Headwinds, heavy rain and broken spokes – Florida bites back

Once again it was offensively hot and humid as Day 3 got underway and, given that I was on the much quieter A1A which didn’t have any intersections to negotiate, I made it my first helmet-less day. Having the breeze on the free head was truly delightful and I cruised along at a good pace.

A particular highlight came after about 40 km when an exact replica of the RV which features in Breaking Bad passed me in the opposite direction. Alas, I was not wearing my helmet cam at the time.

I stopped at 60 km at a McDonald’s for some fluid and sodium and ended up making it quite a long break as I took full advantage of the restaurant’s wifi to chat to friends and family back home. While I was slurping away on my Coke, a middle-aged man with a pony tail wearing a naff, ill-fitting t-shirt approached me and asked all the usual questions about my trip – speaking in a lovely thick accent. When I asked about accommodation around Cape Canaveral, he highly recommended ‘Jetty Park Campground’ – later mentioning that he actually lived there for six months after he split up with his wife. Given that it was the right sort of distance away, I decided to go for it so I thanked him and bid him farewell. He smiled to reveal teeth like a blasted pine forest before shaking my hand and wishing me good luck.

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A familiar sight so far

It was an efficient run-in to Cape Canaveral and I soon found the campsite. Erecting the tent was not without its fair share of frustration as, not only had I been given another gravelly pitch – impossible to get pegs into, but I was getting absolutely eaten alive by mosquitoes as I was trying and failing. In fact, there were so many bites on the tops of my feet that in some areas, the red blotches had started to overlap.

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I counted 50+ on the left foot, 40+ on the right

Once thoughts turned to dinner, I was encouraged that the site had a shop selling camping supplies as I was still without gas. However, the only fuel they sold was in the form of charcoal. Determined not to just carry the pasta I bought in Miami all the way up the East Coast, I forked out $9 on coal and soon began using it to boil a pan of water. As expected, the heat transfer was grossly inefficient and it never actually came to the boil but after about 45 mins the pasta was edible and I gobbled it up before writing my diary and hitting the hay.

 

The following day, I was packed up and on the road before 9am but my stomach was empty so I soon stopped at a Deli. It dawned on me at this point that I hadn’t eaten a single item of fruit since I arrived in America. So I pushed three bananas in my face to nip the scurvy in the bud. There was a laundrette next door to the deli so I stuck around to do some washing. The clientele there were absolute nutcases – but not in an amusing way so once I got my things out of the dryer, I didn’t hang about.

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The day started slowly, heading West back onto the mainland on a rutted road. Once back on the US 1, however, it was business as usual and the pace picked up. The turn off soon came for the Kennedy Space Centre which, in the split second I had to decide, I took. It was at Cape Canaveral where NASA put the first man in space and it remains a tourist attraction to this day. However, immediately after the turn off it became unsuitable for bikes and pedestrians so I was forced to retreat.

After about 40 km, I decided to start riding with music in my ears so I put on Oasis’s Definitely Maybe and started pedalling. However, before Liam Gallagher even had a chance to open his mouth, a car pulled up alongside me as I cycled. A black man in the passenger seat was leaning out towards me such that his whole torso was outside the car. I whipped my earphones out and he shouted,
“Hey man, were you in Cocoa Beach this morning?” After I confirmed, he pointed at me and shouted again, “You take care man!” Feeling like a celebrity, I smiled and gave him a thumbs up as he sped off.

The afternoon’s cycling was very pleasant indeed. The roads quietened, the clouds came in and the musical accompaniment was a very welcome addition. I was touched also by the kindness of some of the strangers I came across. One lady pulled over as I was setting up a GoPro shot to check I was OK and later outside a supermarket, a biker pulled up and started chatting before offering to buy me something from inside. Remarkably, he then just straight up offered me money (without naming a figure).

When the magic 100 km was clocked up, the conditions were still perfect and the legs felt good. As such, I decided to just crack on and make hay while the sun was shining. Or rather, while it wasn’t.

