Friday, April 10, 2015

It's All Good

Picture this:

You have a week off for a long bike tour vacation in April in Tennessee ... but it's April in Tennessee and that's when the weather can be tricky. And, sure enough, the weather for the week turns out to have a bunch of really crummy days -- enough that you're going to spend a few days either riding in the wet or sitting in a tent looking out at it.

And that's not anybody's idea of a vacation.

But then, right there in the middle of all the crummy stuff, it looks like you might have two days of good weather. So you go for it.

I spent most of Tuesday morning wrapping some things up and packing, so that it was lunchtime when I finally headed for the Natchez Trace. It was a blustery day, with a wind out of the south-southwest making me pedal even on the downhills and the sky regularly spitting stray raindrops. But it was the best weather that we'd had since Sunday, and I knew that things would get better.

Right after getting on the Trace, I ran into a couple from North Carolina who were just finishing up a 16-day tour. They had started from the Northern Terminus and ridden to the Natchez and back, and we chatted for about 15 minutes while we admired each other's rigs.

I should have a picture here, and the fact that I don't have one -- or one of the guy that I passed about 10 miles laster who seemed to be doing a walking tour of the Trace while pushing his things in a runner's trailer -- shows the downside of a short tour. It's something that my friend Bill Glass once pointed out to me, and which I've experienced enough times now myself to see it as Truth: It takes a few days of touring before you get into touring mode.

Touring mode is where you are willing to stop near the bottom of a long downhill to take a picture or talk to somebody, even when you see that there's a climb coming up that you might be able to coast at least some ways up using the speed from the descent. When you're in touring mode, you not only live in the moment, but you live in the moment in the place, so that you're not looking down the road so much as you're looking around where you're at.

But I wasn't in touring mode on Tuesday afternoon. I was mostly keeping my head down, riding hard into a stiff headwind, hoping that the spitting rain wouldn't turn into a deluge that would make me take shelter under one of the Trace bridges.

I got more into touring mode about Hwy 50, stopping at the Gordon House rest area to eat one of the sandwiches that I had brought with me. Some folks who were touring the Trace by car had stopped there, and I talked with them a bit before hitting the road again.

There's something about the "double-aught" mile markers on the Trace ... like rites of passage. And, yes, that red and white thing on the back of my bike is a spinning reflector. It takes about 20 mph of apparent wind to spin it, however. Between the headwind and my 12 mph average, it only got whizzing about half of the day.

I stopped again at the overlook rest area just before my exit, eating my other sandwich and enjoying the view. Although it was early spring, the trees had filled in enough that you couldn't see much of Hohenwald -- which is about eight miles north of here -- except the water tower.

My first overnight campsite was at Fall Hollow Campground, which is right at the exit from the Trace on Hwy 412. The owners there are super-nice, and they told me that I could set up under the cover of their picnic pavilion, and thus stay more dry should the rain ever come in. This site was pretty close to the bathrooms, too, which are nice and clean. They only charge $5 for tent campers, which anybody that regularly camps will tell you is incredibly cheap. Right after I fixed and ate dinner, they even came by to offer to drive me into town to eat. If you're bike touring anywhere near this campground, I highly recommend that you stay there.

I slept okay the first night, although I regretted not going further into the campground when the rain never came and the traffic sounds of Hwy 412 kept up through the wee hours. At first light I fixed an excellent breakfast of bagels and corned beef hash, then broke camp and loaded up. I spent another half hour tweaking the mounts of my panniers, trying to get them as close to the center of gravity as possible without hitting them with my shoes while pedaling, and then headed out.

My route for this day had me going east through Mt. Pleasant -- at first on some of the roads that the Tennessee ultra-cyclists use for a 300K route. I'd done this route at least three times, but on this lovely spring morning going opposite our usual direction, I was stunned at just how pretty the countryside was. I took it as an affirmation of my decision last year to randonneur less and tour more, since brevet speed just doesn't offer the opportunities to see what you're riding though.

