Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Florida Riding

What does a cyclist do in the winter? I have seen some riders tough it out in 30 degree weather, but that's not for me. My cutoff point is somewhere around 50 degrees, because I really don't like to have my fingers and my face frozen so hard that pieces start falling off. I have cold riding gear that makes 50 tolerable, but below that I'd rather not. So to stay in shape and prepare for a year of fun riding, I put my bike up on one of those stands that makes it stationary. Now I can ride my bike in our basement for as long as I can stand, which is about 15 minutes. Riding indoors, with no wind, no downhills, and scenery that never changes, is about as boring as watching cement harden. I force myself to 30 minutes but anything beyond that would drive me to the brink of insanity.

So when we planned a trip to Florida to visit relatives, I started making plans. I figured a February day in central Florida would certainly be warm enough that I would have some very pleasant riding. I reserved a 2-day rental bike at a local bike shop. But as the says approached the weather in Florida was still sour: wet, cold, and windy. This was not good. But I didn't give up hope.

On the morning of my first ride the temperature hovered in the upper 40s. That's cold for Florida, and beyond my threshhold of pain. But as the morning progressed, the numbers started a slow climb and by the time we were ready to leave for the bike shop they had crossed over in to the 50s. The bike shop set me up with a Specialized Tarmac for the two days. Without a doubt this was the nicest bike I have ever been on. It handled beautifully and was so light that I could barely tell it was there. After adding my pedals and getting final adjustments done, I started my ride right from the shop. I rode north on Keene Avenue/County Road 1 all the way through Palm Harbor. From there I headed west to pick up the Pinellas trail. I rode that in to Tarpon Springs, briefly headed west on Klosterman then south on Belcher Road (yes they really did name a road "Belcher"). From there it was a nice ride back to the house. Once I got warmed up it was a pleasant ride, although a bit windy. It was a 16 mile ride. Not too bad for the first ride of the year.

I really like riding in this area. Many of the roads have bike lanes or wide shoulders, including the ones I used on this ride. Then there's the Pinellas trail. This is a 34-mile paved trail that stretches from downtown St. Petersburg all the way up to the northern county line in Tarpon Springs. Most parts of the path have separate areas for bikes, so that the large difference in speed between bike riders and joggers doesn't cause difficulties. The only downside to the trail is the number of stop signs. There are sections that have a stop sign every few hundred yards, making riding at a steady pace impossible. I try to avoid those sections and stick with the areas that allow me to ride at a good pace with few stops.

Normally I am a very attentive rider. I figure the best way to prevent being run over is to ride as defensively as possible. This means paying attention to everything that could be a potential threat to my continued consciousness. On that particular day as I rode south on Belcher Road (seriously, I am not making up that name) I was momentarily distracted and I didn't pay close attention to the van that was waiting to turn left across my path. Unfortunately, he didn't see me. By the time I saw him I was certain that a collision was unavoidable. This may be only the third time in my life that I thought I was going to die. The other two times were in taxicabs. Without thinking (and with some hard braking), I quickly swerved the bike around behind the van and managed to avoid becoming road kill. Hopefully I will be forgiven for what happened next. I was angry, my body was full of adrenaline, and I wasn't really thinking clearly. It was just one word, but it was yelled about as loudly as I could manage, and it was far from complimentary. It was only after my exclamation that I saw the two high school boys waiting on the corner, witnesses to the whole incident. They must have had quite a tale to tell their buddies. "We saw this nut on a bicycle and dressed in spandex almost get wiped out by a van. And you should have heard what he called the driver!"

This incident is probably quite common for anyone who has been riding for any amount of time. But what happened next is so extraordinary that I still don't believe it. About two miles later the same van pulled up alongside me, with the window rolled down. The driver actually apologized! He didn't see me, and he felt terrible about the whole thing. By then I had calmed down and was able to be more my normal gracious self. He apologized several times for cutting me off and it was clear that he felt very badly about it. We had a nice (but brief) conversation and ended it on good terms.

Undeterred by this experience I took the bike out the next day and rode a similar route. After all, I paid for two days. One of the roads on the route has a school zone with a speed limit sign and a permanent "Your Speed" radar gun. This is a sign that tells you how fast you are going so that, hopefully, you will feel guilty enough to slow down. As I approached this sign I wondered if it would clock me. Wouldn't that be cool, I thought. I got closer and the sign still hadn't lit up. Just as I was giving up hope the sign finally flashed a number: "20". "Thank you!" I said and rode on my way.

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