Florida is renowned for many things including endless white sand beaches, a rather large mouse, oranges, rocket ships, the everglades, theme parks, cruise ships, manatees, sport fishing, Calle Ocho…the list goes on and on, but I bet you didn’t know we have mountains.
Ok, we are not talking white capped, purple mountain majesty mountains, or the long grinding, epic cycling climbs like Mt. Ventoux, Col du Galibier, or Passo dello Stelvio, but we do have small, punchy, extremely steep hills with names like Sugar Loaf Mountain, The Wall, Buckhill, and Thrill Hill which are guaranteed to get your heart pounding, even when in your lowest gears.
My friends and I, as well as nearly 1,000 other cyclists, gathered in the quaint Central Florida town of Mount Dora to take on these “legendary” hills during the 39th annual Mount Dora Bicycle Festival. Billed as Florida’s oldest and largest bicycling event, the three day event takes full advantage of the roads and scenery of Lake County, which is recognized as one of the finest locations in the state and the country to ride. The event features a multitude of rides for cyclists at all levels, from short, relaxing scenic rides around town to the very aptly named 100 mile long CPR Century.
A schedule conflict made me miss the first day’s featured ride, a scenic ride in rolling hills named Emeralda Marsh Madness, but I was packed and on the road by 3PM for the 2 hour drive up to Lake County. I was going to meet up with my cycling friends Soloane, Kevin and Angela for some serious carb loading before Saturday’s infamous CPR Century. My drive up to Mount Dora was a prelude of things to come as it took me through lush rolling hills lined with old growth forests of oak trees and towering long leaf pines…a very different Florida from what most are used to. Once checked in to my hotel, I made the short drive over to the center of town to register for the event and meet up with the gang.
With it’s eclectic mix of unique antique shops, gourmet restaurants, historic inns and bed & breakfasts, the town of Mount Dora is best described as a lakeside victorian hamlet. The streets were alive, filled with revelers of all ages, enjoying the sights, sounds, food and hospitality of this quaint little town. I met up with Soloane and Angela near the chamber of commerce, signed up for the remaining two days of riding and then strolled around deciding on a place to eat…no easy feat since this little village was chock full of an amazing variety of restaurants.
We were all looking to carbo-load for the century, so we chose The Palm Tree Grill, a surprisingly sophisticated restaurant known for its upscale cuisine, its “Wall of Wines” and its extensive collection of craft beers. My dinner choice was a very tasty Stuffed Shells Florentine consisting of jumbo pasta shells stuffed with ricotta cheese and spinach, topped off with a basil marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, accompanied by a Brooklyn Lager…more than enough carbs to cover the century.
Meals completed, and tummies full, we called it an early night…100 miles and “Florida Mountains” awaited.
The CPR Century
We kicked off the morning with a surprisingly good complimentary breakfast at the Best Western. The lobby was filled with fellow cyclists getting in their morning fueling while listening to the kitchen hostess bark out orders to us, in the nicest way of course. Cheerios, OJ and raisin bread was my poison of choice, just enough to top off the previous nights carbo-gasm. A quick run back up to the room for, as my friend Gus calls it, the morning poopage, and we were off to the start of the curiously named CPR Century. Billed as a scenic century that rolls through rural farm lands before heading south into the hills, we quickly found out its name was spot on.
We all gathered around the start, listening to stories of the previous days event. The ride marshall got on the loudspeaker reciting the pre ride spiel one always hears before an event. As usual, we all tuned out until he mention the color of the marks we would be following…white would be the order of the day. Minutes later, we were all on our way turning left and hitting our first little hill just a few hundred feet from the start. Adrenalin and happy feet got the best of most riders as they sped off, quickly forgetting that there was 100 miles to cover. Soloane opted for a shorter ride while Angela and I plowed ahead at a steady pace…she had ridden 50+ miles the day before, and I was running my standard flat-lander gear, so we were definitely not racing.
The terrain rolled gently as we rode through picturesque ranches and citrus fields. There was a noticeable wind, just enough to remind you it was there, but not enough to affect you, particularly since we spent most of the first few miles on false flats with gradients that varied between 1-2%. At about 20 miles in, we reached Thrill Hill, the first of many named and unnamed “Florida mountains”. Thrill Hill is more a depression than a hill, as the road drops at a 16-18% grade and then quickly tips back up at 18% for a 140 foot climb, leaving you charging down the hill hitting coasting speeds near 40 MPH and then quickly scrubbing it all off on the steep climb out of the trench.
