5.14 miles: Doubt sets in.
16 miles: If not self-loathing, then something like extreme self-annoyance. What was I thinking? How many practice rides had I done, how many fully loaded with gear?
It was the beginning of Adventure Cycling's Introduction to Road Touring, a measly 18 miles round trip to get groceries and test out our bikes. It was also, I suppose, an opportunity for our tour leaders to assess the weakest links. Encouraging shouts lost on the wind, California girls Lori and Pam blew by me as if I were standing still. Louisville Phil had a big custom-made trailer about as unwieldy as hauling a Prius, but he seemed plucky. Then there was Tropicana Jim from Bradenton, not young, but an elegant athlete with a creamy-leather Brooks saddle and perfectly matched custom fenders. Tony and Denise from Atlanta? Warm and enthusiastic, they'd hiked and biked the length of the grueling El Camino de Santiago in Spain. Twice.
Feeling like a feeble link indeed as dinner preparations got under way that evening at our Hillsborough River State Park campsite, I was nonetheless amped. I'd done bike trips before, the kind with a sag wagon to carry your gear and clean white sheets at each day's end. But I wanted to learn how to do it myself. How to plan a route, how to cook and camp and pack my panniers for any eventuality.
This six-day trip I was preparing for would take us north from Hillsborough River State Park to Withlacoochee River RV Park, then east to Lake Louisa State Park, south to Lakeland and finally west through Plant City and back to Hillsborough River State Park, a little less than 200 miles. More important, the trip included two days of classroom instruction designed to prepare participants to put together a bicycle trip of their own, whether solo, with friends or as leaders of an Adventure Cycling trip.
This introduction trip is conducted a few times a year in Virginia, Oregon and Florida. Why here? In this part of Central Florida there's a bit of everything: rural back roads, pristine paved bike paths and multilane highways where you're merging with 18-wheelers and muttering a little prayer if you're so inclined. It's also got rolling hills (a rarity in our state), an array of camping options and enough Florida wildlife to get out-of-staters squealing. Coping with the gamut of riding conditions is a big part of the training.
Things I learned No. 1: Your butt will betray you. Pressure soreness: nothing you can do about it but come up out of the saddle fairly often and persevere until you get "armadillo butt." Chafing, which at its worst can end a trip, can be prevented or lessened by dry, clean shorts every day and a liberal application of antichafe butt butter.
Without GPS or fancy wicking fabrics, 4,100 cyclists toured across the United States for the "Bikecentennial" in 1976. They carried all their own gear, stayed in campgrounds and "bike inns" (church basements and gymnasia), and started something of a craze. It was from this huge stunt, Reedsport, Ore., to Yorktown, Va., that Adventure Cycling was born. The Missoula, Mont., nonprofit has 46,500 members and leads more than 70 guided tours a year (self-contained like ours, but also van-supported and educational tours). Because it's a nonprofit, tours are fairly affordable — ours was $599, the $100 per day going to pay for planning, campsite reservations and all food.
Perhaps more crucial than the tours, the organization produces cycling route maps (available at adventurecycling.org) and is working to create the U.S. Bicycle Route System, each map panel the effort of cyclists in the saddle: Where's the next turn? The nearest bike shop? Closest campground? Cold drinks? Maps chart rails-to-trails programs, roads with bike lanes and wide shoulders, points of interest and service directories.
Our first two days are spent scribbling in a notepad. "Every morning, do the A.B.C. quick check: air in tires, brakes, crank (the thing that connects your pedals to your chain), quick release." "Extra bungee cords are key." We see demos of how to pack, discuss cooking dinner on the road (most important: huge quantities and punctuality) and learn about cycling resources like crazyguyonabike.com and warmshowers.com (a free worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists). By Day Three we are itching to get going, our first real ride a 30-mile straight shot north to a slightly down-market little RV park with a marquee that says "Welcome Adventure Bicycle Association." Close enough.
Things I learned No. 2: Roosters are frequently wrong but never in doubt. Pitch your tent far from where they are poised to give you misinformation about daybreak.
