Miami to Orlando by Bicycle: The Perils of Cycling Solo in the Sunshine State

When I was about 15, I wanted a road bike.  I already had a mountain bike thanks to my brother, who talked my Mom into buying a matching pair of Bianchi Grizzlies for Christmas a few years earlier.  Like most kids at the time, a bike was principally transportation, and cell phones were still Sci-Fi, but we had a great trail near our house, so I owned  one of the first mountain bikes ever made.  I used to ride to Elephant Rock up Mueller Park Canyon about once a week during the summer, and never remember seeing another mountain bike during those first 2 years!!!  I did have a collusion with a BMX bike once, and can remember riding this trail on a Schwinn Orange Peeler, way after they were considered cool!!

When I came home with my steel gray Cannondale with pink highlights,  my brother told me I was foolish and would never ride it, even though he helped me pick it out. Truthfully, for the most part, he was right.  I would go out a few times a month, and grind up the big hills of my youth! I lived at about 6000 feet, and no ride ever ended with a nice downhill, even our mountain bike rides always ended with a ridiculous mile-long grade!!  For the most part it collected dust in the garage during its early years of existence, as I logged a few hundred miles a summer when I wanted to change things up.

About a decade later I had graduated from the University of Utah and had accepted a scholarship to Podiatry School in Miami, Florida.  At this time in my life, I had a serious addiction to skiing, and was concerned about withdrawal symptoms in the Sunshine State.  I put both of my bikes on the rear rack of my Subaru as I rolled out of town to start the next big adventure, I figured riding consistently would keep my legs strong for skiing when returning victorious 4 years later!  I was right, but life would change considerably over the next few years, and through proper counseling I was able to free myself from the chains of addiction.  I now am just a social skier, and can quit anytime I choose!!

In the Fall of 1993, helmets were just starting to gain popularity, I had one, but I didn’t put it on my head on a regular basis.  My first day in Miami, I went out for a bike ride sans helmet, just to get a look around.  I was a mountain man, and really had limited experience in the city, let alone, a big city!  After a few close calls, I arrived at my new apartment and swore I would never ride without a helmet again.  (And for the most part, I haven’t)  The next day between classes, I decided to go out for another quick ride, when I got down from the 4th floor of my building, I realized that my helmet was still packed in a box upstairs.  I sat there for a minute or two deciding if I wanted to negotiate 4 flights of stairs carrying my bike with cycling shoes on.  I finally relented, I had “sworn” I would wear a helmet only yesterday, and as bad as I am about keeping resolutions, I should at least be able to go 24 hours, right?  So, up the stairs I went to unpack my brain bucket.

Less than an hour later, I was laying in the street next to a sedan with the windshield shattered, and my helmet equally so!!  I was riding through a green light, when the car made a left-hand turn right into me!  Fortunately, I was not badly hurt, but alas, my Cannondale wasn’t so lucky.  The good news was I got a pretty good sized check from the insurance company to go bike shopping, and just in time, because pink was certainly not en vogue by this time, even in Art Deco central!  I bought a new Cannondale, Black, with as little flash as possible.  It wasn’t top of the line, but it was really nice, and we all know what it feels like to ride a new bike!  I started to find new and safer routes, and before long everyone knew me as “Bikin’ Mike”  because me and my new friend were inseparable!

The black Cannondale “rusted” a hole through the frame where my sweat would sit on the front derailleur bracket,  They sent me a new frame for free.  So the original purchase when I was 15 has encarnated itself 3 times, and is still hanging in my garage….although I haven’t taken it out for a few years, it is arguably one of the best bike purchases in history!

I rode a few mile to school everyday, but also every chance I got. Ocassionally, one of the professors would get mad at me, because I would put my helmet on a few minutes before class was out.   I didn’t want to waste anytime getting on the road, and I certainly didn’t want a long winded PhD cutting into my ride time.   A serious distance for me was 40 or 50 miles, I had never raced, and had actually thrown clip-on aerobars up front for those “long” 2 or 3 hour rides. I really had never tried to push the endurance envelope, and was happy about the way I looked and felt as a new cycling enthusiast!

This is a year or so later on the last Cannondale, I put Fishlips stickers on the frame, for my friend Doug who was making custom frames.

