West Orange Trail at Bike Speed
A few months ago I learned about the “Ride With Larry” project – a bike ride across South Dakota led by Larry Smith, who has lived with Parkinson’s disease for 20 years. Larry and his wife, Betty, will be riding over 300 miles across their state. I will be traveling to Sioux Falls, SD to take part in the final leg of the ride on Saturday, June 25th. Participants may select a 65 mile or 30 mile route to the finish line. A year and a half ago I, too, was diagnosed with PD. Since then I have learned about the many positive benefits of regular exercise – particularly bike riding. I hadn’t ridden for quite a while so I enrolled in the Cycling Savvy class to increase my bike handling skills and knowledge. Since “graduating” last November I have put over 500 miles on my trusty Electra Townie – a comfort bike that allows me to sit more upright, thus being kinder on my back, shoulders and hands. While providing those benefits, it’s also heavy, slow, and not so great for climbing. Regardless, it’s a really cool bike!
My plan is to rent a bike in South Dakota. While less than ideal, I’ll make do. Delta Airlines charges $ 200 each way to ship a bike, so cost became a major factor. FYI – Southwest will ship a bike for free as one of two free pieces of luggage (must be properly packed in a bike box) – but SWA doesn’t fly into Sioux Falls. I found a reputable bike shop that carries my exact model of bike. I will be bringing my bike seat and bike pedals. That will allow me to replicate my current experience as much as possible. My son, Brian, will be joining me from his home in Los Angeles and I’ve made arrangements for him to ride a Bianchi Iseo.
My goal has been to do the full 65 miles in South Dakota. To prepare for the big ride, I’ve been increasing my mileage steadily over the past month. I created a six week training plan. Even though I was traveling on business during the first week, I rented a bike two times in Chicago and rode along the Lakeshore Trail to get in some miles. I rode about 30 miles each of the the first two weeks, then stepped up the distance to close to 80 miles the third and fourth weeks. During the third week I did my first 20 miler ever on the Sunday, a couple of 10’s during the week, and finished out with a 30 mile run the next Saturday. I was feeling strong. The West Orange Trail ride on Saturday, June 11, 2011, was planned as a 44-mile route – out and back the complete distance of that trail. After talking to seasoned cyclists, I learned that I’d need to demonstrate my proficiency with at least this distance to have any confidence about taking on the full 65 miles in South Dakota. I’ve also learned that 62 miles is a “metric century” since that distance in miles equals 100 kilometers. For a 59 year old, possessing less than an ideal physique (i.e., pleasantly plump), with bad shoulders, and a heavy bike – a metric century would be a big deal.
The West Orange Trail is popular – and populated – with riders of all skills levels from novices on rentals, to families riding together, to flat out racers. Even with heavy usage, however, the groups spread out quickly based on skill level so it never felt congested. If you haven’t ever been before, the West Orange Trail is a very well maintained with full service support buildings called “stations” and limited service “outposts” spaced along the way. We started at mile marker “zero” at the Killarney Station, which houses a full service bike shop. This article by Dana Farnsworth (OutdoorTravels.com) does a great job of describing the trail, complete with a video insert.
Rodney Youngblood joined me for the ride. He is a Cycling Savvy Instructor and, as a I learned, a very patient person. The plan was to start at nine a.m., but we set out about five minutes late because the parking lot was full and I had to divert to overflow parking. We crossed a restored railroad bridge which spans the Florida Turnpike, passed the Oakland Nature Preserve and rode around the the Oakland Outpost. Shortly after that we rolled past the xeriscape / butterfly garden. When we arrived at downtown Winter Garden around Mile 5, the route guided us onto a medium along Plant St. which doubled as a park with fountains and benches. Had to slow quite a bit since this was a popular area for families enjoying their Saturday morning.
We stopped briefly at the Chapin Station just before Mile 7. In addition to a full service bike shop, it contains a very nice park, lots of shade and a Peace Garden. There is a good balance of shade cover and sunny sections along the first half of the trail. Our next break was at the Apopka-Vineland Outpost. It contained a nice park and water, but few other services. We struck up a conversation with a rider who shared that he was just getting back into cycling. Rodney gave him a Cycling Savvy brochure and invited him to take a class to build his confidence.
We took the spur that runs down to the Clarcona Horsepark and were entertained by the riders practicing their dressage routines with their horses. It was a nice hill down to the horsepark and a slow climb back to reconnect with the main trail. While there is a parallel equestrian trail, we did have to pass a couple of riders on horseback at one point on the bike trail. The section from Mile 13.5 north to Apopka was the least favorite of the day. Parts of it are in full sun for long distances – that sapped the energy from both of us. The south side of Apopka runs through some very disadvantaged areas, but the kids in the area enjoyed waving at us as we rolled by and got a kick out of my ringing my bike bell.
As we approached State Rt. 436, we overshot the ramp to a bridge which crosses that major road. There was no light at the intersection, so we performed a jug-handle turn of sorts – turning left westbound to follow the sidewalk to the intersection of Park Ave. then riding 436 back eastbound to a left-turn lane to rejoin the trail. Keri would have been proud of us – hmmm, on the other hand she probably would have said, “Idiots, why didn’t you use the bridge”.
