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Gator Country Hell Week

In December 2004, I flew to Fort Myers with my bicycle to take part in the Gator Country Hell Week VIII ride. This was a supported tour of eight days and 765 miles. This year there were ~28 riders. We stayed in motels and the trip was supported by a SAG vehicle.

This was a challenging ride, mostly because distances averaged ~100 miles per day for first seven days. The logo sets the tone with "No Wimps or Whiners Allowed". However, the terrain was fairly flat and weather was a nice break from winter snows.

I would recommend this ride for strong cyclists looking for a winter challenge or even training ride for the ultra-marathon type crowd (3rd and 6th place finishes from 2003 were riding this year). I enjoyed the ride and met nice folks from all over US and Canada. Described below is my trip journal from the ride.

December 27th, Fort Myers

Today was a transportation day to get to start of Gator Country Hell Week Ride. I wished my mother happy birthday and then took rental car off to Denver Airport. The airport was busy, but flowed smoothly to get my bike boxed and on the plane to Tampa. At Tampa, I rented another car and drove myself and bicycle down to Fort Meyers to the Super 8 that was our starting point.

I checked into the motel and dropped the rental car off at Fort Meyers airport. What a zoo! A long line of passengers snaked from one of the terminals and it took 45 minutes to find a taxi to ride the 8 miles back to motel. Sigh.

I briefly met Nick and Becky Gerlich who had organized this ride, signed my waiver and then went to sleep for an early night. Bicycle is assembled and now getting ready for the ride tomorrow.

December 28th, Bartow

Today was a fun but difficult ride and I didn't quite finish the entire distance before running out of daylight hours. It was reassuring to have the bike assembled. Perhaps anticipation or perhaps sleeping in a new time zone, but I didn't get much sleep last night. I was up by 6am and partook of the continental breakfast at the motel. Becky had also made pancakes and I had a yogurt as well. By 7:30 or so, lots of riders milling around. In total there are approximately 25 riders coming from ten states, District of Columbia and two canadian provinces. Several of the riders are very good including a professional triathalete coach and a couple who are training for Race Across America (RAAM).. Most all the rest are strong riders.

The chaos at the airport meant one rider hadn't received his luggage until this morning. Nice that he was able to start with everyone, though this did mean that the start was delayed until 9am. After the obligatory photos, we started out with a slow group and a fast group. I picked the slow group and we mostly rode together first few miles until we got through tricky parts of Fort Meyers. After that many of the slow group and most of the fast group passed me and I was more on my own.

It is amazingly flat on this ride. Our largest hills were two bridges. As we cycled along US 41, we had a persistent wind from NE, so mostly a cross wind. This area was hardest hit by Hurricane Charley. I saw quite a few blue tarps pulled over roofs, knocked down signs and other debris. Downtown Punta Gorda looked perhaps hardest hit along with a trailer park or two. After 25 miles a small group of us cycled until mile 34 and the first rest stop. Photo at right shows the first flat tire of the trip.

Nick and Becky Gerlich organize these trips, and Becky had arranged a bit of a feast awaiting us at first rest stop. It was already after 11am, but otherwise nice to get a break.

After 30 miles, the route turned more NE and hence into that nagging wind. My speed dropped. Much of the next 34 miles, was quiter roads along orange groves, but also tough to keep riding into the persistent headwind. My speed had been 14-15 and slowly dropped 13...12...10...and it was just a slow slog. At one point I noticed the wind was less, though I was already tired.

Approximately 2:20pm I came to the lunch stop. Hooray! Several folks arriving after me decided to quite for the day at this 63 mile lunch stop (particularly with 45 miles to go and barely over three hours until dark). It was tempting but decided I'd try for a bit further. At this point Tom and Pat joined me and three of us set out through more scenic riding on back roads. I was glad we got some riding, and for a brief while the headwind even subsided.

At 81 miles we reached Wauchula and intersection with US 17. Nick had suggested a short cut here to follow 17 rather than talk side roads. It was worth a try. At this point my water had run out and I fell behind Tom and Pat as I rested and refilled water.

