Saturday, October 4, 2014

Fix-ing the Natchez Trace 1500k

There is a magical roadway to the west.  It is a strip of smooth two-lane blacktop 444 miles long.  It is bordered by trees, fields, rivers, streams and many sights of historical significance.  Perhaps its most unique feature is that it is a National Historical Park maintained and operated with Federal funding.  It is the eighth most visited National Park in the country.  Its northern terminus abuts Nashville, Tennessee while the southernmost part is in Natchez, Mississippi.  The main purpose is recreation therefore no commercial vehicles are allowed.  The speed limit is never higher than 50 mph, which discourages vehicles from using it for transportation.  It is a perfect environment for the cyclist.  Neither hilly nor flat, slightly winding, and, impeccably maintained.  The roadway is known as the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Folks residing in the proximity of it refer to it as the "Trace".

I've had the good fortune of riding on the Trace several times. Always starting at the northern end in Nashville.  My furthest venture to the south was as far as Tupelo, Missisippi, which is less than half of the entire length.  I always vowed that one day I would ride the entire distance.  I hadn't gotten around to that yet when the Nashville Randonneur group announced that they would be hosting a 1500 kilometer Grand Randonnee on that very roadway.  Designated The Natchez Trace 1500k the route would use the entire length north to south and back.  I'd always thought I would ride it in just one direction, but the opportunity to ride it both ways, getting credit for 1500k in the process, seemed like something I needed to do.

The Start - Nashville, TN
On a Tuesday morning at the early hour of 03:55 I am lined up with 55 other riders awaiting the start.  There are a few other riders from New Jersey in the cue.  The plan is to ride with my friend Chris.  Should we successfully finish within the 120 hour time limit I will be over the threshold for the K-Hound award and Chris will be about 1,000k away.  I'm hoping that incentive will keep us going during the low moments.

DAY-1 (269 Miles) Nashville, TN to French Camp, MS

We are given the off  signal and immediately descend to the start of the Trace, which is only about a mile away.  I recognize the stone wall entrance as we transition onto the historic roadway.  The surface is totally free of potholes and debris.  I'm awaiting the arrival of daylight to begin taking in the scenery.  When sunrise does occur there is a misty cloud cover in the valley.  A rather dense fog.  We stop at the overlook to take a photo of it.  It's like looking at a cloud from above.  Rather quickly we resume riding,  The organizer's plan is for riders to make 270 miles this first day ending up at French Camp, Mississippi where there are cabins for sleeping.  Chris and I are hoping to override the sleep stop to gain some extra miles the first day.  There are few other choices to sleep so doing so would require catching a couple of hours shut eye at one of the many rest stops along the roadway.  Some have covered picnic areas.  Though first we have to cover the 270 before we can think about moving on.
Morning Fog Hangs in the Valley
The first sixty miles or so are on the hilly side. The grades are not particularly steep but the rollers keep on coming rather relentlessly.  The first control comes up at Collinwood, TN, ninety miles into the ride.  There is a gas station and restaurant which is buzzing with riders.  We take the opportunity to grab a quick bite of food, refill water bottles, then move on.

The terrain is somewhat more moderate south of Collinwood.  Shortly we hit the Alabama border and ride past cotton fields for about thirty miles.  After which we cross into Mississippi, which hosts the majority of the Trace.  Our next official control is Tupelo, which is 300 kilometers into the ride.  Volunteers position themselves in between these distances offering riders food and water.  There are some gradual inclines that present themselves.  Nothing difficult to climb, but some require me to stand in order to manage my 74 inch fixed-gearing.  The temperature begins to climb as the afternoon progresses.  We approach the city of Tupelo at the early part of rush hour.  Traffic is heavy and this is further complicated by road construction.  We are glad when the exit appears.  We have our choice of establishments to use for food and beverage.  We select a Subway restaurant.  There are a few other riders there as well, including Bob from New Jersey.  We spend forty-five minutes total consuming calories, chatting, re-filling fluids and organizing gear for the next leg.

