Biking the Keys

This blog is long overdue for another report from its token flatlander (me).  Also, this report will be on a particularly flat but fun adventure.  As many of you know, several years ago before I moved from California to become gainfully employed in the state of Florida, I had a California bucket list.  On this list were a number of adventures to do before moving that ranged in time commitment and difficulty, including another weekend of climbing in Joshua Tree, another weekend or two of skiing in Mammoth, and biking the California coast.  Now, I do not find myself moving, but I do have a good friend, named Jenn, who is leaving the flat state of Florida for the much more mountainous New Hampshire.  In light of this, I suspect that I would only be negligent in my friend duties if I did not aid in the facilitation of, or at least join on, a Florida Bucket List Bike Adventure: Biking the Florida Keys.  What follows is my version of what happened along the final ~133 miles of US Highway 1 as it travels from Homestead, FL to Key West.

the route

Our route from Homestead to Key West.

Day 1

The first part of any good adventure is planning, and I can only tip my hat (or bike helmet) to Jenn for ensuring we had a place to stay on the first night (really the first two nights, but I am getting ahead of myself) with a UF field crew that is currently performing research in the Everglades.  The nice thing about starting an adventure with a field crew, is that you get to feel like you are sleeping in.  The field crew was up and out of the house before dawn, making waking up just before sunrise seem both relaxing and a bit decadent.  After, packing up we were pedaling down the road around 7:45am, carefully timed for the 8am opening of a fruit stand (Robert Is Here) that has amazing smoothies.

After filling up on tropical fruit smoothies it was time to get on the road.  After some failed shortcuts we found ourselves heading south on US 1 towards Key Largo.  Everything was going great, until. . .

Actually, I think I need to take a break to tell you a little bit about my traveling companion.  So far all you know about Jenn is that she is moving to New Hampshire, and presumably likes to ride bikes.  However, I think it is important to know a bit more about her.  Jenn is an expert ecologist, climate change-ologist, ornithologist, botanist, marine biologist, and a few more –ists and –ologists all combined into one.  Why is this important?  Well it means that as an engineer and a non-ologist I can assume that she knows everything there is to know about the natural world.  Just like she might (wrongly) assume that I know about all things materials.

. . . Back to the story, everything was going along great, Jenn was answering all of my my questions about the everglades.  I was learning, I was looking at the scenery, but I was not carefully looking at the road.  All of a sudden I saw a sharp metal piece in the bike lane and was forced to run over it, I was pretty sure this wasn’t going to end well and this feeling was confirmed by the “psssssshhhhhhhh” sound of a tire going flat.  We quickly pulled over and started working to change the flat.  At this point, I was not thrilled to remember that the tires on my road bike (Oscar Rrramon) were incredibly new, and therefore more difficult to get off the wheel.  As I was wrestling with the tire, a guy had pulled over and was heading towards us asking if we needed help.  I of course was feeling proud, I know how to change a flat and can generally get it done rather quickly.  However, not wanting to seem too proud, I allowed this gentleman to help.  We proceeded to learn his name was Alfonso and that he is a cyclist and always carries bike gear in his car in the hopes of being able to help someone.  Apparently, we were the first time he has actually come across someone he could “help”, despite carrying this gear with him for years.  I don’t want to drag on too long about our visit with Alfonso, but what should have been a helpful and quick repair job, soon became neither quick nor helpful.  I will summarize by saying that after Alfonso wasted two of my tubes causing pinch flats, and wasted one of Jenn’s CO2 cartridges I took over again, and soon after we were back in business.  Interestingly, I thought this was going to be the “downer” for the day and maybe for the trip, but I did not yet know what was in store.  Even more interestingly, this visit by Alfonso that depleted my tube reserves would lead to one of the most positive contributions of the trip through a necessary visit to a bike store in Tavernier (more on this later).

photo 2

Flat fixing time.

With the flat finally repaired, and some advice from Alfonso on a bike shop in Tavernier to replenish supplies we were back in the saddle and pedaling south once again.  A road sign informed us that we had 15 miles to go until Key Largo, or in more useful terms approximately an hour of biking lay ahead of us before we were officially on the keys.

The bikes were happy to take a short break upon reaching Key Largo.

The bikes were happy to take a short break upon reaching Key Largo.

With all of our early delays we decided to stop and have lunch in Key Largo, finding a restaurant with a view.  After lunch, we came to what I think was the biggest downer of the whole trip.  The bike path between Key Largo and Tavernier was a combination of non-existent, under construction, or constantly crossing busy driveways for restaurants and shops.  As a result, the riding didn’t feel very relaxed at all and was some of the more stressful riding I have experienced  (but still not as bad as biking across LA).  Once in Tavernier, we stopped at the bike shop that Alfonso had mentioned to pick up new tubes and a fresh CO2 cannister.  The guy working at the shop is an avid cyclist, and as soon as he realized we were biking the keys brought out a map and highlighted in detail where we should stop along the way, and more importantly on which side of the road to look for the bike path for the remainder of the ride.  Although, we had the adventure cycling map this map would prove itself way more useful.  We were also assured that we had ridden through the worst of it and that it would get better soon.  I was reluctant to believe this, but soon after leaving the shop we were rewarded with an improved bike lane that spit us onto a secluded service road that took us 6-7 miles further down the road.

