Friday, October 14, 2011

All Cats are Gray in the Dark

They don't build them like they used to. In this case, that's not just a cliche with a dangling participle, it's been a pain in the butt for me during the past two weeks.

You see, we bought a 40-year-old house down here in Naples. It's on a quiet street in a great neighborhood, with stores and restaurants and the beach and really good coffee all within an easy bike ride. And there's a group down here that does a lot of non-easy bike rides, too -- the kind of fast stuff that keeps my inner Max Watzz happy -- and their standard routes pass very close by.

But the house is 40 years old. And it's no virgin.

Some of the problems are just because we need technology that wasn't around back then, like broadband. Other problems are because, as Chinua Achebe pointed out, Things Fall Apart. When things fall apart in the tropics -- which Naples technically is -- then things can deteriorate fast.

Anyway, since RandoGirl has corporate housing until the end of the month, we've been getting things fixed in the new house. We're also getting a lot of rooms painted, and a lot of new flooring and carpeting put in, and some stuff re-wired, and some stuff re-plumbed. When it's all done, we will have a great house.

About now, you're probably asking, "So? Why do I care? Isn't this blog about cycling?"

Patience, grasshopper. We're getting to it.

This morning, I had to let the flooring guys in about 9:30. Since I really, really wanted to do some hard efforts on the time trial bike, I decided to get up and ride when the sun wasn't quite up.

I'm tooling along down the bike lane on Crayton Road heading for my time trial road. For those that don't live here, Crayton is a cycling artery for any route that heads towards the older part of Naples. There are quite a few cars on it, but it's got a good bike lane and everyone seems to get along.

Except for this morning, of course.

I was just past Park Shore Drive when a car pulls up next to me with a young man and a woman in it. They roll down their window and ask me to pull over. Well, maybe "ask" isn't the right word. There was definitely a demanding tone, with overtones of indignation.

Now, like most people, I'm a non-confrontational kind of guy. I like to think that we can all talk through whatever problems we might have with one another. But I'm also a good-sized guy, and people don't usually yell demands at me with indignation. I'm probably more the size guy that people either forget about the thing, or run me over. Since I was on a quiet neighborhood road and in an accommodating mood, however, I pulled over.

Whereupon the guy and his girlfriend both start to yell at me that I had just run a red light and that they had to swerve and brake to keep from killing me, and that I had no business to yell at them back there.

What? Did I fall asleep back there or something?

So, I'm trying to get them to clarify, because there is a light on Park Shore Drive, but it was green when I went through. I had seen another cyclist a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, and was wondering if that's who they meant to be yelling at. But they were sure that it was me, and that I yelled at them for almost hitting them when I was in the wrong by running that red light. They said that I should be thanking them for slamming on their brakes and not hitting me.

We went on with this for about a minute -- them venting, and me telling them that I had idea what they were talking about. Then they drove on, and I headed off to do my ride.

But the whole thing kept bugging me. I don't run red lights on my bicycle -- although I have been known to wait through a few just to discover that the weight sensor doesn't detect me, and then dash through when it's completely clear. And I don't yell at motorists unless they are starting to pull out in front of me and I need to make my presence better known. Or if they're being total butt-wads and blasting their horn at me or passing way to close or swerving over as if they're going to run me down.

No, I'm the guy that regularly smiles and waves at passing cars. I signal my turns and stops, and wave cars through when the road ahead is clear for them to pass.

I'm the good guy!

But, I suspect that the angry kids just saw a cyclist going the same way as the one that they had almost hit, and assumed that I was him. So, I was taking the heat for somebody else's error.

No, it wasn't fair. But it's something that all cyclists should keep in mind the next time that they are out riding. When a bunch of us is riding three abreast down a two-lane road and cars start backing up behind us, or when we run a red light or stop sign, or when we jump up on a sidewalk and almost mow down somebody with two bags of groceries heading for the bus stop ... these are the things that give us all a bad name. And if you flip off the car that's been behind your paceline for the last two miles when he floors it to get past, you're not just being a bad ambassador for our sport. You're making it less likely that the driver of that car is going to be as patient when he comes upon another paceline one mile down the road.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gator Country

Last weekend was the first weekend of October, and the first Canadian high pressure cell moved in. These high pressure cells are harbingers of the Canadians themselves, and I've been told to expect license plates from Alberta province within the next few weeks.

