wheel’s rim, meaning I had to actually tug on the tire to get it off the rim. I then proceeded to execute a flawless tube replacement, all the while explaining exactly what I was doing. It was my hope that Maureen would see how easy this was and would be willing to give it a shot one day. After placing the repaired tire back on the bike and announcing, “Ta-Da!” I asked Maureen if she felt she could do something like that.
“No way will I ever do that!” she announced.
Oh well. At least the drafting went well.
But we still weren’t done with the fun cycling experiences! About three miles from the hotel, something truly unique happened to us. A garbage truck flew by us at 55mph. This particular garbage truck was extremely wet. How it got to be this wet, I do not know. This very question would be the source of considerable debate in the following few hours and days. The effect of this very wet garbage truck flying by us at highway speeds was to shower us with some extraordinarily noxious smelling fluid. It’s hard to feel more filthy than you already do after riding 70 miles, but this truck easily accomplished the task by giving us an opportunity to ride through landfill mist. Fortunately, our mouths were closed and we were close to the hotel. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Despite our odor, spirits were still high at the end of the day. We avoided almost all the rain, the views over the keys were incredible, and Maureen had set another personal best for distance. Key West was waiting for us on the next day!
The Flat Tire Clinic, An action shot (Maureen backed off her draft for safety reasons), One of our first views of the water, and the more typical view of traffic on Route 1
Day 3: Duck Key to Key West – 63 Miles
Day 3 dawned with an exciting development – a mutiny! Always helpful, Glen had designed drop off points for riders wishing to do less than the full distance to Key West. He had planned stops at 20, 30, 40, and 50 miles. Most of the ladies (including Maureen) wanted to do another 40 mile ride, but when they learned that the famous Seven Mile Bridge ended at Mile 40, they wanted to be dropped off at the beginning of the bridge so they could experience that.
40 + 7 does not equal 50, thus the conundrum. The ladies were quite adamant about what they wanted. Glen demonstrated his business savvy as well as his good common sense when confronted with seven women who were fixed in their opinions on how to proceed. On the spot, he devised a plan to drop them off before the bridge. Mutiny avoided!
Before Maureen got dropped off, I had some riding to do. I headed out with the gang wanting to do the whole distance and pedaled with them to the Seven Mile Bridge. I beat Glen and the truck as they worked with a last-minute bike problem with one of the riders. After a short wait in the shade, I linked up with Maureen and we headed over the bridge.
For Maureen’s sake, I’m glad the mutineers won. Riding over the bridge was very cool and definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Some people report being nervous on the bridge. There’s a shoulder, but it’s not huge and there’s nowhere to go if you get into trouble. Traffic was moderate and whizzing by us regularly, but when it was quiet, it was magical. When on the bike, it’s possible to look straight down into the clear water, which is not nearly as deep as I would have thought it would be.
Maureen and I had a conversation about what I would do if I flatted again. I said that I had no intentions of walking my bike for 3+ miles and would change the tire on the shoulder of the bridge. Maureen said that was not the brightest idea I’ve ever had and “suggested” that I would be best walking it off the bridge. In the end, we’ll never know who would have won this debate because I didn’t flat. If I’m honest, though, I’m pretty sure I would’ve followed Glen’s example from two paragraphs above and done what the lady asked me to do.
So we crossed the Seven Mile Bridge in fine form and now all we had to do was go another 40 miles. It’s worth remembering that Maureen had already set personal bests for distances in the previous two days and now had an additional eight miles under her belt today. She was on her way to yet another personal best. The challenge would be to find a good pace, hydrate, and eat. By now an experienced drafter, Maureen tucked in behind me and we pushed southwest. We took a break at a rather humble Visitors’ Center at Mile Marker 30 and then steadily ate the miles up until we reached our final official rest stop: Baby’s Coffee at Mile Marker 15.
At Baby’s, we shared a bagel and each downed a Gatorade. I enjoyed a Diet Coke for good measure. We then saddled up for the last time and made the push for Mile Marker Zero.
We hit the outskirts of Key West four miles from the end. We had some zigging and zagging to do on city streets – the first time we’ve needed to do that since leaving Miami two days earlier. Despite all of the talk of traffic, I must say that the drivers were very accommodating to cyclists all they way down Route 1. Until Flagler Street in Key West, that is, when a unhappy motorist honked her horn at Maureen and I for having the temerity to ride a bicycle on a street. There’s always one…
If you looked closely at the above map of Day 3, you already know how the story ends – we made it! We took some happy snaps of ourselves at the southernmost point on the continent, then made our way over to the Conch Seafood Republic bar for some celebratory drinks (courtesy of Glen). Some manatees even came over to congratulate us!
The view from Seven Mile Bridge, Maureen braving traffic on the bridge, celebratory drinks, my view of Seven Mile Bridge, the final rest stop – Baby’s Coffee, and a nice pic of Manatees at the finish
Thus ended our South Florida bike tour. It was everything we hoped for – fun, challenging, WARM, and spent in the company of good people looking to have some fun on their bicycles. Over 175 miles of riding, I climbed about 1,000′. That’s about what Gerry climbs to get out of his driveway in Provence. So it was definitely flat and definitely a different style of cycling than what we undertook in France. I can’t say I enjoyed one more than the other. Each had its charms – vive la difference (which is French for “I can’t make up my mind!”).
I am immensely proud of Maureen, who achieved all of her goals and then some with her usual good humor and patience. Although I joke about her frustrations with me, the truth is she maintained a fantastic attitude always. There were many times when she fairly could have said, “why have you done this to me?” but nothing remotely close to that happened. She rode on streets, drafted me fearlessly, and gamely pressed on when doused with garbage truck juice. I think I have a great future ahead of me.
For those of you contemplating a tour with Bicycle Shows U.S., Glen has my unreserved endorsement. He definitely knows how to take care of a group, cater to individual needs, and show everyone a good time.
So that’s it for now. Maureen and I hope to cycle Vermont this fall. If all goes well, look for a post in October. Until then, keep the rubber side down and enjoy the summer!