In the mid 1980s we would think nothing of pooling a few dollars together, telling our bosses at the bike shop, or construction site or restaurant that we needed a couple of weeks off and drive our old Volkswagen van straight through for 20 hours to southern Florida for some ‘road work’ with the locals. Favorite Atlantic coast ports of call included Boynton Beach, West Palm Beach and Rivera Beach. As long as ‘beach’ was in the name it was a destination. Fortunately, each of these stops also landed us in the middle of route A1A, the Florida equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway, just a lot flatter. We would take turns driving through the night, perfecting the driver-exchange on the fly-kids, don’t try this-where the current driver would slide under the incoming driver, keeping his foot on the gas and one hand on the wheel until the new driver took control. Most of us would wake up when the van came to a stop at some unlucky relative’s driveway.
Fast-forward 23 years later. It was midnight when I pulled into my cousin’s driveway in Boca Raton with the kids fast asleep in the van, crashed-out from Disney-mania a few hours before. As I pulled the bike off the roof, I could hear the roar of the ocean and smell the salt in the air. A1A is geographically situated along the coast of eastern Florida. The wind is ever-present and often a force to be considered. What may be a luxurious 30 mile jaunt with the wind could mean a tedious return. I didn’t want to overextend so early, so my rides typically took me into the wind on the trip out. On one ride early in the week I connected with a small group of 10 or so, or, should I say, they connected with me as I was leisurely heading back to the condo after a couple of hours at 20 mph. I latched onto the rear.
Three notables in the group included a strong Herbalife-Bike America rider, a local racer and a tri-athlete. After a series of accelerations, we were away with me in tow. The Herbalife rider gaps my ad-hoc ‘colleagues’ just ahead of me. I leapt off the back and bridged alone. When I caught him we exchanged names. His name was Zack and he was leaving in a week to join Cofidis’ pro program in Belgium!
For the next few days I worked on finding my legs, connecting with random cyclists as I caught them along the way. I knew my last fast ride would be a training race that the locals do on Thursdays. Their “worlds.”
An hour before the evening event, I excused myself from the pool and the sun and the kids and the beach and headed out to the meeting point. The location was little advertised and almost clandestine. Secretly a small group would roll up to the local park, then a few more would appear-sort of like the way seagulls quickly gather anytime you think it might be ‘fun’ to toss a chip or two to one. Before long 86 (I counted them!) lean cyclists assembled and we were off to the North out of Boca Raton.
The wind was blowing out of the East, off the ocean and slightly from the North. The first couple of miles were conversational, with talk of upcoming races and some nervous bragging. I was minding my place in the upper 1/3 of the group, doing my best to let these folks know that in the Midwest we know peloton etiquette. I politely pointed out sandy patches and bumps in the road. Within 5 minutes of starting a line was beginning to form up front and I was ready. I expertly jumped and quickly found myself towing 85 young, fit and tan racers who have 2000 miles on their 2008 legs into a 15 mph cross wind at 28 mph. No one came around me despite repeated flicks of my leeward elbow. Soon I learned why. Several teams had established themselves behind me and were beginning to attack in unison. They immediately formed echelons across the entire road. I was quickly two full ranks back with no where to hide and was finding out how difficult it was to break into a well guarded echelon hurtling down the road, diagonally, curb to center-line at speeds of 30+mph. I managed to catch on to the second echelon, delirious from the effort and only 10 minutes into a fast ride!
The 20 of us pulled quickly away from the rest of the group and maintained a comfortable margin all the way to the turning point, some 15 miles away. We turned only to find that the rest of the groups behind us had turned first and now were far in front of us with favorable winds home! I had somehow managed to re-connect and claw back to the front of the group.
The finish line wasn’t marked but I knew that we had only a couple of miles to get back to the Boca town sign based on the distance at the turn. Then the trains started developing again from a long way out. It was a beautiful thing to see this perfect storm forming around me and I found myself smiling for getting near the front and staying there. The leadouts were patrolled by strong team mates and no one got on a team’s leadout wheel-I know, I tried. I saw four distinct teams with at least four men in line. Then I saw Zack in the group just a few riders ahead of me-that Cofidis rider I had met earlier! He was trying desperately to get on a wheel. He somehow managed to get on a train. With 1 mile to go the storm unleashed with two lines heading for the finish with bedlam ensuing all around. With 250 to go Zack leapt from the line and I got on his exposed wheel, glued to it like white on rice. We were out of the saddle and passing spent leadouts as they fell from grace. Alas, we ran out of real estate and my ‘leadout’ managed to get 4th with me rolling across in 5th. As we rolled back to the park a mile or so ahead I asked Zack for directions to West Boca. He said to take a right at the light and head west for 12 miles. “Nice ride.” He said. I answered, “Thanks for the pull. Good luck in Europe.” As I turned down Palmetto, with the wind at my back and the sun setting in front of me I shifted back into the large chainring and realized that much has changed since those carefree days and more importantly, so much more has remained the same.