A Narrow Escape

If you want to get anywhere from Miami and you don’t want to hug the coast, you’ve got to go through the Everglades: a steaming swamp festooned with midges, alligators and goodness knows what else. Two roads head west across the glades from Miami: an interstate that bans cyclists and the older Highway 41. Highway 41 it was then.

About halfway through the swamp, there’s a alternative road that takes you on a detour for twenty five miles or so. I hadn’t turned a corner in a few hours by this point, so the chance to get off-route and avoid some of the cars was a welcome one. I had food, water, spares and plenty of daylight; what could possibly go wrong? I passed through a slightly run-down looking village at the start and got chased by a few biggish-looking dogs, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. Strava titles flashed through my mind: “Everglades were disappointing, I was promised alligators but all I got were some boring old dogs”. So far so smug.

The back road through the Everglades. You should try it – though preferably in broad daylight.

The road soon turned to gravel – more worrying as my tyres weren’t really specced for it but that wasn’t a major concern; I could always repair them, right? As I got drier into the swamp the settlements got weirder: tumble down snacks with strange sculptures outside, including a fairly realistic bloodied corpse hanging out the window of a rusty old car. At least, I’m sure it was a sculpture …

Safely through the villages, I started to dally. This was the wildest, weirdest and most remote place I’d be in all the lower 48 states, so I could at least get some properly ‘epic’ photos, yeah? Carrion birds stalked the road as I happily snapped away.

Woooh, Scary!

My rear tyre was soft when I returned from one shoot. How annoying. Nothing for it: up-end the bike and replace the tube. Here was the spare … oh shit.

Inner tubes have two types of valves. My wheel rims took the narrower type, but this tube, bought en-route, took the thicker one. I knew about the compatibility issues and what’s more I knew how I must have made the mistake in the shop: I’d deliberately moved from the Schrader valve section to the Presta valve section, then while looking for the right thickness for my tyres, had accidentally moved back again. Oh well, I had another tube and that had come from a different shop. I’d never made this mistake before so surely I wouldn’t have made the same mistake twice in a row, would I?

The second tube was also Schrader. I had no spare tubes.

The next solution was to patch the old tube. Reaching into my toolkit brought further dismay however: I only had Park Tool patches, known for being a bit temperamental, and they looked a bit old. Still: for the first patch, replace the tube, re-seat the tyre, inflate. It had held. Good. Re-fit bags and ride on, past the sign saying eleven miles to the highway.

Pssssssssst. The patch had come loose after a mere two miles. Damn. Remove tyre, check for other leaks; no, it was the original repair that was at fault: half the glue on the first patch hadn’t stuck. Fit another patch over the problem area, replace and repeat …

Pssssssssst. The second patch hadn’t taken either. This was serious: I was right in the middle of the Everglades, nine miles from the highway and I only had one patch left. I inspected the useless repair, with the rotten patches bubbling up like blisters from two possible leak sites. Taking my knife, I cut the one remaining patch in two and applied half to each. This had better work …

Psssssssssst. It hadn’t. The leak was so fast that I couldn’t even keep pumping it up and riding for a mile – it had leaked out before I’d even refitted the wheel to the bike. The puncture could not be fixed. For want of a two dollar patch kit, I was stuck.

At this point my options were one: sit and wait for help, two: walk out, or three: ride out on the flat tyre. Option three would definitely kill the tube, almost certainly the outer tyre and probably the wheel rim too. In any other situation I’d sit it out – I had food after all. A night in the Everglades was the very last thing I wanted though. Weren’t alligators night-time creatures, basking in the sun during the day and coming out to kill after dark? Wasn’t that what I’d seen on one of those David Attenborough programs, one of the ones with lots of killing, bloodshed and raw meat? No, my life was worth more than a bicycle wheel. I was riding out.

Riding a punctured wheel is a slow, uncomfortable and difficult affair, especially on a gravel surface and especially when you have fifteen kilos of luggage on the back. To make matters worse I could hear barks from the woods on either side. Were those … gator barks? What other large animals made those noises round here? I made a mental note to ask Scott, a friend from U. Miami, when … if … I got out of here.

A couple of times I heard splashes from just beside the road: the same large, presumably aquatic animals into the swamp. Large animals that swam, barked, and were just beside me … this wasn’t sounding good. And then, it happened.

“WHAT THE … ?” I silently screamed, fear beyond swearing as one of those very sane animals walked straight into the road just a few yards in front of me. It was a gator alright, from its shiny scaled hide to its evil eyes, from its long powerful tail to its large stubby snout, the part I really feared, with those rows of razor-sharp teeth. I slammed on the brakes and it let it cross, waddling intently from one side of the road to the other, staring ahead and apparently not noticing the soft pale cyclist a few yards to its left, quaking in his shoes as it continued on its way back into the woods.

How close was I? Maybe ten yards, maybe twenty. How big was the gator? Not one of the fifteen fot monsters you hear about, but certainly bigger than the baby I saw basking harmlessly in a roadside pool the next day. I’d guess it was a young adult, with all the speed and petulance of adolescence. I’d heard these gators could easily outsprint a human over a short distance; I was certain this one could make easy work of a crippled touring cyclist on a punctured tyre, and I sent a feverish prayer of thanks to Mike at York Cycleworks for finally persuading me onto disc brakes; a gator’s reaction to rim brake squeal was one thing I never, ever wanted to find out.

The next ten miles were uncomfortable, tense and nerve-wracking. Eventually I made it to the safety of the highway, and a midge-infested campsite a mile further down the road. I almost got eaten my midges that night – but hey, it was better than being eaten alive by alligators. The next day saw another ten slow, sweaty, rim-crushing miles to a local beauty spot, a lift hitched from there to the nearest village, and another three to the nearest town that had a bike shop. By early afternoon I was on the road again with a new tyre, plenty of spares and patches, and a rim that had had the worst of the dings filed out but would need replacing as soon as I could order a matching spare. I was through the Everglades, alive and almost intact.

So what went wrong? Three failures stand out: my stupidly buying incompatible tubes, on two separate occasions and through sheer oversight, and then forgetting to refresh my patch kit. For want of that two dollar patch I was now looking at an extra day on my schedule to get out of the glades, another day to rebuild the wheel and perhaps a two hundred dollar parts bill. It could all have been so much worse though: had I been attacked, I was I right in the middle of the glades, several miles from the next living person, was probably the last vehicle down that road before morning, and had no phone reception. Would a 911 call have worked? I don’t know. Punctures happen, they’re a fact of life and are usually easily dealt with. I hadn’t been properly prepared though, and this flat had then happened at the worst possible moment. The rest had been a downward spiral, which had thankfully stopped a mere ten yards in front of the gator’s stubby jaws. It should have been a routine incident. It could have been so much worse.

Stay safe kids!

A smaller beast, looking harmless, spotted the next day

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