The Border of Alabama Day-One
Tupelo, Mississippi is very hospitable and is known as the Birthplace of Elvis
We are back on the Trace in just a few tenths of a mile.  The next control is the sleep stop at French Camp.  We are making good time and expect to arrive between 12 and 1 am.  As the night rolls in the temperature begins to drop.  We had anticipated a low overnight temperature in the upper 50's to low 60's.  It began to look like we'd have to tolerate lows in the upper 40's.  The plan to ride on past the sleep stop starts to feel like a bad idea in light of this new information.  While the temps continued to drop we pedaled on to French Camp, which was just off the Trace.  It's a summer camp which the organizer rented for our use.  We checked in at the dining room.  We'd decided to stay the night and were given cabin and bunk assignments.  Chris in the women's cabin and me in one of the men's. Typically, I don't sleep well in a group environment.  This is most especially true on the first night. After showering I rested in my bunk without sleeping for five hours.  I got up at 6am on my own to prepare for the day's ride to Natchez,
The Dining Hall at French Camp

Sleeping Cabin
Day-2 (187 Miles) French Camp, MS to Natchez, MS
Passing by Jackson, Mississippi
Chris and I depart French Camp at 7:15 prepared for a 187 mile day (300k).  Chris admits to a similar lack of sleep.  We are anticipating it will be a tough day.  Our next official control is in Clinton, which is a suburb just south of Mississippi's major city, Jackson.  This is about a ninety mile stretch.  As was the case on day one we encounter volunteer support at Parkway rest stops.  They have everything needed to keep riders moving.  The temps heat up under very strong sun. The skies are perfectly clear,  The terrain has changed to mostly flat while still presenting interesting scenery and frequent historical landmarks.  Although, we typically pass by these without stopping.  The traffic is heavier as we pass by Jackson, but very tolerable given we are outside of rush hour.  Soon enough we reach our exit and head for a strip mall where volunteers advised there would be a selection of food places.  We select a Mexican place and are quickly scarfing down enchiladas and burritos.  The waiter kindly fills our water bottles with ice water as we get ready to depart.
One-hundred miles to the Southern end of the Parkway
View from the Lower Section of the Natchez Trace Parkway
Back on the Trace headed south we settle in for another 90 mile stretch to the sleep stop at Natchez.  Once again volunteers are encountered at many places along the way.  The terrain remains flat for awhile then becomes more rolling.  While the rollers are gentle they become continual.  Night time is encountered quickly, which tends to dampen my spirit a bit.  I'm feeling the miles and the effect of the fixed-gear and must find a mental state that allows me to endure.  I feel that things have suddenly turned and I am now questioning my ability to complete this ride.  Hands, feet and butt are all hurting. Blocking it out is only marginally working. I focus on just getting through this day.  Stopping for brief periods helps and we do this for bathroom breaks and water re-filling.  The counting down of the final thirty-miles to the hotel in Natchez is excruciating. The Trace has a certain sameness about it through this part.  There are few historical points, and not much of anything else, except a two-lane road with rolling hills. I've released from my head all thoughts of a spiffy fast finish.  Now I only  want the maximum rest and recovery possible.  Any finish time in advance of the 120 hour limit will do.  At the last few miles of the Trace a support car coming from the south pulls over to tell us the hotel is behind another hotel and some riders have been missing it. We thank them and continue on. The thought of a hotel bed and a full nights sleep keeps me going to the end of the Trace, and the four miles further to the Holiday Inn in Natchez.
Heading South to Natchez

Twilight on the Trace

Moving into Darkness
Upon arrival we check-in with volunteers and claim our hotel rooms.  We agree on a plan to meet at 7am for breakfast.  This will allow for a full nights sleep of about eight hours.  Typically, this length of a break is unheard of on long brevets. Due to the more generous time allowances on the 1500k many riders are taking advantage of this and getting more sleep.  After showering and teeth brushing I stagger to the bed and instantly fall asleep. The next sound is the alarm at 6am.

Day-3 (187 Miles) Natchez, MS to French Camp, MS.

