Randonneuring Ride Report: Florida Sunshine 1200k (Day One)

1200 kilometers, or roughly 746 miles, is the distance of the most heralded event for randonneurs: Paris-Brest-Paris. If you’re able to finish a full series, you just might aspire to complete this historic ride someday. When I first began riding brevets back in 2013, I had no notion or desire, to be honest, of ever riding this far unless it was broken up over the course of several relaxing days (or even weeks) on a bike tour. But I’ve since learned that randonneurs are a wily, persuasive bunch, ready to induct any willing warm body into their mad little cadre of long-distance cyclists. And so gradually, after hearing many romantic stories from fellow riders about their experiences — Paris-Brest-Paris ended up on my bucket list, along with earning the prized RUSA Cup award.

I’d nearly finished my set of qualifications that were slowly checked off over the past two years: a full domestic series plus a 100k; team event (Flèche or Dart); and a 1000k. Only a 1200k was left on my to-do list. As 2015 is a PBP year, most organizers in the U.S. had held off on orchestrating any grand randonées, so just two 1200k events were on the RUSA calendar: Florida Sunshine and the Taste of Carolina. I’d just been to North Carolina last October for my 1000k, so Florida would hopefully be the one where I’d earn my gloating rights at the next SFR populaire*.

Three delightful San Francisco Randonneurs were coming along for the trip: Jason (aka Pudu**) John G. and Roland. I also knew a handful of other folks that would be in attendance: Ian and Joel from North Carolina, Vicki from SLO and Vinnie from Seattle, but I was glad to have some familiar comrades accompany me from the Bay Area.

Normally I wait until the end of a ride report to thank the organizers of an event, but Dave Thompson, the Canadian treasurer of Randonneurs Ontario (and VP of Simcoe – Muskoka) who resides in Florida for part of the year, deserves special mention. He’s the fearless mastermind who took on the daunting challenge of pulling together this 4-day ride for 58 riders: planning the route; recruiting excellent volunteers; finagling accommodations at several hotels in multiple cities; booking a ferry ride; coordinating bicycle transportation; managing catering; renting tracking devices; ordering jerseys, t-shirts and awards. Obviously this was no easy logistical feat. And he also provided direct support on the road as he and fellow Canadian rando Dick Felton drove a SAG wagon along the route; they’d shout out words of encouragement through the window, or stop to supply us with snacks and cold drinks, as well as help fix or retrieve bike parts at controls (including a new crankset and bottom bracket for one rider and a seatpost binder bolt for another.) So, spoiler alert: the Sunshine 1200k was truly a phenomenal event because of all of the hard work contributed by Dave Thompson and his stellar team.

Pre-Ride Party Times

Roland, Pudu and I arrived Monday afternoon in Ft. Myers Beach so we’d have several days to unwind before the big ride. We bought some last-minute supplies at local bike shops, assembled our bikes, then made a trip to the beachfront to snack on fried gator bites, sip sugary cocktails with names like Dragonslayer, peruse the touristy gift shops and “carbo load” with ice cream (anything to justify eating lots of tasty dessert, right?) while we marveled at the silky soft texture of the sand and balmy temperature of the ocean. (We’re used to rockier shores in Northern California, and the water’s always freezing.)

John arrived the following day and joined several others who were wrenching on their bikes by the pool. More riders slowly trickled into the hotel throughout the afternoon to load up their bikes into the two cargo trucks bound for Key West. An impressively diverse mix of men and women had flown in from all over the country — and the world — to pedal across Florida. This was my first time participating in a randonneuring event with such a large international representation, with riders hailing from Australia, Canada, Japan, South Africa and the U.K. Later in the day, a dramatic thunderstorm peppered with lightning rolled in (a welcome sight to us drought-suffering Californians) that drenched the area with rain (which we hoped wouldn’t be a preview of the weather that lay ahead of us.) Speaking of storms, Dan Driscoll, the charming Texan RBA of the Lone Star Randonneurs, posted up a flurry of photos in the Facebook group (On a side note: I know of at least 4 other mustachioed awesome RBAs/VPs; perhaps there’s a connection?)