One day in class, a friend of mine mentioned he was going to Orlando to Attend the Open House for the Mormon Temple.  Being LDS myself, and not having seen the new Temple yet, I thought it would be a worthy goal to check it out.  I really wasn’t up for the 5 hour drive and so I decided it was a perfect time to “see what I could do” on a bike!  I decided that I would leave early in the morning and go until I dropped. It was a pretty simple plan. I hadn’t considered that the majority of the ride was in swamps and sloughs that would not have a pay phone handy, and I honestly can’t remember how I was supposed to get hold of my friend. It is truly amazing how we functioned before cellular phone technology! I figured, worse case scenario, I am sitting under a tree for 5 or 6 hours waiting for my ride back to Miami.

So on a sunny September day in 1994, having been a “real” cyclist for about a year, I rolled out of my apartment before daylight with a cycling jersey jammed with Powerbars and bananas, a flat kit, and 2 24 oz water bottles! The first 70 miles were along mostly known roads, with the sun rising above the Atlantic as I hugged the shoreline, it was refreshing and beautiful!  Riding A1A  was always one of my favorite rides.  I found it safe because there was very little cross traffic, you had the ocean on one side and the Inter-coastal Waterway on the other to keep you safe!  As the sun rose, I picked up a few more cyclists, and almost no cars until I reached West Palm Beach. Once I left the coast, I had to negotiate a little traffic until I picked up Highway 710, cutting northwest across the grasslands and swamps to Okeechobee.  Along this stretch, and for the next 130 miles, the scenery didn’t change much, but the temperature did!   I pretty much sat in my aerobars and pedaled, alternately staring up the asphalt ribbon in front of me, the endless grass along the road, and when my head was too tired to hold up, the white line below me, keeping it properly located off my left drop.  (I ran into a road barricade doing this once, fortunately not on this adventure!  This is not safe, nor recommended!)  Somewhere along this stretch, I completed my first century ever!  I was judiciously, eating Powerbars and bananas, while calculating approximately how far I had to go to the finish.  I am still blown away how we used to function without cell phones and GPS.  I had checked out a map before I left, and basically pointed my bike in the right direction and rode.  Not only did I not get lost, but pretty much took the most direct route to my destination!!!  I don’t even think I ever asked for directions!!   I stopped every chance I could to refill my H2O bottles, and was still 20 years away from recognizing salt as an essential ingredient to endurance activities in the hot Florida sun!

The scenery never changed….except the occasional alligator!

At about mile 160, I was pedaling through the thriving metropolis of Fort Drum, located about  20 miles north of Okeechobee along Highway 441, and stopped at the General Store to refill my bottles.  There was a soda dispenser and sink behind the counter, so I asked the young lady behind the counter if she could hook me up for the next few miles.  She put a little ice and water in my bottles, and in a sweet southern drawl wished me luck on the next leg of my adventure.  As I was clicking into my pedals and leaving the parking lot, I felt 2 hands grab me from behind and throw me to the ground.  I rolled over to see, a very scary looking and angry man standing over me yelling, “y’all owe me a quarter for that ice!!!”  Having just rode 160 miles in the Hot Florida Sun, my mind was a little befuddled as I explained that I had no money as I was just passing through.  I hadn’t asked for the ice, as a matter of fact, it usually melts ridiculously fast in the Florida heat, and only serves to make the water taste funny. (Not that water out of an old plastic bottle that gets thoroughly cleaned once a quarter is very tasty anyway!) Nonetheless, there I was on my back with a very furious face staring down at me.  He refused to accept my humble apology, and actually doubled down by picking up  my bike and threatened to “break it to bits”  if I didn’t cough up the quarter!!!  My mind was scrambling….I am not a wimp but this guy was pretty big and obviously mental, I might have had a shot at him if I was fresh, but 160 miles of radiating pavement had taken a few chinks out of my armor…. I decided negotiation was my best bet.  Should I promise him a dollar later if he lets me ride away, or maybe even two?  As a student, I thought this may strain my resources, but not as much as having a bike smashed all over the parking lot!   He didn’t look like he was going to be placated without something in his hand now!!!   I thought about swapping the ice for a Powerbar, but I wasn’t sure he would be able to chew it with just the one tobacco-stained tooth sticking out of his mouth, besides I needed the Powerbar if I expected to make it to Orlando….Of course that would be irrelevant if he started to dismantle my new bike!  I was afraid, tired, and confused at what was happening, I really thought I would be running to the road pleading with a passing motorist to spirit me away to safety and abandon my bike to utter destruction…..At the last moment, I yelled “Wait a minute, please put down my bike”  I had just remembered that I had put a dollar bill in my flat kit just in case I tore a sidewall.  In this instance, it saved more than a walk home or a new rim,  “I have the money!” I shouted. He set down the bike, but held on to it as if I was up to some sort of trick.  I told him where it was, and he carefully watched me open the kit and withdraw a dirty, crumpled, greasy, 1 dollar bill.  I could see him salivating out of the corner of my eye.  With the bill in my hand, and my bike as ransom, he let me waddle back to the store (remember, I am wearing cleats)  and handed the pretty southern girl the cash.  She didn’t look very happy as she gave me my seventy-five cents back.  I am guessing she got a verbal lashing from the madman for giving away the ice when I walked out of the store, and was gonna get it again, and maybe worse, when I left.  I don’t think she had the ability to ride off into the distance like I was hoping to do in the next few seconds! Which I did.  I passed a Sheriff as I got back out onto 441 and thought about waving him down, but I had places to go and miles to ride.  Truthfully, other than the fact that I was scared out of my wits and would go on to need trauma counseling for a few months, my bike was fine, my water bottles were full, and I was only 25 cents poorer!

