Hell Week Bicycle Adventures
The journey continues…

Jan
07

We’re expanding our Texas Hell Week Brevets for 2008 by offering two sets of 200K and 300K rides. Below are details:

  • Monday 17th March. 200K to Hunt; 300K to Utopia via Hunt. The 300 builds off the 200.
  • Friday 21 March. 200K to Junction; 300K to Menard, via Junction. The 300 builds off the 200.

The first duo uses established brevet routes that are scenic and very safe for cycling. The second duo uses completely new routes, and allows us to venture into the somewhat mountainous region west of Hill Country. In both sets, the starting times will be as follows:

  • 200K: 0800 start; 0730 check-in.
  • 300K: 0600 start; 0530 check-in

There will be a small fee for each brevet. Online pre-registration will be available by late January 2008.

Jan
07

Click the links below to see our t-shirt/sweatshirt design, as well as the accompanying jersey. We’ll also have cool socks from Sock Guy available.

Texas Hell Week 2008 T-Shirt Design

Texas Hell Week 2008 Jersey Design

Jan
07

It is only a couple of months until Texas Hell Week XVIII returns to Fredericksburg, and cyclists take to the rolling pavement of Texas Hill Country. We’ve got some nice changes in store for this year, including:

  • Several new routes, including roads we’ve never used before south of Comfort, as well as near Harper.
  • New takes on old routes, including doing some in the opposite direction.
  • New brevet routes (see separate posting on this)
  • A tiered entry program, allowing riders to select their amenity package. This translates into potential savings for our riders who already have more t-shirts and sweatshirts than they can ever wear.
  • Hell Week will serve simultaneously as a RAAM (Race Across AMerica) weekend and UMCA (Ultra Marathon Cycling Association) camp, attracting many long-distance cyclists from around the country. This reunion of Hell Week with RAAM and UMCA hearkens back to the beginnings of Hell Week, when several of us were training for RAAM. Of course, all cyclists are welcome at Hell Week!

On top of all this, I am building a routes database for TXHW. It will allow me to create new routes and/or combinations of routes (think: A, B, and C routes used each day) by letting me match destinations, ingress, and egress characteristics. There could be almost limitless possibilities for future routes, allowing us to offer up something unique each and every year.

As we did last year, the A-B-C rides will all leave at 9:00am CDT, and will be “nested” in that they all head out of town (egress) in the same direction before parting ways. We’ll have completely new maps this year, courtesy of Google Maps, along with the same precise and exacting cue cheets we have always featured.

Be sure to sign up soon before the late fee goes into effect. We are expecting a large turnout this year; our registrations are running well ahead of average.

Jan
07

With Gator XI now history, it’s time to start thinking about the Next Adventure. And that will be, as always, on 28 December through 04 January. We use the same calendar dates each year; this time around, it will be a Sunday-through-Sunday tour.

I am going to be doing some minor tweaking of the Day 5 and Day 6 routes for 2008. Specifically, I plan to make Day 5’s destination Clermont, a scenic town nestled in the rolling hills of central Florida. We’ll still keep the Day 5 route intact to Minneola, where we have the second SAG, and then do a mandatory loop over Sugarloaf bfore riding back through Minneola and Clermont to our host lodging.

For Day 6, I’ll need to add some miles, since we will have lopped about 16 off the existing route from Winter Garden. To do this I’ll alter the last fourth of the route to stretch south of Hwy 60 to Alturas, and then enter Bartow from the south. This entry to Bartow is actually the same route we’ll use the following morning to leave town; it is also the same route we once used on the original route. And truthfully, we have also used the Alturas section before on some of the “ancient” Gator tours, proving once again there really isn’t anything new under the sun.

The net effect of all this will be negligible in terms of total miles ridden, but it will allow us to add some improvements along the way. I view a bike tour route as a continuous work-in-progress, never really done, and always able to be improved upon. The paint never really dries on a tour.

Registration info for Gator XII will be posted soon on the website.

Jan
06

Another Gator Country Hell Week has come and gone. This was the 11th fully-supported version of this tour, with the first (the “beta”) being run in January 1997 as a self-supported tour by 4 vets of various other Hell Weeks. And as with all the previous tours, this was a great one.

Call me a hopeless cycling romantic, but I rather like riding here. I’ve now pedaled nearly 10,000 miles in those 12 rides, not to mention all the countless thousands of other miles I’ve ridden here while on extended stay. It’s a great place to ride. Don’t let the tourists and retirees fool you; there’s plenty of awesome roads for cycling. You really can get away from it all.

