Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Natchez Trace 400k - Nashville, TN to Cherokee, AL

 After a long stay in Arkansas I finally begin my trip home to New Jersey.  Convenient to my plans is a stop over in Nashville.  By amazing coincidence (not really) I find myself in the Music City the very weekend of the Nashville 400k.  Of special interest to me was the fact that the ride would be held entirely on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Which, coincidentally, happens to be my favorite cycling roadway of all time.  The ride would begin at the northern terminus of the parkway, in the suburbs of Nashville, and continue for 200 kilometers to Cherokee, Alabama, then return.  I would be using my Jamis Sputnik fixed-gear, the only bike I've ridden so far in 2012.  I've ridden on the famous roadway several times.  The most recent was a 288 kilometer permanent done on the fixed-gear back in February.  I was reasonably confident I would be successful at the 400k distance, although it would be my longest fixie ride ever. 
The highest bridge in Tennessee is on the Natchez Trace Parkway
The 6am start is cool and damp.  The rain which fell most of the night before was evident with wet roadways.  Some twenty riders depart from the YMCA parking lot just a short distance from the entrance to the NT.  Once on the parkway the large group begins to break up into smaller groups.  Some light rain falls during the first ten miles or so, then things begin to dry out.  The temperature is comfortable in the low fifties.    I find myself in the vicinity of Alan, from Memphis and Jeff, the Nashville RBA.  The rhythm of the fixed-gear is different than that of geared bikes so we don't spend a lot of time tightly together.   Mostly, we pass by each other over the rolling terrain.  Which at the northern end is constant.  The geared bikes have the advantage on the downhills and flat sections.  When the uphills present themselves I make up the deficit and pass by.  This process repeats itself numerous times.  Eventually on a series of uphills Alan falls back and never reappears.  Jeff sails by me on a long downgrade and stays out in front until the control.  In the meantime, I catch up to Anthony,  a local rider, who does distance cycling as training for mountaineering.  I listen with great interest as he recounts some of his experiences with mountain climbing around the world.  We ride the remaining miles to the Collinwood control together (mile 90).  There is a good number of riders already there.  I opt for a quick stop.  I leave before any of the others.  I try to get Anthony to leave with me, but he's not quite ready.  I'm sure with the wind being favorable, for the remaining miles to the south, he'll be able to catch me.  I head back to the parkway alone.

I keep my pace steady without working too hard.  There are a few mild grades, but mostly the terrain is flat.  The day is very overcast,  not warm by any means, but for now it is not unpleasant.  Anthony catches me before the Alabama border.  The turnaround point, Cherokee, AL,  is thirty-five miles from the last control.   We're making good time.  It appears we will make the control before nine hours.  As we near the exit we see the first rider on his way back.  Soon thereafter two more riders together pass the other way.  The control is only one-half mile off the NT.  We see another rider depart as we arrive.  We keep our time at the stop short and head out just as a group of four riders is coming in.  Jeff is among the group.  Our departure is right at the nine hour mark.  If all goes dashingly well we hope for a finish by mid-night (18 hours).
Anthony phones home from Cherokee, AL
Back on the parkway we soon see Alan on his way south riding alone.  The wind is now unfavorable, making us cold.  We churn through it as best we can.  Anthony is riding strong taking the lead for a number of miles.  It's all I can do to hang on.  Eventually, that becomes too difficult and he starts to gap me.  I ease up a little to allow the gap to grow letting him  ride his own pace.  I know better than to push myself when there is almost 200k left and it's into the wind all the way.  Settling in to a comfortable rhythm I work my way to the north.  I marvel at how much colder it feels going in this direction.   I begin to look forward to the Collinwood control again.  I want a hot beverage, coffee or hot chocolate.  With ten miles to go before getting there I pass the rider we saw leaving the control.  In another few miles I pass a second rider who pulled off to don a jacket.  I want to put on more layers, but will wait until the stop to do everything at once.  A gradual upgrade for several miles precedes the exit for Collinwood.   The control is less than a mile off the parkway.  The flags on the NT Parkway welcome center are blowing stiffly to the south as I pass by.  I'm happy to be out of it for a few minutes.

