(words by Rhys May // @rhysmay )
Before the Huracan 300+, I’d never been bikepacking, I’d never ridden over 88 miles in a day, and I hadn’t done a ton of riding in the past few months of freezing temperatures. The plan was, roughly, to cover 90 miles the first day, 125ish the second, and then finish the 342 mile route with two smaller days.
(Photo by Eric Nicoletti// @nicolettilikespaghetti : me chugging water while trying to find the least squishy line in some sand)
Somehow I did it in only 3; having ridden 90 miles Saturday, 125 Sunday, and 140 through Monday night, finishing at 1:30 am 64 hours after starting in Santos. My headlight was long burned out, I had a serious Waffle House craving, and carried around numb mittens for hands that vaguely worked. It was so beautiful, so fun, and so utterly refreshing that I’m already scheming on my next adventure.
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A loaded down bicycle is pretty hefty. I borrowed various bags to attach to my trusty blue steel mountain bike, a Ritchey lovingly named 650Beyonce.
She was fitted at Loose Nuts Cycles in Atlanta with a handlebar bag stuffed with a sleeping bag, pad, and inflatable pillow; a top tank bag with tools, co2, chain quick links and a battery cache; a giant saddlebag with my clothes (one chamois on my butt, one in the bag, plus some warmer layers since the temps were ranging from 40’s to 70’s) a frame bag with toiletry essentials, and various water and snack holding pouches. I pedaled around outside the shop to make sure nothing was rubbing, added a few more straps (I am 5’ 4” and the headtube of my bikes doesnt leave a ton of front wheel clearance) and prepared to drive to Florida the next morning.
(Hanging at Loose Nuts getting everything ready)
I was still stuffing my face with veggies, tofu, and potatoes when my ride arrived. Jason, Pat, and Bri and I got the bikes on their 4 bike rack and hit the highway for Ocala. The drive from Atlanta was 5-ish hours, and it was enough time to catch up and get somewhere between really excited and plainly terrified of what was about to go down. We checked into our motel room at the Silver Princess and soaked in some Florida sun, did some wheelies (kinda) in the parking lot, and headed to Gear Check at the Santos Trailhead. We grabbed a few gels and other last minute needs at the bike shop across the street from the gear check/next day’s start, and Bri and I (the only women in our group) were slightly peeved to immediately get a reaction of “wait, YOU’RE doing it too?!” from a bro at the shop. They hadn’t questioned that any of the guys were doing this. But apparently it seemed unlikely to this guy that we “little ladies” would. It made me simultaneously pissed off and really thankful to exist amongst guys who just saw us as fellow cyclists... and, uh, people. I think we both knew in that moment that we were finishing no matter what. Bikepack the f*ing Patriarchy.
(Photo by Bri/ @grannygeargoral at the Silver Princess Motel)
Gear Check involved signing waivers, getting our official Huracan 300+ patch that says “May the Course be With You.” Karlos (Singletrack Samurai, who puts on the race) quizzed us: “Do you have warm clothes? Can you recharge your lights? What is your plan if something goes wrong?” We passed, and then headed to stuff ourselves with Mexican food before early bed.
Gas station purchases yielded Bri and I matching hot dog hats and mexican blankets, and we sat in our hotel bed excitedly talking to our friends about taking off in the morning and enjoying the collective buzz that was everyone messing with the bags on their bikes, charging bike computers, and filling water bladders.
(Very important Huracan prep: photo by Brent Armhein // @_blert)
A domestic violence dispute from the room next to us woke me up at 3:30 am, and it felt like I had just fallen back asleep when the alarm to go ride bikes went off. I put on my prepared bag of start clothes-- layers of warm but lightweight Verge kit, wool socks with 5ten shoes, knee warmers, gloves, scarf, cap. It was a bit chilly that early.
The mass start rollout was exhilarating. Quite different from a cyclocross race where people sprint off the line, but somehow so momentous-- a slow parade of the 70 or so loaded bikes slowly gaining momentum in the Florida sun. I watched the route start on my Wahoo Bolt, a tiny but capable GPS bike computer that showed our path in little breadcrumb arrows. Mile 1 out of 342.2.