After a quickly consumed breakfast we organize gear and get back on the road for another 300k day,  We both are feeling a bit stiff and sore, but we have a full nights sleep working for us.  I'm confident that we will warm up and feel better after a couple of hours.  After a few miles of riding in the city of Natchez we enter the Trace at the southern terminus.  Riding this section is more pleasant in the daylight.  Also, we have the mental boost of heading toward the finish not away.   I'm considering this a pivotal day.  Getting through today will put us over 1,000k, which is 75% of the total distance.  The remaining 500k is broken up over two days and should be easier to manage.
A Church in the City of Natchez, Mississippi
The Marker of the Southern Terminus of the Natchez Trace Parkway
While riding along I mention to Chris how inept I feel at the longer distances.  I'm really not very practiced at anything over 600k.  I've only ever completed one 1,000k and one 1,200k, while there are riders on this very ride that have done eight or nine 1,200k's in a single year.  I'm a little disappointed in how beat-up I am just half way into it.  Chris said I should take a look at the bike I'm riding in case I didn't notice it was a fixed-gear.  She said, "No one else is doing that for a good reason.  It's harder."  While I suppose there is something to that I couldn't settle with the idea of doing this ride on anything else.  I'm not at all certain why, but I felt compelled to bring the fixed. 
I love this Bike!
The next control is Clinton, MS.  We decide to return to the same Mexican restaurant we visited on the way down.  We are fortunate enough to get the same nice waiter.  We stuff ourselves with quality carbs.  Again our water bottles are topped up and iced before we are back on the road.  The rest of our needs are seen to by the volunteers along the route.  We've been seeing these same people for three days and we look forward to our roadside meetings.  They are a fun group and we enjoy chatting with them.  Chris and I have been wearing matching jerseys.  Only two of three days were intentional while one day was just a coincidence.  None the less riders and volunteers seemed to get a kick out of it.  We were becoming known as the matching jersey people from Jersey.

Chris' Food = Carbo Loading - Mexican Style

Chris heading to French Camp
Posing by a Historical Marker with matching Knapps Cyclery Jerseys
The final miles to the French Camp sleep stop are fairly difficult for me.  Once again, I have issues to deal with requiring a lot of determination to keep riding.  I am looking forward to the shorter day tomorrow.  After some food we are shown to our respective cabins.  I sleep some, but not fully.  At 5am I decide to get up and organize my gear for the day.  I meet Chris in the dining room for breakfast at 6:30am.  We plan to get underway at 7am,  By sheer coincidence our jerseys match again.

Day-4 (141 Miles) French Camp, MS to Tishimingo, MS

Info for the Day Ahead
 Back on the Trace for this reduced mileage day we are both in good spirits.  The doubts of finishing are beginning to fade as the next two days have mileage well below 300k each.  The terrain for today may be the mildest to date.  We will be largely on flat to lightly rolling all the way.  With some climbing as we near the sleep stop.  The early morning passes pleasantly with the usual roadside rest stops on the Parkway.  Unusually, we have an additional control which will consist of twenty miles off the Trace.  We are to visit the town of Okolona, Mississippi.  We take the exit as directed and find ourselves on a two-lane highway with no shoulder.  There is brisk traffic consisting of many large trucks, some pass by with little space between.  For the first time in over 700 miles we are uneasy.  This lasts for ten miles before we reach the small town, and the safe haven of the local grocery store.  The people in the store are extremely nice.  Our cycling jerseys have New Jersey printed on them so everyone asks if we are from there.  The second question is did we ride our bikes to here?  We take a short break and chat a bit with the locals before heading back to the Trace.  This time we are directed to a different, more bike friendly, route.  After the twenty mile off Parkway excursion we are delighted to be back on the beautiful roadway headed to our next stop in Tupelo. 
The road to Okolona is loaded with Log Trucks.  Little room for bikes!

Entering Okolona, Mississippi
We arrive Tupelo outside of rush hour and have no traffic problems.  We opt to eat at the same Subway used on the way south.  Chris finishes quickly and heads to a nearby WalMart for batteries.  I move on to Starbucks for coffee.  We meet up there enjoying an additional break before heading out.  I'm not used to spending such a large amount of time off the bike. I've trained myself to get through controls quickly.  I now find it difficult to relax when at them. I'm trying to unlearn my "in and out" style.  In this 1500 kilometer format taking longer stops seems acceptable and should be enjoyable.  I'd long ago abandoned any idea of an aggressive finish time. So, it makes perfect sense to take the time.  I just need to wrap my mind around it. 

Back on the Trace we have forty-nine miles to the Tishomingo State Park sleep stop.  We expect to arrive just after dark.  The miles pass by uneventfully.  There is a roadside rest stop about half-way manned by volunteers.  When we arrive they congratulate us on completing 1200k, which is the standard Grand Randonee distance.  I'm kind of glad that we still have 300k to go. Despite the challenge of it the ride is basically fun.  We spend some time chatting with the two men who have been helping us through the ride all week.  By now they know our favorite beverages and snack foods. They are always upbeat despite how tired they must be.  I'm sure it's hard work supporting this group of riders day and night though they never appear weary from it. 

