For many years, when I was a serious cycling machine, I rode in several Bike Florida bicycle tours. These group tours took place each spring when the Florida schools were on Easter break. The routes where usually along back roads in Northern central parts of Florida.
These week-long rides entailed riding from small town to small town (usually 40-70 miles each day) and camping in school yards or public parks. The Bike Florida organization planned the routes, lugged our gear, provided our meals, and supported us on the ride.
I really enjoyed these rides. After a cold winter, I looked forward to taking a week off from work, shipped a bike down to Florida, and had a great spring vacation cycling in Florida. On these trips, I met some great people, got to pedal along some fabulous back roads, and saw many beautiful areas of Florida from the seat of my bike.
This post is about a 7 day, 400 mile ride we did in March of 2005 riding a big loop in the Florida panhandle. The ride started a few miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Monticello. From there, it went west, then dipped down to the gulf coast (The Forgotten Coast), and then meandered its way back up to Monticello.
This was one of my favorite and most memorable Bike Florida rides. The panhandle is my favorite part of Florida. Much of it is very rural with gentle rolling hills. The back roads are devoid of traffic and perfect for riding. The people and small towns are very friendly and laid back. It’s the type of old-time Florida that you won’t find along the busy coastal sections.
This post is long and goes into detail of what I did and experienced each day. Because of the length, I broke it into two parts. I wrote it from a diary I kept on the ride. I formatted the post in a daily diary format so I could preserve the memory of what a Bike Florida trip was really like.
The first day of this strip started in the little town of Monticello about 20 miles east of Tallahassee.
This small town of 2,400 would be the start and finish for this ride. Our riding group of about 500 were camped in the ball field behind the high school. As usual on most Bike Florida tours, the ball field was a sea of colorful small dome tents. The day I arrived was a nice warm sunny day with some slight humidity. Coming from the cold Northeast, it felt so nice to jump into summertime weather and wear shorts and a tee-shirt.
When I set up my small two person Sierra Designs tent, I noticed that one of my small aluminum tent poles was cracked at the joint. This set off slight panic in me as this tent would be my only shelter for the next week and it would not work with a broken pole. The MacGyver in me tried to figure out what to do. After a few minutes of nervous panic, I had the idea for a sleeve. I went to find a hardware store and got a ½” piece of copper tubing, about 6 inches long, with electrician’s tape to act as a sleeve over the broken joint. A $2 fix and it worked perfectly all week!
After the panic of the broken tent pole subsided, I decided to go for a ride. I did a 34 mile loop ride north of Monticello. It was the first outdoor riding I had done in months. It felt soooo good. I did the longest route to get my legs and butt used to riding so I’d be ready for the next 366 miles.
That afternoon, I met up with my friends Larry and Jack, from Alabama as they were pulling into the school. I met Larry a few years ago on a Bike Florida ride. He had just retired at age 53 and was enjoying his retirement. Jack, at age 65, had also just retired.
Before dinner I walked 2 blocks into town. They had a beer garden set up for the bikers in the court-yard of the local theater. I had an ice-cold draft beer while sitting in the warm Florida sun. A perfect way to start my spring biking vacation.
The next day we saddled up and headed west to Quincy
Day two was Sunday and I got a late start due to a long walk lugging my gear to the luggage trucks in the front of the school. It was another nice sunny day and I rode alone for most of the way. It was 65 easy miles to Quincy.
The route was all along back roads and I saw some pretty country side. I cruised most of the way at 17-18 mph. I got to Quincy around 1:30 pm and my legs felt pretty good, but I was in need of food.
Our camping spot for the night was the grounds around the Quincy High School. I chose a nice flat site near Bubba’s group. Bubba is a retired St. Louis police officer who operates a bike tour charter service – Bubbas Pampered Pedalers. Bubba provides tents, cots, sleeping bags, and entertainment. If you ride with Bubba, you don’t have to worry about having any camping gear or setting up tents. He does all the work – all you have to do is ride.
I set my tent up and went for a ride in search of food. Quincy is a larger town with about 8,000 people. It was a Sunday and unfortunately everything was closed except for one little downtown restaurant. I saw my friend Larry sitting outside eating lunch with two women and another guy.
This is where I first met Diane and Cathy who were both from Charleston, SC. They were both in their early 40’s. Diane was a dark brunette and Cathy was a dirty blond. Also, I met Rob (from Atlanta), who was friends with Diane. Larry had just met them on the ride to Quincy.