The winds held true, but on this day the strength and direction worked to my advantage. After a tough climb over Mount Joy Road (the climb was not a joy, but wasn't that bad, either) I cruised along a series of roads and into Mt. Pleasant. Since it was just after 10 am, the Mt. Pleasant Grille -- which we regularly stop at on the Cathey's Creek Permanent -- wasn't open, so I continued on east.

Now backtracking the Cathey's Creek route, I rolled over a series of small lumps on excellent roads. The day was just warm enough to make for perfect cycling, and I had a good comfortable bike beneath me.

In Culleoka, I stopped at the Glendale Market for a fried apple pie and a root beer. It was lunchtime, and a steady stream of locals came in to get sandwiches and gas. Most of them gave me friendly nods, and some asked about where I'd been and where I was headed, reinforcing my belief that even people in cars that don't always behave nicely around bicycles are more likely to be nice to touring bicyclists. We are just so quaint and non-threatening.

The roads turned a little more bumpy past my brief stop, but soon I was east of I-65 and entering Marshall County. At the county line on this route, a creek runs across the road. It was very full from the rains earlier in the week, and walking my bike across got my shoes and socks thoroughly soaked. Although the bottom bracket was briefly immersed, the water was not high enough to get to the wheel hubs -- which was good, since the loaded bike was too heavy to carry.

I turned onto Wiles Road east of Hwy 431. This road was new to me, but looked like most of the quiet little lanes down that way: Flat, winding, and lots of exposed rock. Since I grew up in a land of rock and moss, however, I've always considered it pretty.

Turning north on Verona Caney Road, I was on the US Bike Route 23. I wanted to get a picture of my bike with one of the USBR signs, so I skipped the direct route to the campground via River Road and continued north to Hwy 99. I never saw one of the signs, however, as I went further north, and eventually headed on east to "downtown" Chapel Hill.

Just after 2 pm, I stopped at Sonic for a hamburger and caramel milkshake. Then, after a brief stop for supplies at the Food Giant next door, I headed back south two miles to Henry Horton State Park. Those two miles to my campsite were the hardest riding of the day, and I realized just how lucky that I had been to be going with the wind instead of fighting it all day.

By the time that I pitched my tent by the river and got cleaned up, it was only 3:30. I tried to find the campground manager to pay the posted $11-fee, but he was out. This left me with about four hours of daylight to just hang out.

The day was still perfect -- particularly if you weren't trying to ride a bike into the wind -- and it felt strange just sitting around. I've often said that I can do a number of things pretty well, but I can't do nothing good at all. So, Wednesday afternoon, I had a chance to work on my "doing nothing" skills. I read a mediocre book. I lay down on the picnic table and watched the trees moving in the wind against a clear cerulean sky. I watched a hawk hunt, and squirrels scamper, and a river flow.

By the time the sun was setting, I had managed to wind things down enough that I felt like I was just entering touring mode. But I had also come to the conclusion that optimal daily touring distance for me was probably between 60 and 80 miles, depending upon the terrain. I don't think that I will ever be good at doing nothing.

I slept great Wednesday night, thanks to my excellent campsite and the gentle evening breeze. Up with the sun on Thursday, I was packed and ready to roll at 7 am. Since I still needed to pay my campsite fees, however, I had to hunt down the resident manager -- which cost me another half-hour.

Using the section of River Road that I had skipped the day before, I went back to Verona Caney Road before going north and west. The wind was still blowing steadily out of the SSW, so I had a few sections on this day where I needed to work. But they were broken up nicely by long portions where I could turn northward.

I hit Marcy Jo's at 8:30, getting a short stack of pancakes and a side of bacon, but starting with -- of course -- a big cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee. My tank topped off, I then used my Marcy Jo's 100K route to head northwest.

In no time at all, I was passing Carter's Creek Station and cruising north on a series of gently rolling roads. It took less than two hours for me to get from Marcy Jo's back home -- not bad on a loaded 100-pound-plus bike whose bottom bracket was beginning to squeak from the previous day's creek crossing!

