When you join an organized cycling ride, you make new friends fast. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to sign up for the Pan Florida Challenge For Hungry Kids even if I didn’t know anyone who was going. This is a 177 mile bike ride across the state of Florida raising awareness and funds for childhood hunger. The ride is a point-to-point where you begin in Naples, Florida and finish in West Palm Beach. You then take a bus back to Naples to your car. The cause fit me perfectly, the timing … not so much.
My kids have visions of Rock N Roll stardom, and their school talent show was on a Friday night in Miami. The Challenge began at 7:00am on Saturday in Naples. Between these two points were exactly 100 miles much of it through “alligator alley” a desolate stretch of highway with no stops (because of the alligators) and no cellphone coverage. There was NO WAY I could miss the show and still survive the mommy guilt, but driving my car alone at 4:00AM through alligator alley was not something I felt comfortable with.
Fortunately, my friend, neighbor and cycling buddy Stephanie who was not doing the ride, volunteered to drive me to Naples on Saturday morning so I could do both. Phew. All of this to say, my Saturday began with a 3:00AM wake up, and a two hour drive to Naples. Only then would I start my 107 miles of bicycle riding.
There were 110 riders. The first group were the pros, and they really did mean pros. The Stradelli cycling team was there plus a few other folks who would keep an over 25mph pace. The back of the back was a group of fat tire bikes who knew they were going to take their time at an average 13mph or so.
I had foolishly told Maura, the organizer, that I would be happy to lead a group if she needed it. My thought was: I don’t know anyone, I don’t mind being on the road all day, maybe I can help in the 13mph group. She assigned me to the 15-18mph group and I spent the rest of the week regretting it. My back was not great, I hadn’t trained the way I should’ve, the last thing I needed was the pressure to keep a group together at a pace I wasn’t sure I could keep for 177 miles. She told me, over and over again, that all would be well. And it was indeed, because when I got to the start line, Mike was there.
A power of a man at 74 years young, Mike knew how to keep a group together. Thank goodness. I slipped away to the middle of the pack as incognito as I could, and never again mentioned any hair brained idea of being a leader.
Riding in a group you don’t know is a bit tricky. I learned paceline riding from the pros at the GEICO Florida Road Safety Bike Tour and have been taught strict rules of what to do and what not to do. I knew the wind was coming from the East, and we were riding East all day. It was going to be a challenging day, and I was going to want to stick to the wheel in front of me as much as possible. When you ride inches away from the bike in front of you, it’s called drafting and you exert 25% less energy than you would getting the wind head on. Drafting is great in long distance because you save your energy; it’s illegal in most triathlons. But it was a draft or die kind of day out there.
Except that we had a lot of new riders in the group which meant drafting would become dangerous if someone didn’t know what they were doing. You are so close to the bike in front that any little mishap can lead to a crash. With few exceptions, my group did not know how to ride a paceline and draft safely. There were a couple of falls and misunderstandings. And though I disagreed with how we were riding (mostly a thirteen-person single file line making it very long for any car to pass) we weren’t necessarily unsafe. Mike was the leader setting the pace and strategy. My thought was “his ride, his rules” I can accept them or drop out. The thought of going against that wind all day alone was not a fun one and I stuck it out.
Our group was very diverse in personalities and skills. Beginning with Mike from New Hampshire, and ending with Norman from Germany. There were a lot of us in between. Next to me was a girl from Massachusetts wearing sneakers as she had never been on an outdoor long ride and had never clipped in before. Little did I know this girl was a complete bada$$: a young, competitive field hockey player that not only was able to keep up but made it to the finish before I did! We did end up with two falls that day, one of which was right in front of me and from which I narrowly escaped. Fortunately, nothing more than scrapes happened and we were on our way.
Although I was much more experienced than many in the group, I was completely out of shape. Some of these people had never ridden 100 miles, I have lost count of how many centuries I’ve done, and here I was trying to keep up with them. On the very windy stretches, we would take a quick five minute break every five miles. It was so hot we were getting dehydrated and a support vehicle would come and refill our water bottles. Normally, that would’ve driven me nuts. That day, at the fourth mile, I was looking forward to the stop. And just like that, after a hard 107 miles of riding we made it to Clewiston, Florida to spend the night.
I was a lot more confident starting day two as I finished strong the day before. We were riding seventy miles to the finish line in West Palm Beach where I would meet up with my family. Easy peasy I thought. I thought ….
I was riding my triathlon bike, and in a paceline you cannot ride on the aerobars. My bike is fitted for me to ride on aeros. I’ve ridden 400 miles on that bike on a paceline so I knew I could do it, but by the end of the first day my hands were numb and my back was not happy. The first thirty miles were windy, and it seemed like my group picked up some steam. They wanted to get to West Palm Beach quickly, but if I rode on a big gear (which would make my bike go faster with less effort) my back would begin to spasm. I had to ride on the small ring to not put pressure on my back, which meant I was spinning like a mad woman and exerting a whole lot more energy. After thirty miles or so I was dropped and I was fine with it. I would rather go at it alone, on my aerobars, at my pace than have to struggle to keep up for another forty miles.
I caught up with the group at an impromptu rest stop, when Joe and Melissa said they were splitting off and going a bit slower. A.W.E.S.O.M.E. This super nice couple from Naples were from Beacon Real Estate Partners, the PFC anchor sponsor. Joe was on the Board of Directors, and both of them had done the ride the last year. From the previous day, I knew Joe was an experienced rider, and he was happy (or maybe I just pretended he was happy) to be at the front. Melissa took the middle while I was at the back and on my aerobars so my back wouldn’t bother me so much. And so we went, the next forty miles in that order. I was so incredibly grateful to them for pulling me along, and for guiding me through West Palm Beach. The last few miles are tricky riding and it was nice to have company navigating it.
Joe insisted the three of us get through the finish together, and there was a big party waiting for us. Everything was taken care of and we were escorted to an LA Fitness where a shower was waiting for us. By the time I got in, there was no hot water left but it didn’t matter. It felt awesome to have completed 177 miles. And I wouldn’t have been successful had it not been for the impromptu three person paceline.
Instead of heading back to Naples, Joe and the boys drove up to West Palm Beach to pick me up. I rarely leave them, and rarely cross an epic finish line without them so it was nice not breaking our routine. My smile was bright and wide when I saw them. By the time I got out of the shower, they had already sat at table at a different restaurant then the group so we had a nice family lunch. But it was getting late, we had to leave, and I wasn’t able to find Maura, Joe, Melissa, Mike, Norman or any of the other folks with whom I spent the previous two days. I am hoping they all see this and know how truly grateful I am for such an incredible experience.