I ate my lunch (meatloaf) inside as I didn’t want to barge in on the two guys and girls. Back at the school, I just rested and let the food recharge my body. For dinner, I had to wait 90 minutes in line for a cheap pasta meal served by idiots. It was my worse meal experience ever. To make matters worse, I had gas all night from the meat loaf I had at lunch. That afternoon, as I was leaving the restaurant, Diane asked me what I had for lunch and I told her, the meatloaf. She said, “you’re gonna have gas all night”. She was right.
The next day was an uneventful 40 mile ride to Blountstown. We stopped at Torreya State Park along the way. I learned that Torreya is a type of pine tree in Florida. A nice rest stop was set up for us in the park. The park had restored an old plantation house that was on the Apalachicola River. The house was down a long hill on the river’s edge so it was a climb to get up. Because of this, not too many went down to explore the house. But your truly, who loves hills, went down to check it out.
After the state park, there was a long hot stretch of desolate road. I rode alone and rode slowly. For me, it was too hot to ride fast. I finally got off the lonely road and arrived into Blountstown.
We were camped at the middle school. I set up, cleaned up, and then spent the afternoon walking around town in search of food. It was still nice and hot and I was able to stroll around in shorts and sandals. Dinner was uneventful, served by the local school booster club.
I was anxious to do something that night and decided to go to Bubba’s Karaoke Night. Bubba, who runs the bike tour charter service, had rented a Knights of Columbus hall outside of town and was having a karaoke party for his group of riders. Everyone on the ride was invited, but I was surprised that only about 40 people showed up to get bused over. I guess folks weren’t into Karaoke.
While waiting in line for the bus to the K of C hall, I met Julie, Morgan, and Harold. Julie was from Orlando. She looked to be my age, slender with black hair pulled back in a bun. Morgan was from Kentucky. She had brown hair and a great personality. Harold was a young guy from Connecticut.
They were talking about the prior years Bike Florida ride. As I was listening, it came back to me that I had ridden with them last year to Cedar Key when we all got drenched in a bad microburst storm. When I introduced myself, Morgan and Julie said they remembered me from that ride. “You’re the guy who got us off the road when that bad storm hit!” said Julie. When that storm hit I was leading a group of riders and decide it was time to get off the road and seek cover.
Morgan studied my face for a moment and then blurted out that she had “naked” pictures of me. Upon hearing that, I paused, but then thought it could perhaps be true. When that storm hit, a group of us took shelter at a motel. The motel manager opened up one of the rooms for us to wait out the storm and gave us a bunch of towels to dry off with. About 14 of us were crammed into the small room and many of us stripped out of our wet bike cloths to dry off. It was a crazy coed locker room scene as we waited for the storm to blow through. I guess Morgan had taken pictures.
I ended up having a blast with them at the karaoke party. The Karaoke machine didn’t have all the components working right, so Bubba put on some dance music while we waited. Being a person who loves to dance, I was quickly onto the floor with Julie, who had also taken lessons. I ended up dancing till 11 pm with both Julie and Morgan. Morgan was thrilled as I showed her how to Two Step, Waltz, and Zydeco. The Karaoke parts finally showed up at 11 pm and people got a chance to do some singing. It was hilarious. Bubba made just about everyone sing. Only about 8 of us stayed till the end. Bubba hauled us back to the school in the back of his pickup tuck. It was a very fun evening.
Our next stop was down on the gulf at Apalachicola.
The next day, I left Blountstown early at 7:30 am to ride the century route (100 miles) with my friend Larry. We had set it up the night before while I was waiting to go to Bubba’s party. When we headed out, Larry told me he couldn’t do an 18 mph pace like we had done a few years ago in St Augustine. I told him that was ok and that I’d ride his pace. Larry wanted to see if we could catch up with his new friends Cathy and Diane, who were starting out from their motel in town.
We left Blountstown riding south with Larry leading and motoring at 18-19 mph (so much for riding slow). It was warm, but cloudy. We rode through some nice rolling farmland. Along the way, we picked up Chris who was also riding alone. We were doing 18-20 mph with the 3 of us trading pulls in a good pace line.
When we cruised into the first rest stop, Larry asked if anyone had passed thru yet. The ride support said two girls and a guy had just come thru. Larry figured that must have been Cathy, Diane, and Rob. Larry said “let’s go and catch them”. So we headed out and started riding even faster at 20 mph. With some pretty good tail winds and we end up riding 24-26 mph (Tour de France pace).