Florida has changed a lot during the years we’ve been cycling here (and we’ve been coming since 1984…it takes a long time to really get to know a place and the roads we use on the tour). The population has grown considerably, although I hear rumors of “negative growth” these days as cost of living, insurance issues, and property taxes have become headlines down here. And the urban sprawl of major metros such as Tampa, Orlando, and Fort Myers have caused me to reconsider several roads through the years…and replace them with better ones with less traffic.

Being an academic, I am always intrigued by local culture. I love to crawl around at the grassroots, and get some local dirt on my sleeves. That’s why I make an effort to take this tour through what I consider to be the “real” Florida. This place is almost my second home, since my close family all lives here. It probably amuses (or annoys, I’m not sure) when I wax nostalgic with our riders about “the old road” that went over here, or the ancient concrete curbs along the narrow lane over there. For me, I am riding through Florida history.

Yet each night along the tour I was easily able to access wifi to post my daily blog.

It’s almost like the tour is an ancient-future retro-prospective glimpse of what was, is, and will be.

But enough of my philosophical babbling. This was a fun week!

The previous three years caused us to get a little lax in our thinking about the possibility of wintry weather in Florida, as we “endured” Chamber of Commerce weather for 8 days straight. The cold blast this year brought us back to reality. Florida is a place with changeable weather, and even the southern extremity of the continental US can get a sampling of what life is like in the Great White North.

But Florida’s location also puts it in the path of hurricanes. In fact, twice this week our route passed through a portion of Pol County that has the distinction of being where the paths of three ferocious hurricanes in 2004 all intersected. I remember the Gator tour that December quite well, as we had trouble securing motel rooms for our riders. Most of the local inns were booked long-term with local people left homeless by Mother Nature’s fury.

And those blue-tarp roofs all over the state’s midsection served a constant reminder of what can happen when the weather goes south.

But what I find most intriguing is how a highly disparate group of individuals can come together to ride bikes, most of us starting as strangers, but ending as best buds a mere 8 days later.

Brothers Peter and Ed were great to have along. Their charm was infectious, and to be quite honest, the example they set as sibling cycling pals was a model for all of us with brothers or sisters to mimic. It was great to have Rose (riding) and Lanie (crewing) along, because they have been a part of Gator since the beginning (Lanie being one of the 4 on the beta tour). Dave returned for his 8th consecutive Gator (and has ridden every mile, every year). Jim returned for a half-tour; Tom returned for his third Gator. Monica, a vet of a trans-Nevada ride and various other intensive tours, made Gator look easy, as did Larry, a retired Marine. Bob and Susie rode tandem, and expanded their cycling horizons in ways they probably never imagined. Kay returned for her umpteenth Hell Week (she’s done some of our other events as well), and showed how a seasoned cyclist handles the day-in and day-out. Barclay returned after many years for another Gator on his recumbent, and zipped through every mile in spite of spending more time on his skates lately than on his bike. And I can’t fprget my wife, Becky, for her awesome crewing and leadership, as well as my brother, Mark, who was able to join us as crew for three days. Finally, our kids, Becca and Bailee, were great sports, and hopefully learned something about not just how to run a family business, but more importantly how to set goals and meet them.

I’m looking forward to next December when we gather once more in Fort Myers for Gator XII. There’s still a lot more Florida to experience, and I look forward to sharing it with anyone willing to allow me to lead them into the cycling romance of the Sunshine State.

Jan
04

All good things must come to an end.

And so today we wrapped up Gator Country Hell Week #11 in Fort Myers, the same place we started the journey one week ago. In the mean time, we rode 830 miles across southern and central Florida. We felt the scorching heat of summer with several days pushing 90 degrees. We bundled up for the antithesis of global warming the last three days. And we saw a whole lot of the Sunshine State in ways and places that most tourists here seldom if ever experience.

The last day of this tour is always a little bittersweet for me. Sure, it is always nice to have a journey come to an end. And if you believe the bumper sticker, “It is good for a journey to have an end, but in the end, what matters is the journey.” But it is always a bit sad to realize that yet another chapter has drawn to a close.

It was quite a bit warmer this morning than the prior two when we left the Ramada Inn near Lake Placid. You know you’ve experienced some chill when 40 degrees seems warm. But 40 is still cool enough for jackets, tights, and booties, so we suited up one more time in winter gear.

A mere two miles into the ride we ducked into the time warp known as Old SR 8, the quaint two-lane road that is one small lasting fragment of the old state highway system that predates the federal system (US Rt 27 being the replacement). Traffic is virtually nil; there are far more orange trees standing spectator to the road than there are motorists whizzing by.

