Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

Writing on Two Wheels
Missouri Showme
And furthermore...
Reach out

Spin along for posts on cycling and cycles
A from-the-wheels-up view of rides, builds and fixes.

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Crooked letter, crooked letter, eye

It must go back to the whole em-eye-crooked letter-crooked letter-eye thing. That's certainly memorable.

Blogs/NatchezTupelo301Elevation_edited.jpgNext, I'd have to say the Interstate rest stops made the most lasting impression. They were fancy all-brick affairs, very welcoming indeed. In my memory, there were antiques in these roadside attractions and my parents noted the paradox of Mississippi's poverty and this splendor by the highway.

Blogs/Highway61.JPGFinally, for childhood impressions, were the roads themselves. Some landscapes and the roads through them are starkly and immediately recognizable. The pine-lined distinctively brown chip seal asphalt of Mississippi’s portion of Interstate 55 is one. On the way to New Orleans I recall marveling at the long stretches of macadam to the horizon in a tunnel of towering trees. This was Mississippi.

The more I read, the more Mississippi appeared. Shelby Foote – his narrative histories of the Civil War, but his fiction as well – Eudora Welty, William Faulkner. Mississippi was brutal and brutalized, rich in history, poor in resources.

Jackson, Biloxi, Tupelo, Vicksburg, Oxford, Tunica, Pass Christian, Gulf Shores. All of these names are evocative of extremes and as rich in meaning as the acts of some are bereft of humanity.

We’re going to roll through this Mississippi of my mind, my memory, and my imagination and see how it compares to what’s there on the ground beneath our tires. The only thing for it is to pedal on.

Sun, May 27, 2018 | link          Comments

Francis Baily never had it so good

All I’ve got left is trepidation, with nothing to occupy my mind but worry and no solace to be found in pedaling for a week.

While I await the start of our tandem ride across Mississippi, I find it comforting to think about Francis Baily.

Blogs/DuckPotatoTandem.jpgOn July 4, 1797, he left Natchez and the Mississippi River, taking off overland toward Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. (Just because I made up that last bit, don’t doubt the truth and historical accuracy of the quotations following. This is the real deal.) He was on horseback and with a dozen or so others, but his journey was considerably more challenging than what we’ll face on our bicycle ride.

For one thing, I won’t have to convince someone to slaughter a beef and turn it into jerky as Baily did before his expedition left town. Nor will I have to requisition a batch of hard tack.

Blogs/Yakima.jpgMy chief concern is the possibility restaurants and stores where I think we’ll eat chicken fried steak and drink iced tea won’t be open. I’ve set out the whole itinerary with the aid of Google maps – Baily had to put up with slow dial-up Internet access and a wonky Netscape UI. After our second 50-plus mile day, we’ll take an Uber to the ballpark. There were a few more concerns for the English Baily’s group. I know this because “Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America” was published posthumously, recounting his travels to Antigua, New York, down river to Pittsburgh and New Orleans and then back up the Trace, an ill-defined wildlife trail and Indian Path.

“We were obliged so to manage our daily journey that we might arrive at a plantation in the evening where we were likely to get pasture for our horses: and even this was not always to be had. And when we did arrive there, a poor hut was our only shelter, and we were obliged to unpack our horses ourselves, and turn them into the pasture; and if we could get a mess of mush and milk, some fried bacon, or some fresh meat of any kind, it was as much as we expected, and for this we were charged enormously high.”

We’ll be staying at bed & breakfasts with hot showers and soft beds. We’ll have grits, and eggs, and baon, and steaks, and pizzas, and burritos, and hamburgers to eat. Baily would take what he could get to eat and go sit out in the woods because the houses were so nasty.

Blogs/AbsalomAbsalom.jpgThere is no chance we’ll get lost. A distinguishing feature of the Natchez Trace Parkway is its limited access and no-turn progress up to Tupelo. The way in 1797 was much less certain. There are also bridges now, a decided advantage.

“The very next day, — Sunday, July 8th, — we began to experience one of those difficulties of which we met numbers ere we had finished our journey. A little dirty creek, which apparently one might almost jump across, opposed our progress. This creek, on sounding it, we found was not fordable; we were therefore obliged to unload our horses and swim them across. As to ourselves, there was fortunately a large tree lying across the stream elevated near twenty feet above the surface of the water; on this with tottering step we were obliged to carry our baggage, which we did after a deal of trouble and trepidation, whilst exalted on our narrow lofty bridge.”

For all my worries, I do not have to worry about the tandem galloping off with all our stuff, strewing it through the woods.