When we left the rest stop, 4-5 other riders joined our line to ride our wheels. It was still Larry, me, and Chris doing all the pulling. Soon Chris started to fade and dropped back. I told Larry that I couldn’t hold this pace for the next 60 miles. When I looked back, we had dropped all the other riders. So much for a couple 53 yr old’s riding slow.
We did the next segment at this pace and then slowed a bit after mile 40. That’s when it started raining. It came down steady for a while just as we came into the third rest stop. I decided not to put on a rain coat. I was soaked but warm. The rain let up a bit and we just rode a more relaxed pace (16-17 mph) towards Sumatra.
We got to Sumatra, which was just a stop in the road with 2-4 buildings. One of them was a restaurant that was our planned lunch stop. The restaurant put on a fried chicken dinner just for us. It was the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. I tried not to eat too much because we still had 40 miles to go.
Cathy, Diane, and Rob were already there. They were just finishing up when we rode in. Cathy decided to stay with us and wait for Larry. I could sense that she might have somewhat of a crush on Larry. She was holding onto him all thru lunch.
After lunch, our route took us thru the Apalachicola National Forest. The road had a rough surface but it was a straight line through the forest for 30 miles. No houses, no intersections, no nothing. Just pine trees.
We rode a pace line with Larry leading first, then Cathy, and then me. We did 6 minute pulls (each person leads for 6 minutes then rotated to the back). We had a very stiff headwind all the way. It was tough pulling into the wind. Each pull was a chore, but at least we each got a break when we rotated to the back. We were riding at 16 mph.
Cathy was a strong rider, but only pulled for 3 minutes at a time (she said her computer wasn’t working). It was boring riding – nothing but pine woods on both sides for 30 miles. The only distraction from the wind and my tired legs was watching Cathy’s back side for 3 minutes when she did a pull.
Once we got to the coast the wind picked up to 20 mph! It was very unsettled weather. We turned west and had buffeting cross winds for about 3-4 miles into Eastpoint. The route then headed due south across the 4.2 mile bridge to St. Georges Island. It turned sunny on the bridge but the wind was the worse I’ve ever experienced.
We were on the bridge cranking in the highest gears and only doing 6 mph on a flat surface. Drafting was useless. It took over 30 minutes to cross the 4.2 miles. Then we turned around and had a great ride with the tail wind. We were averaging 30 mph with the wind at our backs. We made it back across in 5 minutes.
We had to cross a long causeway and another bridge to get to Apalachicola. There was still a very bad cross wind that kept buffeting us. I had to really hold onto the handle bar to keep from being blown over. When I go across, I was glad the ride was over. Just after we got into town, the ride was shut down due to the high winds. Bike Florida loaded the remaining riders into trucks and hauled them into Apalachicola.
Apalachicola is a small sleepy little fishing town. It’s the oyster fishing capital of the world where 90% of the FL oysters come from. It looks like something out of the movie Forrest Gump. It has a small main street with nice small homes close by.
Some of us camped in the City Park near the water. All that afternoon, it was still pretty windy with gray skies. I setup in a remote corner on a small knoll. Some locals came by and told us that they were expecting some heavy rain and thunder showers. They told us that parts of the park usually flood when it rains hard. I could see big storm drains in the middle of the park. It made we think about moving my tent.
Then the police came by with bull horns telling us there was a tornado warning until 9 pm. They said there would be heavy thundershowers, rain, and high wind. Great. They suggested we all go to a shelter. This made me move my tent up to higher ground next to a group from Cycle Logistics. I then took my clothes, sleeping gear, and bike to the Catholic Church that was 2 blocks away.
I spent the night there sleeping shoulder to shoulder on the church floor with 50 other people. It was fun chatting with these folks and swapping stories. I mentioned that this event would make a good story someday. Over time, the story would probably morph into an epic storm of the century. One guy said, “Yeah it will be like the stories I tell folks about Vietnam”. “There I was, ankle-deep in grenade pins. All I had was a Swiss army knife, dead bodies everywhere, and we all made it out alive!”
Then one guy started talking about all the meds he takes. He showed us his pill case which was extensive. It made one guy ask him about Viagra. Another fellow answered that he takes Cialis (the one with the 4 hr erection warning). Said his wife waits till it’s been 3:58 minutes before she calls the doctor. Another guy said if he goes over 4 hrs, then he advertises on Ebay!.
It was a fun night spent on the church floor. We didn’t get much sleep. But, thankfully no tornadoes came through – just thunder and lighting and a little rain. My tent survived the night with no problems or puddles.
We spent two days in Apalach (as the locals call it). You can read about the last three days and the rest of the ride in Part 2.