Chatting it up with two of our Favorite Volunteers
Upon reaching the exit to Tishomingo State Park we have a final climb of the day.  There is five miles of roadway with a pretty steep kicker on it.  It is a final chore for tired legs and we both get it done without a problem.  The bikes get parked and we head into the main cabin where there is food waiting.  A pleasant meal is enjoyed while chatting with other riders and the organizer, Jeff Sammons.  We are given sleep cabin assignments.  Chris and I agree to meet at 6:30 am for breakfast as we are escorted to our different cabins.  I look forward to a hot shower and sleep.

The Entrance to Tishomingo State Park
It's about 10pm by the time I lay my head down.  I sleep reasonably well until 5am when I wake on my own.  The cabin which was full is now only half full as some riders departed in the night.  I decide to get organized for the day since I am sure I will not be able to sleep more.  I re-arrange all my gear in the drop bag and organize the things I will need with me for the day.  Once dressed and ready I head up to the main cabin.  It's only 6am, but breakfast is ready.  I text Chris to let her know.  She arrives in the dining room about 6:45 the wake-up call for her was missed.  She is willing to depart right away.  I insist that she have breakfast first.  These are nice hot meals including eggs, pancakes, sausage and potatoes.  I decide she shouldn't dine alone so I indulge in a second breakfast for myself.  There is plenty of extra food as many riders left during the night.  Soon after eating we leave for the final miles of the ride.  It's just a little past 7am.

Day-5 (155 Miles) Tishomingo, MS to Nashville, TN

Cotton Field
We retrace the five miles, mostly downhill, to the Trace.  The weather predicted some chance of showers, but for now it's just cloudy and mild.  We both are in good spirits.  We've been getting lots of rest and are still way ahead of cut-off times.  We expect to arrive the finish before sunset, which will be ten hours in advance of the control closing time.  The terrain to the next control, in Collinwood, TN, is mostly mild.  After that point we will be looking at more serious rolling terrain to the finish.  In the meantime life is good.

Sweet Home Alabama
Road Closed - Detour to Cherokee, Alabama
 We cross the border into Alabama in good time.  Shortly after the crossing we come across a blockade across the entire roadway.  We were made aware there may be a detour for road construction.  Deep down I was holding on to the hope that we would be able to get through as we do most of the time.  However, in this case there is a construction guy present who will not let us pass by the barriers.  He quite politely explains that we must take the detour, which adds five miles to the trip.  We exit as directed and are riding along a highway in Cherokee, Alabama.  I look down and notice my rear wheel appears out of true.  Chris confirms that it looks that way to her as well.  Stopping along the shoulder of the highway for closer inspection, I find a broken spoke.  While somewhat out of true the wheel is ridable so I continue with it.  Typically with 32 spokes, one broken one is not a big deal.  Quickly it leaves my mind.  The remaining miles on the detour pass by without incident.  Although, the entrance to the Trace is a welcome sight.  The roads are superior than anything else and the scenery is more pleasant,  We continue north soon entering the state of Tennessee and arriving at our control, which requires another exit from the Trace.
Collinwood, Tennesee - The Penultimate Control
We are directed by volunteers to a small hotel in the small town.  We are treated to food prepared by the ride staff.  It's an enjoyable lunch spent chatting with volunteers and riders who continue to arrive.  Reluctantly we leave quickly to undertake the ninety remaining miles to the finish.  We expect we will see some of these folks along the way.

Michelle from Minnesota riding with Jim from Ohio
Jeff Another Favorite Roadside Volunteer

Vicky from Texas on the Recumbent
Things are looking good as we work our way to the Trace and continue our northerly trek towards Nashville.  Soon the bigger hills begin to appear.  I feel good climbing them and Chris is having no trouble as well.  We cover about forty miles when I hear a loud snapping sound at the bottom of a descent.  I stop and check the rear wheel and notice a second broken spoke.  The wheel is significantly wobbly and I must open the rear brake up to clear it. The tire is within a couple of millimeters of rubbing on the frame.  I decide to continue but have much less confidence in the wheel holding up.  When we come to one of the rest stops I decide I should call the ride organizer's SAG number in case someone can help me with a wheel or spokes.  I place the call and speak with Bill.  After listening to my predicament he thinks he can have someone drive a fixed-gear rear wheel out to me, but it may take a little while.  I give him my current location and explain that I intend to keep moving until the wheel either breaks or someone arrives with a replacement.  He agrees that is the best plan.

