Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"You're not biking there from here, are you?" - The Orlando Trip

People don't tend to associate Orlando, Florida with cycling. That part of the country may be known better for things like theme parks, golf, retiring, and buying a time share. It's never been a cycling destination and you've never, ever heard anyone say: “I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando.”


I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando. My wife was attending a conference at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes and thought it would be nice if I took a few days of vacation time so I could go with her and share the luxury. I agreed, and decided immediately to take my 1998 Bike Friday New World Tourist (which hasn't flown with me before) to check out the cycling scene in Orlando.

Unable to plan the trip properly, I didn't have a good look at the area until the day before the flight, when I noticed via satellite images that the hotel looked like it was on a highway. The name of the road the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes is on is the 'Central Florida Parkway' which sounds a little more intimidating, perhaps, than 'Maple Street.'

I decided not to let that bother me as we checked in. The lobby, the grounds and the room really packed the 'wow' factor as the place offers levels of luxury and amenities I'm just not used to – but quickly took advantage of.

Mindful of the professionalism of the hotel and the fact I didn't bring clothes that are considered 'resort casual' attire, I thought it would be wise to look my best each morning when I'd walk the bike through the lobby. So I took advantage of the shoe polisher sponge that came with the room. I was pleased with the results and figured I'd blend in with the resort casual crowd nicely.

Before leaving the room with my bike, I first did a little research by asking a friendly concierge what she knew about cycling in Orlando. She gave me an area map showing where some bike lanes were and suggested I should consider riding on the sidewalk when leaving the hotel. The nice woman who sold me my breakfast sandwich and coffee at Cafe Bodega (one of the many restaurants shared by the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton) unintentionally titled this post with her comment after I told her I planned to ride to the town of Winter Park. You see, my wife had coupons from Penzey's Spices that were about to expire, and we didn't have a chance to visit the location in Norwalk, Connecticut to use them. So since I wanted to ride that far north anyway, she gave me the coupons and told me to return to the Ritz-Carlton with spices.

It's as good a reason to ride in central Florida as any. 

As I ate my breakfast on the small balcony overlooking the lake and the golf course, I scoped out on the concierge map where I should ride, reasoning I'd buy a larger map from a gas station while on the road.

I dressed in my cycling clothes and gently walked the Bike Friday out of the hotel. To the credit of the friendly staff at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, not once did I get a 'oh-no-he's-not-really-keeping-a-bike-in-one-of-our-rooms,-is-he?' look. I always got a smile and “good morning” each day when I set off and at least one “how-was-your-ride?” each time I returned. Polishing my bike shoes must have worked, I thought.

After setting the bike GPS to zero, I set off through the drive of the hotel and quickly discovered the pretty concierge hadn't lied about the sidewalk.

Not very interested in riding on what looked like Interstate 95, I decided to take her advice and ride the sidewalk to the John Young Parkway, where I planned to cut down to Whisper Lakes Boulevard before turning north on South Orange Blossom Trail.

Now most of the roads I used were very wide and highway-like, and typical of many American cities bike lanes would appear and disappear frequently. But because there were usually multiple lanes going in one direction, cars had that much more room to give me when passing. Still, I was glad for my helmet rearview mirror and bright vest as I cut my way through Orlando.

When I turned right on Oak Ridge Road to get to South Orange Avenue, I passed the base camp – which has since moved – belonging to Michelle Parker's family. It's a breathlessly sensationalized missing-pretty-white-woman story everywhere in the country, but it's a local story in Orlando about a real person who vanished without a trace weeks ago – that's causing great pain for her family and friends. After meeting Michelle's mother, I thought about this story differently. And after passing the camp, I began noticing the missing person posters everywhere I went and hoped they were making a difference – and that she'd be found soon.

When I made it to South Orange Avenue, I again turned north passing numerous chain stores and strip malls. Mile after mile of them. There were so many I didn't take nearly as many photos per mile as I usually took on rides. Orlando isn't Lisbon, after all. It's mostly as flat as a billiard table so there were no vistas, but on the plus side I could really turn the cranks and cross off the miles. And when I saw something that was either interesting or was something I'd only see in Florida, I'd stop.

Eventually, I saw a retail establishment I wanted to visit: the Ragin Cajun Bike Shop.

I struck up a conversation with the owner upon noticing some of the most adorable bikes I had ever seen, including a road bike built for a five year old. If I thought I could fit it in my carry-on bag, I would have bought it to give to my cousin's son as a Christmas gift – in 2016.

One of the advantages of a store that carries an assortment of tiny bikes is they carry an assortment of tiny tires, namely 20 inch 100psi road tires - that would fit on the Bike Friday. Happy to run into a store owner that doesn't give me a bewildered look when I ask if they have small road tires in stock, I bought a pair from Ragin Cajun and lashed them to my pack.

