Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Central Florida 400k - On any Friday!

The Bike Friday in rural Central Florida

The Lure

In keeping with the goal of a double SR this season I found the lure of the Florida brevets irresistible.  A 400k in March is unthinkable in this region, but in Central Florida it is the norm.  The ride organizer, Tim Bol, had promised a hilly route and warm weather.  Like a steel ball to a magnet I was drawn to it.    

The Logistics

Travel events can be on the complicated side.  Even if one tries for simplicity it doesn't always work out that way.  I, on the other hand, wasn't striving for simplicity at all.  I was intent on finding the most complicated means of transporting myself, a bicycle, and all the required gear to and from the ride.  After exhaustive research my final plan to cover the 1,023 mile distance from home to the ride start was to involve some amount of cycling, on a borrowed Bike Friday Pocket Rocket.  Two trains and three busses.  In addition, I would ship a package filled with gear.  I would travel with only a small back pack and the Bike Friday.  Along with the bike's canvas travel bag.  The bag when not being used to hold the bike would fit in the back pack along with the few other items I wanted with me.  After the ride I would reverse the trip using all the same components.  It was to be an exercise in logistics management (useful prep for PBP) and a personal commitment to the reduction of global warming. 

The Trip South

The morning of departure was cold and rainy.  I modified my plan to allow my wife to drop me at the NJ Transit station on her way to work.  It was a bit of a cheat, but starting the trip wet and cold made little sense.  I boarded the 8:45am train from Raritan with the Bike Friday securely in the travel bag.  Upon arrival at Newark Penn Station I sought out the track number for the Amtrak Silver Star to Florida.  According to the website I was to be able to take a folding bike on the train with me.  The Amtrak folks told me, No! I had to check it.  Fortunately, I had thought to pack the soft case with foam cushioning.  Although, I would have to find a place to store the foam at the train station in Orlando for use on the return trip as the bag would not pack down small enough with the foam in.  A little over an hour later I was relaxing in my coach seat while hurtling along southbound.  A mere 22 hours later we pulled into the Orlando Amtrak Terminal.  After claiming the bike I found a quiet spot on the side of the station to remove it from the bag and set it up for riding.  I also found a chain link fence surrounding some kind of electric generator where I could wedge in the foam padding.  I thought there would be a good chance it would still be there on Monday when I returned.  I then rode the bike the three miles to the Lynx Central Bus Station in downtown Orlando for the next leg of the trip.  Upon arrival at the bus terminal I boarded Lynx bus #17 to Apopka with the bike secured in the front mounted bike rack.  Forty-five minutes later I boarded Lynx bus # 44 to Zellwood once again racking the bike on the front.  The bus arrived at Zellwood, one hour later.  My next connection was to be the Lake County Bus # 4.  At this point the schedule wasn't working out so well. I would need to wait one and a half hours for the bus. It was only going to take me 9 of the 12 miles to the hotel.  This didn't seem worth it.  I decided to just ride the 12 miles.  It was a nice day with temperatures in the sixties. A strong wind was blowing from the south.  Of course that would be  my direction of travel for the 12 mile ride. Not knowing the back roads I rode the shoulder of US 441 the entire way.  It wasn't the most pleasant experience, but soon enough I arrived at the hotel.  The trip had taken 30 hours door to door.  I was pleased that things worked out as well as they did.
The Lynx Bus from Orlando

The Panic

Upon checking into the hotel I asked the desk clerk for my package which should have arrived by UPS earlier in the day.  He was quite certain that no package had arrived.  I immediately called to track it and was informed that the package would not make it there in time for the ride.  They would ship it back to the point of origin and refund my shipping cost.  Everything I needed for the ride was in that box.  Cycling clothes, gloves, jacket, reflective gear, lighting, Perpetuem, Gels, and water bottles.  My initial panic changed to utter despair as I didn't see how I would be able to do the ride without at least some of the stuff.  On the elevator headed up to the room it dawned on me that if I could find a bike shop, close by, maybe I could buy enough gear to start the ride.  I called my daughter at home asking her do an internet search for bike shops.  There was one listed 2.5 miles away from the hotel.  I called them explaining my predicament and was told to come right over.  They would try to get me what I needed.  I quicky ride over to Sun Cycles.  Mark, and the other folks there, helped me find most of what I needed.  Battery operated lights (front, rear and helmet), reflective gear, water bottle cages, water bottles, gloves, gels, chamois butter, etc.  I left there over $200 lighter, but feeling much more optimistic.  At least I could start the ride.  Although, finishing might be another matter.  I considered some of my gear to be sub standard for a 400k.  The only shorts I had with me were good for rides up to about 50 miles.  The gloves were not adequate much below 48 degrees, and, my only jacket was a very light rain jacket purchased on EBay for $25.  Fortunately, I had a pair of leg warmers and two Icebreaker wool shirts with me.  Also, a lightweight jersey. Which would be useful if the temperature went up during the day.