By now the rollers had pretty much torn up all the larger groups, leaving many riders either riding alone or in small groups. Angela and I had joined up with some fellow SW Florida riders holding a comfortable pace up to the first SAG stop where we all stopped to refuel and top off our drinks. A few minutes later and we were on our way, now in a rather large group. With the terrain relatively flat, the group picked up a good bit of speed. Our ad-hoc peloton had now stretched into a thin single file line as we stormed our way through the countryside.
We were all so concentrated in maintaining the pace that we did not realize we had dropped a good number of riders, including Angela, a fact I did not realize until about 20 miles later at the next SAG stop. Mia culpa for not keeping an eye out for her, but such is the nature of event rides. I let the group go, and waited for Angela and the others who were dropped, not to mention, take advantage of the porta potties for a besoin naturel…btw, since when do porta potties have urinals in them?
Refreshed, refueled, and a little lighter, our new group headed off to a big change in scenery as we began riding around a series of very picturesque lakes, including the rather large Lake Eustis. Eventually we reached a mark on the road where the riders doing the 62 mile Emeralda Island Wander route, split off from us…by the way, the key difference, besides the total miles, between the CPR Century and the Emeralda Island Wander routes was what lay in store for us…the Hills!
Our route now cut across Lake Harris and headed towards the town of Howey in the Hills, named after William John Howey, the builder of the first citrus juice plant in Florida, and yes, it is full of hills. In fact the route was now a virtual roller coaster filled with short, punchy, 5-10% grade hills. Just the thing your legs were wanting after 70+ miles.
Needless to say, all the groups had now been pretty much torn apart. Everyone climbs at their own pace, and frankly, there is no advantage holding onto a persons wheel when you are falling into the single digit realm when going up the steep grades. Speaking of steep grades, all of a sudden we came up on an imposing wall of tarmac named Buckhill. Although not tall by any mountain standards, it pitched up steeply at a grade of 18%+ for almost all of it’s duration. With over 80 miles of rolling terrain into my legs and my very climbing unfriendly lowest ratio of 39/23, I was left grinding my way up at a snails pace. At about 30 yards from the summit, my right thigh cramped severely forming a painful visible lump under my kit. I tried to compensate, shifting my pedaling to my left leg, but who was I kidding…there was no way I could climb an 18% grade one legged, forcing me to walk the remaining yards.
Although shameful and embarrassing, the little walk helped loosen up the knot in my thigh allowing me to hop back on my bike for the fast ride down the steep slope. While doing my little walk of shame, I was passed by Angela and the others from the last rest stop. I told them I was ok and to keep pushing on. I just needed a little spinning to work the cramp out.
Luckily all the really steep grades were behind us, but anything over 5% hurt and slowed me significantly. To make matters worse, I missed a road marking leaving me meandering aimlessly about. Thankfully I had recently swapped out my Bontrager Node computer for a fancy Garmin Edge 800 with turn by turn navigation, which quickly got me back on track and led me back to the finish.
The very aptly named CPR Century came to a rather unglamorous close after I limped into town by myself. Hot and famished, the only thing on my mind was protein and a cold drink. Angela was also on the same wavelength, so we wandered about looking for a place to satisfy our craving. We came across a cellar named The Frog and Monkey Restaurant & Pub. What better than a cellar, featuring “the best burgers in town” to satisfy ones appetite after 100 miles of hills.
It was standing room only inside, but the hostess managed to find us a spot at the bar. The pub was filled with riders still in their kits, recounting the days activities. I skipped the temptation for a cold ale and ordered up a large ice tea as well as a perfectly cooked cheddar and bacon burger with a side salad. The burger took care of the hunger pangs, putting a big dent into the 3,000 or so calories I burned on the ride. My legs on the other hand, were a bit sore and were craving a good soak at the hotels jacuzzi…somewhat expected after a 100 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of climbing.
We made our way back to the Best Western and quickly headed out to the jacuzzi. While soaking away the soreness, I got a text from the Duchess saying she and Gus were checking in soon and looking to grab a bite. She had just competed in a trail run nearby…btw she dominated her age group…and were going to join us for the remainder of the festival.
