Riding a bicycle 600 miles up the entire state of Florida in 6 days… - Mickey Witte Ⓥ: Triathlete. Neuroscientist. Vegan.

Riding a bicycle 600 miles up the entire state of Florida in 6 days…

25 Mar Blog | 1 comment
Riding a bicycle 600 miles up the entire state of Florida in 6 days…

The GEICO Philanthropic Company Road Safety Bicycle Tour: My Re-cap

First things first – WHY did I do this?


Taken straight from our ride operational manual, the four main objectives of the GEICO Road Safety Bicycle Tour were as follows:

  1. Increase traffic safety education and awareness for the general public and young adults in the college, high school, and greater communities.
  2. Assist in the reduction of traffic crash-related injuries and deaths in Florida.
  3. Develop partnerships with schools, law enforcement, non-profit organizations, private corporations, public safety and other stakeholders in traffic safety to allow for a more efficient and effective delivery of traffic safety educational information.
  4. Influence safe driving behaviors through delivery of a traffic safety message by a broad range of respected community members and authorities.

The Florida State University Police Department, the Dori Slosberg Foundation, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the Florida Department of Transportation, and the Florida Highway Patrol, with the support of GEICO, were the lead organizations responsible for the development and execution of the GEICO Road Safety Bicycle Tour as a component of Road Safety Week.

To take part in the ride, you had to be chosen amongst a number of applicants. In addition, you had to complete a qualifying ride so that the ride organizers were able to know what type of cyclist you were. You also had to submit an application describing, amongst other things, what motivates you to want to be a part of this event. I submitted my application in 2010 and waited to hear back. Imagine my surprise and elation when I received the news early into 2011 that I was picked to be a part of this unique experience! 🙂

Ride Day Minus 1 – Friday, March 11, 2011 – Miami, FL
On Friday afternoon, I finished packing up what I hoped would be an adequate supply of clothing, equipment, and nutrition for ~600 miles of cycling up the state of Florida. My wonderful husband Ryan dropped me off at the hotel here in Miami that the team would be spending the night before embarking on our journey early the next day. It was then that Ryan surprised me by telling me that he’d see me in 6 days when I rolled into the state Capitol. That made me happier than ever to know that I’d see him at the “finish line” of this very unique journey that I felt extremely grateful to be a part of.

Even though I live in Miami, I had actually never been to the area of north Miami where we stayed that night. So when it came to finding a place to eat that was within walking distance of our hotel, the “Urbanspoon” app on my iPhone came in handy. Urbanspoon suggested a pizza place that was located a few blocks away (within walking distance) that had gotten great reviews. So after general introductions, getting checked in to our rooms, and a “kick-off” team meeting to discuss logistics, the team & support crew were off to fill our bellies before the first day of riding.

Dinner was yummy (as the Urbanspoon reviews had indicated it would be) and the place had no problem accommodating the vegan pizza (veggies, no cheese, extra sauce) for the 3 or 4 of us who requested it. (I instantly knew I was in like company when 3 other people thought that my vegan pizza preference sounded good to them too.) 🙂 At dinner we got to know one another a bit more. We learned about everyone’s riding history, their feelings towards being selected for the ride, and their thoughts about riding for this great cause.

I quickly learned that my fellow cyclists and support crew were all very compassionate people. Regardless of whether or not they had a personal story or tragedy associated with the cause (which some of them did), everyone understood the gravity of it all and, like me, were honored to be chosen to be a part of it. I went to bed that night beyond excited to begin this epic ride in support of this important cause.

Day 1 – Saturday, March 12, 2011 – Miami to Boca Raton to Jupiter, FL (~100 miles)

Team Photo prior to the start of the ride on Day 1

We were clipped into our bikes and ready to roll by 8:30am. One of my fellow cyclists, Michelle, lives in Wisconsin and this was the first time her bike had seen pavement in months (she’d been training indoors on a bike trainer all winter long!). Needless to say, before we even left the parking lot, one of her tubes couldn’t take the pressure and popped. This was our team’s very first flat and we hadn’t even started day one. The flat was fixed within minutes and we were off to ride a few miles up the road to Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay-North Miami Campus for a 9:00am press conference.

