I decided to go to my first weekend cycling festival last month. Because these events attract hundreds of cyclists I thought I'd just follow the crowd. Bad decision. I had a flat and was suddenly alone. And then I got lost.
So here's some advice I could have used.
Bicycling festivals are often weekend events with rides of varying distances that start and end at the same place. They may be weeklong tours where daily rides end at different locations. Some are one-day or two-day fundraisers for a cause or issue. Bottom line is that they are meant to be fun rides, not races.
They usually offer rides of varying distances each day, from as little as 15 miles to as many as 100 miles. There's usually a host hotel though you needn't stay there. A meal or two may be included. Most are well supported with SAG (support and gear) wagons to help you with emergency road repairs. Routes are marked, but you need to know the marking convention. I didn't — one of my mistakes.
"After you register, hang around and talk to people," said St. Petersburg cyclist Lenore Sinibaldi, who along with her husband, John, has attended many bike festivals. "Listen to what people are saying. And always get a cue sheet and the phone number of the emergency contact" before setting out.
I didn't — another of my mistakes.
While cycling is the focus of these festivals, so is location.
Wes and Vicki Linkovich of St. Petersburg love the Bike Virginia weeklong tours because there are always nearby historic sites, a big plus for Wes, a Civil War buff. "Riding is only three or four hours a day, so we spend the rest of the day sightseeing," he said.
Ken Foster, associate director of Bike Florida, a nonprofit that sponsors and promotes bicycling events, advises choosing an established event for your first time out. "They have the best and safest routes, good rest stops and are well organized."
Wendy Menne and husband Gary of Redington Beach choose festivals near family so they can visit after the ride. They usually camp and pack light, even for weeklong tours. "I have a camp sink to wash my three cycling kits," said Menne. "One to wear, one to wash and one that's drying out."
Even for weekend events, Sinibaldi says her most coveted possession is a drying rack so she needn't pack away wet riding clothes.
More tips to enjoy the ride:
• Get to the ride start early to find your friends and get last-minute advice from other riders or event organizers. Most festivals have bike mechanics on hand at the start for repairs. But I showed up at 7:26 for a 7:30 a.m. start and found my tire was flat. I quickly changed it but did so improperly, and it flatted again a mile away — turning my group ride into a solo adventure.
• While SAG wagons can be life savers, don't depend on them. Bring the basics, including two spare tubes, tire levers, a mini bike tool, extra food and plenty of water. Festival rides have food and drink stops along the way, but carry both.
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"You may get by without enough food, but with insufficient water you can faint and crash, or you might become light headed after the ride,'' Foster said.
• Check the weather forecast before you pack, but it doesn't hurt to bring arm and leg warmers, a wind vest or rain jacket and full-finger gloves for chilly mornings.
• Have your bike checked and lubed beforehand, and bring extra chain lube and rags to clean your bike.
• Consider renting a bike from a local shop if you don't want to bring yours with you.
• Prepare your engine. If you normally ride 15 miles, you can probably do a 30-mile ride but not 100 miles. If you always ride on flat land, a hilly route may be challenging. Some cyclists prepare by riding hillier areas of the state a couple of times a month. Others spend time riding into the wind to build strength. If you plan to do a century (100 miles), bike a few 60- to 80-mile rides first.
But again, riding is only part of the appeal of bicycle festivals. Gathering with old and new friends after the ride can be the highlight. At the Highlands Festival, about 25 of my club members were there. We spent a good deal of time swapping tales embellished by libations. At least I got something right.
Bob Griendling is vice president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. He blogs at bobgriendling.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.