US 17 was a busy road and for brief period outside Wachula rather obnoxious. However, slowly plowed ahead a bit tired for the day. I reached Fort Mead a little past 5:20pm and my odometer said 96. It was 10 miles from here to Bartow but dark was starting to fall. Pat and Tom also stopped and so we were asked to SAG the last miles. Nick's brother Mark, sister-in-law (?) and Mark's father-in-law (?) were here. We waited with them for a while before Mark stayed with our bikes and the sister-in-law drove us to the motel. An end to a long ride.

As far as I can count, at least 10 riders didn't complete the ride today (earliest riders were done at 4:30pm or so). Three of us SAG'ed from 95 mile mark, four SAG'ed from lunch stop and two were later found at lunch stop and at Wachula. Also, one was demoralized enough by wind to turn back, fetch his car and drive here. Overall, a slightly late start and headwinds made for a tough first day with subscribed mileage of 108 miles. Fortunately in future days we're allowed to leave a bit earlier, so I'll try doing that to get more miles in before being caught by darkness.

95 miles today.

December 29th, Brooksville

A much easier cycling day today. Florida is mostly flat, though we even found some slight hills this afternoon. After yesterday's trip, I decided to get off earlier. I ate some breakfast when it started at 7:30 and about 15 minutes later, Dennis, Ian, Tom and I set off. Initially the route was flat and slowly became less populated. After 12 miles, others passed us and the pace quickened. I slowed down a bit and so mostly rode alone from then on.

Several scenic lakes around 15 miles and as the road ducked along several orange groves and also along nice residential areas along the lakes. Almost no wind was a nice change. Some of the roads were very quiet but every once in a while, I'd ride along a more populated area with busier traffic. Winds mostly light or perhaps even tailwinds. In any case, I really didn't notice winds today.

At mile 26 the first SAG stop was at Polk City. Seemed like most of the crew were there as faster riders had started later. From here, there route became fairly rural passing along forests and past swamps. Still occasional signs of hurricane repairs. The miles passed quickly and before I knew it, I was at the lunch stop at 54 miles.

After lunch some slight grades coming into Dade City and then a few more hills going past St. Joseph. In this stretch was some of the most scenic roads, narrow country roads winding around and occasionally up and down. Lakes in the distance and a mixture of orange groves and forests. Without too much trouble, I was at last SAG stop at 78 miles. A few more arrived after me, but they were quickly breaking down the SAG station to get others their luggage.

The last 17 miles were a bit hilly and I was slower than before. Last few miles we followed a busy route 50 and finished the day at 4:30pm. Overall, not much faster than yesterday, but felt like a better ride. In the evening a number of us went out for pizza.

95 miles today.

December 30th, Tavares

A long century (100+) mile ride today. After last few days, I decided to get out early to prepare for the ride today. By 6:30am, my luggage was at the baggage truck and I went over to McDonalds to get a bite to eat before taking off. The first mile was along busy route 50, but soon thereafter, it went northbound on the Withlacoochie bike trail. Nice smooth and mostly flat riding for 23 miles along the bike trail.

At mile 24 was the first SAG stop, but since I had departed early I was 45 minutes before the SAG. I continued on route via busy 44 and then off on a collection of smaller roads. Florida was still very flat. Light winds from the east, so mostly headwinds. I knew I was ahead of the pack, so I took it easy riding along. A mixture of busy roads and cute country lanes kept the variety up. Occasional orange groves, but also farms, forests, retirement parks.

I came to the lunch stop at 11:35am, 25 minutes before it was scheduled to open. The van was there and I waited for lunch. Slowly other riders came, mostly the quicker riders who would usually pass me. After an early lunch, I continued on route. The wind was a little stronger and this next stretch had an occasional rolling hill. Still pretty scenery as we came into Minneola at mile 84. It was starting to feel like a long day.

After Minneola, we had several more hills. Nothing extremely high but a lot of short sharp hills to climb and descend. The largest hill was sugarloaf mountain with a nice descent down the backside. My odometer read 94 miles and I started riding a bit slower. Rode in the remaining miles and ended the day at 107 miles for the day, so a December "century of the month". Felt a bit tired from ~10 hours on the road, but also nice to do a century ride today.