I continued Northward on 441 until it dead ended on 192 and hung a left.  I had never ridden this stretch of road and fatigue was setting in.  The traffic was starting to ramp up as I rolled through St. Cloud and Kissimmee.  I hung a left on 535 which I remembered from the map would take me into Doctor Phillips, the suburb of Orlando in which the Temple was located.  As I crested a hill, I could see the Temple on a hill in the distance, I actually started to cry when it came into view!  With my destination in site I got a little energy bump, and I rolled by admiring the scene.  My cycle computer clicked exactly 240 miles and 12 hours as I went past!   I really wasn’t dressed for a Temple Open House, so I continued pedaling, hoping to find a Pay Phone. (If you don’t know what one is search it on the internet)  I found a road, I think it was Old Winter Garden Road,  with some stores on it and hung a right.  A few minutes later I was standing in front of a Food Lion grocery store, and sliding one on my 3 remaining quarters into the pay phone slot.  I talked to my friend, gave him my location and settled in to relax, it had been a long and eventful day!  I believe it was about 5 or 6 in the afternoon, and he wouldn’t be able to come fetch me until 7 or 8.  Apparently, I fell asleep.

Image result for orlando temple picturesOrlando Florida Temple,  The Destination

During this ride I never felt awful, except laying on my back in the parking lot of the Fort Drum General Store.  I experienced a steady decrease in power, but otherwise kept pedaling away mile after mile after mile.  The 23 and 24 mile per hour pace slowed to a 20 or 21 mile per hour pace etc. etc. etc. until I was finishing in the 15 to 16 MPH range.  But when I sat staring east into the setting sun, I went into full shutdown mode.  I awoke to the store manager poking me with the back end of a push broom, and heard several voices whispering things like, “Is he dead???”  When I opened my eyes, to my dismay there were 15 to 20 people in a half circle staring at me with worry and wonder in their eyes.  Many were surprised to see me move, and thought they were seeing a real resurrection from the dead.  One or Two “hallelujahs” were muttered by the gathering.  The manager came quickly over and asked if he should call 911 and wondered what had happened to me, “You look horrible”, he said.  I answered in a hoarse whisper, befitting a zombie, that I had ridden my bike from Miami, and a friend was supposed to pick me up in an hour or so. He told me I was crazy and that he had multiple queries in his office as to why there was a corpse laying outside the entrance to the store. He then informed me that I would have to leave.  As I nodded my head, and attempted to get up, he had a change of heart.  He called for a couple of the cart boys to come over and told them to bring me and my bicycle into the breakroom, and air conditioning!!!  He instructed one of them to stay with me and provide anything I wanted from the store, free of charge!!  I was grateful, but really just wanted to rest.  I do remember drinking some Gatorade and orange juice and letting my core body temperature start to come down off the redline!

It wasn’t long before my friend showed up, and after a few inquiries found me chatting with my babysitter in the backroom.  He helped me in his car and delivered me safely home to my apartment where this whole adventure began!   Thanks Stewart!!

Stewart, who unwittingly laid the foundation for this adventure.  And the original no frills black Cannondale

When I look back on this ride I am always amazed that riding a bike is so much like driving a car.  If you put fuel in, you get distance out. And maintenance, of both your body and your machine are paramount.  I don’t know too many people who have done their first century and double century on the same day.  This 245 mile, one day total had been my record until just recently when I did 282 in a 15 hour stint.  It is also always fun to compare the best and the worst of humanity, I don’t know what happened to the Psycho in Fort Drum or the Food Lion manager, and guardian angel, in Orlando. Both have taught me life lessons that I will never forget!  As with all things in life you have to take the good with the bad!  Remember, Success is a journey, not a destination!


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