13-14 September 2008
Nashville, TN was my home for about 7 years and the Trace was a regular part of my cycling life. If you're a cyclist in Nashville, there's no way to avoid it. During my time there, I rode the northern stretches of the Trace so many times, it nearly became monotonous. One of my favorite routes was to ride down to Jack's Branch and back which made for a nearly perfect 200k route from my house. I always dreamed of going further on the Trace -- something epic! Well, when I heard about the Natchez Trace 600k, it sounded like exactly what I was looking for!
After finding out about the ride, I spent a month or two waffling. Nashville is a nearly 10 hour ride from Raleigh. Common sense would dictate that driving this sort of distance for a ride is a bit out there. I mentioned the ride to a few friends and posted a message to our NC Randonneur board. No responses. No worries, the idea of the trip was wearing a bit foolish anyway. Then Branson decided to throw his hat into the ring. Damnit. After a bit of coordinating, we were loaded up in his car and heading west.
The drive went smoothly and we arrived in Nashville late in the afternoon. A trip to a couple bike shops proved an un-fruitfull attempt to find a spare tire for Branson. The stop at Gran Fondo was like a religious pilgrimage requiring us to pick up a few trinkets.
Dem' der hills
This was Branson's first trip to Nashville and I could tell he was starting to get a bit nervous. Figuring that Nashville was at a similar latitude to Raleigh and basically in the middle of the state, I don't think he was really expecting it to be as lumpy as it is. I reassured him that while the Trace wasn't flat, it really wasn't all that bad.
It's go time
4am comes early, so we checked into our hotel and prepared to get a bit of sleep. I opted for a shower and Branson tended to replacing his front inner tube. As I was finishing my shower, I heard the unmistakable report of an exploding tube. Apparently the tire decided to unseat itself. A new tube and it was bed time. We were up in the wee hours of the morning and on the way to the start.
Overnight temps were rather warm and muggy at the start. About 20 hardy souls were in attendance. It was nice to meet Jeff Bauer -- I'm in awe of his RAAM accomplishment. In minutes, we were rolling down HWY 100 heading for the trace. The start of the Trace isn't an easy one -- it basically starts with about a mile worth of climbing. Branson later remarked that if the rest of the Trace was like the start, he would have turned back right then.
In the pre-dawn hours, Branson was admiring a lovely split rail fence off to the right side of the trace when I yelled SKUNK!! The little bugger was about 10 feet to our right and about 10 feet ahead of us heading in the same direction, bounding along in the ditch with his tail at half-mast. We very quickly moved to the left and accelerated to get around him. I don't think either one of us were very keen on smelling like a skunk for the next 590km.
We reached the Gordon House site just as the sun was coming up, stopping for a quick nature break and water bottle refill. The initial climb on the Trace had pretty well split the pack and we were somewhere in the middle. At the secret control at about 50mi in, we met up with a coupe of folks and rode with them for a bit.
Omen part 2
If Branson's exploding tube the night before was omen part 1, then omen part 2 reared its' ugly head about the time we arrived at the Gordon House site. Branson's freehub suddenly decided it didn't want to freewheel! Not good. As long as he kept pedaling, fixie style, he was OK, but this would be a tough way to knock out the remaining 300+ miles. Fortunately after about another 30 miles or so, his freehub decided to quit throwing a tantrum and remained cooperative for the remainder of the ride.
Saturday was warming up nicely and honestly, it was getting rather hot. The northern end of the trace is blessed with a good number of rest areas where water is available, but once you make it south past the first control in Collinwood, TN, pickings are slim. Another stop at Colbert's Ferry was required in order to top up our bottles. The stop ended up being a bit longer than usual and I managed to catch a quick 10-minute nap on one of the park benches. Feeling better from the nap and with full bottles, we rolled out for the next 10mi leg to the Cherokee, AL control.
By this point in the ride, I'm starting to feel pretty dang rough. The temps have been in the low/mid 90's with a fierce head wind -- easily 10-15mph with 25+ gusts. Not much shade on this part of the trace either. From here to the turn around, we'd make a number of stops in the shade on the side of the road to rest and recuperate. Perhaps 40 miles from Tupelo, we ran into a group 5-riders, including one 'bent. Our merry band of 7 rolled into the Tupelo control together before bum rushing the Pizza Inn down the road.
With bellies full of pizza, we all headed back north on the Trace under the cover of darkness. The temps were still high and wind was still howling out of the southwest giving us a nice push down the road as we tried to take it easy with our full bellies. We made back to Pharr Mounds in Mississippi and stopped for a bathroom/water break. Jeff Sammons, Branson and I were all getting really sleepy so we decided to let the rest of the group go and take a quick 20-min nap.
It wasn't much, but the nap helped out immensely. The night seemed a bit surreal. The wind seemed to be getting stronger as the night went on and you could see the trees whipping around on the sides of the road. I'm very happy it's a tail wind. The skies were clear and the moon was almost full -- casting a soft glow over everything -- almost enough to read the queue sheet by.
