I’ve just returned from the GEICO Florida Road Safety Tour and have a lot on my mind. I will write several posts on different aspects of the ride hoping to give you a better feel for what it was about. I’ve been asked a lot of questions of HOW the Tour worked so this post describes what the ride was like.
First you have to apply to get into the team. For anyone who likes cycling, having the opportunity of doing the Tour is a dream: an all expenses paid, four hundred mile, cycling extravaganza. But what makes the tour special is that it’s not about the cycling, and just being a good rider does not get you in.
What “drove” me into the team was my work with Bike Key Biscayne and my local advocacy efforts. You can read about that here. I had to show I was capable of handling myself on a bike, but I had to show more that I was committed to the Road Safety cause.
This year’s team was composed of sixteen riders from all around Florida many of whom were from law enforcement and fire departments. Many had done IronMan races and many had done this GEICO Tour before. There was also a large support crew (though I am not sure how many) who were there to help the riders get through each leg. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am for every person on that crew. Part of the rider support was also police motorcycles who would take turns stopping traffic and leading us. We had a SAG support vehicle that drove behind us (and who changed flat tires faster than anyone I know). We also had two girls from GEICO who followed us in a van, the folks from the Dori Slosberg Foundation who coordinated all the press conferences and safety fairs and Jay, the videographer who we could constantly see on the side of the road capturing images of us riding by. I am sure I will be terribly embarrassed that I forgot someone – but you get the picture … there were a whole lot of people!
The itinerary was:
Day 1: Orlando
Press conference at the University of Central Florida and ride 112 miles to Tampa.
Press conference at the University of South Florida and ride 126 miles to Gainesville.
Press conference at the University of Florida and ride 102 miles to Perry, Florida.
Ride 60 miles for press conference at State Capitol building in Tallahassee.
Heading out through these cities was something I will never forget: it was surreal. The best way I can describe it is imagine you are standing on the side of the road, or in your car, and you hear lots of sirens. Police motorcycles zoom by, traffic is stopped, everyone freezes: clearly a motorcade is coming through. You expect the President or someone very important to come by in a dark car but instead you see sixteen riders with bright red shirts on their bicycles. People would walk out of their storefronts, stop to watch, take pictures, wave or give us the finger as it happened once. I imagined this is what celebrities feel like!
The crew would leapfrog us in their trucks and set up shop ahead. They were as efficient as a Nascar racing team and we could count on seeing their maroon t-shirts and hear them ringing cowbells every twenty miles. By the time we got to the stops our favorite sandwiches would be made and a major food spread was set with anything we desired: all sorts of endurance gels, drinks, eggs, cookies, chocolate, gummy bears, and also bug spray and suntan lotion. If there was something we needed that wasn’t there, we could just ask. Someone was constantly making a run to resupply. Each rider was given a white office box where we could put our personal belongings – things we wanted to have access to throughout the day. For me it was a hat (nothing like helmet head in a press conference!) but mostly it was a place to store my butt cream which I would put on often, without hesitation and in abundant quantities.
Spotting the crew person directing us to the stop was one of my favorite sights. We would arrive and be immediately bombarded with high fives and “looking goods”. We would be asked what we needed: ice? Accelerade? Massage? Yes, Susan the massage therapist was quite popular during the stops to work out any major knots that were forming. Once I was pretty beaten up after some hills and when they saw me I was told to sit down and they knew exactly how I mixed my sports drink, they got me some food, and brought me back to life.
Can you spot crew member Izzy with the cowbell? I could, from way down the hill!
My friends and family were given an email address to which they could send messages of support. Jim, the ride Director would then read them to me as he got them. I received lots of those and am so grateful for everyone who took the time to send me a shout out. Once I even got a video from my students who said “Go Ms. Cristina Go.” I got teary eyed on that one.
Fifteen minutes (our allotted time per stop) would fly by and I had to strategize how I was going to use them. I would try to organize my stops: one stop I would make a bathroom/butt cream run and the next I would focus on sitting and eating. I tried to take a picture each time but that didn’t quite work out well. When “five minutes” were called there was a collective sigh; but we were all there for the same reason and we all got back up with no complaints.