We met up with them near the chamber of commerce and then, as we had done on the previous night, meandered about the downtown area looking for a place to eat. Our first choice was a rather swank looking restaurant called Pieces Rising. Unfortunately it was booked solid, so we continued looking, finding a place called The Lost Parrot, and American-Caribbean restaurant with rather eclectic decor and a crazy story about a lost parrot named Paco de Garcia. Still rather full from the burger at the Pub, I ordered a caesar salad with ahi tuna. Afterwards, we strolled a bit more and had a hilarious discussion about the differences in male and female public bathroom etiquette. Anyone listening in would have labeled us as certifiable nuts, but then we knew that already. The combination of tired legs and an early start had us calling it an early night to rest up for the following days ride.
Assault on Sugarloaf Mountain
Another early morning start had us enjoying the company of the the kitchen hostess of the Best Western along with her husband, who was extremely inquisitive about cycling. They were delightfully funny as they entertained us while we fueled up for the mornings ride. The route was a relatively short out and back ride of 40 miles targeting two of Florida’s most infamous hills…Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest paved point in Florida and a very ominous sounding hill named The Wall.
We met up with everyone outside the chamber of commerce as the first group of riders departed on a 62 mile route called The Battle of Buckhill. Soloane and Kevin, who drove up the previous night, were still on vendor booth duty and elected for a shorter ride which would take them to yesterdays roller coaster like Thrill Hill. Gus, Angela and myself would be taking on Sugarloaf. The Duchess on the other hand, was on a well deserved sightseeing mission after her running conquests the day before.
About a hundred or so riders lined up for the start of the ride. Most were spinning yarns of Sugarloaf Mountain, which prominently figures into many classic events and competitions in Florida including the Horrible Hundred and the Ironman competitions out of Clearmont. It apparently is a right of passage for all Florida cyclists, one which we too would be able to check off our bucket lists…or would we?
As we headed out from Mount Dora I suddenly found myself without any rear gears. My Di2 was not responding at all. Had my battery died? No, the front mech was working perfectly, but there was no movement in the back. I pulled over to go hands on with the derailleur. I checked the cables, cleaned the contacts and even jiggled the cord, but there was no life in my rear derailleur. There was no way I was going to even attempt the ride with only two working gears, so out of shear frustration, I just banged the rear mech with my heal, and to my surprise I heard the lovely whirr of the servos come to life. I had gears! But now Gus and Angela, who had been patiently waiting on me, as well as myself had some serious catching up to do.
The route basically retraced the final 15 miles of the previous days century featuring slightly rolling terrain through ranches and citrus fields. Even with tired legs, it was relatively easy to catch back up with the groups. We caught up to one group, but found it a little slow to our liking, so we set off to bridge another gap to the group ahead. We caught up relatively quickly and relaxed in the group as we headed to our assault on Sugarloaf Mountain.
Just as quickly as we had caught up, we were staring at Sugarloaf in all it’s glory. At 312 feet, Sugarloaf is noted to be the highest point in peninsular Florida, not the highest point in Florida, as that honor goes to Britton Hill in the panhandle. The information on the average/maximal grade, total distance and total elevation change varies a bit depending on the source, but the steep side (which is what we climbed) involves about 200 feet of climbing over about a half-mile with an average grade of 8%, with a couple of brief spots hitting in the 15%-17% range.
Unlike most of the smaller hills, no one attacked this climb. All you heard was the sound of everyone downshifting to their lowest gears followed by a lot of heavy breathing and some guttural grunts as riders made their way up the steep slope. The relentless grade and relatively long ascent left quite a few riders unclipping and walking their bikes up the hill. I was determined not to walk holding a slow but steady cadence in my woefully inadequate climbing gears…I really need to think about changing out my rear cassette for an 11-28. I could see Gus spinning his way up in front of me, while I was tortuously grinding my way up.
I methodically made my way up the slope, concentrating all the time on pedaling in circles. I was inching up on the rider in front of me and had to find a line around him, a rather difficult proposition as he was swerving his way up the hill, luckily I guessed right on the first attempt, not loosing any valuable forward momentum or dropping cadence. My sore right thigh forced me to stand for the last 50-70 yards of the climb. Not the best form, but it worked. Eventually the grade started to flatten out, and I could see a mass of riders, relaxing at an makeshift SAG stop, most giving each other congratulatory high fives.
