Mt Dora – Day Three

Sunday morning finds me drinking beet juice in the dark.  Yesterday’s metric has left me with fuel in the tank and ready to take on the 40 miles out to Sugar Loaf Mountain and back. Today is less about enjoying the ride and more about getting it done, packing up and driving 4 hours south home to Miami.

Still the weather is perfect for a ride and we travel at a pretty steady 20-22MPH for 15 miles out to where the climbing begins.  We hit a mile long hill leading to Sugar Loaf with a 2.7% grade. I struggle to hold onto wheels and loose some ground in the group whilst other riders slide on back. One of which is the huff and puff dude from yesterday’s ride shouting in recognition, “I remember you” as he is dropped without remorse. A short descent provides some respite just before the base of Sugarloaf. The 9% incline slows me down to a crawl while I watch manorexic sons of amateur racers float effortlessly past.  Some quick math reminds me this will all be over in just ten minutes as I make new pledges of dietary discipline.

A well placed and crowded rest stop atop of the climb has everyone filling bottles, eating bananas and lining up at the port-a-johns. The mood is relaxed and quite social, so I take my time and partake in some idle conversation. It is not long before a small group prepares to roll, quickly I lineup and leave with them avoiding the crowd that will soon follow. We head out to take on the final climb of the day affectionately known as “The Wall”.

Once again it begins; chains begin dropping on a 2% climb preceding The Wall. On a 2% climb! The pace line splays open like buckshot forcing me to dodge the chain droppers and other riders scattered across the tarmac in an effort to remain upright and unscathed. Another descent brings me to the base of The Wall where I prepare for the 8% climb with a steady pace in the saddle; no attack, just spinning through. My pace is slow but I feel no pain. As I approach the top I have a rider passing with intent. slowly I stand up and raise the pace just enough to leave him behind. No hero here, just a little selfish pride.

I return to Mt Dora in the comfort of a small group. Stories of chain droppers can be heard as volunteers serve up some soda and brats cooked to perfection. Now the race to beat check out time begins with a quick shower and ends with the key in the mailbox. I say goodbye to The English Rose Cottage I called home for the last three days, turned the key, dialed in the tunes and pointed the Explorer south.

“Have tunes, Will travel”, I whisper with a nostalgic grin.

Mt Dora – Day Two

Another beautiful morning greets hundreds of riders at the start of today’s ride. Century and Metric riders take off, up and over a short climb that keeps the initial pace in check.  A familiar figure slides on past me while riding his red Bianchi. I step up my pace and ride alongside Xavier Falconi, the President of the Everglades Bicycle Club, and engage in some light conversation. Xavier is a mild mannered, intelligent man who has brought to the EBC his organizational experience from the Pacific Northwest. We meander through the mass of riders as we attempt to position ourselves with a group that suits our pace. We settle into the third group with the first group still in sight, in the distance, yet out of reach. I hold my position as I struggle with the instinct to jump and bridge the gaps as I had done every year before. “Not this year kid, not today” are the words I tell myself to make it sound alright, to soothe the beast that is raging inside my head.

We run the rollers and head over to Thrill Hill. This baby is a short (0.1 mile) but extremely steep climb. You must prepare by shifting into the small chain ring and your smallest COG while you are coasting at speed down the preceding hill. The incline sharpens so fast that you go from 40 to 4mph in a matter of seconds. You must also prepare for the mayhem as riders to the left, right and center, are dropping to the ground like ducks along the Mississippi flyway come autumn. The scene is a little humorous and more than just a little bit pathetic. As the group approaches Thrill Hill experienced riders can be heard, “change to your small chain ring while coasting down” throughout the pace line.  And still, you watch in disbelief as you see riders try to muscle up the 18% grade of Thrill Hill. Their bike slows to a crawl and while maximum tension is being exerted on the drive train they will then and only then attempt a gear change. The chain springs off the 52T like McKayla Maroney vaulting for Olympic silver. Slapping against the seat tube the chain comes to rest on the bottom bracket as the full weight of the cyclist is directed straight down towards the tarmac. If the cyclist was sitting he will get one or two rotations of the crank set sans resistance before he tips over in comic relief; and if the cyclist was out of the saddle? Well let’s just say he will gain experience through suffering.

There is still a couple of hill climbs left. Four of us form a groupetto and keep a steady pace of 20mph as we rotate every few minutes. As I slide back after a turn on the front one rider says to me, “you huff and puff but you keep on going”. I am sure he thought he was complimenting me. I am sure he meant no harm.  He is right though, I am breathing heavy on some pretty mild climbs. I am struggling with an extra 30 lbs and an asthmatic condition diagnosed during an early morning trip to the emergency room 6 months ago. Even so, I took it as a challenge.