107 miles today.

December 31st, Daytona Beach

My knee aches, my ankle hurts, my bike is making strange noises, but I'm happy to have traveled almost all the way across Florida penninsula under my own power! Today was supposed to be an easier day of only 95 miles. I set out on the road by 7:15 to get some early miles. The road went along a lake before going along some slight hills. My ankle was hurting but wasn't getting much better or worse so mostly rode along. The route became more rural past Eustis and then via slight hills and into Altoona for the first SAG stop at 25 miles. I was first one in again due to my early start.

The route sheets are fairly well done with distances to the next turn. This was one of the longest gaps of 18.8 miles. I started going slower here with an occasional stop. My bike also started making some clicking sounds. I couldn't quite figure it out. Spokes looked fine, it wasn't related to drive train. So mostly kept going.

At 50 miles several folks bunched up with some confusion on the route. The route was actually fine though we ended up taking an alternate path on into lunch. Lunch was next to small lake. Each day a warm meal, nice to have the SAGs on the trip. Some folks tried to figure out the pinging of my bike without success. So after lunch took off slowly... it was a slow ride with my knee, ankle and occasional pinging. After 5 miles or so, the pinging just stopped. After 17 miles I came to I-95. I found a yellow pages and looked up local bike shop in Ormond Beach.

I decided to go off route to find local bike shop. Without too much difficulty I found ExtremeCycles in Ormond Beach. The bike shop also couldn't find reason for the ticking. He did find the front brakes were rubbing and adjusted the derailer. The bike rode quicker after that the last 10 miles down A1A and into Daytona Beach. Yeah! I had reached across the peninsula.

95 miles today.

January 1st, Winter Garden

Happy New Year! Today was a better ride with tailwinds and a flat morning. Each evening we have dinner with a group and last night I was with several prospective RAAM riders. This ride seems to have two mixtures of cyclists. One group I'll call the "ultra-marathon riders"; fairly fast athletes who see the 100+ mile rides as a good training ride. They go quite fast, could finish the ride by 2pm if they wish. Several folks have done the Race Across America (RAAM, ~8 days to ride across USA) or are training for it. The other riders I'll call the "tourists". Still in reasonable shape, but working hard to finish the days ride by 4 or 5 pm and seeing it as more of a challenging ride. [Most folks aren't quite at either extreme, so more strong riders for mixture of training and touring]. I'm one of the slower tourists and see some of the same folks each day. I've found that if I start on the early side, I can catch early shifts at the first SAG stop and later shifts at the end of the day. Last night learned a bit more about training and preparation for RAAM from others in the "ultra-marathon" crew. This evening dinner was more of the tourist crew.

I didn't stay up for New Year's eve midnight and was up early again today. This first 20 miles were flat with tailwinds and my bicycle now ran more smoothly with the brakes no longer rubbing. I cycled down to New Smyrna Beach and then inland via route 44. First SAG stop at 20 miles.

It was still quick and flat riding as the route became more remote. My bicycle was still going smoothly. This area was mostly forests with occasional home parks. We had an early lunch stop at mile 41 on shores of Lake Monroe in Sanford. Most of the crew was there and once again a nice hot lunch, this time grilled burgers.

Much of the crew was passing me after lunch. My speed slowed a bit, though it was still fairly flat. A good portion of this route was along slightly busier roads, but traffic was giving reasonable room After 55+ miles we had some occasional slight Florida Hills. My ankle occasionally let me know it had enough so I also slowed and occasional stopped. I was happy to see the last SAG stop at 70 miles.

After the last SAG, some more rolling hills including "Sugarloaf Mountain". These hills aren't particularly tall (tallest point in entire state is 345 feet high), though the smaller hills are occasionally steep. I went slower but still had a good ride to come in a little past 4:30pm at Winter Garden. Overall an easier ride today than yesterday.

100 miles today.

January 2nd, Avon Park

Beautiful riding today with many smaller roads. The route traveled through many citrus orchards: oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes and others I'm not as certain about. When I looked at the specs for the route, it looked a little tougher so I was out early. It was beautiful peaceful and calm with occasional light fog as I left busy area and through orchards. Very slight hills along with way with winds from the NE so more tailwinds than headwinds. This area had construction of new roads and houses.