I'm now riding more gently and slowly, especially on descents.  I suggest to Chris that she go on ahead as I will be slowing her down at this point.  She insists on staying together.  We cover about ten miles when we notice a pick-up coming the other way slowing up while eyeballing us.  The truck pulls to the side of the road. I notice it's the RBA Jeff Sammons.  He asks me if I want a new wheel which he pulls from the back of the truck.  It's a complete fixie wheel and tire with the correct 17 tooth rear cog.  Five minutes later I've got the wheel on and tight and we are heading to the finish with less than forty miles to go.
Wheel Delivery From RBA Jeff Sammons
 After riding for awhile it becomes clear we will not make the finish before sunset.  We pull over to the side of the road at a bridge to put on night gear before continuing. As anticipated the last miles are the hilliest.  It's pretty constant up or down with little flat ground in between.  Near the top of one of the climbs I just miss rolling over a large brown snake laying in the road.  I point it out to Chris who is just behind.  She thinks it might be a Copperhead.  I silently wonder if a snake can puncture a tire by biting it. Fortunately, the creature remains still.  A car approaches from behind and moves over to pass us.  This in essence saves the snake from being run over.  One good deed for the day.

As we near the final mile markers I begin to think about the steep climb just before the finish.  Off and on it has entered my mind whether or not I will make it up with so many miles in my legs.  I've climbed it on prior occasions, with a fixed-gear, but never with over 900 miles behind me.  I'd mentioned it to Chris a couple of times and she would just say; "Walk it. No big deal."  At this point, or at any point, I don't want to walk up this hill one-half mile from the finish.  I'm pretty determined to climb it.  If I had a roll of duct tape I might tape my feet to the pedals so I can't clip out.  It's climb or fall.  With no duct tape on board I decide to pretend I'm locked in.  I will not clip out no matter what.  We pass by the final marker of the Trace and bear right to the big hill.  The road connects Route 100 and I-40, so there is lots of traffic.  Falling could be deadly, but I hold onto the thought that I won't clip out.  With the hill now under us it's time to stand and push the pedals.  It steepens a bit more past the half-way point, but we both continue to climb.  It hurts some, but not as bad as I anticipated.  I don't have to fight the thought of clipping out because it never enters my head. The finish is at the top and Chris and I arrive together.  The longest brevet in the country is behind us.  Boo-ya!!
At the Finish!!!

At the barn which serves as the finish we are treated to food and beverage while celebrating with other riders and volunteers.  A tired, but happy group sharing thoughts of the adventure just behind us.

I'm appreciative for the companionship of Chris during the entire adventure.  She has a very pleasant personality.  Always looking at the positive side of things.  For me our riding together was the perfect offset to my rather sour disposition and negativity.  We rode every mile within ten feet of each other and never had any kind of serious disagreement.  I suggested all kinds of crazy plans to finish the ride in a faster time.  In retrospect, they were all dumb. None the less Chris listened to them patiently without criticizing.  In the end we wound up riding the plan which was the design of the organizer.  Ride, eat and sleep lots.  This worked fine.  Anything else would have been less enjoyable, if not down right disastrous.  

Speaking for myself this was a unique and fantastic event.  The venue of the historical park built around a roadway was the perfect setting.  The organization of the Tennessee group was no less than superb.  Clearly much thought and effort went into the planning.  And, much hard work went into putting it on and supporting the riders.  We couldn't help but feel well looked after. Several riders suffered mechanical issues besides myself.  All were given assistance and those riders finished.  Little details like charging stations at the sleep stops for phones and GPS units were provided.  Cremes, ointments and pain relieving gels were on hand to help ease some of the suffering.  There were too many volunteers to count.  All performed their tasks in good spirits.  All of this combined made the event enjoyable and memorable.  It is likely to be held again and I would be just as likely to return.

All the riders from New Jersey finished successfully.  We represented our region well.  Something to take pride in for sure. 
Bill R. a New Jersey Randonneur from up North
Bob a true blue NJ Rando
Bill O. A long time NJ Rando with brother Mark and Tom from Minnesota



  1. Great ride. Great report. Great job!

  2. Thanks Nigel. I wish you could have been there.

  3. Fantastic report! I am glad you had a great time with great company. Wish I was there.

  4. Awesome, Joe. Great ride and report. Congrats to both you & Chris (and all the other wackos who did that ride).
    So is the "K" in K-Hound for Kratovil?...

  5. Congratulations on a fine ride, Joe. It was a pleasure to support you and Chris.

    Jeff Bauer (a.k.a. the "sandwich guy")