Rest Stop Extravaganza
We did have a team captain that called our attention in case something was going wrong. If people were going too fast, coasting on the front, or yo-yoing we would hear about it and work together to fix it.
I was one of the least experienced riders when it came to riding in a pace line so much of my time was spent focusing on the wheel in front of me. Whenever possible I finagled to be behind a guy whose wheel I could chase. No disrespect to my awesome female teammates, but I ditched them as soon as I had a chance to get behind a bigger guy. Then it was a matter of keeping up, which sometimes I did better than others.
My fear and my torture the entire time were the hills. I live in pancake flat Miami and though the only “hill” is a bridge very near my home, it is on the Rickenbacker Causeway, the scene of Aaron Cohen’s fatal crash, and one of the reasons that inspired me to get involved in advocacy. I rarely ride the bridge anymore so I really had zero hill training. I never rode on rolling hills before. The first day we rode through Claremont and Zephryhills; I struggled tremendously and fell behind. I could see the red shirts getting farther and farther away and I was pedaling as hard as I could but there was no way I could keep up. At the time, I didn’t know I wasn’t gearing efficiently all I knew is that the gap was getting bigger. Our captain stayed back and rode next to me so I thought he was going to tell me to get off and into the car. At first I resisted that thought because I wanted to complete the 400 miles, but then I realized that this is a team and I can’t think about what I want, but what is best for the group. This cause is much bigger than any petty ego-based mileage number I had told myself I would do.
All I could muster saying was “I’m sorry” between gasping breaths “I’m doing my best.” Fortunately, this whole debate was only happening in my head and no one was going to take me out. At the next stop, I think it was mile one hundred I asked for advice, and my teammates were more than happy to guide me through changing gears, and embracing the hills. Little by little I got better at riding them but each time I saw one my heart skipped a beat.
And it skipped a lot. The last forty miles arriving to Tallahassee were all rolling hills. I had expected it, I had feared it and there I was facing it. I would repeat to myself “embrace the hill” and I would gun for it gaining as much speed as possible on the way down to make it up the next hill. The group would split up at times but since I wasn’t that strong I couldn’t be the one worrying about it. I would pedal up those hills as fast as I could. If things got tough I would stand up for four pedals then sit for four repeating “I think I can, I think I can” just like the little engine that could. I would think about my kids and how I couldn’t disappoint them. When we would reach the top I would see there was another hill just ahead and I would curse. I never curse but I cursed the entire team, each hill. I knew I wasn’t doing that badly. I was riding strong and keeping up for the most part so the cursing was my release of all the fear and anxiety I had kept in the first three hundred and ninety miles.
If I am honest, there was a part of me that actually enjoyed the hills. My friend Mickey kept telling me that Slider, my triathlon bike which I was riding, was made to be let loose and to ride the way I was riding. I hit over 30 mph which I had never done before. I felt confident and though I would still struggle at times to get up the last ten feet, those sixty miles flew by.
The final rest stop was about two miles away from our final tour stop: the Capitol building in Tallahassee. To get there we would be going down a long hill and then up a steep but short one. My teammates had warned me about it, and for them to be talking about it was concerning enough for me. They also told me that by the time we are at the steepest part we would see the steps, we would see people waiting for us and cheering us on and that adrenaline would push us through.
Once again they were right. We left with an enormous motorcycle escort, the entire side of the street was closed, we flew down the hill and some how, amazingly, we stayed in formation all the way to the top and we arrived all together, safely to our final destination.
Press Conference At The Capitol
After the press conference we all headed to the Florida State University Police Department. I was leaving later that evening while most people were staying the night so I said my goodbyes as they went to their hotel. I took a shower, got a delicious massage and headed back home to Miami.
As a rider, I missed most of the behind the scenes action which I guess means the ride was very well managed. Whatever hiccups might have happened, I was never aware of and all I had to do was focus on spotting that maroon shirt, hearing the cowbell and making it to the rest stop where I knew I would be well taken care of. If you want to be a part of this next year, then get working on road safety. Commit, act, speak and make our roads safer for all who use it and most of all don’t drink and drive or text and drive EVER.