Reportedly, the Canadian high pressure cells are more welcome here in southern Florida than the Canadian overlords who summoned them. A number of folks here in Naples breathed a collective sigh when the humidity finally fell to below sauna levels ... or it sounded like they did. You can't really hear people breath when you're under water, and it had felt like that prior to the front's arrival.

Saturday was nice. Sunday was glorious. Monday I decided to play hooky and do a long ride.

One of the local bike shops here had a route that went from Marco Island to Chokoloskee. For those of you unfamiliar with southwestern Florida geography, Marco Island is south of Naples, and basically signals the end of a discernible coastline. There's a beach there, but it's mostly canals meandering through mangroves at the edge of the Florida Everglades. If you consider coastal Florida towns "civilization," then Marco Island is the end of civilization for a couple of hundred miles, until you get near Miami on the east coast. That's kind of where civilization starts up again ... if you can call Miami "civilization."

There are two roads that run between Marco Island and Miami: I-75 (this part is called Alligator Alley), or US 41 -- also called the Tamiami Trail, since it connects Tampa and Miami. Law enforcement frowns upon riding a bicycle on any interstate highway, and it really isn't all that much fun. So if you plan to bike east from Naples, you're pretty much stuck with US 41.

I rode to downtown Naples, first, to get a coffee and some breakfast. It was a little after 8 am when I then got on to US 41 for the 12-mile stretch to Marco Island. This part was fairly busy, with six lanes of a traffic, but it also had a bike lane. So long as you watched out for cars doing stupid things, like right-hooking you as they pulled into Publix or pulling out into you from a side street, you were okay.

Since I didn't want to go too far on this first trip, I decided to continue straight down US 41 towards Chokoloskee, rather than turn down Collier Road and go through Marco Island. That was dumb. Not that Collier Road heading out to Marco Island is exactly "quiet," but that part of US 41 was busier than the rest. Next time, I'll know better.

Past San Marco Road -- which is the "return" road from Marco Island -- things were a little better. US 41 is just two lanes there, and the shoulder isn't very good, with those little raised reflective plastic things glued to white chevrons along much of it. But it was quiet enough and straight enough that you could see the cars coming and only get on the shoulder when necessary.

Now, I've biked across some boring terrain, but it doesn't get much more boring than the 15.7 miles on US 41 between San Marco Road and Carnestown. Most of the entertainment there consisted of dragon flies -- it was like some kind of Biblical locust swarm of them. And, as you rode along dodging them, you couldn't help but think, "What do dragon flies eat that there could possibly be so many of them out there?" Yeah, that's right: They eat mosquitoes. I'm pretty sure that if you got a flat tire in that stretch, you would be drained of blood before you could get your tire levers out of the seat bag.

And I know what you're thinking: Did you see any alligators? Nope. None. Neither going down or coming back. Dead or alive. There were signs saying to slow down and watch out for Florida panthers, but I never saw any of them either. There was also a sign for a gopher tortoise crossing. Nothing.

Eventually, I got to Carnestown -- which is a gas station and an Everglades Park Information Center -- and turned south on County Road 29. About four miles later, I was in Everglades City.

The folks that named this town have grand aspirations. Dragon flies outnumbered people by a billion to one. But it does have a nice Subway and lots of airboats. If you ever want to extensively tour a swamp, you could do worse than to book a hotel room in Everglades City.

Passing through this metropolis, I continued on County Road 29 another four miles to Chokoloskee. This town turned out to be a bedroom community for those who can't stand the hustle and bustle of Everglades City.

From a map, you might get the idea that you're on the southern tip of Florida. Actually, there's big expanses of open water here, but it's very shallow. The horizon is more mangroves. The beach is ... well, just look at it.

The area is obviously a fisherman's paradise, judging from the number of boats, fishing poles, and sun-baked people there. It's the kind of place that Versus would tape a show that wasn't being narrated by Phil Liggett, Paul Sherwen, or Bob Roll.

Since I have hated to fish ever since I was forced to do it with my dad, brothers, uncles, and cousins off the bridge out to Fort Myers Beach, I spent about five minutes roaming the streets of Chokoloskee, and then headed back north. After a sumptuous Subway sandwich in Everglades City, I retraced my route and was on US 41 going northwest just before noon.

