If you’ve ever had the misfortune of flying across the country on Southwest, you know that Fate typically puts you next to a three-hundred pound man, a crying child, or a crying three-hundred-pound man. But last month I had the luck to share the long trip with a young woman who told me a very interesting story of cycling five hundred miles across central Florida. “It might be the liquor talking,” I said, “but you should write this up for me. I run a famous car website. And you’re very pretty.” So here you go, TTAC readers: a cycling perspective on what is perhaps the least bike-friendly state. Enjoy! — JB
Pushing off, with a slightly, only slightly, bad taste in my mouth. The last words I’d heard prior to starting this adventure ringing in my head: “That’s a terrible idea, it’s absolutely not safe for cyclists, what if I drop you off on the trail head?”
Naaah — I can do this — it’s MY home state, I know these roads better than anyone. Besides I live in New York City now. I can do anything! Not to mention, I took my first joy ride in a standard 88’ Honda Prelude with my best friend Yent at 13 years old, cruised (at least that’s what we called it in the early 90’s) these roads, back roads and interstates in all kinds of vehicles. I own this! I am that American Girl riding down 441, except this time I’m on a bicycle, making my way to all of my favorite places. I left my father’s Apopka house and proceeded in search for freedom, a place to ride with the rest of North Central Florida, experience the wind in my face, and reach a destination.
Not only was I riding on my own, but I planned to make my way to each and every one of my favorite spots to visit friends, eat some good Cajun boiled peanuts, test the Florida sun, and ride the state’s much-criticized roads. In the end I logged 515 miles, making every destination in my loop.
My trek included a northbound trip through Florida’s sweltering center. Beginning in Orange County I moved cautiously up the heavily trafficked two lane US highway through Lake, Marion, Alachua and Columbia Counties. After much rest and smothered hamburger steak, gravy and field peas, I took a tour towards the coast on U.S. Route 90, beginning in Columbia County, where if you aint drivin’ over 65 you’re a pussy/wuss! I then traveled through the Osceola National Forest continuing along the industrial Beaver Street into Duval County. My third stretch included a very scenic and a bit more bicycle friendly coast down the Atlantic coast. Finally, after passing through Saint Johns, Volusia and Brevard Countys I was ready to wrap it up. After a terrifying ride on 520 to an equally terrifying ride on HW 50, Colonial Drive I found myself back in Orange County. It’s a vicious world for touring cyclists, to put it mildy.
Making my way onto 441 Northbound I stopped short. I saw no room for bicycles, nothing, heavy curb, white line- I think What the hell? In NY we have little six-foot-wide spaces with bike symbols painted periodically. That lets me know that its okay and that I belong here. Instead of riding the road I take the clearest, safest way, I avoid my rights as a cyclist. The rules have become secondary. I hop on a cracked, sun-bleached sidewalk, yea the one meant for pedestrians-humans on foot-right? A sidewalk that could end at any moment… Swiftly dodging empty Arizona tea bottles, broken glass and bits of gravel. I’m barely averaging 9 mph due to short stops every block for an intersections, SUV’s, mini vans and crossovers, Oh My! So it begins.
The law’s clear on this. Cyclists in Florida do not have to ride on the shoulder — but the majority of the time I rode on the shoulder anyway. In fact it was actually something I felt forced into following. At times my riding experience became more like a quick spin into the grass, thanks to some rushed 18-wheelers and others.
Weaving from strip mall to strip mall, I keep thinking twice about the whole plan. Florida has the highest bicycle fatality rate in the country, I’d toured a bit last year, almost completely across the country, but I was supported by some real hard cases. They may have been real assholes, but they did insure I was safe.
Still, I am pretty stubborn and I was determined to do this. My trek through 13 counties in the sunshine state with nothing but a twenty pound pack on a rack, my pink mace dispenser and the brightest, painfully fluorescent orange cycling jersey displaying all my love of Florida, alligators and citrus, hoping that would get me some brownie points in the DO NOT HIT ME department. Sure I had a mission, I wanted to ride my bike. See my friends and family members. Eat some good food and embrace all the roads and areas I knew as a child. And I wanted to ride it by bicycle. It just seemed so much more intimate.
“Are you crazy, you will be killed!” So I heard again and again from friends, including those who cycle. In fact, while most of them were excited that I was coming through for a visit, they all complained that they were losing sleep, in fear that the sheriff would be driving up to have them identify my body or what was left of it. And each and every one of the 16 separate homes I visited offered to pick me up along the road. My answer was always
“No, that’s not the point. Why all of this concern?” But I knew what their concerns were.
Riding down multiple old Florida highways such as 441 and HWY 90, I saw very few bike trails or lanes. The coastal highways such as US1 and A1A, by contrast, offered the occasional small mercy of space. Whatever the road situation there was one major commonality: in most sections it was straight, flat, highway, few stop lights, and very little to no shoulder. That meant I was in the territory that many motorists feel is exclusively theirs. I traveled rolling as far right as possible. Most of the vehicles with which I came into conflict were people exiting the interstate and wanting to get somewhere, whether it was to get the milk home or get to Walmart for price markdowns I’m not sure, but they did seem to be in quite a hurry.
