Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

Writing on Two Wheels
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A from-the-wheels-up view of rides, builds and fixes.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Capitol-ism: Intracity touring

Day 4

Tuesday, June 5

Start: Jackson

End: Jackson

Counties: One (Hinds)

Miles: 8 on the day, 125 overall

Time out on the bike: 51 minutes on the day; 15 hours, 33 minutes overall

Today is tour day. We are in the capital of Mississippi, a place I associate most with a long night of intemperate drinking with a high school friend a dozen years after we graduated Glendale High School.. I’d gone through a job interview earlier in the day. I was freshly divorced from my first wife and traveling with the woman who would become my second. It was the 20th century. I viewed Jackson then through Welty-tinted glasses and the bottoms of a Faulknerian serving of alcohol.

I did not get the job. Thank goodness.


This day I am much more sober, much better rested, somewhat less at loose ends. We rise at our leisure and check our bags with the valet. The tandem I stow, with the assistance of the valet, in a locked closet within the parking garage adjacent to the hotel. This service is available after I slip a Jackson to the valet. It means the lock I lug around in the panniers is merely useless weight I am pedaling across the state to build muscle.

I bring my raincoat, though it won’t be used today or on the week.

I am thankful for all the things we have with us and do not use. They all represent bad things not happening. No rain. No power-drained electronics. No stolen bicycles. No mechanical breakdowns. No injuries.

There are places to go today, but not by long pedaling. We live in a capital city. We like to visit capital cities. I take pleasure when we wander around in the public buildings, gawk at the portraits of dead white men I don’t know from periods of American history I do.


So here we have George Poindexter, governor of Mississippi when the Missouri Compromise was enacted by the U.S. Congress. And there is William McWillie, resident in the Governor’s Mansion when Dred Scott was decided. There were other governors depicted with names less evocative of traveling circus sideshow freaks. In another building, more dead white men preside from the walls, including Chief Justice Harvey McGehee, who sat atop the judicial heap in Mississippi during the entirety of Harry Truman’s administration on through to LBJ’s election – that covers some seriously troubled times in the arc of race relations and awesome constitutional tumult. Chief Justice McGehee died, age 78, in Yazoo City six months after I was born in New Orleans.


Do we build grand public buildings any longer? Is there any interest in beauty, in trying too hard, in extravagant spending on gold foil and marble columns, on brass fittings and cut glass? Mississippi’s old Capitol is lovely. Charming women, volunteers, greet us when we walk in. We have the run of the place, pretty much, and chat up legislative staffers stationed behind desks right out in the echoing expanses of the rotunda, each on their respective chambers’ sides. I try to drum up a bit of fellow feeling among civil servants, but get only discussions of relative humidity as experienced here in Jackson versus our Tallahassee home. The Legislature is not in session. Statute books haphazardly line the walls of legislative committee rooms, as if staffers regularly run over to do a little research mid-hearing. Misshapen rugs cover up tangled audio and computing cables.

A new-ish Supreme Court building juts elevated from grade to the north – this is clearly the work of a security committee – and its stark Greek revival boxiness surrounds an interior layout that began by accommodating magnetometers, moved on to the orderly flow of people being searched and scanned, and proceeded thence to warm hardwood walls very possibly containing spaces used by real human life forms. The dramatically arced courtroom seems to ache for a corner where none exists. Instead, acoustic engineers and white-balance videographers won all the arguments, including a requirement the windows – a heinous concession to bad audio and washed out images to begin with – be covered by sound-dampening and light-blocking shutters at all times.

Oral arguments are scheduled after lunch. A judicial assistant, or deputy clerk, nervously asks after our business and hastily, ungraciously, encourages us to go elsewhere and instructs us to not disturb anything at all before we do.


We amble around and about, remarking on the unremarkable Eudora Welty Public Library, a building beneath the beauty of her prose. We circle around the gallery of Mississippi’s Hall of Fame, a collection of chosen worthies, elected during a quinquennial vote of the Board of Trustees of the Department of Archives and History. They actually use that word: quinquennial.