Back in the room I installed the lighting and water bottles on the bike.  Also, laying out all the clothes I would wear for the anticipated 41degree start.  I was nervous about it, but so tired from all the travel that all I wanted to do was sleep.  I was in bed by 9pm for a 5am start.

The Ride      

I'm out under the hotel canopy with twenty other riders just before 5am.  The air temperature feels comfortable at 45 degrees, warmer than predicted.  I recognize a number of the participants from the two Florida brevets I did last month.  At the start I fall into step with a good size group of a dozen riders.  As we leave the Eustis area the temperature drops considerably into the upper 30's.  We are passing by numerous lakes covered with fog.  I have to remove my glasses as they are covered with mist.  I'm feeling quite chilled, especially my fingers.  We've yet to hit any hills, although they would be welcome now.  After enduring the cold for over an hour the sun begins to rise and the warm up starts.  At about the same time we hit Thrill Hill which begins as a steep freezing cold descent, quickly followed by a steep climb.  After about three hours the cold is no longer an issue.  I'm riding with a group of about eight riders for the last 10 miles to the control at mile 56 which is a Circle K convenience store.   I recognize the volunteer, Dan, from the 300k last month. The group is making fast work of the control and they are quickly ready to depart.  I need to purchase sunscreen from the store.  My supply was in the box that never arrived.  I let the group go without me for the sake of avoiding skin cancer. 
A Florida hill looms ahead

There are a few riders milling about when I'm ready to leave, including Paul, a fixed gear rider, who I did all of a 300k with in Gainesville last month.  No one seemed ready to leave.  I was antsy to go so I left the control on my own thinking that I can follow a cue sheet as well as anybody.  I should know that over-confidence is a dangerous thing.  Ten miles out of the control I am hopelessly lost.  I'm in a very rural area with minimal road markings.  I have no idea where I've gone wrong.  I never came across the turn I was looking for.  I assume I need to back track, but am not sure.  There appears to be cell service so I call home.  My wife agrees to help me using Google Maps.  It takes considerable time before she figures out where I am.  I've managed to pass the turn by four miles.  I back track and finally find it.  I've lost over an hour between the bonus miles and the time spent on the phone.  There is plenty of time to make the control as it is open until after 5pm.  I encounter a few good sized climbs on the way.  Buckhill Road and Sugarloaf Mountain Road are the most notable.  Sugarloaf holds the distinction of being the highest peak in Florida.  Climbing it involves 350 feet of gain in .75 miles.  With the minimal gearing on the Friday it was a bit of a knee breaker, but I made the top without walking.  At the summit I pass a couple, who are on the brevet.  The control at the Ferndale Preserve is just a few relatively easy miles away.   I arrive at the park where volunteers have a food table set up.  There are two other riders there.  Everyone else is down the road.  While I'm eating a sandwich one rider heads out, followed shortly by the second rider.  The couple I passed arrives.  I'm anxious to get on the road.  I am ahead of the cut-off by several hours.  I want to minimize my night riding, as it likely will get cold again.   I depart the control hoping to catch up to more riders.  Hopefully, one with a GPS.  The navigation error has shaken my confidence a bit.

The West Orange Trail.  A cycling resource in Florida

Jim on the West Orange Trail near Winter Park
The next stop is at mile 164 in Tangerine.  The route takes us back over some of the same hills we have just done on the opposite side.  After a few miles I spot a rider up ahead.  I catch up to him on an upgrade and see it was the guy who left the control before me.  I notice the GPS on his bike and ask if he is familiar with the route.  It turns out he is from the local area and has done the route many times.  His name is Jim.  I ask if he would mind some company.  He readily agrees to ride together.  After the hills are behind us we are directed onto the West Orange Trail which is a 22 mile paved bike path.  The trail takes a few twists and turns.  It is not always clearly marked, but is pleasant to ride and nicely maintained.  Jim is very familiar with it and navigates us through with no trouble.  Upon leaving the bike path we work our way through 11 miles of rolling terrain to the control, a Citgo Station with a convenience market.  I recognize it as one I passed by the day before while riding to the hotel.  We have about 90 miles to go, so I assume we will be doing some serious looping around.  Darkness falls while we are in the stop.  There are two riders there, one departs soon after our arrival.  The other lingers a bit and chats with us.  His name is Doug, he is from Seattle.  He decides to join us when we leave.

