By Saundra Amrhein
The sun was dropping lower in the sky behind him as Thomas Banks pedaled along the hills of US. Route 90, heading east through Northwest Florida approaching Madison.
Miles earlier, an older group of cyclists – a jovial foursome in their late 60s and 70s – had told him about a great place to stay with even better food. Now, with almost 100 miles of cycling behind him for the day, 49-year-old Banks powered up and down the last sloping grades, oblivious to the green fields of pines and majestic oak trees gliding by him, as he thought of one thing: the warm bed and hot shower that awaited him in Madison.
“That was my reward,” Banks remembered later.
About 55 miles east of Tallahassee, the city of Madison and the surrounding county of the same name is a scenic place for cycling in Florida – with its gentle hills, rolling meadows, old tobacco barns, steepled churches, blue lakes and grazing cattle. But for the cross-country sort who must stay focused on the source of their next meal or place to lay their head, Madison is also a beacon of comfort.
As an official stop on the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier bike route from San Diego to St. Augustine, Madison unfolds its welcome mat for incoming cyclists on Route 90, which goes right through the heart of town. Whether cyclists choose to camp for the night at a local campground or head to one of two bed-and-breakfast establishments – The Unity House in downtown Madison or Grace Manor in nearby Greenville – they will likely pass Madison’s numerous Victorian, Federal-style, and pine clapboard mansions dating back 100 years and more, and the gazebo and fountain at Four Freedoms Park.
While cycling the Southern Tier bike route, some meander and stay to check out Madison’s other cycling options or come into town on one of about a half-dozen cycling tours every year. For instance, there is the Loop, which goes more than 100 miles around the perimeter of the county. On scenic two-lane roads, cyclists pass under canopies of oak trees dripping Spanish moss and stream by green fields full of cows, horses or goats, with plenty of places to rest, such as the Cherry Lake General Store.
Visitors also can join their local counterparts cycling in Florida, along with runners and walkers on the Four Freedoms Trail – a 12-mile paved rails-to-trails path closed to motorists. It winds north from the city of Madison to the county’s border with Georgia.
On this afternoon, dragonflies dart across the path – a corridor between pines, oaks, and dogwood trees blushing in pink buds. At the end of the paved trail, a pebbled path slopes down past picnic tables to a wooden walkway leading to benches and a lookout point over the rushing current of the Withlacoochee River.
For Banks – an associations manager from Arlington, Va., who had set out on a midlife journey to cycle from Austin, Texas, to St. Augustine – one of the highlights of the trip was the hospitality he experienced at The Unity House.
Welcoming him there with her serene presence was owner Linda Barnes, a former university administrator in Miami, who had refurbished the two-story 1890-era Victorian house.
Finding The Unity House around the corner from Madison’s main street offerings of antique stores and barber shops, Banks walked into a “zen-like” abode, where the original hardwood floors gleamed a rich, dark brown, topped at points with oriental throw rugs, sofas and Queen Anne chairs around fireplaces.
All throughout the home, Barnes has expertly decorated the public spaces and five bedrooms with an eclectic mixture of art, from antiques bought at nearby shops to Art Deco pieces. One of the five bedrooms upstairs holds a brown mahogany queen-sized rococo bed, an Art Deco mirror and antique lamps. In the Hunt Room, where Banks stayed, a king-sized bed awaited him, along with a bathroom outfitted with an antique tiger oak wash basin, an antique towel stand and a standing shower with a powerful jet stream pouring straight down from above.
“After a long day of cycling, standing under that shower was amazing,” Banks said.
Many times cyclists – from Canada, Ireland, Scotland, other parts of the United States and elsewhere – have a favorite room at The Unity House and request it on their next trip back through Madison while they're cycling in Florida.
“By the time they get here,” Barnes says, “they are ready to be pampered.”
After Banks’ shower and meal at one of the local eateries recommended by Barnes – the Rancho Grande Mexican Restaurant – he was ready for a well-deserved rest.
Next morning, he would be sent off after one of Barnes’ gourmet breakfasts served in the bright sunroom with its peach-and-lime-colored walls and bamboo blinds. He would relish the meal, accompanied by a bowl of fresh fruit topped by a minty lime zest and homemade banana bread with honey butter. He would continue for an additional 100 miles of pedaling under the sun, unexpected encounters with interesting and helpful people, of watching for lunging yard dogs and potentially crash-inducing glass and stones in the road, before reaching that triumphant moment of dipping his tire in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
But for the moment on this evening, his stomach full, his body unwinding, his homesick heart comforted by the painting on the wall of a dog much like his own sleeping on a bed – he stretched out in the massive king, allowed the blankets to embrace him, and fell fast asleep.
When you go…
For more information about cycling tours and facilities in Madison:
Madison County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism
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