After 18 miles the peace and quiet ended as we went along a busy highway inbound towards Disney World. Fortunately only four miles of busy highway before going southbound on quieter country roads again. At 28 miles was the first SAG. Each of these SAG stops have posted times and I was 30 minutes before the official start, but Becky pulled up with the van and started putting out snacks.

After the first SAG, other riders started passing me. Still some light rolling hills and orchards. Bike was riding well and the miles were passing by. In one of the areas had many downed trees, presumably from hurricane damage. I remarked to a person on side of the road "beautiful area"...she said "it used to be"... I still found it a pretty area. Without too much difficulty I found my way to lunch. Lunches on this trip are quite good. Today it was grilled cheese and soup. By this time most of the fast riders were ahead of me and several of the slow riders hadn't yet made it to lunch. Lunch was next to a lake in town of Lake Wales. Winds were picking up with almost white caps on the water. This lunch stop was at 62 miles.

After lunch, we soon headed off and around Buffum Lake. All the roads had name of the lake...first "north", then "west", then "south" then "Buffum Church". This brought me to last SAG stop at 83 miles. At this point a car stopped and someone got out with camera and "press" badge. He was looking for one of the riders on this trip (I'm not quite certain which one is famous enough to have press chasing them, though Whit had press last year and was riding again). From here three miles southbound and then heading into the wind for 9 miles. My speed slowed as I slogged through the headwinds. Fortunately at mile 95 reached US 27 and followed it in for end of the day. Overall I really enjoyed this ride.

103 miles today.

January 3rd, Moore Haven

A lot of quiet backroads cycling today. This part of Florida has a surprising amount of pasturelands and cattle. I left the motel about 7:15am for a few miles northbound and back via Avon Park. The initial roads were narrow and busy as if everyone was going back to work. Fortunately, after 10 miles or so, the roads became quieter. We cycled along the lake in Sebring before going eastbound through more pastures. This area was very flat.

Lots of birds out on the roads. Roadkill seems to quickly attract vultures. The high telephone poles had raptors swooping down. Winds started to pick up from northeast and so mostly tailwinds. We crossed 98 and had first SAG at 31 miles. After a SAG stop the more rural roads via Lorida, Florida and then around Spring Lake which I could see in the distance. More raptors here and more tailwinds. Without much difficulty to lunch at 52 miles.

After lunch I cycled along more backroads. A few orchards, but mostly forests or pasturelands. Came through quiet backtown of Venus before coming back to US 27. US 27 was a four lane highway with high speed traffic. Quiet roads had come to an end. Winds picked up a bit and started as cross-winds before the road turned into the wind and it became headwinds. One last SAG stop at 80 miles before a slow slog into the wind. I slowed quite a bit an occasionally stopped. I was ready for a break as I pulled into the Glade motel at mile 97.

Not too many restaurants nearby, so a cookout and "closing picnic" today. Tomorrow is a shorter ride (with an optional extension to make a century) but folks will also start leaving tomorrow.

97 miles today.

January 4th, Fort Myers

An easy ride back to Fort Myers today. The weather has cooperated this week, no rain and steady NE or E winds. That meant mostly tailwinds today. I left on the 4 lane US 27. Light traffic before truning onto 78 and going through Citrus Center. Somewhat narrow and more trucks here. At first open lands, looked like a cross between pastures and wetlands. After this a few businesses selling sand. At 20 miles a turn onto busy 29 for a few miles before a quieter road again. In LaBelle some RV parks and then into mile 38 for the first SAG stop.

My bicycle was still riding well as the route became busier with more vacation homes as we came closer to the coast. Still mostly lighter traffic as we came around back streets of Fort Myers and then across onto Colonial Boulevard for a busy last six miles. Made it! Only 1pm and time for a late lunch at the van. Folks were already busy boxing their bikes and making arrangements for departure. My own departure was next morning flight back to Denver.

Overall it was a fun trip. Some plusses and minuses: