It’s Super Bowl Sunday and I’m sitting on the curb in front of a 7-11 convenience store in Apopka, Florida. The sun, which has been beating down on us unobstructed by clouds since the early morning, sinks slowly towards the western horizon. Phone in hand, I’m searching Google Maps for the closest (and cheapest) hotel to the route. Mark is in pain. His achilles and calf have been cramping all day long. Paul is in much better spirits. He’s urging us on, telling us we’ll feel better once we make it back onto singletrack.
“It’s only 35 more miles to the next stop in Paisley,” says Paul.
The problem is, there’s nothing in Paisley. No hotels or motels, just woods. Apopka is the last bit of civilization we’ll see for some time.
Mark is on the fence. I’m not. I’m firmly on the other side of the fence, looking for a place to lie down. To Paul’s dismay I say in no uncertain terms, that I’m done. I’m sunburned. My butt is numb. I can’t feel my hands. My triceps are weak and shaking, barely able to keep my upper body from smashing into the handlebars. And, I’m just plain tired.
“You guys can do whatever the hell you want to, but I’m getting a hotel,” I say, and ring up Crosby’s Motor Inn to reserve a room. With that, any hope of finishing the Huracan 300 in under 48 hours disappears. Mark decides not to push his leg any further, leaving Paul to soldier on alone.
With the prospect of a comfortable bed just a few miles away, I immediately start to feel better. Before Mark and I part ways with Paul, I head back into the 7-11 to grab a 22oz can of beer–the biggest one I can cram into my frame bag’s limited space.
Mark picks me up late morning and we hop on I-75 South out of Atlanta. Our destination is central Florida. First to the Santos trailhead to check in with Karlos Bernart (the creator of the Huracan) and pick up our Spot Trackers, and then to The Villages–a retirement community where we’ll spend the night with Mark’s in-laws.
Halfway through the five-hour drive, I take over behind the wheel. Mark falls asleep in the passenger seat and I’m jamming out to my music. Traffic is cruising at 80 MPH, so we’re making good time. Eventually Mark wakes up. I’m all the way over in the fast lane when Mark’s car starts slowing down. I give it a little gas but nothing happens. Without hitting the brakes, I start making my way to the right side of the road.
“What’s going on?” asks Mark.
“Uh, I think I ran out of gas,” I sheepishly admit.
As Mark delivers a brief lecture on how keeping an eye on fuel levels is one of the responsibilities of driving, we coast along the shoulder, coming to a stop underneath an overpass.
I feel like a jackass.
Traffic is whizzing by. It’s loud and hot.
I run up the concrete embankment to the road above us. There’s nothing to see but rural Florida in either direction. I pull out my phone and it tells me a gas station awaits a mile down the road. I yell down to Mark and start hoofing it. While I would much rather be closing in on our destination, the walk is beautiful. The country road is lined with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss. Having spent a good chunk of years in Savannah, Georgia, it’s a nostalgia-inducing scene.
Eventually, I make it to the country store and gas station. They had one gas can left in stock. I bought it, filled it with two gallons, and started the hike back. After a few hundred yards, a beat up Dodge diesel pickup rumbles to a stop next to me. The grey-bearded man behind the wheel offers me a ride. Since his entire cab apart from the driver’s seat is covered in junk, I hop in the bed.
Back on track, my little mishap cost us about 50 minutes. Hopefully it’s not an omen.
Mark and I are up at 6am. Before going to bed the previous night, we got our bikes ready to roll. All there is to do in the morning is eat breakfast, load the bikes onto the car, drive the 16 miles back to Santos to meet up with Paul, and start the race.
At the campground, riders are in various states of readiness. Some are riding laps through the campground, warming up.
“Are they really warming up for a 340-mile race?” I ask aloud.
No one pays me much attention, as they’re all concerned with last minute preparations. Apart from Mark, Paul, and myself, there’s a large contingent of riders from Atlanta–probably a dozen or more.
A couple minutes before 8am, we roll to the campground entrance for what I presume will be a racer’s meeting before the race start. Karlos looks around, obviously taken aback by the number of folks taking on the Huracan this year–over 80. However, there’s no racer’s meeting, no instructions. Karlos simply looks at his watch and gives us a 30 second warning. Unceremoniously, we head off for roughly 340 miles of singletrack, limestone roads, sandy doubletrack, and pavement.