There was even a small section of road closure to deal with. I was pleased to see that none of our crew can follow directions; the numerous tire tracks in the sand bore testimony to the fact that everyone simply rode between the barricades and kept going.

But what can I say? Dave and I did the same thing. Short of a bridge out, nothing was going to stop us from seeing this page of highway history.

The country store in Venus is now imploding, one piece of lumber at a time. Eleven years ago I sat on the porch of this store with friends, enjoying a cold soda. After the old woman died, her daughter tried to keep the store going, but it fell on hard times. The ghosts of Various & Sundry Items no doubt lurk amid the decaying rubble; all we could do was pedal by and take a long, slow look.

It was less than a mile to our turn onto Detjens Dairy Road, whose raised curbs bespoke a long history in roadmaking. There’s no dairy there today, only a few old timeers and a few shiny new double-wides. Land must be cheap on that road. A half-dozen abandoned, identical homes littered the right side of the road, no doubt the former residences of hired help many years ago.

And then the road runs out and we have to get on Rt 27 for the 6 miles to Palmdale and the morning SAG, where the shuttered Palmdale Store sits awaiting someone to finish the remodeling job started well over a year ago. I have sat in that building several times, too, through the years, but it’s tough these days to make a buck on the remote interior of the state. People are in a hurry to get to Miami, and couldn’t care less about old buildings.

After the break we hit Hwy 29 for the 14 miles back to LaBelle…a very quick, flat run that Dave and I tackled at 23-25 mph (thanks to a little help from the wind). At LaBelle we start retracing the exact same 48 miles we used to leave Fort Myers. It’s a very fitting conclusion to our journey, for now we got to see what it looks like going the other way…catching glimpses of the Caloosahatchee River, cruising through Alva (no doubt named after a certain Mr. Edison), and, after a quick lunch at Hwy 80, on into Lehigh Acres.

Just as the remaining four contestants on TV’s Survivor have a reflective exercise near the end as they recall all the others they have voted off the island, we were allowed to reflect on the week spent pedaling, and finish it just the way we started it.

The only difference is that we idn’t vote anyone off.

It was a very quick 34 miles from lunch back to the Super 8 and our finish line, giving us the shortest day of the week with only 93 miles. The miles clicked all to fast…by the airport, onto the bike path along Six Mile Cypress Road, past the bustling commercial area near Colonial, and then along the secluded bike path running parallel but far away from the traffic.

Most of us finished within just 9 minutes of one another. Packing and showering ensued, and before you could say “cut!” the scene was over. Riders scattered in a variety of directions, leaving a few of us behind to grab dinner at Hops.

But for the 13 of us who completed the journey, we’ve got memories. We’ve got tales to tell. And we know that when it came time to dig deep into the suitcase of courage, we were able to overcome whatever barricades that bedevil us.

After all, “Road Closed” is just another way of saying “Great Cycling Ahead.”

Jan
03

“I think I have an icicle hanging from my nose,” I yelled as I passed by Peter and Ed this morning somewhere after Bowling Green.

“Is that the Quote For the Day?” Ed asked.

“Yeah, sounds good to me,” I tossed back. The plumbing was working great this morning, thanks to the chill in the air. The TV said it was 29 in the Winter Haven area, but I decided to not tell anyone what the thermometer on the side of the RV said: 22 degrees. Yikes. this ios Florida. It’s not supposed to get this cold…ever.

But it did. And we rode anyway. With an almost 115-mile day ahead of us, I couldn’t really allow for much of a delayed start. We had to get rolling early, and stay moving, or risk running into a daylight constraint.

Fortunately, our route had a lot of southerly component to it, making our departure from Bartow well-placed in a geographic sense. While we did have some east and west sections (thanks to my never-ending fascination with riding by quaint, meaningless places in the middle of nowhere), much of our ride was straight into the sun. There were about 8 miles of dead-on headwind as we doubled back north immediately before and after lunch, but the rest of the our day dealt with either side- or tailwinds.

And that’s what we are thankful for, because that wind blew with a fury all day long. It did warm up to almost 50, but once you get sweaty underneath your jacket, it is hard to shake a chill. The result is that we all stayed cold for the entire day, our balaclavas allowing for some bizarre tan lines on our faces.

I like today’s route quite a bit. It takes us through some old Florida towns (like Bowling Green, Ona, and Zolfo Springs) , through desolate phosphate mining country, and past the Limestone Country Store, once a fixture on the original Gator Hell Week route. There were even two “pick-a-plank” wooden bridges on the lonely country roads we followed. The section around Lake June in Winter was particularly scenic, with its miles of curving lakeshore. Our route eventually took us through Lake Placid and a few miles beyond, to a Ramada Inn along Rt 27 south of town conveniently located near nothing.