“As we were proceeding along upon (the path) this afternoon, with our packhorses quietly following, making in the whole a long string of between thirty and forty horses, by some unfortunate accident, the girths belonging to one of them gave way, and the pack slipping round under the horse's belly, he was so frightened that he set off into the woods as fast as his legs could carry him, with the pack swinging and knocking against every tree, like a dog with a kettle to his tail. The other horses seeing this, set off also; and in a moment we were left in a deplorable situation. Bereft of all our provisions and clothes, and deprived of every means of continuing our journey, we had no other resource but riding after them, and endeavoring to run them down. Some of these horses were laden wholly with dollars, the proceeds of the cargo which some of our party had taken down the river. As there was no time for hesitation, we sallied after them with all the speed imaginable, not regarding bogs or trunks of trees which were continually in our way.”

I appreciate Mr. Baily’s account. It makes me worry less how we’ll get along the paved and groomed Trace. It gives me hope we’ll not have to chase down and catch our bicycle. I revel in the fact I won’t have to sleep on a dirt floor along with the saddles and building supplies of our hosts

It took Baily and his crew until July 19 – two weeks and a day – to reach McIntosh, a spot Avery and I will reach in a bit more than three days of pedaling.

Thank you, Mr. Baily, for taking my mind off challenges and turning my focus to hot coffee and buttery pancakes. There is nothing for it but to pedal on.

Sun, May 27, 2018 | link          Comments

Monday, May 21, 2018

Just so story

It is satisfying to have things just so.


I’ve got the Choctawhatchee Chariot – that’s the nom de giro for my Santana tandem – right where I want it. In all respects, the bicycle we’ll depend on to get us from Natchez to Tupelo, is set up exactly as I want it. It’s got the right stuff in the right place and it’s turned up.

Could I spec out a tandem that would be jazzier, splashier, lighter with a tighter gear range? Absolutely. Comfort and security have much to recommend them, though. I am sure I can keep the Choctawhatchee Chariot running smoothly and effectively. I am certain of its durability and dependability.

I don’t wish I had a different drivetrain. There is no saddle I’d rather have. I’ve got the rack and bags I want to, and know I can, depend on.


The clinch bolt on the rear derailleur is stripped out and running without the missing washer designed to hold the cable snug. But I’ve got the unique replacement and the spare cable, literally, in the bag.

There is a bent spoke on the freewheel side of the rear wheel. That’s the only thing I would change.

Otherwise, it’s perfect.


There is an American-made frame, bottom bracket, hubs and seatpost. The seats and bags are British. The tires and rack are German. Japanese companies made the derailleurs, chain, and cranks. Yes, Italians are represented in the headset.

The bike is not too hot. It is not too cold. It is just right.

Talk to me June 8. I am confident I’ll say the same thing.

By then we will have pedaled three-quarters of the Natchez Trace Parkway’s entire length. The NTP is the National Park System’s seventh-most visited unit, with 5.6 million recreational visits in 2012. A National Park Service report concluded 5.7 million recreational visitors in 2011 brought $93 million in spending to communities near the Parkway. In the voodoo economics of these things, the report figured that economic activity supported 1,200 private-sector jobs. That’s in addition to the 140 FTEs within the $10.8 million authorized budget in fiscal year 2013.

We’ll be spending perfectly good federal scrip – our Georges, Abes, (most to the point) Andrews, and Benjamins are accepted even in rural Mississippi – as we eat hamburgers, go to baseball games, and visit public libraries.


I’ll also be hauling a heavy-duty combination lock along with us, a weight and volume I’d as soon eschew, so we won’t make any involuntary contributions to the economy of Mississippi.

The whole while we’re pedaling those 300-plus miles we’ll be confident of our ride, knowing there is nothing for it but to pedal on.

Mon, May 21, 2018 | link          Comments

Monday, May 7, 2018

A tandem to ride for

This tandem keeps reminding me it is an incredible machine.


Torn down, cleaned up, and built back with new slippery and precise tuning, it rides like silent current in a deep stream. It is powerful. It is smooth. It is relentless and beautiful.

My son is now a full seven inches taller than he was during last summer’s ride along the Old Spanish Trail. But the Santana fits us both still and, under the right conditions, really cooks.

Of course, all cyclists prefer flat terrain and tailwinds. Astride a tandem, though, you can get the full measure of this bike’s performance potential. Descents provide a stark lesson in the relationship of mass and momentum to velocity. Another feature of the rebuild of the Santana is the installation of brakes with actual stopping power, both the cantilever rim brakes and the drum brake. Squishy is not a good attribute for brakes and no longer applies to the tandem.

