When December rolls around and you want to ride juuuust a little bit longer, head to the Florida Keys! When looking around for winter rides to cap off the year, I came across the Escape To The Keys ride. The location sounded perfect, the ride from Miami to Key West sounded awesome, and the timing was perfect to tie in with a stopover in Miami for Art Basel later in the week! Held annually on the first weekend of December, the ride also coincides with the Key West Christmas Parade on Saturday night.
The route was pretty self explanatory – take two days to ride 140 miles south on Card Sound Road and U.S. Route 1 (aka AiA, The Overseas Highway, The Highway That Goes To Sea, and also named an All-American Road by the National Scenic Byways program), look for aid stations at designated mile markers, and try not to get too distracted by the unbelievable shades of blue, turquoise, green, and aqua surrounding you as you ride through a tropical paradise.
42 bridges traverse the Atlantic Ocean, Bay of Florida, and Gulf of Mexico linking the coral and limestone islets of the Keys. Marathon’s Seven Mile Bridge, called the eighth wonder of the world when it was originally built in 1912, promised to be a highlight of the ride. Before the road was a highway it was a railroad pioneered and built by Henry Flagler but death, bankruptcy, and a hurricane in 1935 eventually decimated the railroad. The state of Florida took control and decided to use the infrastructure as a highway. In the 1980’s the highway was completely rebuilt to modern standards but the gracefully arched remnants of the old highway/railroad still parallel the modern highway like the ghost of a Roman ruin.
The ride was hosted by the Everglades Bicycle Club and sponsored by Mack Cycle & Fitness of Miami but it was really Rafael Acosta’s baby. A one-man dynamo, Rafael (Rafa) was in charge of EVERYTHING – logistics, hotels, aid stations, food, and entertainment. He rallied Miami’s Puerto Rican community to help facilitate this ride and is a cycling enthusiast in a class of his own. Not everything went exactly according to plan but in the end we had bikes, food, beds, and a lot of fun along the way. Rafa and Company operate on ‘Miami time’ (aka, a version of ‘island time.’) If you are a stickler for timeliness, efficiency, or precision – this might not be the ride for you. If, on the other hand, you can set aside your expectations and roll with the punches, Escape To The Keys will delight in ways you never dreamed of!
We decided to rent bikes in Miami rather than pack and ship our own, (it also turned out to be cheaper to rent than ship!). Christopher Pavon at Mack Cycle & Fitness set us up with two brand new Giant Defy carbon frame touring bikes. I had emailed all the measurements and he had the bikes ready to go when we got there. We caught a cab straight from the airport to the bike shop, attached our pedals, and made a few adjustments. Chris delivered the bikes to the start line at the Homestead Speedway the next morning.
We set out from Homestead Speedway bright and early on a Friday morning with Jimmy Buffet blaring Margaritaville and only an hour or so later planned, (Miami time remember;). We found ourselves at the front of the pack and unbelievably I was was the lead out rider for the the first couple of miles until I mentioned I didn’t really know where I was going. Luckily the locals took over from there. A group of 12 or so riders formed a breakaway and we decided to jump on and blaze away with them. Our bikes didn’t have computers so we were riding blind, I had no idea how fast we were going but it felt quick and it felt good! When we came to the first aid station at 40 miles, I asked one of the other riders what our average was and was astounded when he said 26mph. I had never ridden that fast for that long – hallelujah for six foot elevations and fully oxygenated air!
The aid stations were an added bonus along the way, and mapped by the Mile Marker number, it was easy to calculate exactly where you were at any given time. Day 1: Stop #1 Mile Marker 100 – Bayside Inn on Key Largo offered up freshly sliced pineapple and watermelon and sticky buns! Stop #2 Mile Marker 77 – Robbie’s on Islamorada feed the tarpon or meet a pelican. Stop #3 Mile Marker 68 – Lime Tree Bay Resort on Long Key was our location for a beachside lunch and home for the evening. Day 2: Stop #4 Mile Marker 40 – Little Duck Key was a parking lot at the western tip of Seven Mile Bridge. Stop #5 Baby’s Coffee – Key West had a hippie/hipster vibe and served coffees made from freshly roasted beans. Stop #6 Mile Marker 4 – Stock Island where we regrouped in preparation for the bike parade. The police escorted bike parade around Key West was a highlight and might have been the most regal cycling finish I’ve ever had!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the devastation that Category 4 Hurricane Irma brought to the Keys in September. For all the beauty we saw, we were also reminded of the aftermath of that storm. Even though the highway was cleared, it looked like a bulldozer had just plowed through storm debris and left the remains on the side of the road. We rode past miles and miles of detritus with the middle Keys seemingly worst hit and furthest from recovery. Most of the small mom and pop businesses that make their living on the Keys were affected, we saw many closed signs and moved signs but also quite a few open for business signs. We talked to one restaurant owner who said he could reopen but all of his employees had lost their homes, subsequently left, and now he couldn’t find anyone to work because there was no place to live. A Catch 22 and lesson learned in natural disaster recovery. On our ride, the SAG trucks were kept busy repairing flat tires caused by all rubble in the road. One duo had nine flats between them! Luckily, we only had one flat but the tire was sliced so we were really glad to see the SAG mechanic pull over.
We had been dreaming of the overstuffed lobster roll from DJ’s Clamshack, (featured on Guy Fieri’s ‘Diners, Drive Ins and Dives’ and on our hit list cuz you know, priorities), since we boarded the plane in Denver and we were just minutes away from making that dream come true but first we had to commemorate our ride with a photo at the southernmost point of the continental United States!
This was a fun ride and a tropical getaway just before winter really kicked in. You could easily do this ride on your own and you could also do it in one long day but you would miss meeting new friends and being a tourist along the way.