And so we had our customary cookout tonight. The only hitch in the arrangement was that we had to eat indoors, thanks to the wind and chill. But that didn’t but a damper on things a bit, as we enjoyed one another’s company one last time before we break up tomorrow afternoon at the completion of the ride.

Tomorrow’s route is only about 93 miles, meaning we’ll get roughly 830 on the tour. And some folks will be packing up and flying home right away, leaving the rest of us to do our traditional post-ride dinner at Hops brewpub in Fort Myers. It’s an easy spin into the finish, and the forecast is already calling for a light northeasterly breeze…a tailwind that will no doubt warm our spirits and souls as we pedal the remaining miles of our journey.

Once again, Gator Hell Week has been a big blur. We ride. We eat. We sleep. And then it’s over. There’s scant little time for anything else.

Except, perhaps, make plans for the Next Big Ride.

Jan
02

“What would happen if a Canadian got frostbite in Florida?”

That was the question posed this morning by one of our two Canadian riders Peter and Ed, both brothers from Ontario. And while it was partly offered in jest, it was indeed a relevant question. A reinforcing cold front had blown through the evening prior, greeting us with howling northwest winds. At daybreak today it was a chilly 34 degrees in suburban Orlando.

Given that it was a sizzling 90 degrees only a few days ago, the change was rather abrupt. We bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, booties, gloves, and balaclavas.

“Don’t expect to find anything in the “Shed Clothing” box,” I told Becky before we rolled out. I was right, as no one took off anything today.

But while it may have been cold today in sunny Florida, it was still much warmer than back in Canada or the midwest. The chill actually helped us make good time, as it was not inviting at all to linger very long while wearing damp clothing beneath jackets. Get in, get out, and get back on the bike. That was the ticket today.

Our route did a lot of doglegging back and forth through central Florida, but overall we took a southwestward track, ending up in Bartow. This meant we had some long periods of glorious tailwind, especially along the Van Fleet Bike Trail, and the many miles after lunch through Haines City and all the way to Lake Wales. Even the hills after Haines City were easy with the push of 20-25 mph winds.

But all good things must come to an end, as the last 25 miles or so  headed more or less due west, meaning we had to deal with the wind more directly than we had done so earlier in the day. Everyone finished between 4 and 5pm today, with 104 miles tallied. We have now covered 624 miles, or about 1000k, in six days.

The fact that the thermometer never really got above the mid-40s today means that tomorrow morning will be quite cold…near-record cold, in fact, with 28 forecast for the region. But by afternoon it should rebound to the mid-50s. Friday holds promise of temp[s back in the 60s, ensuring nice weather for our finish.

Truth be known, the chill is but a minor inconvenience, because a mild rain would be far less fun to ride in than chilly sunshine. I’ll take the cold over prolonged rain any time; our tour this year looks like it will run its course with only a few drops of rain during the 8 days.

I am especially fond of some of the sections used in Days 6-8, because they cover some very old sections of Florida highways that predate federal numbered highways as well as the reorganized state numbered roads. Today, for example, we rode on Old Bartow Road for a while, through a short section with remnants of the original concrete curbs. This section of road is the original alignment of what would eventually become Florida Highway 60.

And tomorrow will see us leave Bartow on the original alignment of US 17. Finally, on Friday we’ll pedal along scenic and historic Old Number 8 through Venus, and Dietjens Dairy Road. I’m getting ahead of us here, but I truly enjoy riding down these memory lanes. It’s almost like traveling through a time warp.

Until then, though, we’re digging for extra blankets to stay warm tonight. We’ve got to cook breakfast outside tomorrow in sub-freezing temps. There may be frost on the bacon and eggs.

Hey, at least we don’t have to ice down the coolers tonight. Mother Nature is taking care of it.

Jan
01

You would hardly even know a new year had started if you had polled those of us riding around Florida this week. It was another day on the bike, preceded by another early evening. When you’re riding 100 miles a day, it begins to add up quickly. No one even cared about staying up to greet 2008. Sleep is more important.

The first of two cold fronts blew through before daybreak today, with a brief line of showers to wet the roads and bike path for our early morning start. The wind picked up in intensity by late morning, blowing solidly from the northwest. Our route had us going dead into it for 24 miles along the Withlacoochee Trail, but thanks to the dense vegetation, we were shielded from much of the wind’s effects.

And as soon as we headed east on Rt 44, we picked up what would be a very friendly and favorable wind for much of the remainder of today’s miles. Brilliant sunshine, with albeit much cooler temps (mid-60s at best) and a nice push from behind are a nice combination, and we made great time aiming for the mid-section of the state. Lunch was in Center Hill at the 58-mile mark.