(photo by Jason Spruill// @jc_spruill )
Day 1 took us around an active bombing range (!,) and on some pavement, sand, gravel, and dirt roads. It was a brilliantly fun group of us all together, chatting and laughing and covering mileage. It was a strange sensation after having been intimidated by the idea of covering that many miles to just...ride. It didn’t feel hard, it was just was I was doing that day. All day. Guided by the path displayed by my computer, I could keep my mind on the spinning of my legs, the feel of the ground, and the floating conversations with some Atlanta friends and with other riders who drifted in and out of our group.
One of our first rest stops resulted in a hilarious interaction when a 14 year old boy got out of his mom’s minivan and yelled “Get real motorcycles!” and then on his way back out of the store whilst we were probably still giggling, he shouted: “Burn rubber, not your souls!”
Amazing. I refilled water, bought more snacks than I thought I could possibly need, and reapplied chamois butter.
The group rolled out and rode on into the evening. The last section of riding to camp was one of my favorites-- twisty trail framed with palmettos illuminated by my headlamp. I latched onto my friend Donald’s wheel and we sped ahead of the group, ripping corners, and carrying bikes over some logs too large to hop. I was shocked to feel like I could have kept riding, even when the lights of “party camp” became visible in the trees.
I sat on the ground and ate and changed while I waited for the rest of my friends.. Party camp was made even more lively by the presence of a bearded man named Ski-ji, who was prone to random joyous shouting every 10 minutes or so, and who provided the campers with snacks, a fire to sit around, and plenty of cowbell ringing.
I shared a tent with Pat and Bri and slept some despite mosquitos buzzing in my ears. The morning light of camp had a somewhat misty quality, with bikes leaned up against trees getting loaded and lumpy again as the tents and sleeping bags slowly disappeared. I realized I hadn’t turned on my spot tracker for day 1 and managed to make its lights blink promisingly. Oops.
(Photo by me of misty morning camp, a few hours after Ski-ji settled down)
We were around the corner from the first water crossing of the camp. It was waist deep and brackish, with cypress knees and probably no alligators. I’m usually creeped out by any water that I can’t see into, and was also nervous of dunking my loaded bike and ruining supplies. I took a few deep breaths while I put on my river shoes (they were sort of like crocs, but stretchy) and hoisted my bike.
(Photo by Blake Cowing // @Blakeco7 of Brent and I crossing daintily)
As I was about to convince myself to go forward into the swamp, I look up to see Bri almost at the other side, her tiny 5’ ish frame submerged waist deep as she fearlessly plowed through with her bike held high. In her words, she just had to DO IT before she got scared. Well damn.
(Photo of Bri crossing well before I got the guts to do so, taken by Blake)
The rest of the morning we rode some singletrack, then some limestone doubletrack that was home to a handful of gators. They peered at us with facial expressions that said , “I am boss here, don’t fuck with me” as we pedaled by. There were dried dead fish on the limestone road, reduced to little more than leather with scales, and so many fantastic birds: Snowy Egret, Anhinga, Comorants, Blue Herons, Sandhill Cranes, Osprey, and a few vultures. (Thankfully my friend Nico is a nature expert and was able to tell me what all of these creatures were!)
(Photo by Jason Spruill of gator territory)
We eventually made it out to some roads with climbs known as the “Florida Pyranees.” Climbing with a loaded bike was… weighty, but also I was able to make use of my oft practiced drafting/momentum carrying skills and rocket myself up some of the climbs. I’d tuck in and draft either Nico or Jason, and stay protected from the wind, coasting for what seemed like an impossibly long time. It was so much fun. We made decent time, stopping at Epic Cycles in Clermont just as rain clouds started to show. It was a hilarious contrast-- we were dirty and walking through a bike shop that sold $8,000 tt bikes to fill up our water bladders in the bathroom sink.
Not long after the Epic Cycles stop it really started to pour, and we found ourselves huddled in front of a gas station checking out the radar. Most of the group wanted to ride the few miles back to Clermont, get a hotel, and get a dry start early in the morning. It was 3pm, and for whatever reason I couldn’t convince myself to backtrack. I badly wanted to press on to our planned stop for the evening: a rustic cabin another 60 miles on, through sand roads and trails. It would involve a few hours of rain and lots of headlamp guided riding. Nico and Donald agreed with me, and I felt reasonably like I could hold their pace.