There are nice portraits of William Faulkner and Miss Welty.

We hoof back to a spot behind the supreme court building, chow up a burger and fries, and head back to the hotel. In mid-afternoon we pedal in street clothes 8 miles out past the city limits into the beginnings of the flight pattern. The motel where we stayed was 100 meters from Interstate 55 and 120 meters from a Cracker Barrel. That is a story for tomorrow, recounting a long ride of joy and ease.

More pizza and sports viewing this evening in the demographic shadow of the county line, the urban flight sprawl of the north. This night, Florida State University’s softball team wins the national championship.

Hip, hip.

Sun, October 21, 2018 | link          Comments

Friday, October 5, 2018

Notes from Ye Olde Bike Shoppe

A quick aside, exploring action in Ye Olde Bike Shoppe. A brief nothing, if you will, interrupting the utter absence of anything else.


I am giving the Cloud Bike an extreme makeover. It’s a concession to old age – both mine and the machine’s. It’s a minor expansion of the variety of rides in the barn, adding a touring-outfitted bicycle with racks and wider gearing. It is the single-rider answer to the current setup of the tandem, with the added rear racks and spring makeover of its own.  

Here’s the greatest thing about bicycles: These machines really extend the range of travel a person can achieve under her own power, opening broad horizons while maintaining an intimate connection to the passing landscape. This is especially so on the nation’s network of paved roads, the vast majority of which see very little motorized traffic. There are thousands of miles of paved roads in the United States that are the functional equivalent of bike paths. They are better than bike paths, because other motorists treat intersections with them as cause for attention and care, an approach not exhibited along bike trails. Nor are actual roads – the legal, moral, and common-sensical purview of the cyclist – as monotonous or fraught with two-legged peril as bike trails. It’s cool to be able to go so far so swiftly on nothing more than my legs.


I did this building up the Cannondale frame of the Cloud Bike 24 years ago and now I’m more deliberate, now I have a straight job, and now the quality of technology and manufacture is far beyond the state of the art a quarter century ago.

Here’s the thing about the crankset of the new stuff: The graphics are atrocious. The typography is an abomination. The technobabble promotional tripe is beyond redemption. How else can you account for “Ultra Torque System” and “ESP Actuation System” nightmarishly etched into the alloy of the cranks mere inches apart. I mean, really. Individually, those phrases are without merit. Together, it’s a pattern of felony misuse of the language.

Then there’s this from the Campagnolo website, featuring a trademark and registered mark-rich paragraph of condescending nothingness masquerading as consumerist egalitarianism.

“Athena™ is the first 11 speed groupset with a silver finish, made for riders who expect state-of-the art performance from a Campagnolo® 11 speed groupset but without the high cost of the pro level groups. Technology, innovation, style and class are now available to all Campagnolo® enthusiasts.”


Point being there are negative aspects to the design elements ancillary to the new componentry. Granted.

But, by golly, it sure is pretty. Of course it is.

And it is almost certainly going to ride better, more smoothly and efficiently – ultimately providing a more satisfying ride while extending the effective range of the pedal-er. This still needs full road testing, but initial returns show promise. The fit will be a bit different and improved, with a higher-set saddle atop a longer seatpost. The hand-me-down but decades younger wheelsets are both strength appropriate as well as a significant upgrade to lower rolling resistance.

The aforesaid gearing lowers the chainring denominator to 39, a reduction from the 42 on the original iteration of the Cloud Bike. The top-end, which is to say the lowest gear ratio, of the cassette also makes the pedaling easier. The compact chainrings match with the new-fangled 11-cog cassette. This means a double chainring provides more gearing options – 22 versus 21 – than the old-school triple chainring setup, along with less gear-ratio duplication.

This means there is a better chance I’ll be able to pedal up inclines on a loaded bicycle.