When we rolled onto the campus, the first person I recognized was my father-in-law, Walter. I then noticed that my husband Ryan came to see me off (one last time) with his mom, Susan, and sister, Nicole. At this Saturday morning kick-off press conference, we had our wonderful GEICO Gecko make an appearance and some words of encouragement and appreciation by the Dori Slosberg foundation, the FIU Police Department, and Major Jim Russell of the FSU Police Department (the mastermind behind every single logistical detail involved in this ride). We were then off to ride our first ~ 55 miles as a group to our next destination, the Boca Raton Fire Rescue Station (Station #5). There was another press conference scheduled to be held there at 1:30pm in memory of the beloved firefighter and cyclist, John Wilson, whose widow and sons were present to honor him. Firefighter Wilson had tragically died just one month prior when an SUV crashed into him while he was bicycling.

We rolled into Boca exactly as scheduled and were greeted by the camera crews from the local news TV stations who had come to cover the event. I found this piece written by the Boca Tribune, which had covered the event.

When the press conference ended, we set off to ride another ~ 60 miles to Jupiter where we would be spending the night.

Even though we rode against a moderately-sized headwind for the entire day, I was accustomed to these conditions since I live and train in south Florida. What I loved most was that we got the opportunity to spread the message of road safety and awareness everywhere we went! People wondered (and asked us) for what cause we were riding and at various points where we could respond (such as along A1A or at the few red lights that we encountered), we were able to respond and engage them in the cause. Sometimes our window of opportunity was so small because we were going ~18-20mph, that all I had the chance to say was “don’t text and drive!” or “don’t drink and drive!” – which was well received by many.

I also recall feeling nostalgic as we passed by my late granparents’ condo building while riding along A1A in Hollywood or Hallandale . My mom, aunt, and cousin had just been down to FL to visit in February and it was because of their visit that I was able to know in which condo building my grandparents used to live.

All in all, our first day riding as a group went really well. I felt extremely comfortable riding with everyone. In fact, I felt like the “rookie” of the bunch since many of my fellow cyclists had already accomplished multi-day several hundred mile rides and some were successful IronMan triathletes. I bought my first road bike in 2008. Since then, I have been slowly catching up to speed with my fellow triathlete counterparts on the bike.

Upon arriving at the hotel in Jupiter, we had barely a half an hour to shower and change before meeting up with the team for dinner. We ate dinner at an Applebee’s that was across the street from the hotel. I honestly think that was the first time I’d been to an Applebee’s in over a decade. In fact, I don’t even think I could tell you if I’d eaten at an Applebee’s after the age of 9. I kept thinking of the hilarious movie Waiting and the parallels to the restaurant in that movie (“Shenanigans”).

I fought the “do I sleep/do I eat” battle because I was just so darn tired and ready to rest up for the next day. In any event, dinner of veggie fajitas hit the spot. I was off to hit the hay after that and I can say with certainty that I slept very well after that first day of riding about 100 miles.

[Here is some local news coverage from when we rode through Palm Beach County.]

Day 2 – Sunday, March 13, 2011 – Jupiter to Cocoa Beach, FL (~125 miles)

We were clipped in and ready to ride by 7:30am and we were off to our first and only press conference of the day. The press conference was again in memory of
firefighter and cyclist, John Wilson, at the Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue station in Jupiter. Little did I know that after just 1 day of ~100 miles of cycling, my bum would be so unbelievably sore that sitting on the saddle (which is truly the most comfortable saddle in the world) was bringing small tears to my eyes because of the pain and soreness. So upon starting our ride to the fire station, with an unexpected amount of heiny discomfort, I asked Michelle, (a veteran of the sport) if her bum was feeling as sore as mine and what was I to expect over the course of the next day(s) of riding ahead of us. I was relieved to learn that a hard, callused portion of skin would soon form and this would alleviate some of the soreness. I also made sure to lather up with my favorite anti-chafing cream at our next stop and that made all the difference in the world.

We pulled in to the fire station and I was overjoyed to see a familiar face – my awesome Uncle Sal, who lives in Jupiter, came out on this Sunday morning to show his support. This meant so much to me. This experience I was a part of – testing my body’s physical and mental limits in the name of this vitally important cause – had only just begun.