Then, of course, it was time for more feasting. Given that I’m a serious foodie, I’d done quite a bit of research ahead of time for where to eat before the ride and shared the knowledge with other randos. (If you find yourself in the Ft. Myers Beach area, I highly recommend dining at the Cape Cod Seafood Company. Their food was so delicious that we returned three times over the course of the week to our get our fix of New England chowder, fried shrimp and lobster rolls.)

Early Wednesday morning, we sailed off on a ferry for a 3.5-hour trip to Key West. During the relaxing cruise, we took loads of photos (“WE’RE ON A BOAT!”), catnapped and chatted with “Spencer” from Canada. One of our running inside jokes throughout the ride was that Pudu either forgot or mixed up the names of people that we’d met. So Chester became “Spencer”, “Caterina” was Calista, “Vernon” was Werner and “Doug” was Dave Thompson. We also just made references to nationalities: Rus was “The Australian” and there were multiple mentions of “The Canadians.”

After having an elegant beachside lunch at another restaurant on my list (Louie’s Backyard, where I crossed off the first item on our “Sunshine 1200k Bingo-style bucket list“), it was time to head back to pick up our registration packets and tracking devices, and mingle with other randos by the pool over dinner.

It was quite the bike parade as people lined up with their steeds, what with everything from a cherry red aerodynamic velomobile to tandems and recumbents, sturdy steel workhorses to zippy carbon fiber road machines on display. Despite the festive atmosphere, some folks seemed to be in a somewhat serious-rando-mindset, so I ended up with a surplus of drink tickets that were gifted to me. After three glasses of wine and a cocktail, I was feeling the giddy effects of both the alcohol and the contagious vacation-infused spirit of Key West — but alas, by 8PM it was already time to head off to bed since we’d have to be at the start by 4AM.

Island Hopping

I’d managed to get a few hours of anxious sleep (which is typical for me before a brevet), then pedaled down to the buoy marked the “Southernmost Point in the Continental U.S.” (And for several blocks near this landmark, establishments proudly proclaim, “The Southernmost Hotel” or the “Southernmost Café.” I think there was even a sign that denoted the “Southernmost Bus Stop.” On another tangent: I hadn’t been back here since I was a young girl, and if you’d told me back then that my future self would be embarking on this journey — I’m not sure how my tomboy self would have reacted…)

Riders checked in, ate some final snacks for energy and posed with the buoy for our obligatory, “We were here!” photos. And then it was time to rev our engines. We gave Dave a big round of applause after he made his welcoming remarks, the proverbial gun went off, and we blasted into the night for the continuous 98-mile leg that led to the mainland.

With long stretches of flat roads and little wind, the leaders pushed the pace at 20+ miles an hour and a large pack of us chased them, gunning forward in an unruly, aggressive mob like restless, hi-viz racehorses. My husband was following me on the website that monitored our SPOT trackers and was stoked by my progress.

“There they go!” “Wow, she’s really cooking with gas!” “Oh wait, now she’s drifting…” “Hmm…I guess she’s alone now.”

About an hour later after the start, I’d popped off the back, unable to sustain the pace and knowing full well it’d be foolish to burn all of my matches right at the beginning. So I dialed it back quite a bit, ping-ponging back and forth between several small groups who’d dropped away also, until I was by myself. I rode solo for about 20 minutes until I latched onto a duo — Dave and Werner — who were steadily motoring along. Dave (a tough rider who hails from Wisconsin) was having issues with his new saddle bag when one of the straps broke. Fortunately for him, Roland rolled up behind us shortly thereafter. “I bet Roland has a zip tie you can use,” I told Dave, and we pulled over at Bahia Honda State Park to do some hasty MacGyvering.