Upon leaving the control in full darkness we head away from the direction of the finish.  While I've not seen the route on a map it is clear we are backtracking.  In 17 miles we re-climb Sugarloaf Mountain from the opposite side, which is a bit longer and somewhat less steep than the other way.  There is a secret control on the top of the climb.  The volunteer, Dan, I've seen at two earlier controls today.  Apparantly, he signed on for the full tour of duty.   After leaving the control we get throughly chilled descending the steep side of the hill.  It's becoming inceasingly more difficult to stay warm.  We have 16 miles to the control at Mascotte.  Jim informs us that Mascotte is typically the coldest spot on the route.  His prediction is dead on accurate as we become more uncomfortable with every mile.  In the last few miles to the control Doug and I pick up the pace as a matter of pure survival.  I'm surely under dressed for the conditions.  However, Doug surpasses me on that score as he is not even wearing leg warmers.  His bare legs are a painful sight.  Jim, who is adequetely dressed, encourages us to go ahead.  He will meet us at the control.   Once inside the convenience store I'm soaking up the heat like a sponge.  There are two other riders inside the store as well.  Jim arrives a short time later.  We take our time sitting on stacked up cases of soda while drinking hot beverages.  The thought of going back outside is just too unpleasant to fathom at the moment. 

After a long break we make our way back outside.  We have 30 miles to the finish.  Jim assures us that it will warm up as we get closer to Eustis.  I hang onto that thought as we get underway.  After a few miles we enter an industrial area.  Jim is right once again as it is most decidedly warmer here.  We pass one of the riders who left the control ahead of us.  He chooses to let us go rather than join us.  The terrain is moderate to rolling at this point.  The three of us stay together all helping with navigation.  I'm pleased there have been no further problems on that front.  A few miles later we pass another rider on a long gentle upgrade.   I invite him to join us.  He tells me he is too tired to pick up the pace and will just limp in to the finish.  I start recognizing some of the road names as we get close to the hotel.  We work our way through a rapid series of turns at which point the hotel looms into view.  We pull up to the entrance at just over 22hrs.  The Bike Friday and the skimpy gear made it through the ride.  The long trip was not in vain.

The Trip North

After spending Sunday lounging around the hotel recovering from the ride.  I left, on the bike, at 8:30am Monday morning. The bus connections worked well this time. I caught all three busses with a maximum wait of only 20 minutes.  The foam padding I had hidden at the Amtrak station was waiting for me when I arrived.  I packed up the bike, boarding the train about an hour later.  At 11:00am the next morning I was re-united with the bike at Newark Penn.  Throwing the foam padding away I unpacked  it.  Then caught the NJ Transit train to Raritan.  Upon arrival I rode the 10 miles from the station to home.  I was as pleased with having completed the return trip using 100% public transportation, as I was finishing the 400k.

At the Orlando Terminal

Riding the NJ Transit


While switching the pedals and saddle of the Bike Friday back to the ones preferred by the owner I could only marvel at this piece of machinery.  If I had been seeing this bike for the first time I would have sworn there was no way anyone could ride it a considerable distance.  Now that I am familiar with its capabilities I would not hesitate to ride it any distance.  I was told, by my friend Paul, that it is so nice to ride that one can simply forget they are on a folding bike. It's hard to imagine, but it is so true.  The folks in Eugene, Oregon, who build this fine machine, take great pride in the versatility of their product.  The motto of "Performance that Packs" is right on the money.  I hope to own one of these one day.  Also, I hope to be able to reduce my carbon footprint by utilizing more pubilc transit.  As fuel prices continue to escalate I think I will be in good company.




  1. Joe,
    That's a very interesting report. Until now, I didn't know I coveted a Bike Friday. :)

  2. Joe, that is a great report. Riding a longer brevet without all the stuff you were expecting exemplifies classic randonneur can-do spirit.

    You needed a folding bike because Amtrak does not permit full-sized bikes without a box, is that correct? Does Amtrak charge exorbitant oversize fees for a bike box?