Biking opportunities about and around Lake Okeechobee

OKEECHOBEE — In the national news lately, it was discussed that riding a bicycle on the road in Florida is a dangerous thing to do. Florida is number ONE in the list of ten most dangerous states to bicycle in America. That is, statewide, there is a pretty good chance that a cyclist is more likely to be involved in a crash here in Florida, than ANY other state.

As an avid cyclist, here in Okeechobee, I can tell you that distracted drivers are as much of the problem as a cyclist who doesn’t pay attention to the rules of the road.

Driving around in my truck, I can see who is not paying attention to their driving. They weave in the traffic lane, accelerate slowly, stop too slowly or too quickly, dart into other lanes, and never, ever signal their intention. I pulled up next to a lady in a car last week, who was holding her telephone on the top of the steering wheel while driving, and either texting or reading something, during the afternoon commute on Parrott Ave. I was astounded, but thankfully was in my truck, not on a bicycle.

With that out of the way I can say that in 12 years of riding a bike on the roads and trails around Okeechobee and the lake, I have never been in a serious accident with a car. I have had near-misses (near hits) and have had the wits scared out of me, but I have never actually been HIT by a car or truck. Perhaps I’m lucky, but maybe it’s where I ride and when.

Most of my near misses have been during the morning or afternoon commute, when people are running late, or distracted. I commute past the hospital on the way to work, and it always scares me to ride through there in the bike lane of U.S. 441, as the very LAST thing a driver of a car is thinking about on the way to the hospital in the morning is the old guy on the funny looking bike.

Where to ride and be safe

So, where can you ride and be safe? The Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) is good, as it is closed to vehicle traffic. But much of the LOST is closed due to construction projects that will last for years. The path, near Okeechobee, is open from the Kissimmee River to Taylor Creek, and from Nubbin Slough all the way to Port Mayaca. Good riding, great views of the lake and the rim canal, and not too many other folks out there make for a good time riding.
Because the roads around Okeechobee tend to radiate out like the spokes in a wheel, there are not too many road routes that you can ride that aren’t an “out and back.”

Because I live down near the lake, I tend to ride the side of S.R. 78. The shoulders are wide and in good shape along this road and with the exception of crossing the Kissimmee River heading into Buckhead Ridge, you really don’t have to ride in the traffic lane, and the motorists appreciate that, I’m sure. The traffic south of Buckhead Ridge is generally pretty light, the shoulders are in good repair, and there are places to stop in Lakeport for food and cold drinks, as well as in Buckhead Ridge. It makes for a good morning’s ride to go down and back.

An out-and-back ride

A new out-and-back ride, now that construction is complete, has to be S.R. 70 East. The new two lane highway from the corner of S.R. 70 and 710, has a shoulder marked as a bike lane. Traffic is heavy through there, but once you cross into Martin County, there is a bicycle path on the north side of the highway all the way to where S.R. 70 crosses the Florida Toll Road. The one-way distance is 29 miles, and at the eastern end there are a couple of fast food places to eat. The bike path in Martin County is WELL off the highway, smooth and pretty and once you leave Okeechobee, is right out in the country. You need to prepare for this ride, as there aren’t many places to stop for water or shade, but if the winds aren’t too bad, it can be a very nice long ride. I have seen deer and other wildlife on this ride, which is surprising as it parallels a busy highway for the entire distance.

A long circle route, sometimes called a Metric Century

For a long, circle route I have created a route that kind of circles Okeechobee and is about 62 miles long. If you start from the intersection of S.R. 70 west and U.S. 98, head north up 98. Once you leave town, the shoulders are good, and the traffic is light. I usually start this ride at first light, to ride in the cooler part of the day, and have done the first portion up U.S. 98 with my headlight on. About 12 ½ miles up, turn right on Northwest 160th Street which is S.R. 68. Now 68 has been paved recently, and is a nice smooth ride, but doesn’t have any rideable shoulder, so you must be careful of traffic, which is usually quite light in the mornings. At mile 20, make a right turn on the end of Potter Road and follow it around first south and then east. At mile 23 ½ you hit the intersection with U.S. 441. There are a few options here. You can head south into town and return to your starting point. You can turn right and run down to the store for food or drink, or you can continue across on Northeast 128th Ave. Follow Northeast 128th across to the east, it swings south, and then east again, and takes you past the spot where the Okeechobee Music Festival is held.

Continue on the pavement and at 36 ½ miles you come to the stop sign at S.R. 70 East. There is a store on the corner, and a good place to stop to rest and refuel and get a cold drink or bite to eat. Continue south from the store on Northeast 128th Avenue (Berman Road) but be careful. There have been a lot of issues with semis hauling trash on this section of road, and there are no shoulders. At mile 45, you find the stop sign at S.R. 710, turn left and ride the shoulder for a mile to Southeast 126th Blvd., also known as 15B. At the south end of Southeast 126th Blvd. you reach U.S. 441 S.E., and you turn right to follow it along the edge of the lake all the way back toward town. Stay on U.S. 441 S.E. until you come to the corner where it meets State Road 78. Rather than turning towards town on U.S. 441 and fighting with traffic or riding the sidewalk, follow State Road 78 another mile and at mile 58 turn north on Southwest 16th Avenue. Follow Southwest 16th Avenue, north to the tee at Southwest 32nd Street and turn left. Take the next right from Southwest 32nd Street onto Southwest 24th Avenue and follow it straight north through the neighborhoods to S.R. 70 West at mile 62. Turn right on S.R. 70 West, to the start point and the intersection of S.R. 70 and 98. A ride of this length is known as a “Metric Century” as it is 100 kilometers in length and is one that I like to do a couple times a year when I have time.

How to stay safe

On any ride, especially the one just described, you need to do several things to stay safe. State law says that cyclists riding on the roads are considered “vehicles” and need to follow traffic rules. That means stopping at stop signs, signaling your intention to turn or stop, and displaying lights on the front and back of a bike if it is dark or visibility is poor. I run a flashing red tail light ANY time I’m riding on the road. Be aware of the traffic coming up in front or behind and treat them with the respect they demand. Always wear your bike helmet.

DO NOT wear headphones! Doing so is contrary to state traffic law, and blocks out the sound of upcoming vehicles. Stay aware, expect the unexpected and react quickly to changing road conditions and traffic.

It’s not mentioned too often but you need to keep your bike in good repair to make long rides like the ones detailed here. Carry tools, know how to fix a flat, make sure you have identification, money and your cell phone when you travel on long rides from home and make sure that someone knows where you are going and when you expect to be back.

Happy riding!

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