I pressed on and eventually saw downtown Orlando on the horizon. Yes, the area is so flat it actually has a horizon.

While passing through town to get to Winter Park, I stopped to buy a map at a former gas station that had been converted into a sort of cigarette shop and garden tractor dealership. I was shown the maps, and I pulled a 'Orlando Cityscape' one off the mostly barren shelf. I held the folded map to my face and blew a thick layer of dust off it. This'll do, I thought.

After I paid for it I found the map was very similar to those cheesy tourist maps you find at motels. Neither the map nor the landmarks were drawn to scale, and I quickly discovered the map didn't have all of the roads listed on it. Still, I was able to find Mills Avenue and make my way north once again toward Winter Park.

When I made it to Park Avenue, I discovered the road was paved with bricks. It's pleasing to the eye, but it isn't what you want to see when you're on a roadbike with no suspension seatpost. There's a fortune – or at least millons of happy cyclists - waiting for the company who can do a fake brick wallpaper equivalent for streets.

Thankfully, the bricks weren't nearly as challenging as the cobblestones of Lisbon or the roads of Manhattan, so I was able to make it the rest of the way to Penzey's in relative comfort and in short order.

I locked the bike and headed inside. The spices I got (a new blend called 'Forward' as well as a pepper and a new cinnamon my wife wanted) mostly came in glass jars, which added more weight to my pack. I reasoned it would be a good time to fuel up for lunch, so I stopped at Pannullo's to eat. It was a sunny Florida day so I could park the bike right at the table where I could eat outside.

After eating a rather fine white bean and sausage soup, salad and fish sandwich, I got back on the bike on continued through Winter Park, which did have a degree of cuteness that I didn't find in Orlando, but since it was mostly populated by chain stores I can find at home I decided to head back.

I used the map to find an alternative route back to the hotel, and in doing so I finally found a vista from which I could take a photograph.

By the time I made it back to the Ritz-Carlton it was almost quarter to five and I had gone 58 miles – the longest ride I had taken in months and the longest ride I had ever taken on a bike that wasn't the recumbent. Too tired to contemplate a second trip to the lobby, I walked the bike right up to the main counter at Norman's to make a dinner reservation for my wife and I that evening before returning to the room.

The next morning, I looked out the window of our hotel room and briefly considered seeing what it would take to borrow a kayak to use on the lake...

...but I decided instead to bike south. Once again, I was presented with some mostly unremarkable landscape, save for Gatorland, which offers a zip line that carries passengers over alligators and crocodiles. I decided to save that for a future visit.

Less than 10 miles after leaving the hotel, I arrived in downtown Kissimmee, which has several independent shops including, but not limited to, Breck's Gourmet Cookies. They make a good oatmeal raisin.

I found it was very easy to leave the small downtown area and find myself near Lakefront Park. Still later, I came across some very interesting – and unafraid – birds.

After a lunch at Taqueria Tres Amigos on Broadway Avenue, I continued my aimless trip around Kissimmee (there's a nice old Dahon at one of the antique stores) before heading back to the hotel in the early afternoon. All told, the second day was about 40 miles.

On day three, I only had a couple of hours before we'd have to check out of our room and I was planning to meet my wife for lunch. Not wanting to head north or south (been there, done that) I ruled out east since I didn't want to go toward Disneyworld or the other theme parks. So I picked west.

It was not the best idea I ever had. About 100 miles I had covered in the Orlando area, but there was only one road where I truly didn't enjoy sharing the road with Sunshine State motorists: this one, Taft-Vineland Road. Peppered with warehouses, the road was narrow and filled with trucks. I didn't realize this until I was on it.

I have never been killed while riding a bike (not even once) and eager to continue my streak, I abandoned Taft-Vineland and found my way back to the Ritz-Carlton after seeing two more fearless birds – or they could have been the same ones – hanging out near Consulate Drive.

I made it back to the hotel with another 15 miles under my belt before hastily showering and packing my things. Thankfully, the tires I bought at Ragin Cajun fit in the bottom of my suitcase.

I checked the Bike Friday and most of the rest of our luggage with the bellman before heading to the pool to wait for my wife's conference to end. All in all, It was a very nice cycling vacation. I admit there's a reason you never hear anyone but me say “I just came back from a cycling vacation in Orlando” but it is flat, it is warm, it's filled with friendly people, and it does have a few inexpensive flights available to get you there. It also helps when you have the right accommodations. Additionally, there are a number of bicycle paths (some of which are rail trails far from the hotel I didn't have a chance to use) and surprisingly courteous drivers. But if you go, bring your helmet rearview mirror and your brightest jersey, don't rule out renting a car to start your ride away from Orlando – and don't forget to polish your bike shoes before leaving the hotel.


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