While randonneurs are expected to be self-sufficient and be able to fend for themselves if any mechanicals or health issues crop up during a ride, we’re not always as prepared as we should be — or don’t know how to deal with the unpredictable surprises that can befall you en route. If you’re lucky, however, Roland — who should be called St. Roland, or Rando Claus — will appear by your side. He’s one of the kindest, most generous randonneurs you’ll ever meet and will stop to help you out if he spots you parked on the side of the road. And if he can’t, he’ll at least offer moral support. An experienced endurance rider with many brevets under his belt, he’s learned what to bring along on a ride and he always packs extra to share with others. So in the course of the Sunshine 1200k, he gave or lent out a tail light, tubes, a spare tire, carried a saddle bag and performed other good deeds along the route (more of which I’ll mention later.) He’s not only wonderful company because he’s friendly, funny and super laid-back (literally and figuratively as he rides a recumbent), but he embodies the true spirit of randonneuring: camaraderie. If you ask me what the most appealing aspect of this sport is, it’s the fellowship that develops between riders on these insanely tough events . Only we know firsthand how crazy it is to undertake these rides, so the bond that’s forged as we support one another runs pretty deep.

Bridges Over Tropical Waters

Did you know that the Florida Keys are connected by 42 bridges? I sure didn’t, but I’m pretty sure we cruised over all of them that morning. With Dave’s saddle bag secured, the three of us (Werner had moseyed on ahead) sallied forth across the scenic islands. As we pedaled up and coasted down each bridge, I reveled in the pure beauty of our surroundings. Hopeful fishermen cast lines from separate docks running alongside the bridges and boats sailing in the clear turquoise water. The radiant glow of the sunrise, illuminating the morning landscape far off into the golden horizon, made the entire trip worthwhile. The longest bridge we encountered was the Seven-Mile-Bridge (I’m sure you can guess its length), that offered up the most breathtaking views of the ocean; local rando Susan flagged us down to take a selfie with her and Don at the summit. We grouped up with more riders as we traversed the Overseas Highway (U.S. 1), only stopping twice: once to grab nourishment from Dave’s SAG wagon, then to help Charlie from Texas clean up some road rash on his elbow. He took a spill on an uneven section of pavement — and naturally St. Roland had a first aid kit on him to help temporarily patch him back up.

Circle K Control

We reached our first control on Key Largo before 11AM and oh-ho! There was our Bay Area buddy, the infamous Pudu. He’d also cracked while trying to chase down the leaders, so we managed to catch up to him at the Circle K. From that point on, we “Californians” would stick together and our shenanigans kept us entertained for the next 650+ miles. (Sadly, there’d been no sign of John and we learned later on he DNF’ed from the heat in Miami Beach.)

Supremely Soothing Secret Control

Not wanting to leave the air-conditioned sanctuary of the gas station, we eventually rolled out with a new pack: North Carolina Joel; Australian Rus; Canadian Chester; Seattle Vinnie. It was hot, hot, hot and we just grinded away in the unrelenting heat. But I kept Vinnie’s philosophical advice in mind, which I’d heard secondhand from Ian: “If you’re feeling low, don’t worry — you’ll feel better. And if you’re feeling good, don’t worry — you’ll feel worse.” Then lo, an oasis appeared on the side of the road: John Preston (another mustachioed RBA who oversees the South Florida Randonneurs) manned a shady spot for us to take a break from the punishing afternoon heat. He and Alex stamped our cards, then gave us a key piece of advice on how to survive in the humidity: stay indoors at the controls as much as possible — even hang out in the beer coolers if necessary. After gulping down lots of fruit, drinks and filling our bottles with ice, we reluctantly peeled away and added Calista, Dave and Werner back into the fold.

“I’m Not Lovin’ It” 

I’ll admit here that one of my least favorite things about randonneuring in the United States is the sheer amount of junk food I end up eating during this supposedly healthy sport. But on these away trips, it’s hard for me to just subsist on energy bars and bananas (I’ve experimented with Perpetuem and the like, but it’s just not for me), so you have to forage what you can at convenience stores and fast food restaurants — the quickest and cheapest sources of fuel on American roads. It’s an absolute luxury to have a real sit-down meal during a ride, and someday I’d love to organize a “gourmet brevet” where we gorge on sushi, charcuterie and wine at the controls. But for now, it’s Sucky D’s or Taco Hell. I consoled myself by buying a Happy Meal since it came with apple slices, juice and a cute toy (which I gave to Roland for his kids.)