After about an hour I arrived in Daytona Beach and started searching for accommodation on my Garmin before picking the closest one. The navigation took me off a main road through a residential area like no other I’ve seen before. This is because for the 10-15 minutes I spent weaving through the streets, every single resident without fail was African-American. I had heard of so-called ‘black neighbourhoods’ but I thought these were a thing of the past – or at least something generally found in larger cities such as New York. I can think of pockets of Southampton where there are notably higher rates of a particular ethnic or religious group but this was a whole other level. This was a total occupation and, as expected, I drew many vacant stares.

On the subject of racial segregation, I have found Florida to slightly mirror Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In the dystopian future Huxley describes, people do jobs according to their predetermined class. Broadly speaking, in Florida, Latinos are very often found working in construction, gardening or other manual labour jobs. Retail or catering jobs are often done by African-Americans and white people seem to do the rest. Asians, for that matter, are nowhere to be seen

But I digress.

After a highly enjoyable and highly productive day, it was then time for my first motel experience. For $50, I was given a dimly-lit room that smelt of cigarettes so, slightly dissatisfied, I showered, changed and wandered off to find some tea. I stumbled across a Los Pollos Hermanos-style chicken restaurant called Popeyes and, rather satisfyingly, the manager was a slim, attentive black man à la Gus Fring in Breaking Bad.

Walking home in the pitch black I heard a loud bang and my stomach did a somersault. Being in America, I naturally assumed this was a gun shot but, when the bangs continued, I was relieved to swivel round and see that it was in fact a firework display  that had started down at the beach.

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False alarm

For all the wrong reasons, Day 5 will live long in the memory. It was a particularly slow start into an ever-strengthening headwind and, to compound this, after 15 km, a torrential downpour began and I was quickly soaked. The A1A, being on a narrow barrier island, offered no shelter for miles either way so the only option was to ride through it – all the while, my speed remained painfully slow.

When I finally came across a restaurant after about 30 km, I took shelter and inspected the bike – suspicious as to why progress had been so poor. When I gave the back wheel a spin and saw it rub against one of the brake pads and quickly come to a stop, I had my answer. Now I’ve never been much of a mechanic but I took my multi-tool out and started randomly turning screws in the vague area of the problem. When I thought I’d fixed it and I had daylight in between both brake pads and the rims, I pulled the brake lever to find that I had in fact made it worse. Much worse. Now the brake pads weren’t clamping onto the rim when the brake lever was pulled. Unsure how to undo whatever it was I had done, I made use of the restaurant’s wifi to look up nearby bike shops only to find that they were all closed on account of it being Sunday.

Helpless, I decided to ride on with a front brake alone and get it seen to at the earliest possibility.  I looked up somewhere to stay 50 km up the road in St. Augustine, waited for the rain to ease up then continued.

Things still didn’t feel right though despite the issue of the rubbing brake pad having been unskillfully addressed. Headwinds were still being a nuisance but the speed just wasn’t high enough. About an hour after leaving the restaurant I heard a twang come from beneath me and I paused to inspect. At this point I discovered I had not one, not two but three broken spokes – all on the same side. Spinning the back wheel I could see that it had buckled slightly and I could feel it wobbling around as I cycled. Indeed, it was the buckling of the wheel that had caused the brake pad to rub.

I feared that if I cycled on, a Domino effect would take hold and that by the end of the day I’d have no spokes at all and a wheel shaped like a Pringle. Resigned, I cycled 100 yards up the road to a lay-by with the intention of hitch-hiking the last 20 miles or so.

But this was no ordinary lay-by. Remarkably, it was in fact a bike shop – and it was open! I couldn’t believe my luck. The mechanic soon got to work replacing the spokes and truing the wheel as well seeing to the brakes which I sheepishly mentioned I had messed up. 30 minutes later he was all done and I wheeled off feeling on top of the world.

 

But this day from Hell was not done yet.

About 40 minutes after leaving the bike shop I heard another twang and instantly knew what it was. Cursing my luck, I chose not to stop as more showers were rolling in and the headwind was picking up again. Once again, the brake pad was rubbing and I struggled to keep the speed above 20 km/h for long stretches. With legs burning, I eventually made it to the motel after the most hard-fought, attritional 84 km of my life.