Mark, Paul, and I chose to do the route counterclockwise, as did most of the others. This means we get to start with a long section of singletrack through Santos. About 500 yards into the trail, Mark snags his bar end on some vines, which spills him onto the ground. I’m right on his wheel, so I get a front row seat to the crash. He’s okay, but hopefully that’s not an omen.
The dirt–well, sand mostly–is in great shape. There’s just a little give to it, so while there’s some drifting, it’s predictable, not sketchy. We’re keeping a good pace with a large group of riders lead by our buddy Donald–a veteran of the Huracan. The first 10 miles tick by in no time. Donald pulls off along with a good portion of the crew to regroup. Our pace line is now much smaller, but the tempo stays high.
Plenty of singletrack lies ahead. Most of it is of the fast and flowy variety, although there are the occasional lumpy sections like the Canal Diggings trail. Around 30 miles in, near the town of Dunnellon we link up with the Withlacoochee Trail for a long stretch of paved greenway. The greenway takes us south through Inverness, where we turn west and head into the Citrus Wildlife Management Area.
In Citrus, we find miles upon miles of arrow-straight and pancake-flat sandy doubletrack. The sand is dry, but not too deep, so it’s easy to keep the speeds high. This eventually dumps us back out on the pavement where we roll along for a few miles to the first checkpoint at the Lake Lindsey Mall. It’s less a mall and more of a country store and deli. We snap our selfies out in front of the store–used to prove to Karlos that we stopped at the checkpoints–and head inside to gorge ourselves on sandwiches and snacks.
It’s about 2:45pm and we’re 78 miles in, which happens to be the farthest I’ve ridden my mountain bike in one go. We’re making good time. As we rest, a steady trickle of riders roll into Lake Lindsey. I take the opportunity to snap some photos, refill my water bottles, and reapply some chamois cream.
Another rider, Dave, joins our train, and we chug towards the next control in Ridge Manor, 33 miles away. 20 of those miles are on singletrack through Croom. The trails here are tight, twisty, and punchy. At one point we get off course and spend the better part of a half-hour trying to figure out how to get back on. After stopping, turning around, crossing over to other trails, our GPS units collectively agree that we’re heading in the right direction. Just in time too, as the sun is setting and none of us want to search for the correct course in the dark.
We reach the Circle K in Ridge Manor around 7:30pm, five hours after Lake Lindsey. I’m starved and parched, so I take full advantage of the store stop, grabbing bananas, a smoothie, Gatorade, water, a couple Starbucks Double Shots, Skittles, Cheez-Its, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. Basically whatever I can get my hands on.
The odometer now reads 111 miles. It’s the first time I’ve ridden a mountain bike 100 miles.
Shortly after the second checkpoint, we enter into the Green Swamp. There are sandy roads with creepy names like Dark Stretch and Graveyard. I’m glad to be riding with others. Our group grows as we pick up a few more riders. The crew reaches the legendary Devil’s Creek crossing. With a warm and dry winter, the typically hellacious crossing is barely more than a trickle. I walk across some rocks and roll my bike through the creek. The biggest danger here are the stumps of cypress trees, but at least they aren’t covered in water.
From here, we pick up the Florida Trail. It’s clear that this stretch is seldom used by humans–but there is plenty of hog traffic. I actually hear one running next to us before it crosses the trail 20 yards ahead. The hogs have rooted the trail, making it bumpy and rough. With all the extra weight on my bike, I have to run high tire pressures, which does nothing to cushion the constant punishment. There are numerous tricky turns, which are hard to see with the saw palmetto crowding the trail. After an eternity, we get spit back out onto some lumpy, sandy doubletrack.
It’s late–probably midnight–and some of us are losing steam. Gradually, the group thins out until just the three of us (Mark, Paul, and me) remain. The doubletrack goes on much too long, and I began to wonder if we’ll ever make it out of the Green Swamp. Eventually it relents. We have a few miles of road to ride before connecting to the Van Fleet bike path.