I'd been gone for less than 48 hours, but my batteries were fully charged again. It was a short tour, but it somehow managed to have enough stretches of hard cycling, good camping, new roads, and quiet reflective time that it felt like a longer tour.

And it was all good.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

What to Leave In ... What to Leave Out

All winter, I've been trying to do a short local tour ... and the world has not co-operated.

First, the weather. It's probably ridiculous to hope that we might get a week of decent temperatures in Tennessee in the winter, but it used to happen. As everyone knows, however, this year was crazy cold, with lots of ice and snow and single-digit lows.

So, I thought maybe I could drive down to Florida and do a tour there. But then life got in the way, and I had work commitments and other duties that had to come first, and that plan fell by the wayside.

A few weeks ago, a commitment window opened up. Work slowed down, my jazz ensemble took a break, and bike club stuff hasn't yet moved into overdrive, so that I could do a week-long tour from April 4-12. That would be long enough to tour the Natchez Trace down to about French Camp, MS, or ride the new US Bike Route 23. Maybe ride in to Atlanta via the Chief Ladiga and Silver Comet Trails, and then out to Conyers to see my mom.

But today is April 7, and I am not on tour.

Maybe I've become a wimp. Night-time temperatures this past weekend fell below freezing, and Monday it rained all day. Of course, I have a 32-degree sleeping bag and a cycling rain-suit that would have kept things tolerable. But tolerable ain't perfect, and my past couple of tours have been pretty much perfect.

So, I re-did my plan. First, I came up with a nice five-day tour that had me riding between 60 and 80 miles from one Tennessee state park to another -- Old Stone Fort, Fall Creek Falls, Frozen Head, and Standing Stone -- before heading home.

But it's supposed to rain all day Friday, so with this plan I'll have at least one day of really crummy weather.

So, it'll be a three-day tour. This afternoon, I'll ride down the Trace to a campground at the Hohenwald exit. Tomorrow, I'll mostly back-track my Cathey's Creek permanent to Henry Horton State Park. Then Thursday I'll come home via the Marcy Jo's route.

Less than 150 miles, with two nights of camping. It's better than nothing.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Birthday Tour

This past weekend marked the fifth year that I've done a 200K either the weekend before or after my birthday. This is either going to be the last time that I do this, or I am going to move my birthday to May.

There were years when this ride seemed easy. Maybe the weather was better, or I had goals that better aligned with a January 200K in spite of the conditions. Maybe a year in south Florida spoiled me.

Maybe I'm just getting old.

But back around Christmas when RandoGirl and the RandoDaughter and I discussed getting together in Chattanooga for the Sunday before my birthday, I thought this would be a great opportunity to spend a Saturday riding my bike to get there. I put together a route -- mostly using some of the standard roads and a few hidden gems from previous fleches, capping it with pieces of classic routes that the bike club down there runs. It was 150 miles, but if the weather was good and I started early that would be okay.

But the weather forecast turned dire, and a pre-dawn start began looking treacherous. Riding 150 miles over a couple of big mountains is hard enough -- add the fact that you're carrying an extra 15 pounds of clothing and toiletries and gear, the drag of a Dyna-Hub, and wanting to get into the downtown of a busy city before nightfall and it gets dismal. When Friday's rain became Friday evening's snow, I decided to drive to College Grove and ride on from there. It would not be as epic as biking the whole way, but it would still give me 130 miles and thus meet my birthday-ride requirements.

I could tell on the drive down that the more quiet roads still had plenty of icy spots. The last of the clouds were scudding away, and the sun kept trying to break through but it just yielded unwanted glare as I carefully picked my line through some sections of slush.

By the time I passed through Rockvale and Versailles the sun had risen and the wind was starting up. Frankly, if not for the forecasted wind out of the northwest I would have cancelled, hoping instead for better weather next weekend. But the tailwind held steady and true for most of the day, giving me enough of a push to mitigate the other weather issues.

Another benefit of riding a bike on a day like this is that cars are more scarce, and the few that do venture forth are more kind as they pass. Maybe it's our natural forbearance for idiots ... or the way that we tend to walk widely around raving lunatics.

