Wobbling off Nellie’s drive, whilst trying to remember what side of the road to drive on, our long-awaited journey finally began. If we had known quite what was in store for us on our very first ride – we might not have quite believed it – it was the mother of days.
As we quickly discovered, fully laden touring bikes are pretty heavy – we were each carrying two front panniers, two rear panniers, a rear rack pack and a handle bar bag. All in all this little lot plus the bike was about 120lbs each (55kg ish) so with that kinda weight your top speed is somewhat limited and the bike handled TOTALLY differently to my normal little run-around London bike.
We hadn’t had much time to get into our new cycling rhythm when the first part of our fun-filled day unfolded. Only about an hour in, we’d pulled off the main road for a quick stop in the shade. Despite setting off at 4.30pm (due to the late delivery of a must have piece of gear – which incidentally in the end turned out to be the wrong item) it was about 85 degrees, so as this is about as hot as it ever seems to get in the UK – we needed a bit of respite from the heat. However, as I set off again I couldn’t believe my luck – my first puncture!!!! Fortunately it was on the back wheel as at that point in time, the front pannier rack was fitted in a way which required it to be completely removed to access the quick release. Dom did a sterling job of fixing the puncture and we were soon on our way again.
The limited control I had begun to develop went out of the window when my bike suddenly started shaking all over the place. Every movement on the bike is exaggerated when you’re carrying so much gear – without it, if you had to you could ride with a flat tyre for a mile or so (or at least I have before on my inexpensive rims). So not 10 minutes after the first – we were faced with puncture number two – despite my tried and tested, German engineered Schwalbe tyres (normally the bees knees in bullet proof tyres). We never did work out the cause of this puncture – but it is likely that in the less than ideal side of the road pseudo-workshop, we hadn’t completely ensured that the wheel rim and tyre were cleaned of any debris before replacing the first inner tube (note to self – slow and steady inner tube replacement saves time in the long run). We lost about an hour in total – which given that we had set-off so late in the day meant we had plenty of miles left to cover before the sun went down.
We had begun to make good progress on our 35 mile trip – but for some reason the GPS routed us along ‘roads’ which had never seen tarmac (or as it’s known on this side of the pond, asphalt). Essentially we were riding along a beach – which takes a whole lot more effort to keep the bike upright, move in a straight line and progress at any great speed. When asked before I left what training I had done for the trip, my answer had been ‘it’s on the job training’ – bar the 10 miles a day commuting I had been doing – so I wasn’t exactly ‘prepared’ for the mile after mile of energy zapping sand – I was done for and we were rapidly falling behind schedule.
The sun was getting lower in the sky and as I rode along watching it disappear I was holding onto the vain hope that we would make it before dark – how wrong I was! Darkness fell and we still had around 10miles to cover to get us from Tampa to our camp site, Compresco Camp in Green Swamp, east of Dade City – it was at this point that I was seriously wondering what I had gotten myself into and was trying to figure out whether it was naivety or just plain stupidity that I thought I could undertake the trip! The combination of an unlit single lane road, HUGE lorries thundering past us and being completely knackered meant next few miles were not fun (plus it’s also hard cycling while you’re sobbing!).
It was with huge relief when we finally pulled off the main road – though this didn’t last too long as discovered that the ‘road’ to the campsite was another beach. Our bikes both stopped dead in the sand – there was absolutely no way we were going to be able to cycle though we were tantalisingly close to our destination. I tried to push, but the only things that were spinning were my legs – the bike was stuck fast in the sand. That really was the final straw for me and I cried like a baby (again). But it was just at that that point that the best part of the whole day happened – 3 wonderful strangers went out of their way to help us. They were heading past us in their pick-up truck and after Dom flagged them down they happily threw our bikes and bags in the back. I cannot describe quite how grateful I was that they drove us not only to the campground but directly to the spot where we camped – they were amazing.
Having set off 4.35pm we pitched our tents 5 and a half hours later. Although we had both done a practice drill of putting our tents up – that hadn’t factored in darkness (bar the light cast by a headlamp) and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. We threw the tents up as fast as we could – tho the mosquitos were faster – and collapsed into bed (or in my case directly on the floor as I had no energy to figure out how to inflate my mattress) hoping that everyday wasn’t going to be that tough.