Tandems are notoriously ill-suited for climbing. Or so I’ve always heard. It certainly is no fun for me when the stoker flags or our rhythm is off or my legs are spent. But, ooh, when you’re sailing along with a tailwind and on flat terrain, this tandem does zip. It moves at a speed inconsistent with its heft and size. The


I had the stoker’s bottom bracket tapped at University Cycle. Those guys were great and very jazzed to install the Phil Wood bottom bracket. They seemed especially pleased with the Sugino Mighty Tour triple chainring cranks, characterized by them as much desired these days. I’m not worried about popularity, but I am with its proximate cause. People want these cranks because they are great.

One lesson I think I need to learn is going slow is not a crime. Down on that granny gear, I believe technically we could pedal up a brick wall. But both Avery and I like to get places fast, including to the top of the hill. It’s a classic tradeoff. The faster you go, the more your legs and lungs suffer. The slower you roll, the more time in the saddle with predictable consequences. And, anyway, speed thrills.

After getting the Santana out on the road, I’m quite confident in the bike’s soundness. Truth be told, I’m much more anxious about my 16-year-old truck’s ability to make it 400-plus miles to Tupelo than I am our ability to pedal the 300 miles to get back there along the Trace.That saddle time will be Avery’s biggest concern. His backside won’t be trained up. He does have the dampening seatpost and a new Rivet seat. But he’ll be breaking in that saddle along with his own butt while on the ride.

The two-seater bike now also sports a German-engineered rear rack and English waxed-canvas panniers. Further safety upgrades (in addition to functioning brakes) are great lights for front and rear. These rechargeable units will also allow us to run at night, if need be – though I would only anticipate doing so in a small town, not keeping a post-sunset leg of a day’s journey going into the night.

The tires run smooth. The chain shifts precisely. The cranks spin freely. The brakes stop positively.

Great. The only thing for it is to pedal on through.

Mon, May 7, 2018 | link          Comments

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Adventures and best-laid plans

The adventure is in the doing.

There’s still a lot to be said for the planning and the anticipating.


It’s 302 miles along the Trace (for the most part) from Natchez to Tupelo, with a cumulative elevation gain of 11,290. Natchez is at an elevation of 215 feet above sea level. Tupelo tops out at 274 feet. The route’s high point is 604 feet, in the vicinity of French Camp, a place name recognized for more than 200 years after Louis Le Flour, a Frenchman, established a way station there in 1810. (I rely on my mapping/tracking software here and I have some reason to believe it may not be accurate. However, it’s certainly better to expect hillier than what you find in reality than the opposite, so I’m sticking with my expectation of a ride with some meaningful climbs.)

In 1798, the Spanish garrisoned at Natchez skedaddled after Spain ceded the region to the young United States in the Treaty of San Lorenzo. It only took them three years to get out before its holdings east of the Mississippi and north of the 31st parallel about 40 miles south of Natchez devolved to the nascent United States.


We’ll face daily rides of 52, 60, 64, 73, and 43 miles, if all goes as planned. (Insert dark laughter at the expense of this hubris.)

The topography offers rollers in gentle undulations for the most part. The Trace – trod into being through trackless wilderness by animals and people down the millenia largely keeps to the ridgeline, high above the sodden marsh, swamp, river, and slough of low places – in Mississippi is hardly a run up Alpe d’Huiz.

There’s that.


Avery and I will pedal more miles and one day longer than last year’s Old Spanish Trail tour to Pensacola. I’m not so silly as to camp – we’ll be in beds with pillows and rooms with hot showers each night – but we will haul all our own kit and have no means to get around each day’s destination other than by our own power (though a rideshare for hire is contemplated to get to the ballpark in Jackson).

It will take us five days of pedaling to reach Tupelo, with a short 8-mile intracity ride on Day 3 not counting.


The maps are out, the lists are drawn, the tandem is coming together. It’s this part I enjoy in equal measure to the adventure itself. Planning, in some detail, eating and lodging availability along with routes and side jaunts, is the stuff of excited anticipation at the moment. There will be a big return on investment later on for this time spent now.

First, if I build an itinerary, route, schedule and map in a way to account for eating and sleeping – if I know where we’re going and what we’re going to eat en route and when we get there, or identify sufficient options – I can focus on the ride and be in a much better position when things go wrong.

There is a thrill to riding a bicycle over a route never traveled before. Even with all the sophisticated, detailed, and dynamic tools available today, I still prefer the county highway map, with its township grids, idiosyncratic symbols, and distance-between-the-arrows methodology. That’s still how a route shows itself in my head even when supplemented by satellite-borne, web-based elevation change profiles. For all that, it’s still a discovery around every curve, a mystery over every rise, a revelation with each revolution. Thorough preparation frees my mind to focus on and appreciate the awe of the new within every single moment along a route I’ve never ridden before.

The only thing for it is to pedal on.

Wed, May 2, 2018 | link          Comments

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