Our next pit stop was Apopka Station. Rodney was pleased to see that they had a full service bike shop since he had broken a spoke on his bike and while still rideable, his bike was giving off a screaming sound liked he was choking a canary. He removed his rear wheel and took it in, only to find that they didn’t stock his specific size of spoke. After a few adjustments, we were back on the road and the canary was muffled for a while. The trail goes down a fairly steep hill which was fun to ride down with a slow crawl up the back side of Apopka High School. From there the “trail” – simply meaning wide sidewalk – goes along Park Ave. and then crosses Welch Rd. It ends rather unceremoniously a couple hundred yards down from a McDonald’s and Sonny’s BBQ. Of course, that simply meant that we’d reached our midpoint for the day.
We could have returned exactly the same way that we came, but remembering the fun hill – and the consequences of having to ride back up it – I suggested that we simply take the flat route and ride straight down Park Ave. Since Rodney commutes daily to his job at Orlando International Airport, this four lane road with moderate Saturday afternoon traffic was a piece of cake. He lined up in a queue behind five cars exiting the Post Office at a light and I planned to join him as he went past. I didn’t get “out of the gate in time”, so I had to wait for the next light. Invigorating to control my lane for the couple of blocks that it took to catch up to him. It’s always a treat to watch traffic smoothly change lanes behind you with no horns honking. Well, there was one guy who hung behind me, then came up beside me, rolled down the passenger window and said, “According to Florida Bicycle Statutes, you aren’t allowed to take up the whole road”. I simply waved, but was amused by the fact that I was in my lane and he was in his – by no means was I “taking up the whole road,” simply controlling the right hand lane – and, in fact, sharing that lane with Rodney. By the way, he had a bike rack on the back of his car!
That encounter was balanced out during our last rest break back at Chapin Station. A dad was taking his seven year old daughter for a bike ride. They were clearly having fun being outdoors and spending time together. The dad was asking us if we’d seen any deer along the trail, apparently anxious to show his daughter some wildlife. We had to confess to only seeing a few squirrels and egrets. He then asked if we had a bike pump. We were taking a well deserved rest sitting in a pair of rocking chairs on the porch of the station, but we gladly pulled ourselves up and proceeded to pump up his tires. Turns out he had a brand new bike – in fact, the tag from the store was still hanging off the handlebar. The front tire was almost completely flat, so after pumping that up we proceeded to inflate the rear as well. The “ABC mantra” (air, brakes, chain) were running through my head from my Cycling Savvy class, but instead of “lecturing” the gentleman in front of his daughter I simply handed him a brochure and suggested that he consider attending a class to improve the riding experience for both he and his daughter. It was a refreshing moment after a long day on the trail.
We stopped on the way back at a bench to enjoy a delicious lunch – as in PB&J sandwich. While I had eaten a good breakfast (cheese omelette, bacon, English muffin), I’d only had a few handfuls of peanuts during other breaks. The sandwich recharged me, but I probably should have had another later on in the ride because I did begin to run out of steam towards the end. In fact, I began calculating our time and realized that we’d been riding for quite a while. I am able to do my “standard” ride on the Seminole Wekeiva Trail in an hour flat, which is averaging 10 miles per hour. Excluding breaks, we were well below that pace – hence the reason that I said earlier that Rodney was very patient with me. Some of this was due to encountering more hills than I’m accustomed to, part to less than adequate nutrition, part to my personal level of conditioning, and part to the fact that I have a heavy bike.
Around Mile 35 it dawned on me that my objective of taking on the full 65 mile ride in South Dakota may be a tall order and that I may have to opt for the 30 mile route, especially since the group may be traveling at a faster pace than I’m capable of doing at this time. One of the goals of tackling the West Orange Trail was to “test my mettle”. The definition of mettle is “A person’s ability to cope well with difficulties or to face a demanding situation in a spirited and resilient way.” I do have the heart, soul, and spirit and I am quite resilient – however, all told, I do have limitations. If I end up (final decision still to be made) doing the shorter route, I will still be proud to have built up the endurance to ride a “strong 30.” Having my son, Brian, along for the ride will make the day all that much more special.
We arrived back at Killarney Station about 3:35 pm – six and a half hours on the trail, with about five and a half hours in the saddle. I did stay well hydrated which was critical considering that the thermometer registered over 93 degrees. I started with a full 70 oz. Camelbak and refilled it two times. As we passed the Oakland Station, I poured a spare water bottle into the hydration system and while it was fairly warm water by that point, it was enough to get me the last three miles. Mine was the only car in the overflow lot and very few cars were remaining in the main lot. However, the bike shop was still open and we gladly purchased an ice cold Gatorade to drink in celebration. My goal for the day had been to “run the full West Orange”. I accomplished that distance and a bit more to spare. Final number on the bike computer for the day – 45.17 miles! If someone had told me last November that I would cover that great a distance in a “week”, much less a day, I wouldn’t have believed it. In addition, I got to spend time with a great guy and appreciated Rodney’s guidance, encouragement, and patience. I’d be proud to ride the trail with him again one day.
I’m sure that I’ll have a tale to tell after completing the Ride With Larry. I know that it will be a special day – no matter the distance covered. Watch for my next posting – and get out there and ride!