On Day Four, we are up with the sun to break down our camp and repack our panniers, a sort of saddlebag slung over the wheels of the bike. Those on today's food duty have breakfast ready by 7 a.m., which really amounts to boiling water for coffee, tea and oatmeal and putting out bagels, fruit and granola bars.
At 8 a.m. precisely, our co-leader, Joyce Casey of Portland, Ore., cues up the music on her tiny portable speakers, the inspirational Blues Brothers 2000 Season of the Witch. Joyce is 54, and together with co-leader Wally Werner, 56, from Denver, has led more than 20 sessions of Introduction to Road Touring. Joyce is tiny and fiercely regimented, her panniers a marvel of color-coordinated stuff sacks (green for cycling clothes, red for nonriding togs and yellow for inclement-weather gear).
As the song ends, the morning map reading gets under way. At the 15.6-mile mark we will hop onto the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail for 10 miles, but the entrance is tricky. Go straight and don't turn left onto State Road 773. She has other tips for the day's ride, and then we stow the route map and quickly throw together our own lunches. Having learned from the previous days, I load panniers and pockets with fruit and trail mix and turkey sandwiches and cookies. Biking 50 miles at 11 mph, a 130-pound person burns about 1,600 calories.
And then we're off. A kind of loose family, we've settled into little pods. The faster ones, the slower ones, the ones who like to stop to see the sights. There's time for chat and time for introspection.
Things I learned No. 3: Dogs chase bikes. Yell a forceful, "No! Bad dog!" If a dog is undeterred, squirt your water bottle at him. And if he seems really dangerous, dismount your bike on the non-dog side and keep the bike between you.
Back on the first night of the trip it is 28 degrees when I slide into my one-man tent and worm into the sleeping bag that deceitfully boasts it's good down to 30 degrees. By Day Five it is 80 degrees, my bike-shorts tan becoming comical. In the afternoon I wheel into a 7-Eleven. Tick-ticking in cycling shoes to the reach-in ice cream case, I select a Nestle Drumstick, which I eat swiftly in the parking lot straddling my bike.
It's in this moment I realize why I'm doing this. This ice cream, with its pebble of peanuts and its cone tip of hard fudge, tastes better than anything. It is the sweat, the pulling up and pushing down over miles, that turns a 10-quart pot of rice and beans made by your fellow travelers into something sublime. It makes a hot shower blissful and a cold beer moan-worthy. In my regular life I'm moving too fast or too slow for words like "bliss" and "joy" to keep pace.
Things I learned No. 4: Cyclists talk gear. They like gadgets and cutting-edge doodads. If you want to buy a touring bike that will never be sniffed at, the steel-frame Trek 520 has been around since the 1970s without changing much. Even a vintage one is cool. And for touring tires, gear geeks give thumbs up to Schwalbe Marathons.
We move fast enough to get somewhere and slow enough to see things as we do it. And with our panniers and crisscrossing bungee cords securing tents and cooking pots, we are conspicuous. People talk to us: How far are you going? Where did you come from? But they also share their own stories. On Day Five we stay at Sanlan RV Park in Lakeland, a marvel with more than 500 RVs arranged in streets, with a golf course and wildlife sanctuary. With California Pam and Lori the advance guard, our crew pulls in piecemeal, setting up two tents to a campground, spotless white behemoths all around us tethered to electrical hookups and satellite dishes.
Sanlan residents are nearly all snowbirds from Canada. One woman who befriends me has come every winter for the past seven, her four sisters and their families following suit. On lawn chairs and driving golf carts, Canadians enjoy the Florida late afternoon as we wash up and repack our dirty biking clothes. For the last night of our Adventure Cycling trip we're having catered barbecue, no camp stoves to light or pots to scrub.
Before I head to dinner, the Canadian with all the sisters asks what it's all about (except she says "aboot" in that special Canadian way). Why cycle all this way and carry all that gear and sleep on the ground? I hesitate for a moment, wondering if Canadians even know about Nestle Drumsticks.
And then I say simply, "Because it's really, really fun."
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.