It’s about 12 miles after lunch that our route finds the first hills that make the Clermont area such a great place to ride. Short rollers, with an azure lake at the bottom, left us feeling more like we had stumbled into a Minnesota summer. But the palm trees reminded us otherwise

The afternoon SAG was in Minneola at Rt 27, where riders had to make a quick decision about whether to take the very short 12-mile direct route to Winter Garden (primarily on bike paths), or opt for 27 more miles via Sugarloaf Mountain, perhaps the most challenging hill peninsular Florida has to offer. Sure, it only climbs 200 feet from bottom to top, but it is a real hill, with a 16% gradient in one section. The view from the top is stunning.

And so most of us opted for the Sugarloaf option, giving us 111 miles for the day. Weather reports we heard upon arrival warned of much chillier temps the next two days, with the daytime high struggling to hit 50 tomorrow, and then below freezing tomorrow night. And let’s not forget the 20-30 mph winds from the northwest that will be friend or foe for parts of tomorrow’s route that heads southwest from here.

After five days we’ve covered about 520 miles. Seven of our original group have ridden every mile, which, if it holds, will yield a slightly better than 50% mark for total completion.

But there’s still 300 miles to cover and some chilly winds. Time to dig out those booties I brought. They’re around here somewhere…

Dec
31

We’re hung on to summer for one more day. And from the sound of things, we’ve got one more day to bask in sort-sleeve glory before a reality check sets in tomorrow night. By Wednesday morning, we may very well be scraping frost from our water bottles.

But only for a day. And remember, no matter what the weather is here, it’s better than it is back north.

Today was a ride of two bike paths…first the ten-mile section on the Van Fleet Trail before lunch, and then the concluding ten miles on the Withlacoochee Trail at the finish. In both cases the riding was superb, with a mix of other cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers.

And for the first time during this ride, we encountered cloudy skies and even a few scattered gravity-prone drops of liquid sunshine. Fortunately it was never enough to really get wet, although the persistent humidity kept us all feeling a little damp all day long.

We left Plant City in spotty fog, and rolled through rural Hillsborough County as we skirted the thriving and growing metropolis of Lakeland. In a short time we were headed out into the Green Swamp, a slough that sits roughly 100 feet above sea level in the middle of the state, and also provides the headwaters of the Withlacoochee River.

It was there we used the Van Fleet Trail, a perfectly flat ribbon of pavement that extends for 29 miles in its totality. We’ll be back on it on Day 6 for another 10-mile segment. This facility is a real gem for Florida. The only drawback is that it so far from residential centers that most users have to drive there, and then unload their gear, thereby kind of defeating the purpose of human transport in the first place.

But I digress.

After an all-too-quick helf-hour on the trail, we exited on Rt 565 and found the crew waiting for us in front of a small Baptist Church, where we had lunch and savored the feel (for a few minutes at least) of the hard plastic buckets we use for seating. After a few days in the saddle, even a bucket can be comfy.

It was then back on the bikes and off to Mascotte, and then to Center Hill via Tuscanooga Road, a little road we used back in the first two Gator Weeks (’97 and ’98). It was only another 6 miles to Webster for the afternoon SAG, a town known mostly for its huge Monday flea market. The market was still going strong when we rolled past, buyers and sellers apparetly finding something to agree about.

About this time a moderate northeast wind picked up, the first real breeze of the day.  Given our route, this was only a minor nuisance, as we only had a few northbound miles to cover. After crossing I-75 we sped past the national cemetery, and then a prison. A few miles later, after crossing the Withlacoochee River, we joined up with the path of the same name. The sun began to break through, but ironically the raindrops began falling. We picked up the pace, hoping to reach the finish near the intersection of I-75 and Hwy 50 before it could break loose, which we did. Unfortunately for the crew, they had all the baggage outside the trailer, ready for everyone to claim, when a stray shower dumped on them before any of us arrived. They quickly repacked everything, only to watch the sun reappear in time for our dry arrival.

Dinner was at nearby Papa Joe’s. Family members joined us, while we also bid adieu to Jim, who was only along for the first half of the tour.

And thus ends our cycling for 2007. We’ve come slightly over 400 miles in 4 days (with 97.5 today), with roughly the same to come in the next 4 days. One thing is for sure: We all start tomorrow morning with one thing in common. We’ll have 0.0 miles for the year when we roll out.

But that will all change quickly. Furthermore, all of us agree that there’s no better way to ring in the New Year than to be riding bikes.

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