The engineering of the chainrings and cogs and chain and Ergo levers and derailleurs and the cables all serve to make for smother rotation, shifting, and rolling. I believe it will run silent and solid, smooth and steady, silky and straight. All this makes it easier to forget about the bike, to zip along on a freewheeling downhill coast or to pedal effortfully, slowly, grindingly upward while focusing only on the wind or the sweat or the light or the ache or anything else besides the bicycle.

Which is ironic.

Fri, October 5, 2018 | link          Comments

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Day 3: Advancing on the capital

Day 3

Monday, June 4

Start: Port Gibson

End: Jackson

Counties: Two (Claiborne, Hinds)

Miles: 66 on the day, 117 overall

Time out on the bike: 8 hours, 30 minutes on the day; 14 hours, 42 minutes overall

Before we reach the swank, we pedal through the rank.

Our hosts in tiny Port Gibson, they of the Trump campaign signs, warn us explicitly over breakfast not to take the route I have mapped out for us through south Jackson. It’s dangerous, they say, citing gang violence and general depravity. Our night’s lodging, however, is in downtown and getting there by tandem is a necessity.


(I realize now options available to me I did not consider during planning, namely that I could have stayed on the Trace and the adjacent bike trail now available along some of its most traveled portions on the way to the northern suburbs. We could have stayed there and taken a ride share into downtown for our tours of the Capitol and other public buildings set for the next day. Still, there’s something for staying in the heart of the city, an advantage we shall see as the high point of today’s ride.)

To start, we take a circuitous route out of Port Gibson that includes walking through the lawn of the Park Service maintenance building on the Trace.

The early morning canopy is enchanting and the early ride is delightful, if already languid in humidity. An early discovery is the disconnection between historic sites along the Trace and on-the-ground reality.

“It’s not a waterfall. It’s not even a creek,” Avery observes as we pass signs marking roadside spots of interest: Owens Creek Waterfall, in this example.


Today’s heat does not creep, it arrives fully formed at 10:30 as we pedal into the former Choctaw Nation.

It’s on full blast. The Trace continues its upwardness, though gently. This changes almost as soon as we leave the Trace onto Mississippi Highway 467 at MM 79 as the pavement curves on a steep incline. We walk it, then roll into town on increasingly civilized roads, lanes, and streets until manicured lawns, street signs, city parks, and finally, stores appear. Avery is patient with my photos of the courthouse and I orient us toward Picante’s, a Mexican restaurant in a strip shopping center with a sushi place and a coffee sandwich shop.


Picante’s is the very best meal of the trip. So far. Avery have tacos. I have enchiladas. We vacuum up tortilla chips and salsa and gulp down Coca-Cola like hummingbirds. We sit in the AC among a dwindling lunch crowd. Our waiter is solicitous and attentive after we tell him we are on the tandem, how far we have pedaled today and how far we will pedal in days to come.

After lunch, we continue further inland, off-Trace, and through south Jackson. Our first 7 miles or so on Raymond Highway is exceptionally pleasant on what is best described as a country lane. Houses become more frequent. Lots become smaller. Fences transition from enclosing cattle to restraining dogs. Then, we encounter the bane of the cyclist, the road detour. The extra mileage is not awful, the hills are significant, but perhaps on a grade more forgiving than what we would have faced on the original route. When we complete our de-tour, we are in town. There is traffic. There are hills. There are signals. There are two lanes. There is relative humidity mixed with high temperature to produce an energy-sapping, enervating soup. It is high stress for the captain and high intensity for all concerned.


We steer through heavy traffic on two shoulderless, winding, hilly lanes alongside a volume of cars that chokes two lanes and bunches at lights when the lanes are five across. Additional lanes are welcome, but they come deeper in the state’s largest city in what appears to be the deeper and deeper reaches of its poorest quarters. Potholes yawn open. Glass shards sparkle along the gutter. Detritus of all varieties and remarkable sorts collects along curbs and at gaping grates. Catcalls rain down from sagging pedestrians.

