Last Labor Day weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the Tour of Sebring. Now that sore sit bones and lactic acid buildup of cycling 230 miles through the rolling central Florida countryside has faded, it’s time to properly recap the amazingly fun three days of cycling through Florida’s heartland.
Registration Day. I had a late start from Fort Myers due to some last minute errands, but there was no rush, as Sebring is only about 90 minutes away, and the event registration did not open till 6:00 PM. Most of the gang was already there as they tweeted and made FaceBook posts while enjoying some cocktails at their traditional “camp” on the porch of the old Kenilworth Lodge . As we, my wife and son tagged along, neared Lake Placid, we started spotting a smattering of cars with bikes atop or hanging behind them. The frequency of bike carrying cars increased the closer we got to Sebring, and by the time we turned off US 27 onto Lakeview Drive, there was no doubt a major cycling event was in town.
Parking was difficult, as every available spot had a car loaded down with bikes of all kinds. I found a spot in a designated overflow area and headed across the street to the old lodge. As I walked up the steps I glanced to my left and saw a big banner for the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club along with many members kicking back enjoying some beer and wine…nothing like proper fueling for the upcoming days rides.
I said hello to the gang and then headed in to find long lines of very festive riders waiting to register. I actually ran into some old friends while waiting in line…oddly enough I lived in Sebring for a while yet was completely oblivious to the many cycling events it was home to. Eventually I made it to the front of the line, paid my registration fee, got my bag of goodies, as well as an extremely cool tie dye event t-shirt, and then headed to my home in Sebring for a good nights rest.
Day One, Lake Istokpoga Metric Century. 63 miles and 1,152 feet of climbing. I arrived at the Kenilworth Lodge while it was still dark to find a few cyclists out front prepping their gear as well as some vendors setting up their storefronts. A slow but steady stream of cyclist gingerly carried their bikes down the front steps of the lodge as others rode up from either side of the hotel. In short order the front drive and lot was full of excited, lycra clad cyclists ready to start the days ride.
The days ride plan called for am 11, 24, 31 and 63 mile ride. My choice of poison of coarse was the Istokpoga Metric Century which wound its way around Lake Istokpoga, through Lake Placid and back up to Sebring. After a a quick pre-ride overview, which I doubt anyone heard, we rolled out onto Lakeview Drive and started our days adventure.
As is always the case with event rides, the pace immediately picked up as we flanked Lake Jackson. The vast majority of the group stayed tightly packed as we made our way out of Sebring and onto the gently rolling terrain east of the town. I was really surprised to see so many rollers. I really do not recall rolling terrain while living in Sebring, but after riding so long in the absolutely flat roads of Fort Myers, these little rollers really got my attention.
A spectacular sunrise greeted us as we pedaled past citrus groves and large scenic pastures often filled with cows happily ruminating the morning away. The temperature can only be described as “delicious” with temperatures in the low to mid 70’s and virtually no wind. At the 23 mile mark we came across our first SAG stop. Although a good number of people chose to stop, I elected to keep on going. Some indecision in the group caused a sizable gap between us and those that continued, but I was was more than eager to drop into my aerobars and chase them down.
The backside of Lake Istokpoga is normally a technicolor treat on the eyes from all the caladium fields, unfortunately most of the ornamental plants had been harvested leaving just a a few colored fields to enjoy as we rode by. At mile 40, the lead group decided to pull into the SAG stop near the boat ramps on Lake Istokpoga. The lake is a large oblong freshwater lake approximately 5 miles wide by 10 miles long known for it’s freshwater fishing and very shallow depths. It’s not uncommon for boats to get stranded in the muck near the shorelines…by the way, Istokpoga is Seminole Indian for “our people died there” because a group of Seminole Indians attempted to cross the lake and were bogged in the mire and swallowed by whirlpools.
Bottles topped off and food in the tank, we all mounted up and headed back out onto the road for a nasty little hill climb up to Lake Placid. We crossed the always busy US 27 and headed towards the downtown area only to veer off towards Lake June in Winter (and no it’s name does not change in the summer). A long sweeping decline around the lake had us topping out near 40 MPH only to scrub off all that speed when we hit a series of small climbs while rounding Lake Francis. We crossed US 27 again for our final northern push back towards Sebring an the eventual rides end at the Kenilworth Lodge.
By rides end my computer was showing 63.9 miles ridden with 1,152 feet of climbing completed in 3:05 hours. Average speed was 20.3 mph with a top speed of 37 mph. I actually returned faster than anticipated leaving some time to kill on the porch before a fantastic lunch which included carved brisket, herb crusted tilapia, chicken florentine, as well as a wide assortment of sides and desserts.