Mambo to Miami 

Was it still crushingly hot when we went back outside? Yes, yes it was. But we had a date with another McDonald’s in Miami Beach, so there was no time to dawdle. As we chugged past coconut plantations, tree farms and scores of lush tropical vistas, our group began to dwindle in size as riders succumbed one by one to the heat. (Seattle Vinnie and Canadian Chester in particular were wilting in the scorching temperatures, which hovered in the upper 90’s, since they come from cooler climates.) By the time we reached the outskirts of Miami Beach, our pack had shrunk to Dave, Werner, Rus and us Californians. One park had water fountains, shady trees and a public shower that provided a few moments of welcome relief as we relished the refreshing mist emanating from its dispenser. Then we braved the hectic rush hour traffic, surrounded by the soaring skyscrapers of downtown Miami, where smoothies and french fries awaited us at McDonald’s.

Despite our dinner break, Rus requested a brief stop at a 7-11 shortly thereafter, and I unfortunately witnessed him become ill as we entered the store. (He wasn’t the only one who vomited due to the heat; several other riders later recounted how they’d suffered similar reactions to the weather.) I helped him mop up the floor and he told us he’d hang back to rest for moment; if we had known then how serious his condition was, we’d have stayed back longer with him. Rus apparently became terribly disoriented, riding in circles until he ended up incapacitated, walking dazedly around a local resident’s front yard. Local police took him to the hospital, where he was later diagnosed with hyponatremia. (He’s recovering now, thankfully, and has been reunited with his wife as I write this.)

Jupiter Rising

We veered east to Miami Beach along the beachfront, lined with gleaming condos that towered over us and crowded bars packed with loud partygoers blasting music our way. It was a surreal scene, us spandex warriors gliding past the tanned tank-topped, flip-flopped denizens of the outdoor venues. And was the heat playing tricks on me? Nope, I really just saw a bearded guy in a hot pink bikini sashaying up and down the sidewalk. I so wanted to pull over and jump into the ocean — it was sheer torture riding past miles upon miles of alluring sand and azure waves that were beckoning us to go for a swim. Day 1 was the longest day of the randonnée, logging 264 miles (424km), so we had under a century left before reaching our overnight control. Toshi, a strong and stylish rider from Nagoya, Japan had joined our group in Miami Beach, so the 6 of us — Californians plus Dave and Werner — plodded onwards into the night. We pacelined when possible, although at one point fatigue almost took down our entire crew. Toshi was feeling pretty sleepy (I’d given him some caffeine chews several miles back, but they’d probably worn off at this point) and accidentally clipped a cone, causing Pudu to nearly crash into him. They both somehow managed to stay upright, while I maneuvered right into the center of the road (no cars were behind us, phew) and it took some time before our heart rates climbed back down to less freaked out levels. Well, at least we were fully awake now! We collected ourselves at a local park recommended by Werner, who was somewhat familiar with the area as a member of the South Florida Rando club, and refilled our water bottles before the final push to our hotel. Serving as our tour guide, he also pointed out the lavish homes and resorts of Boca Raton and Palm Beach’s wealthy residents, including Donald Trump’s swanky Mar-a-Lago club.

Puzzled by the sightseeing detour through the cobbled entrance way that led past the magnificent facade of the The Breakers Hotel, he and Dave paused to study the cue sheet while we Californians trusted Roland’s Garmin and lumbered on. We reunited at the La Quinta Hotel near the Fisherman’s Wharf in Jupiter — ready for a hot meal, a long shower and a few hours’ of shuteye.

Next Up: Day 2

*(It’s become an informal tradition, started by a few beer-loving San Francisco Randonneurs, for RUSA Cup holders to bring their collection to the annual populaires hosted by this club. Proud owners will show them off at the picnics held afterwards and use them to drink their favorite brews, clinking their engraved stainless steel mugs together as other folks look on with jealousy (or at least I did.) As my rando achievements began to grow over time, this stood out to me as the most appealing domestic award I could get as it’s useful; my medals were just collecting dust (so I’ve given them away to other riders), but I can down a nice serving of Belgian ale out of my cup with my fellow boozehounds.)
**Jason’s totem animal from the Furnace Creek 508