This time, I had pulled my iPhone out and was listening to music -- right earbud only! I wished that I had brought my dorkoscope -- the rear-view mirror that mounts on the right arm of my sunglasses -- since the tunes did make it a little harder to hear cars coming from behind. Fortunately, traffic going this way was even  lighter, and it took less than 45 minutes to make the turn on San Marco Road.

I had a glorious tailwind for the next five miles on this rather quiet road. Mangroves and canals were on both sides of the road, and they even had platforms for nests on the tops of the power-line poles.

After crossing a bridge over the channel -- the only climb on this ride -- I came into San Marco Island proper. I stopped at a store, filled bottles with ice and Gatorade, and then fought a cruel crosswind up Collier Road. Traffic on this section was also a little crazy, and the shoulder came and went.

It was after 2 pm and getting steamy as I came back into Naples and the bike computer rolled into triple digits. I had survived my little swamp sojourn without being eaten by alligators, panthers, or gopher tortoises. ... although I had picked up a few mosquito bites on my back. I also now had a good appreciation of how it can be more difficult to do a solo century on dead flat terrain than it had been in Tennessee, since my legs rarely got a chance to coast down any hills and my nether regions had enjoyed only sporadic saddle breaks.

Mostly, though, I now had hope that there may yet be some roads down here for a cyclist to explore. It's certainly possible to find roads that go nowhere -- I just may have to be willing to suffer that same road back to somewhere.

Friday, October 7, 2011

You Can Check Out Any Time You Want ...

There is a place, half-way up Hogpen Gap on the Six Gaps Century in Dahlonega, GA. By the time you get there, you've ridden over 50 miles of the century, the last three and a half on this interminable mountain. The last half mile or so has been 15% steep. You come around a corner ... very slowly ... to see more 15% pain ahead.

But what's that, about 100 yards up on the right? Is it a rest stop? Some place with a little shade, a cool drink, and maybe a snack? A chance to catch your breath before destroying what's left of your knees en route to the landing atop this stairway to hell?

You force your legs to turn the cranks as you all but fall in to this respite. You quads are cramping into solid balls of pain, but you manage to lever a weary leg over the bike's top tube and stand a moment, your legs quivering pillars of Shot Blocks. That's when you realize that there is something wrong about the people here ... cyclists staggering around glassy eyed, arms akimbo, drool lapping over their left lip. It is then that you realize that you have entered ...

The Rest Stop of the Damned.

"Brains," moans the man in the Pink Floyd Primal jersey as he shambles past. "I mean, I wish it would rain," he croaks weakly, dried spittle all but gluing shut his sun-burned lips. His eyes spin a little wildly as he turns and limps towards a table full of fig newtons.

A trim triathlete pushing a blue Cervelo walks towards the road and glances uphill. She gasps, barely, as if startled ... maybe the hill glanced back. She levers her right leg up at the knee and clasps her pristine Specialized shoe to stretch her hamstring, then repeats the process for her left leg. She rolls her head, bunches her shoulders, and then shakes out her arms to loosen up. She glances right again, nods resolutely, and takes a step forward.

But the rest stop is not yet done with her.

The next step is slower ... inexorable. The rest stop has turned the asphalt to molasses, and the triathlete is too beaten down to fight it. The last step never comes. She slumps, sighs. Her walk back to the cool shade is faster, but just as painful.

"Have a banana," the genial man in the volunteer t-shirt and baggy cargo shorts says, waving at the table full of fruit. "Make you feel like a new man."

He hands me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "Get yourself some gatorade and go sit in the shade a bit. Take it easy and rest up." He smiles knowingly. I turn away, suddenly ashamed.

"There's no need to hurry," he beguiles. "Stay here as long as you want."

I top off my bottles, knowing that ice cold water would restore me. I take a long pull ... the water is, at best, tepid. Somehow, coming from the Igloo cooler, it has picked up an odd copper taste, slightly salty. I fear that it has been cut with equal parts of blood, sweat, and tears.

Checking my bike computer, I am surprised that an hour has somehow passed since my arrival at the rest stop. Pink Floyd is out cold in a folding chair. Triathlete chick is lying in the grass with her legs propped up on a tree, massaging her quadriceps. "Another banana?" the crack-dealer-in-training calls to me.

Without conscious thought, I jump on my bike, clip in, and begin pedaling furiously. As I turn up the hill and begin thrusting the crank with all I've got, I think I hear a banshee wail. "Brains," someone cries, as I zoom away.

If "zooming" can be used when you're only going five miles an hour.