Day 2, Bok Tower Century, 105 miles and 2,536 feet of climbing. After a good nights sleep, I headed back to the Kenilworth Lodge under the moonlight for the days full century ride. As on the day before, riders slowly made their way down the stairs of the lodge, by the way, watching cleated riders carrying bikes down the stairs of the Kenilworth Lodge is akin to watching Wipe Out on TV, you know sooner or later someone is going to have a pretty spectacular fall…and quite a few did! The drive and lot eventually filled to capacity, and then some as an even larger number of riders turned out for the event. It was club jersey day which had everyone in their home town club kits. Not having a Caloosa Riders kit, I proudly represented this blog wearing my CenturyTrek Blog jersey.
Like the day before, someone gave out some route pointers, but again, we were really all too busy chit chatting to hear anything besides the road mark colors. No sooner had he finished, we all streamed out of the drive and onto Lakeview Drive, this time parading through Sebring’s historic downtown circle then up north towards Avon Park via some picturesque back country roads covered with a low hanging mist swathed in the glow of the sunrise.
The main group surprisingly stayed in a tight, fast moving peloton all the way to Avon Park. It really wasn’t until the first SAG stop at the 21 mile mark that any real division in the group occurred. Everyone maintained speeds in the 22-24 mph range, this was going to be a very fast century…but the ride was still young, and some very nasty surprises were in store down the road.
I elected to skip the first stop and push on with the lead group. As we headed north towards Frostproof (yes there really is a town in Florida named Frostproof, and before you ask, yes, it has frosted and frozen in Frostproof) we started seeing more rollers which slowly started to fragment the group. The peloton had shrunk considerably by the time we reached the second SAG stop at Reedy Lake. A refueling was necessary this time, and with the wind picking up, it would not hurt to wait for other riders to arrive and form a larger group to combat the wind.
Most of the gang for the Caloosa riders elected to do the shorter 62 mile route instead of the full century. Terrence, Steve, Maura, Xavier and myself were game for the full hundred. I was hoping to regroup with them all at this SAG stop, but we were all too distant, in fact we saw Steve and Maura coasting in as Xavier and I rode out. As soon as we exited the SAG stop the route gave us an extra special treat…a 300 foot tall, 20% grade climb. That might not sound like a huge climb, but with no lead up to it to carry any kind of speed, it felt as if we were climbing a vertical wall. Everyone was in their smallest gears huffing and puffing their way up the hill at a snails pace. having next to no experience in climbing, I really longed for my previous bikes compact triple. My new bike is geared long for the flats which mae the climb much harder than it had to be…I’ll be sure to swap out my rear cassette before taking on the Horrible Hundred later this year.
Noting was flat as we rode through the quaint town of Babson Park. At any given time you were either climbing or descending. Needless to say this completely broke up the group leaving people to ride in small teams of 3 to 4 riders, or completely by themselves. It really was surprising to see how hilly it can get in Florida, combine that with 50-some miles we had ridden plus the 62 from the day before and you can understand why our legs were starting to protest a bit, but we pushed on towards Lake Wales.
I took another very welcomed SAG stop in lake Wales. I was riding with a small group who were, like me, growing weary of the hill. the stop was perfectly placed an timed. Like on the last stop, we waited around a little to see if perhaps we could consolidate the fragmented riders into a larger group, after all, it is always easier to ride in a group with everyone sharing the load. The hills obviously played havoc with everyone as very few people were arriving, but luckily we were able to round up about 8 riders to tackle the next segment, which although relatively flat, turned out to be very windy.
The new group stayed together pretty well, loosing a rider on occasion and catching up to other stragglers. Our treat for completing the windy loop was a second visit to the SAG stop at Reedy Lake, luckily this time there would be no San Francisco-like climb coming out of there. We definitely took our time at this stop taking in as much food and drink as we could, all the while giving our legs a good break. While there another sizable group pulled in which included Steve…it was good to see a friendly face out there.
We headed out once everyone was done gorging only to find headwinds yet again as we retraced our route to Avon Park. By the way, a good stretch of this road was miserable as there was no smooth line on it whatsoever. Even my pavé busting Domane was unable to smoothen it out completely. I remembered it being rough on the way up, but now 90 miles in, every bump was more jarring than the next. the combination of wind bumps and rollers and speed (we were still rising surprisingly fast) busted up the group again.