I stopped briefly in Bell Buckle for a bacon biscuit, swapping weather updates with a group of eight hunters sitting in the little cafe next to the store. They were still in camouflage clothing, with their faces painted in green and black stripes. When I asked them how they had done, one answered, "Great! We got 36!" I have no idea if that meant that they shot 36 of something, or if there was another method of scoring, but I had to admire their stamina in getting out so early on such a cold wet morning just to shoot at something.

After Bell Buckle I took a road that's been on a couple of my fleche routes, passing under I-24 through farmland virtually free of cars. Then I turned onto a road that I had often seen from that interstate but never ridden via bike, climbing through fields and into the forest up towards Manchester. Once again I was on a road for miles with no cars before coming around a bend right at the entrance to the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel.

I turned briefly north for a mile here, immediately realizing that the wind had indeed been in my favor for the past couple of hours. But the effort allowed me to get on some less-used lanes away from I-24, and I pretty much avoided the busy life of downtown Manchester.

At one point I realized that I was riding along the back side of the field where they hold the Bonnaroo Music Festival. In the middle of winter like this, it just looks like an empty field criss-crossed with roads that don't seem to have a logical purpose. I could see a couple of the stages way in the distance, and then I went by a road that led to at least an acre full of Port-a-Potties.

By now, I was pretty much south of where the previous night's snow had fallen. There were scant patches in some shady areas, but I definitely didn't have to worry any more about ice on the road. I blissfully cruised down the gentle slide south towards the ridge with a steady tailwind, barely turning the cranks as I zipped at 20 mph.

But that ridge kept looming as I went on, and with a ridge you never just get to ride down to it and go over. My route forced me north again for a bit, working my way into the wind to get over to TN-108 before heading south and up the long climb. Halfway, I found that the snow had apparently made it to the shady spots on that ridge, too.

The top here is rolling country, and even with my tailwind I had to work hard to get over some of the more serious lumps. When I finally got to Altamont, I was starving. I stopped at the convenience store there for a big sandwich, chips, and a cream soda. As I ate, I stripped off a couple of layers of clothing, but as soon as I left the store I realized that it was still very cold outside -- or I was still very energy-depleted -- and I put it all back on.

Although it wasn't the busiest road on which I've ridden, TN-108 was a little hectic on this stretch, and some of the cars did not pass me with as much space as they should have. I still had my tailwind, for the most part, but the road had more pain to give at the end, with two more miles of tough climbing before finally yielding a gentle six-mile descent into the Sequatchie Valley.

With just over two hours of daylight left, I crossed the valley to Powell's Crossroads and began the long climb up Suck Creek Mountain. Although the valley had been free of snow, once again the shadier portions of the mountain had some.

I took off one jacket and the outer gloves at the base of the climb, and didn't pause to put them back on before beginning the long descent. The cold didn't seem too bad, however, since I knew that once at the bottom I just had to ride towards town along the river before entering the city. The wind stayed friendly for that part of the route as well, and after hassling with some of the more hectic thoroughfares of suburban Chattanooga I was soon crossing the Market Street bridge into the city center.

Again, I was starving by now, so I stopped at Mellow Mushroom for a calzone and to try to warm up. Everyone was very impressed by how far I had ridden that day, and I began to think that maybe doing this kind of thing was worthwhile after all, and maybe I wasn't that old.

It was dark when I finally left the restaurant, and it took me a couple of U-turns to finally find my hotel, the Read House. As I checked in, there was a wedding reception in full swing.

But I didn't want to put on my dancing shoes so much as I wanted to get out of my stinky bike clothes.

They had upgraded my room, putting me in the older part of the hotel. I even had a bathtub, where I was able to soak for a half-hour while I called RandoGirl to regale her with my travelogue.

The next day, I biked a little more around chilly Chattanooga before going to the Tennessee Aquarium with RandoGirl, the RandoDaughter, and her boyfriend.

It was worth the ride.