After this press conference, we rode ~125 miles to Cocoa Beach, which was our final destination for the day. This was our first night of doing laundry, as we each only had 2 team jerseys. We hoped that our clothes would be dry by the time we woke up the next day. Despite there being not a single soul in sight (other than us), the restaurant next-door to the hotel served some rather yummy food. I ate my penne pasta primavera and was all set for sleeping soundly yet again.

Day 3 – Monday, March 14, 2011 – Cocoa Beach to Lake Mary, FL (~70-75 miles)

I ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and was off to ride to the University of Central Florida (UCF) for our first press conference of the day. We were clipped in at 7:30am and ready to ride ~45-50 miles to UCF. At the UCF plaza, the press conference was set to begin around 11:30am, so we were on a strict time schedule to get there. We rolled in right on time (in fact, I think we were early).

At the press conference we were able to interact with some students who were walking by the plaza to engage them in the cause. In addition to hearing us speak about the cause, people were able to watch a live traffic crash simulation that was set up there when we arrived.

We left UCF after the press conference and headed off toward Lake Mary where our second press conference of the day was to be held at Seminole State College of Florida’s Center for Public Safety (~20-25 miles away). Our ride organizer, Major Jim Russell, was an alumnus of Seminole State’s Criminal Justice Academy.

While there, we were given the opportunity to speak to policemen-, firemen- and EMTs-in training about the cause. A few of us, myself included, were given the microphone at this press conference to spread the message of road safety from my vantage point. As a pediatric neurotrauma researcher, and an avid recreational and commuter cyclist, I have a vested interest in this cause. Part of my job involves seeing the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars in Miami-Dade county each week. I reminded those in attendance that education and enforcement go hand in hand when it comes to modeling and reinforcing safe behavior.

We had a relatively short day of cycling that day (only ~75 miles), so we were glad to be able to get some more rest time in. We went to dinner at Toojay’s Deli in Lake Mary and once again, I slept quite well after a day of riding. 🙂

Day 4 –Tuesday, March 15, 2011 – Lake Mary to Gainesville, FL (~120 miles)

We departed from Lake Mary ~7:00am. Suddenly, within the first few seconds of riding, my right knee started to act up. I’ve never had any knee problems, so this alarmed me. I very slightly adjusted my saddle (thanks to the assistance of my fellow cyclist, Bruce) at our first 20 mile re-fueling stop and iced up my knee until I couldn’t feel it anymore. After that, the pain magically disappeared for the rest of the ride.

We were set to roll into the University of Florida’s campus for our 2:30pm press conference at the Plaza of the Americas. We received a wonderful reception in Gainesville. As soon as we rolled up, we were asked for photo after photo in front of the gator statue (meanwhile, all I really wanted at that point was a refill of my water bottle!–it was hot and somewhat difficult to stay hydrated). Gator student clubs and local cycling and scooter vendors were present promoting a pro-helmet, pro-safety message at the rally-type press conference set up for us at UF.

Here is some local news coverage (and some video footage) of our ride as it took us to Gainesville.

Later that afternoon/early evening, upon arriving at our hotel, Karen, our awesome team captain (and my tour roommate), and I took the opportunity to recover our legs a little in the non-heated outdoor pool. It never hurt so good!

The team ate at a Pan-Asian place within walking distance of the hotel. I thought it was random to eat Pan-Asian food in Gainesville, FL of all places, but the food was tasty and the view of a big pretty lake was pleasant. There was actually a yogurt/sorbet shop connected to the Asian place, so that was a nice surprise. Day 4 down, just 2 more days to go!

Day 5 – Wednesday, March 16, 2011 – Gainesville to Perry, FL (~95 miles)

We got the chance to sleep in a little that morning since we had no scheduled press conferences that day. We departed ~ 9:00am from Gainesville to head toward Perry, FL.

The ride was very difficult that day because the headwinds were SO very strong. In addition, because most of the roads were only 2-lane roads, we rode in a single pace line most of the way, which made for a quiet, sort of solitary ride. (We rode in a double pace line for most of the other days, which is favorable when riding such long distances, because it allows for some conversation with the cyclist next to you to pass the time.)