You see, my philosophy has always been, “Speak with your legs”. So on the next climb the beast takes control and I huff and puff my way away from that group never to be seen again.

Not a word spoken…

everything said.

Mt Dora – Day One

Taking off on a road trip and especially one that leads to a three day cycling weekend fills me with anticipation. I left work early to do some last minute packing and head north on a four hour drive to Mt. Dora. There is some mysterious and inexplicable force that pulls at me, holding me back, slowing me down, and keeping me from escaping the comfort of home. There is always one more thing to pack, to do, and check before I bounce.

Once on the road the sense of freedom engulfs me as I enter the freeway and gain cruising speed. Old school music streams down from the heavens and through the speakers adding to the road trippin’ vibe reminding me of old times with the Rudy’s. “Have tunes, will travel” was announced before every trip and just prior to inserting the latest cassette tape.

The morning’s ritual includes donning brand new Rapha Classic kit purchased and received just in time. The folks are keeping a gentleman’s pace as we ride through some residential areas and around East Crooked Lake beneath tree cover dripping with moss. It is a beautiful, cool morning. Heading north we crossed a highway and turned west towards Lake Eustis this time with the sun warming our backs. The lake is glowing a turquoise blue usually reserved for the Caribbean ocean and what little ripples exist are gleaming with a bright yellow and Chartreuse green stained by the sun.

As we roll up and over the first set of hills we ride tempo along a huge rolling pasture lined with horse fence. The sun continues its magic across the open field. “A perfect day for riding” is being muttered throughout the peloton. The tempo quickens and so silences the group. A series of rolling hills increases the effort even more creating gaps in the pace line. I lose the lead group reminding me I am not the man rider I was just 12 short months ago.

After rolling into town and receiving a post shower massage I am greeted by Sal and family, David and Marilyn. Sal invites me to join them for lunch and we sit on the shade covered patio of Cecile’s French Corner and casually pass the time away with conversation and crepes. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Friday afternoon.

The First Ride

“You fell down a lot”

This was my father’s response delivered in his typical matter of fact style when I asked him about the day he taught me to ride a bike. Eight years old is the official bicycle bearing birthday in our family. The second of four boys, I looked forward to this birthday for two years with much anticipation. I don’t remember if there was a party, not the cake either…

I remember this:

 Schwinn Racer 1970

A shiny green single speed Schwinn Racer.

I loved this bike and it drove my younger brother crazy. I want to remember that I shared this treasure of mine but as an adult I am keenly aware of my reluctance to share the things I covet. He would have to wait another whole year before he would enjoy this new freedom, this feeling of flight, this joy. This bike was mine.

The Racer was a bit oversized to allow for room to grow and bolted to the rear axle were training wheels. I remember that riding a bike with training wheels was an extremely awkward experience. The teeter-totter motion as you attempted a straight line and the tendency of the bike to lean away in the corners to the tipping point, never felt secure. Regardless of their namesake, training wheels do not help you learn how to ride a bike. You are forced to steer with the handlebars by turning them in the direction you want to go. Anyone familiar with the term counter steer knows the fallacy of this logic. These infernal contraptions had to go.

Da-ad, “when are you going to teach me how to ride” became my mantra.

A sunny, summer, Saturday morning started with such great expectations. My father steadied the Racer while I struggled to balance. My toes barely touched the pedals. He pushed, ran along side, released..  I fell. My father, being a patient man, spent the better part of the morning pushing me and watching me fall, coaxing me back on only to see it play out in similar fashion over and over again. My courage and will were being tested like nothing I had done before. Each time I mounted the bicycle I knew a crash was eminent.

My patience exhausted, I went head first into a childlike rage. My father, however unamused, remained steadfast.

“Let me try”, my younger brother asked as he picks up the bike and rides off like he has been riding for his entire life. My father mentions it may be time to give my bike to my brother as he was clearly willing and capable. Sibling rivalry, whether nature or nurtured, is a powerful motivator.

My father steadies the bike as I mount it bravely. My heart was full of fear; my head full of fight. One push and I pedaled into the oblivion of a consequence of my own making.