I hugged some friends bye, “See you at the finish!” “I hope y’all make it to the cabin!” and got on my bike, our group of three speeding off into the pouring rain. If we didn’t make the cabin, we could camp with what we carried on our bikes, and that was a damn good feeling.
I rode the next couple of hours in sunglasses despite the dim light, as they did the best job of keeping the rainwater out of my contact lenses. I tried to remember to drink despite being as soaked as if I had just gotten out of a pool. The three of us eventually got to what is one of my favorite visual memories of Huracan: a squiggling, slightly uphill sand road framed by palmettos. It was dark and raining, and the screen on my Bolt said we were traveling 6mph. I was pedaling as hard as I could in my easiest gear, as trying to get any sort of momentum going in the sand was tough. But it was beautiful. The headlamps illuminated individual raindrops and the gleam of wet leaves against a backdrop of woods draped with spanish moss, and I followed quickly disappearing tire tracks through the undulating curves of this road that seemed like it would go on forever. I found a rhythm and enjoyed the feel of the sand under my tires and the warm raindrops on my face. Eventually we made it onto a paved bike path and traded pulls again, sharing light, talking, and eating soaking wet Nutter Butters that were of unexpected incredible culinary delight.
We went on like this for hours, at times barely needing light to guide us as our eyes adjusted and the rain stopped. Occasionally I’d see pairs of eyes appear on the side of the trail, noticing they gave me a sudden ability to pedal a little faster. My legs kept turning as if that was just what they did now. I was kind of amazed at my body’s lack of complaint. There is some kind of magic to riding for hours at night, a feeling like I was getting away with something or had happened upon hidden treasure. It was incredible.
Rolling into the campground at around 10pm, we had to get a ranger to come give us the key to the rustic cabin. We waited a bit, and then were granted entry to a traditional log building, with water from a spigot outside, a front and rear porch, and a big table. It had an air conditioner, electricity, and bunk beds with plastic sort-of mattresses that we laid our sleeping bags on top of. There was a bathroom hut a short walk away. The porch quickly became draped with soaked clothing, and the table was covered with snacks produced from the depths of everyones bags. We traded food around and enjoyed dry socks. I slept as if I were on a featherbed.
I woke to an alarm melody playing across the room early the next morning and got ready to roll out. I packed up my not-dry clothing off of the porch, and used the air conditioner to make sure my one pair of shorts was indeed dry. I put them on (holy luxury, batman) and made one top off on my water supplies, and rolled out. We had some seriously twisty singletrack ahead of us, and our plan was to try to push straight through and cover the remaining 140-ish miles in one go.
Less than an hour into the day I met another deep river crossing, which meant getting my shoes nice and soaked since barefoot was a bad idea and the previous river had sucked my shoes into its mud. I tied the laces on my 5ten’s tight, and changed shorts, keeping my precious chamois dry. I tried to pull a Bri and just cross the water before it sketched me out. About 3 feet from the dry land on the other side, I noticed that my handlebar bag was hanging open, battery cache and phone on the verge of sliding out. I lunged to grab them, set my bike down, and turned around to notice that my pair of dry bibs floating in the shallows of the other side. I waded back through and fished them out. I laughed at how lucky I was that the electronics hadn’t gone for a swim, and pulled my wet bibs from yesterday back on. At that point they just felt familiar.
(Photo is a still from a short video by Nico of the fateful chamois soaking crossing)
We pedaled on, eventually reaching Croom, which was some of my favorite singletrack of the whole trip. The fast, twisting trail with sweeping corners reminded me in structure of one of my New England cyclocross practice trails, but this was longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, brilliantly illuminated by the golden early morning sun. Nico and I followed Donald’s fast wheel, and it was a long stretch of no brakes riding, being able to totally trust the smooth riding of the wheels in front of me. I think I was grinning ear to ear that entire stretch, often looking down to realize we were going 15 mph on the serpentine trails.