What I remember of the ride from Gainesville to Perry: Very rural. Sparsely populated. Very “old southern town”-looking. Lots and lots of churches with denominations that I’d never even heard of in my life. Lots of farms and grazing farm animals. Lumberyards. Lots of hand-made signs. Some interesting ones I saw that day, no joke: “Baby Piglets 4 Sale” “Weddin’ this way” “Acceptin’ all credit cards.” Like on every day of the ride so far, I wished more than ever that I had some sort of helmet camera that could take photos of the interesting things that I saw while I was riding. It was amazing to me that I’d just ridden my bike up from Miami 4 days prior, where Lamborghinis and Bentleys are as commonplace as the horses were here in farm country.

Physical ailment-wise, both my left and right Achilles were acting up. They were extremely tight. I tried my best at the foam roller. Our team Captain and former army medic, Karen, helped me stretch them out as often as possible. A lot of ice-stretching was employed by me that night.

Upon arriving at our hotel in Perry, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not a barn. It fact, it was arguably the best hotel we’d stayed at yet. Apparently it was a brand new Holiday Inn. And the Italian restaurant where we walked for dinner (which we looked up on Urbanspoon) served delicious food as well. Who’d have thought? All of these great things in Perry, FL!

Day 6 – Thursday, March 17, 2011- Perry to Tallahassee, FL – final stretch to the state Capitol (~60 miles)

On the final day of our 600 mile journey, we departed Perry in the dark, promptly at 7:30am, in 40 degree weather. Just a small reminder: I LIVE IN MIAMI. Warm, sunny, beautiful Miami. More importantly, I abhor the cold. In fact, my definition of “pure torture” is to place me in a cold climate. In my defense, I spent the first 22 years of my life in suburban Pennsylvania (and in Baltimore, Maryland for the last 3 of those years)–and I was miserable every single winter (which, in the northeast, translates to approximately 9 months out of the year). My body doesn’t easily make heat to warm itself and my hands and feet are prone to discoloration and numbness due to severe lack of blood flow to my extremities. This translates to worse pain than words can even describe.

Luckily for me, I was able to complete that last day of riding thanks to the angel sent from above, my fellow cyclist Paula, whose generosity and well preparedness with extra wool-laden apparel enabled my body temperature to remain moderately stable. I’d packed gloves and long sleeves, but I had no idea that actual wool would be needed…in Florida…in March. But I digress..

So we rode our last 60 miles throughout rural northwest Florida which consisted of some seriously rolling hills (something we have ZERO of in south Florida, with the exception of our few “man-made” hills, a.k.a. bridges). There were times when I thought my numb-from-the-cold Achilles weren’t going to make it, but indeed they did make it (they were just tighter than I ever by the end).

After riding a rollercoaster of rolling hills all morning, we happily pulled into our final rally point at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Headquarters in Tallahassee in order to prepare for the final ride into Capitol. Incidentally, this was actually the exact place where I got my first Florida driver’s license (I lived in Tallahassee from 2003-08 while in graduate school).

The team gathered together after a little break (since we were about an hour early for the final ride-in). I was briefly interviewed by the local TV station literally seconds before we took off on our final ride into the state Capitol complex. We rode up the big hill to the state Capitol at 12pm exactly, at which point I saw my handsome husband waiting there for me at the top. 🙂

The final press conference was held on the steps of the old Capitol and I couldn’t believe it was all over. I couldn’t believe that I actually RODE MY BIKE FROM MIAMI TO TALLAHASSEE in 6 days’ time. It was such a great feeling to be done!

After this press conference, we then rode over to the FSU Police Department to collect ourselves, shower briefly, eat lunch, and then put on a final campus-targeted press conference on the lawn of the FSU Police Department.

All in all, this experience ranks at the very top of my most memorable life experiences. I met an amazing group of people. I met cyclists. I met parents who had lost their children because of careless drivers. I met widows who lost their husbands. I met children who lost their parents. I am so grateful to have been a part of such an important cause. I am grateful that my body & mind were able to accept (and complete) the challenge. I am truly honored to learn that we inspired a lot of people to think twice before getting behind a wheel.

May you all remember to drive safe, share the road with cyclists, buckle up, don’t drink and drive or text while drinking – so that we may all… SURVIVE the drive!

  1. NELSON06-30-11

    This is awesom
    would like to know how to join this team to make this ride