Every year the largest biking group in Central Florida, the Florida Freewheelers, puts on a springtime bike festival in Live Oak, FL, called the Florida Bicycle Safari with hundreds of attendees. This year, the Bike Safari took place from April 16 – 21. The Two Traveling Trikes were there for only two of the six days – but, we put together eight, count ’em eight, consecutive days of riding.
We used this event as something like a pre-Broadway tour. Schenectady! Poughkeepsie! Albany! Does the script need to be re-written or just a few minor tweaks? Do the laugh lines work? Do we have the right lighting and does the staging work?
In our case, the plan was to ride our trikes to Live Oak over three days, ride with the Freewheelers for two days and then ride back to Mount Dora over three days. With our trikes fully loaded with all of our cross-country gear, we felt eight straight days of riding and camping would be a great test for our upcoming TransAmerica tour. It was!
Our eight days totaled just over 450 miles. Every night was spent in our tent and every morning except the ones in Live Oak, found us packing everything up in the morning to pedal to a new destination.
The ride up
Three days … using Google Maps with the bicycling option broke the 166 mile journey down into a 42+ mile ride to Ben’s Hitching Post near Ocala and the nearby Ocala National Forest on day one, followed by a long 72+ mile on day two to the High Springs Campground, before pedaling another 52+ mile ride to reach our northern terminus of Live Oak, FL and the Suwannee County Fairgrounds on day three.
The trip from Mount Dora to Ben’s Hitching Post took us farther into the rolling hills of Central and Northern Florida. For those of you who haven’t been here … Florida is NOT flat! We covered the 42+ mile route in pretty good order and we were able to get the campsite squared away BEFORE the rain.
Ben’s offered a clubhouse with some tables and electrical outlets so we could charge lights, phones and our blue tooth intercom set.
The clubhouse featured an older recumbent exercise bike. Since we clearly didn’t get enough exercise pedaling this day, Mike jumped right on it. Ben’s also featured a pool, where Lucia lounged briefly enough for a snapshot.
Overnight rain gave us our first test of how waterproof our lightweight tent would be, and it passed with flying colors. When we broke down camp the next morning, we left a dry spot behind to mark our time in the camp. A soaking wet tent fly was packed into Mike’s pannier. Ben’s doesn’t have tables located next to the tent sites, so we went down to the clubhouse, where we made breakfast on an outside table. Okay, really the table is used for the laundry area, but it was clear when we arrived for breakfast, so we commandeered it for the task. Ben’s was an eye-opening experience into another way of life for folks who are living on the edge.
Our next day started out with bright anticipation, cloudy skies with rain predicted, and two riders with pretty fresh legs. We were set to cover 71.3 miles. It would be our longest day riding with fully loaded panniers. It turned into an even longer day than we anticipated.
You see, Google Maps for bikes is still in beta (aka – testing) mode, so they provide this disclaimer: Use caution – may involve errors or sections not suited for bicycling (bolding and italics are mine – they use a light grey; no italics). I missed a turn on my printed directions (in large part because the turn only exists in Google Maps), so instead of riding 25 miles on US 441 in a northwesterly direction, we rode 25 miles on US 301 in a northeasterly direction. We rolled into High Springs Camp around 6:30 PM, having covered 81.5 miles. The silver lining was we rode for quite some time on the Hawthorne – Gainesville Trail, completely free of traffic. The non-silver lining was in addition to a much longer ride, the last long stretch of road was filled with bone-jarring asphalt that was more pothole than smooth road – cobblestones might have been better. We were already tired and this bit of road pushed us nearly to the edge. The lesson of not relying on Google Maps wasn’t fully learned yet, however.
Because of the rain threat, we don’t have any pictures of the journey, just the destination. High Springs Campground is simultaneously much nicer and more rustic-looking than the dowdy no picnic table Ben’s Hitching Post. We had a table, a nearby set of plugs for recharging electronics and WiFi (all for about $20/night).
Having a table is critical to being able to prep food and just get things sorted.
Having WiFi makes staying connected with email and social media much easier. However, after our long ride, we only had three things on our minds, shower, dinner and sleep. We were too spent to notice the constant rumbling of 18-wheelers on nearby I-75 when we first slid into our tired slumber, but by 4-dark thirty, we became fully aware of the fact that America never sleeps. In our groggy state, an early awakening didn’t exactly translate into an early start. Fortunately, we has a relatively short trip of some 52 miles according to Google’s uninvestigated directions … more lessons to be learned in short order!
In less than seven miles, we were faced with a wall of forest where Google Maps said there was a road. The re-route said about 62 miles total. The quiet, tree-lined streets left us in the same bright spirits, with legs that were still pretty fresh. In another five miles, we passed a Hardee’s … with our late start and extra miles it was clearly time for a chocolate shake, right? In another few miles, we were supposed to turn onto a bike trail called Sprite Loop that paralleled US41/441, except this was a dirt trail! Too loopy for us, so we continued along the highway. There was a good bike lane and we eventually rode along a nice bike trail called the Ichetucknee to O’Leno Trail. The single biggest stretch of this trip was just over 20 miles on US 129 into Live Oak, where we stopped at Publix for a super submarine supper. We rode a total of just under 64 miles, including a stop at the swollen Suwannee River.
Resting while Freewheeling
The Freewheelers’ Bike Safari enabled us to pitch the tent for two days, freed us from cooking, let us ride without all the panniers attached, and let us ride some shorter distances while we recouped from the rolling journey to Live Oak.
As a bit of an oddity among all the two-wheeled bikes, we were warmly welcomed by the Freewheelers and the Safari attendees who came from Illinois, New York, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and more. For me, the most stunning thing was the food, I have never seen food served from cauldrons before – I was nearly speechless. Catered by the Dixie Grill in Live Oak, they specialize in “Southern Comfort Food”. Click on this link for a quick YouTube promo for them, or check out my shots below.
Included in these are pictures from the “Corn and Beer” appetizer event on Sunday. Unshucked ears of fresh corn are boiled in huge vat of water, placed in “coolers” to keep them hot, and despite warnings of “It’s Hot!” from the Dixie Grill staff (or maybe because of the warnings), people run from their seats, pull the leaves and silk back, dip the corn into a large plastic jug to coat the ear in butter, eat and repeat until full.
Of course, the point of Bike Safari is the riding and the companionship. We rode just over 35.5 miles on Saturday and almost 48 miles on Sunday. The route planners set up some scenic rides in spite of some pretty windy conditions. Each ride also includes a SAG stop (Support And Gear) where wonderful volunteers have PB&J sandwiches, pretzels, bananas and most importantly for a cookie monster … COOKIES! (click on the image to see the animation!)
The ride back
The ride back was highly similar to the ride up; we enjoyed better weather and we rode a more direct route with generally better road surfaces – EXCEPT – we were able to spend 25 consecutive miles on US 441 where repaving and other “improvements” have been made for cars, but not to the shoulder where we rode. Lots of debris and rough surfaces accompanied us all along this part of the route – UGH!. If we ride to the Bike Safari next year, a different route will have to be found. Our ride totals each day were 60.5, 77 and 42, for those of you keeping track.
Stay tuned for conclusions and next steps in future posts. We learned a lot about what to carry and what not to carry, a somewhat better idea of the huge increase in calories needed, along with the need to stretch our legs to keep the engines that power our trikes healthy and able to spin our wheels. We also learned more about the logistics for raising and striking the tent quickly, so we can get on the road early and on to our next destination before it gets too late in the day.
Keep on rolling!