(Photo by Eric Nicoletti of our pack of 3 zoomin' through Croom. Wet bibs, no problem. )
More sandy roads and a limestone stretch and we were at Lake Lindsey Deli, a store that sort of looked like a cabin and had a porch and massive cuban sandwiches. I ate half (that was the size of my left arm) and strapped the other half to my bike for later. I was getting ready to take off again when I saw a rider named Judy, who I had passed at some point in the Croom singletrack. “You guys RIPPED through there!,” she exclaimed, grinning in an exhausted way.
Nico and I thanked Donald again for leading us through there at cross-country mountain bike race pace. We were excited to make such good time, because we knew the last chunk of Santos singletrack would meet our tired bodies with some tech sections and lots of twists and turns.
We said bye to Judy and the cuban sandwich stop, and rolled out, bellies and water bottles full, knowing the last push was possible. At that point I realized I was in second place, the leader (Jen Colestock) having finished at 10:35 that morning. She hadn’t stopped to sleep and crushed the course in 49 hours.
We rode some hours of undulating gravel through the Citrus Wildlife management area and beyond, taking us to more singletrack. It was just getting dark as we stopped to eat the other halves of our giant sandwiches. The trails were a mix of fast and twisty and tough, like Ern and Burn, where another dimension (climbing) was suddenly added in, with a sprinkling of rocks.
At some point, I came undone in the woods. My thumbs stopped working, and when I tried to shift they just crumpled uselessly. I adopted an underhanded shifting technique, using the heel of my hand to shift gears. It couldn’t be done quickly and I kept losing my momentum after not shifting at the ideal moment, rolling backwards and stopping. I thought by time we must have been super close to the trailhead/finish, and I didn’t concern myself with trying to keep up my eating and drinking-- the thumbs situation plus my gut starting to feel the effects of so much sugar over 3 days had me feeling a little weird.
(Photo by me of Donald// @mandivided looking magestic in the clearing close to the finish. )
At some point we rode into a clearing, and the moon shone incredibly bright despite being half covered in clouds, like a beautiful slouching crescent. It almost looked like we were in the desert-- but in a magical, limestone rock land illuminated by headlamps and moonlight. We were nearly there. But not quite. What was geographically close was made a long ride by the (albeit very fun) endlessly looping twists of the trail.
What felt like hours later, Donald pulled up for a break and said “how’s everyone feeling?” and I responded by laughing while sobbing and trying to shake my hands around to make them work. Then I got back on my bike, cyclocross remounting to get some momentum.
Rolling through the last bits felt dreamlike and rhythmic. My light had run out and I was using Nico’s backup rear light clipped to my handlebar bag. Spanish moss and sandy twisting trails, the moon peeking out sometimes.
And then.... We had arrived. Holy shit. We pulled up next to Donald’s van and hugged each other. It was 1:30am. We crammed all three of our bikes in the van and went to book a room at the Best Western, put on dry pants (I kind of had to hug myself to get my pants to snap, without thumb use,) and we went to Waffle House.
I couldn’t hold a fork so I ate a waffle with my hands, licking syrup off of my pruned fingertips. We laughed about how long those last few miles had seemed, and marveled that we’d completed the route in 64 hours.
I showered, slept the best sleep ever, and woke up to take advantage of continental breakfast and hotel laundry facilities. We drove back over to Santos and spread our gear out to dry in the sun while we waited for our friends to finish. I worked on important technique for napping on grass that involved the occasional sit-up to eat several slices of pizza before falling back asleep.
A bunch of our remaining crew rolled in at 4:20 pm on the dot, including Bri, whose smile I could see from all the way across the campground.
(Photo by Jason Spruill)
I hugged her and felt this sense of truly awesome shared accomplishment. We were 2 out of the 6 women who registered for/finished the event, out of 70 or so total registrants. Both of our first century rides. First bikepacking. First riding loaded. And we had so much damn fun. I can’t wait to scheme on the next ridiculous thing we’ll do.
(Photo by Brent Amerhin // @_blert : sometimes fast singletrack suddenly gave way to deep sugary sand. There was a lot of sand. )