Once we reach the path, we stop to fill up our water at the trailhead. Moments later two cars come racing right up to us. It’s the local sheriff’s department. Turns out some neighbors had seen all the lights going through the woods and decided to call it in. After a little explaining, they wish us luck and send us on our way.
We decide that now would be a good time to get a few hours of rest. Paul is laid out and snoring before Mark and I even finish unpacking. Tempting fate, Mark and I both elected to leave our sleeping bags in the car. The lows were forecast to be in the upper 40s, and with our extra clothes, we’d be fine, right?
No. As it turns out, high 40s is still really damn cold when you’re lying outside on the ground with minimal covering. Mark and I both pay for our decision with an acute lack of sleep.
I “wake up” Sunday morning feeling wrecked. I’m cold, tired, and irritable. We had ridden 155 miles the day before over the course of 18 hours. Yet another record for me. My previous longest ride–on any bike–was around 115 miles… well smashed. I saved a Double Shot from the night before, so I at least have something for my morning coffee. Packed up, we begin our next leg to the third checkpoint in Clermont.
It starts with a long stretch of bike path before we hit Water Road. This is another notoriously hard spot on the route. Most years, the road is flooded for long stretches at a time. You can ride through some of the puddles and risk trashing your drivetrain, or you can wade through them. Neither is a particularly attractive prospect considering the local gator population. But once again, the weather is on our side. Water Road is dry–perhaps a better name would have been Sand Road. But the long dry spell means the sand is loose and deep, which makes for slow going. It’s all rideable, but it takes extra watts to keep chugging.
By 10am we reach the 7-11 in Clermont. Mark’s leg is starting to bother him and all of us are lacking some of that fire in our bellies we had the day before. Even though it’s early, it’s getting hot out. We take our time at the stop. I ride across the street to a Wendy’s to grab us a couple burgers. The food helps, but Paul is the only one anxious to get moving again.
The next part of the route is heavy on the road. And also, surprisingly, it’s heavy on climbs. Thankfully though, we get a long stretch of brand new asphalt all to ourselves. It’s still under construction and isn’t yet open to regular traffic. Since it’s Sunday, there are no work crews either. Passing the bumper to bumper traffic to our left, I’m happy not to be squeezing by on the shoulder.
We get off the main road and onto some country roads, passing countless citrus groves. The climbs here are long, with just enough grade to make them painful–particularly when powering a 50-pound bike. The tradeoff is wide open descents where speeds top 40 MPH. It’s a beautiful area, but I’m having a hard time enjoying it. All the road miles mean a static position on the bike, and my hands and butt are paying the price. We’re also fighting a constant headwind and a relentless sun. I thought we’d motor right through this road stuff, but it’s taking much longer than expected.
When we finally reach Lake Apopka, I’m drained. We stop at the tower for a few minutes to soak in the view of the lake. From here we ride next to canals and spot gators, herons, and osprey along the way. The riding is tame, and my legs actually feel okay. But everything else is screaming at me. Around 5pm we reach the fourth checkpoint, a 7-11 in Apopka.
Paul assures me that we can sleep once we get through Paisley and into the woods, some 40 miles away. I’m not buying it. Without a sleeping bag, I know I won’t be able to sleep, and without sleep, I’m not finishing shit.
After grabbing that beer from the gas station, Mark and I soft-pedal to Crosby’s Motor Inn–which is about as shitty as it sounds. We lug our bikes upstairs since staying on the ground floor costs extra and there’s no elevator. In the room there are two beds, but just one set of towels. Someone has taken the lightbulbs out of the lamps. Mark orders pizza while I head down to the front desk to get more towels and lightbulbs.
We put the Super Bowl on, and my Atlanta Falcons look like world beaters. I eat probably six slices of the best Papa John’s I’ve ever had, and fall asleep with the knowledge that all is right in the world. Some time later, I awake to Mark telling me overtime is starting.
“Overtime? Weren’t we up by like 25 points?!” Dismayed, I roll over and go back to sleep.
I sleep soundly–just as good as being at home. I’m clean and refreshed. I washed my chamois in the shower the night before so it’s clean-ish. I put on a fresh pair of socks and I’m feeling good.