A turn here, a turn there, we pass beneath the interstate and through brief desolation in the bright afternoon light. Soon we are skirting the battlements raised up against the encroaching poverty, protecting the citadel of academia. A further turn and we negotiate a roundabout – those great harbingers of transitions between poverty and the front lines of the urban class divide. We pass unmolested through a security gate and roll onto the brick-paved quad of HBCU life in the summer. There are few on campus.


On the other side of JSU we circle around another roundabout, another frontier, and immediately over the tracks under elevated lanes of car traffic and into downtown proper, heralded by the bus station and followed by the rising edifice of our Jazz Age hotel, done up anew and recently gilded in the style of the Trumpian era: American Gaudy.

Sweat runs rivulets down the contours of our spine. An arduous day on the bike is over. We idle in the valet zone, crane our necks upward and contemplate our safe arrival at the gates of this benighted place.

“This is the fanciest place I’ve ever stayed,” Avery says, revealing more about being 14 than the relative swankiness of the place.

Here we are. Pedaling is done, not only for the day but the next as well with a break for gawking in the capital yawning ahead. Tonight, we order pizza from a Jackson joint, eat it in our separate beds, watch Stanley Cup hockey and make videos about our adventure.

Sat, August 11, 2018 | link          Comments

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Day 2: Blog post too pretty to burn

Sunday, June 3

Start: Natchez

End: Port Gibson

Counties: Three (Adams, Jefferson, Claiborne)

Miles: 51 on the day, 51 overall

Time out on the bike: 6 hours, 12 minutes on the day; 6 hours, 12 minutes overall


Port Gibson is, contrary to civic branding, not too pretty to burn.


Town lore and the sign marking the city limits holds the village was declared exactly that – too pretty to burn – by Gen. U.S. Grant when he visited with 23,000 men under arms. It seems so much more likely to think Grant’s unimpeded path to Jackson where he was headed to punch Johnston’s forces in the nose was the reason Port Gibson was spared. It wasn’t worth the time to torch. Grant had more important things to do.


No matter either its flammability or its attractiveness, Port Gibson is the first day’s objective on the 300-plus mile ride from Natchez to Tupelo. By the end of the day’s pedaling, my son, Avery, and I make it there by a more direct and level route than planned. This proves the wiser course in light of other conditions: It is blaze hot. It is sopping humid. It is not Florida flat.

I awake in Natchez to a sore neck, a headache, and the sound of rain falling. In fact, the rain I’d heard storming down in the night is now dripping so heavily from the tree canopy to seem a continuing shower. This portends ill, but it is not an option to quit before beginning.

So up we rise, load the bike then fetch ourselves across the street to the bigger big house and a buffet breakfasting spot where we get our overfill of bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits and gravy. We share the dining room and linen tablecloths with no one but the inattentive wait staff for half an hour.


We take to our saddles and roll away with all in our possession. Sunday morning streets of Natchez are empty and the Delta air is heavy. A grey sky presides. Brown signs point us to a low-rising on-ramp. We roll north along smooth pavement through tunnels of pines and hardwoods, alternating with fields open and flowering with ranks of watchful black-eyed susans and laced by wild carrot. Magnolias blossom flagrantly. Literal mileposts stand sentry in whole-number increments.

Ever upward, if slightly so, the road rises away from the river and we with it along a route traveled by a teenage Abraham Lincoln. Spinning along between covered canopy and open fields of flowers we are riding our tandem into the heart of the South.

I begin to deliver my first Tandem Dad Lecture (trademark applied for) with 295 miles to go, thusly: “155 years ago… .” A heavy sigh issues from the back of the bike. Sure, we both laugh heartily. I still deliver the lecture.