A short break was very welcomed to get our heart rates back to normal as well as take a few Kodak moment pictures. Angela made her way up to the top, choosing not to stop for fear she couldn’t get going again, Gus and I quickly hopped on for a very fast chase down Sugarloaf’s back side, easily hitting speeds above 42 MPH.
A bunch of rollers followed the high-speed decent, then out of nowhere the grade pitched up at over 18%. We had arrived at The Wall. Although not as long as Sugarloaf, The Wall was ridiculously steep, and in my opinion, far more challenging than Sugarloaf, at least with my gearing. I churned my way up it’s steep incline spending most of the time out of my saddle, letting out a few choice guttural grunts on the way up. To make it even more challenging, my Di2 decided to do a little ghost shifting, popping out of the 23 to 21 toothed ring. The only way to keep the it in the right cog was to keep the servos busy by applying constant pressure on the downshift button. I guess The Mistress just has an aversion to hills.
With The Wall behind us, things flatten out a bit allowing us to regroup and form a fast moving peloton, retracing our path back to town. Our assault on Sugarloaf was a success. The big old cupcake is checked off our bucket lists. Now it was time for well deserved showers and one more round of gastronomic pleasures. This time our choice was The Windsor Rose and Tea Room for a traditional English meal.
This charming establishment was decorated with tradition and loyalty in mind. It gave the impression of a homey cottage located in the English countryside. Even the pleasant staff was dressed as traditional English house maids. The food was every bit as authentic too…even the Duchess, who selected my delicious traditional roast with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding , was impressed. It was just like being on the other side of the pond, sans jet lag.
One more gastronomic treat was in store after our properly delicious meal. In nearby Yalaha, a tiny little town opposite Lake Harris, there is a famous traditional German bakery whose old-fashioned baking techniques draws customers from afar. There was even a dedicated 50 mile ride during the cycling event out to the bakery and back, so something special was certainly going on there. The Duchess, Gus and myself packed up our gear and said our goodbyes to the rest of the gang and made the short drive over to the bakery.
Winding past miles of Florida wilderness a very out of place and hard to miss European-façade building emerged around a bend. The place was quite the hub of activity as patrons sat out in it’s beer garden enjoying freshly baked treats as well as authentic German deli meats and sausages. We had found the Yalaha Bakery, and boy were we in for a treat. The aroma of fresh baked bread and pastries filled the air as we stepped out of our cars. Once inside, our visual senses were equally assaulted from the site of amazing looking loaves of fresh baked breads, cookies, pastries, danishes and torts…oh my! There were pretzel rolls, berliner brotchen, frankenlaib, bee stings, streuselkuchen, black forest cake, bauernbot and other unimaginably delicious looking goodies all sinfully displayed before us, making it nearly impossible to to choose. I had read up on the bakery before heading up to Mount Dora and had my eye set on the most amazing looking German apple pie I had ever seen. My taste buds were not disappointed as that was one of the best slices of apple pie I had ever had. Gus also could not resist the temptation of the apple pie while the Duchess went for a decadent slice of flour-less chocolate cake. We couldn’t leave with out taking some goodies back to friends as well as snatching up a few cookies for our long rides back.
Our two wheeled and gastronomic adventure in Lake County had finally come to a close. We had conquered the Florida mountains and discovered the lakeside victorian hamlet of Mount Dora, who’s uniqueness and charm is unlike anything you’ll find in Florida. It’s not just a great cycling hub, but also a wonderful place to visit over a long weekend. It’s a bucket list worthy destination for all cyclists. I know I’ll be back next year…hopefully with taller gears and a not so fussy Mistress.
Saturday, Oct 12
Route: CPR Century
Ride Time: 5:58:05
Distance: 101.69 miles
Average: 17.0 mph
Fastest Speed: 38.6 mph
Cycle This Month: 136.97 miles
Cycle This Year: 4186.68 miles
Sunday, Oct 13
Route: Assault on Sugarloaf Mountain
Ride Time: 2:10:51
Distance: 101.69 miles
Average: 39.43 mph
Fastest Speed: 42.2 mph
Cycle This Month: 176.4 miles
Cycle This Year: 4226.11 miles