The convenience store we stopped at in Cherokee was closed by the time we passed through, so Jeff Bauer had setup a little road-side control for us. He had tons of cold water and was making turkey sandwiches for us! It hit the spot. Jeff Sammons asked for a beer and Jeff B. fished him one out of the cooler. Before we new it, Jeff S. had managed to knock back 3 beers -- honestly, if I drank three beers at that point in the ride, I wouldn't be able to stay awake. And speaking of sleep, we grabbed another 20-min nap. Jeff B. gave us a weather forecast for Sunday of 50% chance of showers and sent us off with well wishes.
Due to construction on the Trace, we had to exit for a couple of detours. The first detour on the way back was in Alabama -- I remember it seemed like it took forever on the way down and it didn't seem to be going any faster at night. We were all nodding in the saddle so we stopped under the front porch of a church for another 20 min nap. I didn't get much sleep this time -- a muscle spasm in my right shoulder kept me awake.
I knew once we hit the next detour, we would be getting back near Collinwood, TN -- the only TN control on the way back. By the time we reached Collinwood, the sun was starting to rise and I was feeling really rough. Literally ready to pack it in. Branson asked me how I was feeling -- I think "nasty" was my answer. Leading into Collinwood, I was counting the mile markers -- I seriously couldn't fathom counting 90 more mile markers back to Nashville. I was NOT looking forward to the final leg.
Clean up on isle 3
I had a list of things to accomplish at Collinwood. Top priority -- get card signed -- done. I grabbed my drop bag and fished out a fresh change of clothes along with some baby wipes -- off to the bathroom. It's amazing what a bit of tidying up will do. After a good wipe down and some clean clothes, I was already starting to feel better.
Back at the bike, I began sorting through the gear I'd need for the rest of the ride. I was traveling with a small Carradice saddle bag (Junior) and an Ortleib handle bar bag -- both mostly empty. I decided to drop the bar bag and some of the extra gear I was carrying. Everything fit in the Carradice with plenty of room to spare. I made sure I had a bit of extra food packed for the return trip since there wouldn't be many more options available.
Time for some breakfast. Thankfully, the store at the control was open so I grabbed a greasy sausage & egg biscuit along with a V8 and other assorted sweets. Not only are greasy biscuits great for hangovers, they seem to work pretty well to refresh the randonneur's soul. With a full belly, I was starting to feel a bit better -- let get this show back on the road!
By now the sun was up, not that you could see it because of the swirling cloud cover. By this point, the wind coming out of the Southwest was absolutely howling. Must have been 30+ steady and the low clouds were streaking by.
Branson, Jeff Sammons and I all resumed our northerly course. On the ramp back to the Trace, we ran into Jeff Bauer who informed us his weather forecast from the control in Cherokee was wrong and we weren't expected to see any rain. Sounded good to me, though given the current weather conditions, I think he might have been trying to make us fell a bit better. Jeff Sammons inquired if there was any beer left and Jeff Bauer handed him a cold one for the road!
...or high water
If Saturday was hell, then Sunday was high water. Within moments of getting back on the Trace, we were greeted by a cold shower. I started to get pretty cold and contemplated stopping to don my vest. We powered on making pretty decent time -- everybody in good spirits.
The sound of one leg pedaling -- omen part 3
Maybe 50~60 miles to go, we made a quick 'nature' stop and I decided to slip on my vest. As we remounted, Branson was having trouble clicking in to his right pedal. After a bit of futzing and mild 'adult language' he was clipped in. Or so it seemed. He couldn't keep his foot in the pedal, but we couldn't quite figure out why. After a couple of frustrating stops, Branson noticed that part of the pedal body was cracked making it difficult for the cleat to lock in. He soldiered on basically pedaling with one leg for the remainder of the miles -- not that he really had much of a choice!
At Gordon House on the way back, we took a quick break and enjoyed some sandwiches and drinks provided by volunteer, Kent. We schemed about a way to keep Branson's foot on his pedal and experimented with zip tying his foot to the pedal. It actually turned out to work pretty well, but the zip tie was to tight causing his foot to go numb after a while. Well, it was worth a shot.
We three tired but happy campers rolled in to the finish in Nashville around 4:00pm. Jeff Bauer and a couple other riders were there to greet us with sub sandwiches -- the best sandwich I've ever had. Period.
Not an easy ride -- though for me, 600k is never easy. Will I go back? Maybe. The jury is still out. The Trace is a beautiful stretch of road, but is is also very isolated. You really don't pass through any towns and if you want anything, you have to exit the trace. The further south you go, the more isolated it gets. There are rumors of a 1000k or 1200k brevet on the Trace next year. We'll just have to see about that one........
Out and back
For the trip to Nashville, I packed a couple of CD's that always get me psyched up for a ride. "En Attendant Le Tour" is a musical tour de force. The title (and the music) loosely translate into "waiting for the tour" and it basically contains traditional French music from the 30's & 40's. Music you would likely have heard in some small French town while waiting for le Tour to pass by. It's incredibly infectious and upbeat -- when you hear it, you can't help to be happy! If you can find a copy of the CD, I highly recommend picking it up.