Rode the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail yesterday.
My schedule yesterday morning was free, and I was in the mood to ride somewhere new. I’ve been wanting to get over to the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail for awhile now, and so I decided that would be perfect:
“The General James A. Van Fleet State Trail is officially designated as part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails and is one of Florida’s most rural, paved rail-trails. Also designated as a National Recreation Trail®, the Van Fleet State Trail runs through the Green Swamp, the headwaters for some of Florida’s most popular paddling destinations–the Withlacoochee (South), Hillsborough and Peace rivers. Landscapes include the natural environments associated with the Green Swamp, former citrus lands and cattle ranches. With only one or two curves in its 29.2 miles, you can choose to go slow and view the wildlife or enjoy it at a brisk pace. An equestrian trail parallels the length of the paved path. The trail has excellent wildlife viewing opportunities, especially between Green Pond Road and Bay Lake Road.”
I drove to the Mabel Trailhead, which is the northernmost point of the 29.2 mile (47 kilometer) trail. When I arrived there were perhaps a half-dozen cars there, but no one was in sight.
I had a good idea of what to expect from friends who had ridden this trail, and also online descriptions I’d read. After my ride there I can confirm that everything I’d learned was correct: this trail is remote, scenic (beautiful wilderness/wildlife), very straight (one slight and very gentle curve), extremely flat (and I do mean FLAT: I climbed a mere 240 feet over almost 60 miles!), sparsely trafficked and only has a total of 4 or 5 street crossings.
In other words, this is a phenomenal trail if you want to ride very fast, and it’s also perfect if you’d rather soft-pedal and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I decided to do both of those things: my plan was to ride the complete 29.2 mile trail southbound in time trial mode, and then relax and take in the sights on the 29.2 mile northbound return.
I’ve always been very curious to see how fast I could ride solo on a long, flat course with no traffic or slowdowns, but have not yet had that opportunity. The Van Fleet trail has a few street crossings (I think it was just 5), but apart from that there was absolutely nothing to slow me down except my own physical limitations. Aside from the occasional gentle crosswind, the wind was also not a factor yesterday.
I sussed out Strava before making the trip, and I saw that the average speed for the 29.2 mile southbound segment KOM–set more than two years ago–was 21.3 MPH (34.28 km/h) with a time of 01:22:11. My goal, which I knew would be challenging, was to average at least 22 MPH (35.41 km/h) on that segment.
Off I went…
At the 10 mile mark my average speed was 22.3 MPH, but my average heart rate was 182 BPM. My legs felt great, but maintaining such a high heart rate was, of course, extremely painful. At that point I was just one-third of the way into the segment, and I wondered if I could sustain that effort for another 19.2 miles…
So I did what I always do in similar situations: instead of thinking about the distance that remained, I focused on my speed, my pedaling mechanics (in the past when I was a swimmer it was my stroke and kick) and the music I was listening to. Of course I could see on my Garmin how far I’d traveled, but I didn’t dwell on it.
20 miles in and my average speed had dropped slightly to 22.1 MPH, while my average heart rate had increased to 184 BPM. I was deep in the pain cave. I kept telling myself that I didn’t go through the last 20 miles just to wuss out now! Only 9.2 miles to go! I buried myself…
Shortly after the 20 mile mark my heart rate monitor started malfunctioning again. This happened during the Horrible Hundred last weekend, and then again on a ride after the HH. I’d replaced the battery and thoroughly cleaned the contacts, but that didn’t help. Time for a new strap.
When I finally arrived at the Polk City trailhead (the end of the trail) I was destroyed, but very happy with my performance: my average speed was 22.1 MPH (35.56 km/h) with a time of 01:19:32.
Because my heart rate monitor was malfunctioning after the 20 mile mark, my average heart rate is not accurate on Strava. It was probably 184 or 185 BPM on that segment, not the 155 BPM reported.
That was an all-out performance, and with only a couple of minor slowdowns for crossings I finally have a good idea of what kind of solo speeds I’m capable of maintaining over ~30 miles.
After I got to the Polk City trailhead, I noticed that there is a trail extension that I was unaware of. I didn’t know how long the extension was, and because I only had about 3 hours to ride I decided to save that for another day. Turns out the extension is only 6.6 miles, and it’s called the TECO/Auburndale trail. I’ll tack that out and back on to the ride the next time, for a total distance of around 72 miles (116 kilometers).
I took it nice and easy on the 29.2 mile return leg, averaging 18.5 MPH, and just enjoyed the beautiful scenery. It was a great way to end the ride.
Here’s the entire ride with all data on Strava.
Even though this trail is remote, it seems very well-patrolled. Along the way I saw two police cars slowly crawling along the trail. As I approached the cars moved completely off the trail well in advance, and the officers waved and smiled as I went by. I saw the same officers on the return trip. I also saw a couple of Park Rangers patrolling the trail.
There are numerous benches along the trail, and I also noticed nature walks and several observation decks.
Human traffic was very light. I saw perhaps a dozen cyclists and a half-dozen people on foot.
The trail is wide and, as mentioned above, very flat and very straight (my friend Jeff Stephens calls this place the “Bowling Alley”, which is hilariously spot-on). You’ll see any potential obstacles well in advance. The trail surface is, almost without exception, smooth and well-maintained. I was able to ride in the center of the trail almost the entire time. Riding fast here feels quite safe, so it’s a great option if you want to get away from everything, put on some music and drop the hammer.
Riding slow and enjoying the sites is another excellent way to experience the trail. My return trip at a moderate pace was quite nice, and very relaxing.
Gators and snakes are often spotted on the trail, so keep that in mind if you bring your kids or dogs (dogs must be leashed!)
You’ll find a total of four trailheads along the 29.2 mile trail. From north to south: Mabel (parking, picnic area, restrooms), Bay Lake (parking), Green Pond (parking, picnic area, restrooms) and Polk City (parking, picnic area). These trailheads are spaced more or less evenly along the trail, with Mabel at the northernmost point and Polk City at the southern end. Water fountains are available at all trailheads except Bay Lake.
I absolutely loved this trail, and will definitely be back!