Five AM, sky is probably overcast but at this hour who can tell? RBA Jim Wilson gives his pre-ride instructions, cautions and weak jokes about the weather being unFlorida-like, then sends us off. Predawn Gainesville is quiet and the streets strangely empty for what is normally a traffic-clogged agglomeration of too many cars and motor-scooters. Gainesville Florida is the home of the University of Florida with well over 50,000 students on the main campus. But at this time on Saturday morning the students, staff and faculty have left the streets to a band of 18 cyclists headed towards Georgia for a 195-mile ride. Many of the other riders are from South Carolina, Georgia or North Carolina. I’m the only one from a Northern state, having driven down to escape the weather in Columbus. In February, any rider would welcome the chance to ride all day in 75-degree sunshine. Cruel trick! Somehow the weather patterns reversed themselves. At the start of the ride the temp was 54 degrees; it dropped steadily during the ride to a low in the mid-forties. The sky was indeed overcast – the sun shone for no more than 5 minutes all day. At least the wind was reasonable, barely ten mph westerly. We headed west (of course!) and as the wind shifted to the north, so did the bike route. What was I doing here? Well, in for a dime, in for a dollar so I kept moving.
I rode with three or four other middle-aged folks for two hours. Their pace was just a bit more than I wanted as this was my first long attempt in more than a year. After I lost sight of them ahead, I read the cue sheet. “Turn L at Fleagle Cemetery Road – DON’T MISS THIS TURN”. I focused again at the direction, blinked some sleep from my eyes, focused again, then looked up. The following turn was 1.7 miles ahead. After 2 miles there was no turn opportunity and it became clear that, on focusing on the cue sheet warning DON’T MISS THIS TURN, I had missed the turn. I turned around, found the correct turn, then stopped at an unmanned control at Fleagle cemetery. On rides like this, controls are located every 30 to 60 miles where riders check in (usually at a convenience store) to have their passports stamped or obtain other evidence of passage. Here there was no convenience store. The control evidence consisted of a small green sticker with the imprint “Fleagle Cemetery”. I counted 15 empty spaces on the sticker sheet, figured that I was rider number 16 and that two more were behind me. I sat and waited. Sure enough, some twenty minutes later they showed up. Nice folks whom I had ridden with on previous winter trips here. The younger man was from Boston who had flown down to ride with his father, a 75-year old retired university faculty member. Perfect! I would be able to ride with them without too much effort and, come the inevitable night, have safety with numbers. Rural Florida – and a large part of this ride was through the very desolate Osceola National Forest – has few small enclaves of near-civilization located far apart. During the daytime this kind of riding has almost a hypnotic effect on me, letting me do geeky things with my mind as I ride. But after dark it’s much safer to pay attention to the surroundings, which is easier to do when I ride with others. So Charlie, Bob and I rode together for much of the day and into the night. They seemed most interested in learning of my stroke last year (I’ve completely recovered) while I became interested in learning of Bob’s diabetes. Poor Charlie suffers from very good health – he bike commutes 30 miles each day year-round in Boston – so he had little to contribute to the general discussion. But, overall, we were a contented group for the first 130 miles. After that it became necessary for Bob to frequently stop for supplemental meds or glucose. This lowered our average speed but he soldiered on, with a brave performance on that chilly night.
I was learning how to use a new GPS unit (hadn’t figured it out early in the ride at the DON’T MISS THIS TURN part) but I still was very glad that Charlie knew the neighborhood streets of Gainesville. Thanks to him we sailed through a very tricky part of the navigation during the final ten miles. The ride administrator was glad to see us (and perhaps also a little relieved. He greeted us with “two old guys on a 200-mile ride, one diabetic and one post-stroke, what possibly could go wrong?”).
I slept late on Sunday morning. Nothing hurt – well, maybe my quads just a little – and gradually felt more and more happy that I had chosen to use a long weekend doing a mid-winter Florida bike ride. Next year, I’m already planning to do it again. Join me!