Mark didn’t sleep as well, but his leg situation has improved. At the suggestion of a friend, Mark lowers his saddle to take some pressure off his leg. We take our time getting our things together and finally head out the door around 9:30am.
A quick backtrack to the 7-11 in Apopka and we’re on course. We ride on a bike path that parallels a busy road until we turn off into a quiet neighborhood, where we spot a bald eagle in someone’s backyard. Shortly we’re on singletrack in Wekiwa Springs State Park. The park is lush and verdant–classic Florida. We cruise by swamps teeming with vegetation. When Mark and I reach Rock Springs Run there actually is some water. It’s not neck deep like years past, but it’s not rideable, either. The water is refreshingly cool and crystal clear. It would be a lovely spot to set up a hammock and nap the day away, but we’re on a mission. Fish swim nearby and long, aquatic grass tickles our legs as we hoist our bikes over our heads and make the crossing.
At an intersection with a dirt road, we spot our friends Paul (a different Paul) and Ben from Atlanta. They’ve picked up a rider from Alabama. The five of us chug along towards Paisley. In Paisley, we run into yet more riders from Georgia: Justin and Glenn. We all spend some time lying in the grass eating. I grabbed myself a tallboy of Budweiser, because, why not? Justin and Glenn leave first, and the rest of us follow soon after.
The next stretch is stellar singletrack. Mark and I are both feeling strong, and we start to put some distance between us and the other guys. Then we catch Justin and Glenn. And then another two riders. The sight lines are ideal, and I quickly learn that the gentle turns don’t require braking. I feel like I’m riding at an XC race pace. It feels awesome.
Around 4pm, Mark and I pop out of the singletrack near the Pinecastle Bombing Range. At the intersection with the road, we see another couple of riders taking a break. Catching more riders gives me more energy. Mark and I roll on, kicking the pace up yet another notch. We know the others aren’t far behind. The route around the bombing range is characterized by long, straight sections. At the top of every little rise, I turn around to see if anyone is coming. Not seeing anyone just makes me turn the screws further to keep the gap up.
Once around the bombing range, Mark and I pause briefly to swap water bottles on our frames and turn our lights on. Both of us could use a longer break, but we also don’t want give up any ground.
After a few more miles of trail we are back on pavement to the finish. It goes by quickly and around 7pm we roll back into the campground at Santos, completing the loop. Three hundred and forty-five miles. Thirty hours of ride time. Fifty-nine hours elapsed. Within minutes, some of the other riders we passed on the final day begin to roll in as well. It turns out Mark and I were right to keep glancing over our shoulders–even if it was just for pride.
There’s no crowd with clanging cowbells, but the feeling of accomplishment is reward enough. Before fatigue can set in, I take a shower, put on clean clothes, and remove all the bags from my bike. Several of us meet up at the closest Mexican restaurant. I stuff tortilla chips and margaritas into my face as fast as the waiter can bring them. It’s all I can do as the cumulative effort has caught up to me. While the others talk, joke, and recount the adventure, I stare at the rapidly-emptying basket of chips in a trance.
The Huracan represents many firsts for me as a rider. It was the first time I had ridden my bike in Florida. It was the first time I had ridden 100 miles on my mountain bike. The 155 miles covered in the first day made for my longest ride, period. Riding over 340 miles in two and a half days is certainly a record for me as well. It was my first bikepacking race and also the longest bikepacking trip I’ve been on.
You get the idea.
It seemed like an impossible undertaking right up until the start. Once I started turning the cranks, I just enjoyed the ride. And what an incredible ride it was! I was doubtful the route could live up to the hype from my friends that have done it in the past. However, the entire experience exceeded all expectations. A huge thanks goes out to the mastermind behind the Huracan, Karlos Bernart. I can’t imagine the hours of work required to pull something like this off, especially considering there’s no money and no sponsors. This is purely a passion project, both for Karlos and the riders.
If the Huracan sounds like something you’d be interested in tackling but you don’t know where to start, check out some of the other articles on Singletracks such as Alec’s guide to bikepacking on a budget and the lessons Greg learned on his first bikepacking trip. For a detailed breakdown of my personal setup, checkout the companion piece to this article.