As we reached Avon Park, the group was down to perhaps 8 riders. The majority of the group decided to stop at the final SAG stop. I knew if I stopped now, it would be very difficult to get back onto the bike, so I decided to hammer out the remaining 9 miles into the wind on my own. Was this the smartest move? Not really, but there always comes a point on a long ride where you just want to get it over with…and having a headwind on your last miles is definitely one of those instances.
Those last miles really messed up my averages an overall time, but then this was never a race to begin with, although I did feel a little like Tommy D riding ahead of a quickly closing pack as I approached the “finish line” back at the Kenilworth Lodge. My final stats for the ride were 104.8 miles ridden with 2,549 feet of wicked hills completed in 5:15:33. Average speed was 19.9 MPH and my top speed was 33.2 MPH. Not too bad considering the hills and wind. I’m sure if I ha a group for those last 9 miles I would have been very close to a sub 5 hour ride.
I stowed my bike an relaxed on the porch steps waiting for other riders to come in before heading in for another fantastic lunch consisting of carved turkey, grilled mahi mahi with mango salsa, grilled chicken basques plus a large assortment of sides, salads an desserts.
Day 3, Crewsville Metric Century, 62 miles and 610 feet of climbing. Another good nights rest at home left me ready for the final ride of the tour. With 2 hard rides under our belts, we all decided to relax a bit, ride as a group and shorten the ride to the 48 mile route. The overall number of riders was substantially lower than the previous days century, but the lot and drive in front of the kenilworth Lodge was still pretty full of cyclists. The ride announcer did his daily unheard lecture about the route an sent us on our way. This ride was to head out west, loop through Highlands Hammock State Park and then loop out around Crewsville and it’s multitude of ranches.
Like the previous two days, a spectacular sunrise lead us out of Sebring. This one was particularly notable since it was over Lake Jackson. We rounded the lake at a more relaxed pace and made a beeline towards Highlands Hammock State Park. The park is 9,000 acre in size with elevated boardwalks that meander through an old-growth bald cypress swamp with Cabbage Palmettos, ferns, bromeliads, orchids and other epiphytes. Some trees are believed to be over a thousand years old, and one is possibly the largest oak in Florida, with a girth of over 36 feet. A very curious note about the park, is that it was created via a grass-roots movement in 1931 to conserve it from being turned into farmlands by local citizens. Although it never reached national park status, it is one of the four original state parks in Florida.
The loop through the park was amazing as we pedaled under a huge old growth canopy that let little light through. The temperature actually dropped noticeably while riding through the park. We exited the park and headed south staying with the pack, keeping all the Caloosa members together. The pace was relaxed and easy. No pedal stomping today…or so we thought.
We turned west again onto highway 66 and took a break at the SAG stop before heading onto the big Crewsville loop. While there we were able to get in a few good photo-ops…even if our pictures were photo-bombed by a few non group members. Pictures over, we headed out onto the big loop which took us through the many ranches and pastures of Crewsville.
While on the loop, perhaps a few of us got some happy feet as Solone, our resident cycling cheerleader got us to chase down a group way ahead of us…ok perhaps not us…more like me. So much for easy riding. Ditto on the shortened route too as we never saw the turn point and continued on the 62 mile route. Oh well, whats 20 more miles when you’ve already got nearly 200 in.
Our group actually did end up splitting. Too bad as the countryside was stunning featuring highlights like old growth trees, horse farms with playful horses, and a pair of wooden bridges. Back on highway 66, we formed a nice pace line and just plowed our way through the wind, past the SAG stop and north again towards the park. The wind was a bit of an issue, not in your face strong, but definitely noticeable. It also seemed to always be ahead of us no matter the direction we traveled…I’ll just chalk that one up to being tired.
We were finally on the last home stretch of our 3 day cycling tour. Just one more half loop around Lake Jackson and we could put our bikes away, and give our rather sore butts a rest, so what better way to end it, than a last ditch sprint to the Kenilworth Lodge. Final stats for the final ride were 60.7 miles in 3:12:19 with an 18.9 mph average and top speed of 30.9 mph. Luckily there were no rollers this time, but we still had one more big lunch to work our way through. This time it was carved prime rib, baked grouper with lemon dill sauce and chicken piccate plus the usual plethora of sides, salads and desserts…oh and a huge bowl of cocktail shrimp which Bill and I pretty much owned!
The Tour of Sebring definitely goes on my list of great rides. There were great routes, well stocked SAG’s, fantastic after ride meals and great friendly people. Be sure to put it on your bucket list. I’ll definitely be riding it again.