Our subdivision’s roadway was separated in the middle by a grass strip and lined with small maple trees. There is a break every 200 yards to allow vehicles access to the returning lane on the other side. Within thirty feet of my start was a turn around and the next break was down the road, out of sight. I changed my strategy and passed the first turn, then focused on going straight, giving me another 200 yards to build the courage necessary to attempt a turn. When I reached the end I realized I need only turn to the left 90 degrees heading towards a cul-du-sac. Of course, I began the turn by using the handle bars. Elegant it was not, but I succeeded in holding it together. Phew! After barely recovering from that turn, I pedaled my way towards the cul-du-sac with a huge radius. I turned with the handle bars again and again it was shaky. Ever so slowly I allowed my body to lean into the turn and as I did, the wobble, the shakiness was replaced by a smooth, comfortable turn.


Taking a wide angle, I leaned nicely into the right 90 degree turn to bring me home and  pedaled like like Cavendish towards a line. I returned home confident with my new found skill and thrilled in knowing true joy. Sadly, I don’t recall my father’s reaction as I was consumed by my own feelings.

“You fell a lot”.

“Yeah… I sure did”, I replied as the expression skipped along my lifelong mistakes like a flat stone on the surface of a lake.

“Thanks Dad”

“Sure Son”

Century Season

Autumn is Century Season in South Florida. It begins with The Tour of Sebring and ends with the Highlands Bike Fest. Unfortunately, I am in base building mode and just not ready to take on 100 miles at speed. So this year it will be Metric Century Season and begins this weekend with Mt Dora Bicycle Festival.

I have participated in this festival for the last three years. This year marks it’s 39th annual and is one of the best run, most attended bicycle festivals I have attended. For three days, hordes of cyclist of all shapes, sizes and speeds descend upon this quaint little town nestled in Lake County, Fl. Lake County contains some of the only hills in Florida of any significant grade so the festival has appeal to those looking to climb a little.

Friday’s ride is a nice warm-up for Saturday’s century.  Some energetic riders itching for a fight are reeled in by the ride leader who reminds them of the weight of the following day’s labor.

Saturday’s century starts in the dark in cool temperatures and is an all out road race for anyone trying to stay in the lead group or groups. It includes a short steep hill affectionately referred to as “The Wall” which serves to filter out the pure flatlanders from the experienced hill riders. A true Grimpeur  will scoff at the small climbs but in Florida you have to take what you can get. Cyclists who choose to ride the full century are rewarded with 15-20 miles of head and cross winds that will cause some to question their resolve.

Sunday’s ride will just take whatever energy or will you have left and consume it dry. Give it away willingly.

There are two or three alternative routes on Saturday and Sunday for those riders interested less in speed and distances and more interested in the pure love of riding, in a bucolic setting, free of automobiles, and full of joy.

Century season continues with the following festivals/rides:

October 20th                                     Speedway Century

November 10th                                  Miami Gran Fondo

December 6th & 7th                            Escape to Key West

December 6th -8th                              Highlands Bike Fest

Then there are those rock’ em – sock’em SAG supported century rides that Keith Harrod organizes from November through December. These rides will find you in a large group barreling down the highway at 22-26 mph while working in organized echelons against some serious cross-winds. If you are feeling Belgium, order the fries with mayonnaise and find Keith on Facebook.

So, if you are suffering with cabin fever in colder climes and praying for warmer days and short sleeve jerseys, sign up for one or all of these rides and change your latitude.

On Trying Hard

“Hey man, I have to give you props”. Slowly I lift my head from my towel still out of breath to find a young man, let’s say in his early thirties, with his hand extended. Instinct has me reach out and shake his hand with a breathless, “thank you”. I try to control my breathing in a sad attempt to regain my composure. I don’t know if he can see on my face that I am perplexed by the compliment but he follows with, ”every time I see you in the gym you are always working very hard; you leave it all out there, in the gym. I am truly inspired”.  

I don’t know what to make of it. Unknowingly, this kid has sent me on a little head trip on purpose and past. I don’t understand why I am putting so much effort into my gym workouts except that I want dividends delivered on the bike. Why am I so hung up on performance in the first place? It is not the first time someone has recognized my efforts in the absence of results.

In high school I ran cross-country and could run sub-six minute miles for three miles.  Not bad but it was not quite enough to beat the opposing teams fifth man with the regularity required to letter. I never missed a practice and I put everything I had into my workouts. The members of my high school cross-country team presented me with a plaque giving me the distinction of “Most Determined Runner” in my sophomore year.  Touched as I was, it was really a consolation prize for not meeting the criteria for a letter. I did in fact receive a letter as well.