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That evening, I successfully managed to arrange my first ‘Warm Showers’* host for the following night. So it was to be the first day where I set off with a definite target to aim for.

*Warm Showers is a free reciprocal hospitality exchange website for bike tourists.

Waking up on Day 6 was reminiscent of cycle tours from years gone by as I felt incredibly groggy and the legs ached badly. I found a bike shop first thing and went in with the intention of getting a whole new wheel. When they didn’t have it in stock, I settled for another re-spoke and truing service but the mechanics were busy and I wasn’t able to get my bike back until 1pm. When I did, they explained in a cloud of jargon the ordeal they’d been through with my bike (including something about a nipple exploding). They also guaranteed me another spoke would break and advised me to get another wheel at the earliest opportunity.

I cracked on up the US 1 once again into a Northerly wind – later turning off when the road got too Westerly for where I needed to be. Once I’d woven my way back to the coastal A1A, I heard the dreaded twang of another spoke biting the dust and began to keep my eyes peeled for bike shops. One soon showed up and its large size was promising – suggesting they’d have the wheel I needed. Thankfully they did and it only set me back $50. I spent a little while chatting to the store manager who was a lovely bloke and someone who’d toured a lot himself. He offered some recommendations and before long I was on my way.

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Third bike shop in 24 hours

The man I was due to be staying with, Jim, actually lives on an island. So I had to take a short ferry after about 80 km before a tough last 30 km into some brutal headwinds until Jim’s house appeared at about 8pm.

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Jim, a retired ex-Navy officer, was very hospitable and easy-going. It also soon became clear that he was a very keen cyclist – ticking off 100 mile rides on a monthly basis. We chatted away until about 11 before I grew tired and took myself off to my luxury bedroom. The following morning, a very American style breakfast was served of eggs, streaky bacon, pancakes and bagels juxtaposed with a good old English Breakfast tea. Meanwhile in the background, Fox News raved about the growth of the US Stock Market.

Jim strongly advised me to not to cycle the first seven or eight miles of the day as there were construction works that made life very difficult for cyclists. As a purist who believes in cycling every mile on a tour, I was hesitant but later did accept his offer for a lift to Yulee. The fact that we were heading in an East-to-West direction took some of the guilt off. That said, seeing the state of the road, I didn’t regret my call.

 

After we said our farewells, I pressed on North on the US 17 – a road that was to become home for quite a while. The long-awaited state border came after about 15 km and, after a few obligatory photographs, I rode into Georgia.

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Welcome to Georgia

Given that I wasn’t actually entering a new country, I was surprised at how many differences there were to Florida and how little time it took for these differences to appear. The first things I noticed were the frequency of churches being much greater and the roads were poorer. In fact, the houses, cars and buildings were generally less polished compared to Florida’s. The people I came across were less articulate, had different accents and it seemed more obese on average. It also felt for the first time like I was in a rural area – the East Coast of Florida was essentially one giant conurbation.

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Another red state

I had quite a long pause once I’d clocked up about 60 km and, annoyingly, once I got going again I was forced to stop very soon after as my back wheel had punctured. I wheeled the bike into some shade and set about fixing it – periodically swatting mosquitoes. One man pulled up in a truck and asked if I was OK before offering me some tools and a lift into town – yet another lovely random act of kindness.

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Me chatting to the Good Samaritan

 About 20 minutes later, just as I got to Brunswick, I stopped at a traffic light and looked down at my back wheel to see it splayed out in the characteristic fashion of a punctured tyre. Annoyed that I’d clearly left the offending article wedged into the tyre, I considered doing another repair but I was down to my last inner tube and I daren’t get myself stranded if I didn’t get the repair done right. I glanced to my right to see a motel then down at my Garmin to only see 70 km. Despite being woefully short, I called it a day and decided to do a proper repair indoors.

Once in my room and ready to start inspecting the bike, I popped it upside down only to discover the back wheel was not deflated at all. It had only appeared punctured because I’d pumped it up with a less efficient hand pump and the weight of me and my luggage caused a bigger deformation than usual.

Feeling like a right moron, I showered, changed and wandered out for an ill-deserved Burger King – vowing to be more productive on Day 8.

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