Soon after, the cloud cover is thrown off, the sun makes itself known and understood. We ride upwards through the cloying air. Still, the canopy of timber provides shade and cool breaths. At Mississippi 552 I make formal a decision I’d actually made the day before, to forsake the riverward loop and a visit to Alcorn State and Windsor Ruins. Avery does not object. I figure it is folly to risk even the possibility of steep grades combining with laden-pedaling to burn through our energy and confidence on the first day. Instead, we head 2 miles out to Highway 61 (“God said you can do what you want Abe, but, next time you see me comin’ you better run.”) and lunch at The Country Store and its claim to the title as the world’s finest fried chicken.

It is pretty good chicken.

Arthur Davis owns the joint and sings a cappella gospel, or at least he did for this fashionably late apres-church crowd. Mr. Davis earned degrees from both Florida A&M University and Florida State University. “I’m a Rattler and a Seminole.”

We have 12 miles to pedal after lunch. It proves a nasty dozen. The sun blazed on our heads while we granny-gear it up the off-ramp from Highway 61. Our suffering is real because we have ridden little in preparation for this ride. Together, on the tandem, fully loaded in approximation of touring conditions we had accomplished exactly once, and that along a pancake-flat route. This day is hilly, with 2,080 feet of vertical gain over its 51 miles (and that is on the safe route I chose to avoid what I feared would be terminal climbs on the loop to Alcorn State).

We got ourselves into town, past the “Too pretty to burn” bit of weird civic pride/historic delusion city limits as well as a Shetland pony staked in a broad front lawn. This is notable. I do not know it now, but there would be three such sightings on this ride. Are they service animals? Do Mississippians show up at the Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport (the only airport in America named after a black man, Doug Blackburn suggests over beers weeks after we return home) trying to get their Shetland pony support animals on board a flight to Atlanta?


While these thoughts bounce in my head, we have arrived at Isabella B&B, a yellow house on the corner of Church Street and Chinquepin Street. From there it’s a block along to the Catholic church followed by a run of mainline protestant churches and a synagogue just to throw a bowling pin in the mix.

On a summer Sunday evening in isolated rural Mississippi and without petroleum-based mean of transport, there is a dearth of options or we didn’t explore the right empty streets to find food. In the alternative, we go to McDonald’s. It was bad. We should have gone another quarter mile down the road to Sonic. That would have been a significant step up in quality of food. Draw what conclusions you may.

Another thought to ponder, as the Reverend Phillip P. Wannenmacher would say, also on terms you can determine for yourself, I report I did not watch the NBA Finals in the communal TV room. The owners of the Isabella have Trump campaign signs leaning against the garage wall. I watch Game 2 in Oakland from our room, streaming haltingly on my phone.


Breakfast is scheduled at 7 a.m. Our middling performance on the tandem today, wherein the limits of our physical abilities are maddeningly revealed and found wanting. On top of this, tomorrow’s route goes off the Trace at the two-thirds mark and heads into the largest city in the state along a route I concocted completely by means of satellite mapping. The outlook is for more hills than today and a bit cooler to go along with a dozen miles farther.

A deep rest awaits in a town too pretty to return.

Thu, July 19, 2018 | link          Comments

Monday, July 9, 2018

Day 1: Trace Apace, a tandem tour of Mississippi


Saturday, June 2

Start for the day where the ride will end: Pontotoc County, Mississippi

End for the day where the ride will start: Adams County

Miles: None by bike


She might have mentioned the seizures before we were speeding down the highway with her behind the wheel.

School ended Thursday.

On Friday, I drove us to Tupelo in an un-airconditioned vehicle with the tandem perched atop it.


First thing upon our evening arrival at Moon Lake Farm we took the Santana off the roof, rolled it into the screened lake house, and arranged our bags strategically around the upstairs room to best allow me to paw at their contents and ponder arrangements.