Athletic talent was not my gift. I ran, skied, studied karate, played tennis and raced bikes. Good but not great, I enjoyed them all and continue to this day to work hard at being a better cyclist.

 “Thanks again”, I reply as I continue my march up the stairs to the locker room while the sweat is streaming down my face and off my chin.

Chasing Wheels

Two flights and six taxi rides sends me to NYC and returns me home safely. Business trips mess with my training and mess with my head. I don’t feel like sleeping. I can’t wake up. When I am awake it feels like I am asleep. I want to ride but the legs have something less stressful in mind. It makes me wonder how pro cyclists deal with the long transfers between stages of a grand tour. As the length and quantity of transfers seem to be a topic of debate when new grand tour routes are announced or even while a tour is under way, I am guessing the peloton has the same opinion.

Then there is this self imposed pressure to catch-up on training in an attempt to regain lost fitness. After returning from Germany I managed to complete two rides and an hour in the gym. That’s two rides in twelve days!

 “Where do you get the energy?”my wife questions while standing naked before me. “I have to ride”, I respond with conviction. Now I can tell you that leaving a beautiful, naked woman at home in bed on a Saturday morning is just about the most difficult thing a man can do… at least this man anyway. You do this on enough Saturday mornings and you start to seriously question your priorities.

I ride out to Miami City Hall only to discover that the 18-22mph group is not riding this week. Without a moment to spare, I head south towards Casa Larios knowing I had little chance of getting there before the guys roll on. As expected, the parking lot was free of the telling, anxious riders rolling around in semi-circular and squiggly patterns like scout bees returning to their hive. So I roll on.

Now just about every Miami group ride that heads south towards Black Point, Bayfront or Homestead follows the same route which begins by meandering through the residential district of Pinecrest. The only way I was going catch a fast moving group ride is to cut the distance by making a beeline towards Cutler Bay. Questioning my sanity I am riddled with self doubt as I calculate the effort required to hold the wheels of a group cranked up above 30 mph. I am surprised when I find myself keeping a 20-22mph pace as I solo towards the rotary connecting Galloway with Old Cutler Road. I am impressed with my legs as they are working well at tempo without the all too familiar sting of lactic acid buildup. Is my fitness improving? Are my legs just rested? Where’s the travel affect? Could it be the royal jelly in my water bottle? Is it just motivation?

While searching for answers my attention is now directed towards a group moving through the rotary at speed towards Black Point. Is it Larios? Can I do it? Can I bridge a half mile gap? Instinctually I pick up the pace to 22-23mph, hit the rotary, slow down for a truck towing a boat and accelerate again to 23-24mph.  I quickly mark the group at about one third of mile away. I have made decent ground, but if this is Larios they are going to accelerate to 28mph soon and then they will be gone. I top out at 24.5 mph and hold it. After a few minutes I slide off to 23mph. Out of the saddle I push it back to 24.5mph and hold. “Just one more” and with another acceleration, I reach the back of the peloton where I stay while I regain my composure. They are rolling at 22mph. This can’t be Larios?

I accelerate up into an open gap in the pace line and confirm with my new partner that this group is indeed not the Larios group. We are keeping a gentleman’s pace of 22-23mph and so I decide to hang on and see where they lead. We travel through the palm tree nurseries between Black Point and Bayfront maintaining a double pace line at a steady tempo. I am second wheel when we turn left after the bridge and over the channel towards Bayfront. The front guys peel off and my partner asks, ”where do you want to put it”. “Twenty two-twenty-three”, I reply. We bring it up to 22mph into a headwind and hold.

There is a little bridge just before the entrance of Bayfront Park that marks the sprint  line. I am not sure why, but in Miami we don’t sprint for county lines, we sprint for bridges.

We pull on the front for a mile leaving a mile to go before the bridge. Soft pedaling I roll back and find a gap in the pace line after five riders. The guys at the front spy a small group of riders and so like bees to a hummingbird we accelerate forward until we are all mixed up and on the attack. The new guys try to maintain their dominance on the front but we engulf them anyway. That’s when things heat up and we are in full flight towards the bridge.

As is always the case, my time at the front too close to the sprint caused me to fall off too soon but not before hitting 29mph. A nice long break at Bayfront preceded the ride home that stayed at a steady tempo. Later a brief break at Starbucks resulted in a rare Miami Rapha kit sighting. After talking with the young chap for moment I joined his group for ten of the twenty miles home to close out a seventy five mile ride.

Tuesday morning finds me in a taxi on the way to the airport.

Even when I am not on the bike I am still chasing wheels.