Sitting at a table in the store with a cup of coffee I pull out a jacket and reflective vest from my backpack to prepare for the cold.  Darkness will arrive in a couple of hours at which point I expect it to get pretty chilly.  One of the riders I past by earlier arrives saying he is freezing.  A support crew who is waiting for their riders offers him some extra clothing which he gratefully accepts.  Not wanting to waste any more daylight I head back out to the NT.  As soon as I make the turn to the north I feel the cold headwind.  I'm happy to be wearing the additional layers.  There is an optional volunteer manned stop in fifty-three miles at the Gordon House, one of the NT rest stops.  Using the markers on the right side of the roadway I begin counting off the miles.  Daylight slowly begins to give way.  The prediction is for a low temperature below forty.   I'm hoping that it wont be quite that cold by the time I finish.  I cover about half the distance to the Gordon House stop before it is fully dark.  The NT is one of the darkest places I've ever ridden.  There is no artificial light, with the exception of the rest stops.  Occasionally, I hear animals moving about off to the side of the road, but it is too dark to see them.  Thankfully, my lighting system clearly shows me the roadway.  The rolling hills help keep monotony at bay.  There is nothing steep to climb so mostly I'm enjoying the ride.  There is almost no traffic at all.  It is a feeling of total isolation which I have come to appreciate.  An acquired taste of sorts.

I notice a sign for the Gordon House announcing it is two miles further.  As I get closer I see the dim lights of the rest area off in the distance.  There is one car parked there which belongs to the volunteer.  When I arrive he prepares a cup of hot chocolate and offers a variety of food.   The warm beverage really hits the spot.  I munch a couple of cookies for good measure and  head back out.  There are about forty miles left to the finish on the hilliest section of the NT.

I resume the practice of counting the mile markers.  It gives me something to focus on.  Keeping my mind engaged helps me ward off the sleepiness which begins to set in about now.  The rest stop was at mile 408, the end of the NT comes at mile 442, thirty-four of the carved wooden markers remain to be counted.  After about ten miles of rolling terrain a car eases up alongside me.  The passenger rolls down the window and asks if I am okay.  I recognize the car as the support vehicle for one of the riders.  I assure them that I am fine.   I give the situation no further thought as I am way too busy counting mile markers.  At mile 427 my headlight goes dim indicating the rechargeable battery is low.  I pull off at the next bridge to replace it with a fresh one.  The darkness is so total on the NT the task could not have been completed without my helmet lamp.  I'm quickly rolling and my quest of the wooden posts continues.  The largest hills are on the last ten miles.  I feel good surging up them and a little chilled on the way down.  Overall, the effort feels good and the miles quickly pass by.   The post marked 442 is reached with mixed feelings.  The end of the ride is near, but I have no more markers to seek out.  Shortly after the NT comes to an abrupt end at a "T" intersection with McCrory Lane.  The finish of the ride is at a different location than the start.  This requires a final climb to the top of the ridge.  It may be the steepest of the day, although not all that bad.  A private home belonging to one of the volunteers serves as the finish control.  I miss the turn for it and almost descend the other side of the ridge.  Fortunately, before doing this I check my cell phone GPS to learn I had passed by it a half a mile earlier.  I turn around, find my way to the finish, and am greeted by Bill.  A heated and furnished barn, which is more like a bike shop with a variety of machines hanging from the rafters, makes for a fine spot to warm up.  Food and beverages are available.  The support crew is there waiting on their riders.  They comment on my lighting saying I was very visible on the road.  Soon after the two they were supporting arrive.  I learn they are from North Carolina.  We all chat for a bit.  It dawns on me that my car is about two miles away at the YMCA.  Given it is after 2am I decide to call it a day.  It's a cold ride back down the hill.  My starting location at the YMCA is a welcome sight after a long day.

The ride was finished in a time of 20 hours and 8 minutes.  I was genuinely pleased to have completed my first fixed-gear 400k, even if it took a bit more time than I had hoped.    


This was my third official RUSA ride on the Natchez Trace, and my fourth time riding on it.   There is and indescribable draw that the famous roadway has on some riders.  I feel like I need to ride the entire distance.  Every inch from Nashville, TN  to Nathcez, MS.  I am hoping an planning to do this in September.  There is a series of permanent routes that offer RUSA credit for every kilometer ridden.  That would be over 700 of them in one direction.  With the option to double that by reversing the permanents to return to Nashville.  The exact date and ride format is yet to be determined.  Contact me if interested in joining.          

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