Next morning after my first serving of grits and Avery’s first bacon flight we placed in rank the bicycle bags next to the tandem and piled all else back into the vehicle. The car would stay here, 10 kilometers west of Tupelo, while we went south to Natchez. Our shuttle was scheduled to arrive this day, proprietess/founder/chief Downtown Karla Brown behind the wheel. She pulled in around 10:30 a.m. The tandem slid into the van, both wheels still quick-released in place, front first and without a hitch. Luggage comprising left and right panniers, handlebar bag, rack trunk, helmets, shoes, and water bottles took up only a fraction of the cargo room.

If it didn’t go with us now, we wouldn’t have it. If it did go with us now, we were pedaling it back 300-plus miles or leaving it behind.


Downtown Karla needed little goading to slip into her patter, a practiced, clanking-cutlery Rotary lunch on the second Tuesday of each month at the Heritage Cafeteria retelling of her oft-told tale. If I interrupted her, she’d begin again once she’d responded to my question with a precise repetition of words, cadence, and intonation from whence she’d left off. It was disconcerting and comforting at the same time hearing about her years-long hike across one way then the next, up and down in an idiosyncratic pattern of perfect forgettery while Downtown Karla recalibrated her position in the tale.

She delivered us safely and timely, if a bit circuitously. This last was minor and in service to her larger business model slash main grift. DKB runs a progressive protection racket, a shakedown of kindness. Downtown Karla Brown put the pro in quid pro quo. She trucked in referrals as her B2B strategy and relied on the passengers to supply the liquid assets to keep her afloat.

Thus we found ourselves at The Tomato Place on U.S. Highway 61, for instance. The place was charming. The sandwich was fabulous. The vegetables gave a good accounting of themselves on display, but we certainly weren’t going to be hauling produce 300-plus miles back up the Trace

Thence to Natchez on our Downtown Karla-led odyssey, by way of a preview pass through Port Gibson and a very practiced narrative about its many frankly shabby churches and synagogue.


On down Highway 61 we went and were delivered to Twin Oaks Bed & Breakfast, a property on the market for something north of $1 million. Across the street another former plantation turned inn was for sale. This one, according to Downtown Karla (who, for all I know, would have gotten some referral fee if I had whipped out a check on the spot) could be mine for $7 million and change. We will never know.


In the open sauna along the Mississippi – and we never put eyes on Old Man River, not one drop of it, during our entire trip, it now occurs to me, and that seems an outright shame here in July on my couch – we pedaled an unburdened tandem eight blocks into the historic district of this old town. The cathedral of the Holy Roman Catholic Church thrust its spire into the golden hour evening. A shuffling drunk hoboed along the sidewalk. Two blocks down a tangle of oak tree limbs covered up much of the Adams County Courthouse and its Greek revival columns. We found it after I mistook the Presbyterian church, basking in the evening glow, for the county courthouse.


This slip led to discovery of the U.S. District Courthouse for the Southern District of Mississippi in its own blocky, brick and stucco Greek Revival style, though that thoroughly fails to tell the tale. The Feds have only had a renewed presence back in this southern Mississippi outpost since 2007 when the judiciary moved into the building first occupied in 1853 and variously put into service as an opera house, a school, American Legion hall, library, and pageant venue. The structure made it onto the  National Register of Historic Places in 1979.


Fading light and hunger took us to the Malt Shop, a drive-in dive replete with yellow fluorescent lights clashing with neon signage, picnic tables in the heat and a circling brood of running vehicles awaiting delivery of bags of burgers from the harried staff. We were rewarded with delicious cheeseburgers and thick shakes, but punished by sapping heat and buzzing flies. We rode home in the dark, marked by our powerful lights front and back, sated and a bit uneasy with the full length of our ride ahead of us and no experience, no success, to buoy our hopes.

Tomorrow. On Sunday morning we begin the adventure in earnest, each pedal stroke getting us closer to success and each revolution an opportunity for discovery and wonder.

We made movies on our trip. Watch the first one here.



















Mon, July 9, 2018 | link          Comments

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