The advice we also got from the bike shop was to turn left just past the Hurricane Monument to get to a beautiful beach.  We were certainly not disappointed with this advice, and spent time taking photos of our bikes with palm trees and eating snacks with a view. (I should also point out that I accidentally road my bike onto the sand, and in trying to get somewhere safe to put down a speedplay cleated shoe ended up falling over, whoops!)

A beautiful beach in Islamadora Key.

A beautiful beach in the Keys. Can you spot the bikes?

Jenn's bike enjoying the view, while resting against a palm tree.

Jenn’s bike enjoying the view, while resting against a palm tree.

After our snack break it was back on the road to Islamadora Key, where we took a brief stop to check out the fish other people were bringing in, of course asking the fishermen if we could just say we caught the fish.  This is also the location that I nearly lost my travel companion to a great white shark!

Jenn narrowly escaped this shark!

Jenn narrowly escaped this shark!

After, Jenn escaped the shark attack we continued from Islamadora Key all the way to Marathon following bike paths and enjoying looking left to see the Atlantic Ocean and looking right to see the Florida Bay.  After pedaling over 87 miles we reached our hotel in Marathon (coordinated by Jenn), and transitioned quickly into swimsuits for a dip in the pool, followed by showering and eating all the food the restaurants of Marathon had to offer.   Did you say dessert? Yes please!!

Day 2

We chose to stay at the southern end of Marathon to be able to get an early start across 7-mile bridge.  Both of us had heard that this would be one of the scarier parts of the ride, as you are stuck riding on the shoulder (albeit fairly wide) for 7 miles (turns out the name of the bridge is important) until reaching the other side.  Before venturing across the bridge we rode to the Stuffed Pig for what may well have been the best meal of the entire trip (yes, I am biased towards meals that include eggs).  After filling up on benedicts, more seafood and high-fructose corn syrup (aka coke) we were off across 7-mile bridge.

Oscar Rramon at the start of 7-mile bridge.

Oscar Rramon at the start of 7-mile bridge.

One of the other nice things about this day is that the mile markers are counting down to 0.  Although they were doing this yesterday as well now the signs displayed numbers like 47 or 39, which seemed more and more doable in terms of biking to our destination of Key West.  After crossing the 7 mile bridge, which I found to be way more pleasant than the ride from Key Largo to Tavernier we stopped at Bahia Honda State Park to look around.  There, we saw the remainder of a railroad bridge that was partially destroyed in a hurricane on Labor Day in 1935 and a great egret primping itself for the day.  On a side note, while using the google to fact check the date of this hurricane, I learned that this also correlates to a zombie attack at Key West.

Morning grooming.
Morning grooming at Bahia Honda State Park, voted best beach in America in 1992.
Bridge that was destroyed in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.
Bridge that was destroyed in the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

The ride into Key West was particularly scenic with winds mostly in our favor.  We biked past Key Deer and Marsh Rabbit Habitat, but despite our calling them did not see either.  However, we did see a crazy monitor of some sort climbing a tree, just a reminder of the uniqueness of the Keys.

With about 15 miles to go we stopped for some (iced) coffee and tea and sugary treats from Baby’s Coffee, another great suggestion from the bike shop in Tavernier.  After our snack and about 10 more miles of pedaling we had crossed into Key West and were narrowing in on Milepost 0.  Milepost 0, although a necessary photo-op was itself a bit anticlimactic.  It was just on a street corner, not even at the end of a street.  Of course to get to this street corner we passed Hemmingway’s house and the Audobon house.  Sadly, I did not see any of Hemmingway’s polydactyl (six-toed) cats as we passed by, but did return later in the evening to see a few cats over the fence.   I was not able to count their toes though.

Milepost 0, end of Highway 1 south.

Milepost 0, end of Highway 1 south.

The other interesting thing I learned about Milepost 0, is that although it is the end of US 1 South, when you approach it on US 1 South you are actually going north.  This may seem to you like a simple curiosity, but continuing straight after US 1 South ends does not in fact take you to the southernmost point in the Continental US.  Whoops!  Fortunately, this only cost us about a mile of additional riding, and soon we were heading south again, back past the polydactyl cats to the southernmost point in the continental US.  Here, we met a guy who had just finished riding from San Diego (who wants to join me?), took a few photos, and headed to our hotel.

Southernmost point in the continental US.

Southernmost point in the continental US.

One thing we learned during this trip, is that the Keys are not cheap, at least not during spring break time.  As such, I used frequent flier miles (a lot of them) to book a room at a fancy resort.  You know those $400+ per night places that other people seem to stay at.  Well, clearly the guy at the front desk was good at pegging bike tourists and the fact that our desire to jump in the ocean would be greater than our desire to complain about a room.  However, I am sure that what we got was not in fact a standard room at the Waldorf Astoria resort.  Unless, their standard rooms are all windowless.  Ah well, we didn’t spend much time in the room, and were instead either sipping pina coladas on the beach or wandering the town in search of food and sites.

Supposedly a "standard" room at the Waldorf Astoria resort in Key West.

Supposedly a “standard” room at the Waldorf Astoria resort in Key West.


Day 3

Like all good things, this trip came to an end.  The last morning we climbed onto our bikes one last time and biked three miles to the Key West airport, where we picked up a rental car to head back to Homestead and then home.  This concludes another great adventure in the books, and a good Florida send-off for Jenn.

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