In addition, there were few cops around and nothing but free (may I say HOT) pavement. Hammer down! Right!? Cars, trucks and semis drove fast. Really Fast, always over 60mph. Sixty seemed a kind speed from my point of view. But I’ll admit it, if I had just turned off the interstate in my Pontiac Trans Am, with fatties on the back and herst shift kit from Hell blasting good ole’ Hank, I believe I too would want to ride like the wind blows.
But unfortunately, I and my 35 lb bicycle rolling at a humble 20mph had nothing to protect me from the kind of impact that would occur if any of those people rode like the wind right into me. I literally had no protection whatsoever. None. Along old state highways such as 441 and 90, such instances seemed to be the case for the majority of my ride. In order to enjoy myself and keep from spazzing out, I too had to keep as far right as possible, always riding against traffic. On more than one occasion, including both HWY 90 and 520, I felt almost bullied off the pavement. I felt as if the 18-wheelers had decided they wanted to play chicken with me.
So I clucked like hell, laid an egg, and got the hell off the road. Had to. Another extremely scary moment occurred right after I made a quick fuel stop (bite to eat) in High Springs Florida. I had the honor to sit and speak with a local Alachua county sheriff who seemed to respect my bicycling agenda. After an easy conversation he warned me of the late “spring hoppers” leaving the local watering holes. I knew right away what he was referring to, having grown up in Suwannee County Florida I knew all about the ‘lets get a 24 of Natty Ice and hit the springs, all of em’, today.’
If you know anything about these glorious natural springs in North Florida you would understand that these cold aquifer fed bodies of water are mostly free to the public, great to take a dip in after a long ride. However they are all very spread out and often you have to take a state road to get there. Folks from the area and all around get on their cutoff jorts, flip flops fill their Styrofoam coolers full of the Silver Bullet. Following this they jump in their pickups, vans or Pontiacs, and take on the old highways.
Seventeen years ago, when I may or may not have taken this risk, I did have one less distraction. The power to text message while driving intoxicated was not an option, because cell phones were a luxury and the texting feature was in the distant future. Now I’m not saying all spring goers are partying, and there are signs that warn against the consumption of alcohol in these places, and Florida does have a zero tolerance law for drinking and driving, but that does not mean it is not a possibility. It is so much of a possibility that when the sheriff’s officer found out that I had 23 more miles until my destination at dusk, he strongly urged me to call someone and get a pick up.
I politely declined and jumped on my trusty steed. After all, I had a front and tail light. But If I told you I wasn’t scared, I would be lying. Not only did I have fast cars at my back but it was dark outside, mosquitos the size of ping pong balls were challenging my space, and there was a possibility that someone could be drunk driving, texting, or even drunk texting! Luckily I made it to my mothers house, in the dark, but I want to say no one slowed down, went around me, even though it was dark.
So there I was in a world where I was the prey, unknown and on two wheels, pedaling along Florida’s old state roads and the last thing I really wanted was a nasty encounter (especially after that spring hoppin’ scare) with an angry Florida driver who felt it was either Jesus or Robert E. Lee who gave them the right to drive as fast as he/she damn well pleases and be just as pissed off at the world as he wants because he/she can. It wasn’t too long into my journey that I had such an encounter.
I could be mistaken on some details but for the most part it was in Duval County on Hwy 90 (Beaver St). I was riding along looking for the Baldwin Bike Trail so that I could have a nice break from rolling with traffic, so I took a detour towards the old tracks, into a neighborhood-ish area, that ended in with a tree farm. My uncle had told me that there was a rail to trail route from Baldwin to Jacksonville.
Yes! I thought. To my dismay, the trail was under construction. As I rummaged around a series of small neighborhoods for a better route I had an encounter with someone who either felt threated by my presence or just hated people on bicycles. This happened to be the only time I with drew my pink bottle of mace from my back jersey pocket. I’m not sure if it was the size of the Chevy 1500 Z71 off road, with its 35 inch muddin’ tires, the after market exhaust with a raging rumble, or the 3 in suspension lift. It might have been the Confederate flag proudly displayed in the rear window that made the hair on the back of my honorary-Yankee neck stand up.
Nope, I’m pretty sure it was the fact that this monstrous truck kept accelerating past me, then circling back. All the while this rather gristly man peered out of the driver window all the while glaring at me, right in the eyes. I mean I could have been misinterpreting the whole encounter, maybe he wanted directions to the late Sunday Church Revival, or wanted to make sure I was okay, not sure, he didn’t say. But something just seemed wrong, as if he was almost angry that I was riding my bike in his county, on his road. After about three rounds of that I had to get the hell out of Dodge. I found a convenience store, stopped, went inside, and struck up a quick-bake conversation with the attendant. Being in a public place is much better place to stay safe; I’d learned that on the streets of NY.
After the hundreds of miles and the many close calls, I finally reached the end of my road and had a much-needed drink. The point of my adventure was not to test any boundaries, piss anyone off or prove anyone wrong. I just wanted to get somewhere, naturally, on my bike. I abided by the laws of Florida and tried my best to keep a distance from motor vehicles. Ultimately I made it through my journey without so much as a scratch, but with this in mind… Next time I drive a motor vehicle in Florida or any state for that matter…I will make sure I share the damn road!