Paul Flemming

Writing on Two Wheels

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

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

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sign your work

It took me 19 years to find it.


In 1999, I drove to St. Joseph, Mo. It was roughly the halfway point between Springfield and Lincoln, Neb., where I and Gerry, respectively, lived.

Gerry brought a Santana tandem and his stoker and I brought a check and my stoker. After a brief test ride, we swapped and returned from whence we came. (Just to be clear: We each kept the stokers we came with, it was the bike and check that changed hands.)

Gerry was meticulous. Gerry was generous. Gerry was, I find out now, a member of the English Department faculty at the University of Nebraska.


The Santana is such a great machine. It was to begin with. Then Gerry sent it off to California, upgraded all the components and got a custom paint job. Then, a couple years later, he wanted an even better Santana and was ready to move up in class. He needed to sell his current bike. We found each other by an online classified ad on a tandem listserv.

I’ve done maintenance on the Santana, but I’ve never torn it all the way down. I have now. Today, loading up the grease and new Campy bearings in a retention ring to rebuild the headset, I slathered degreaser on the fork’s crown race and steerer tube. The etched name appeared as the degreaser worked to pop the contrast out and reveal letters like a candle backlighting a page written upon with lemon juice. It’s possible his name was scribed into the steel by the custom paint shop, a sort of stitching in Gerry’s tandem’s clothes while it was away at summer camp. Or, more likely (or, anyway, more to my taste), it was Gerry’s own signature on a machine he lovingly maintained. These marks were Gerry’s own Kilroy was Here.

It worked.


Beyond the miles I’ve put on the tandem myself, aided by a series of stokers, the Choctawhatchee Chariot will now belong to me and Gerry as I build it back up, with my own upgrades and customization.

Where will I put my own signature and who will find it in 2035?

Sat, April 7, 2018 | link          Comments

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Yoknapatawpha vagaries on a Choctawhatchee theme

It’s on, this traverse of Mississippi on two wheels. Nine weeks from now we’ll pedal off from the shores of the big river and head northeast on the Natchez Trace.


We will roll along in the spectral footsteps of Choctaw, Chickasaw and Creek people. We will crank over land soaked in the blood of Grant and McClernand’s Union soldiers as well as Johnston and Pemberton’s Confederate fighters. Our tandem will run right between where Emmitt Till was fatally brutalized and the site of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s Mississippi Burning murders. We’ll spend two days in a town burned to the ground not once, but twice by Sherman and named for a man best known as an iconoclastic president, federalism disrupter, and slave-holding ethnic cleanser. 


On the trip’s first day we’ll start out in the morning and halt that evening on U.S. Highway 61. Though we’ll be far south of the mythical site, this highway girding the country’s gut is one arm of the crossroads where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil. We’ll visit the Eudora Welty Library on Day 2. Though none will be the Ur courthouse in Oxford, every courthouse in the state (including the seven we’ll pass by and photograph) contains a little of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.

History, evil, death, and edifying art along with an intriguing geology all distinctively its own.

My 14-year-old son, preparing to leap into high school, and I, a 53-year-old government worker, are riding a tandem across a diagonal of Mississippi from the southwest to the northeast.


We’ll be supporting ourselves station to station, toting our own luggage. There will be vagaries, more likely than not, from my oh-so-meticulously constructed itinerary. Vagaries sounds so much more romantic than thunderstorms, pinch flats, and saddle sores. More on that, as well as the necessary progress on the Choctawhatchee Chariot’s re-assembly, are ahead.

Hop on. There’s nothing for it but to pedal on.

Tue, April 3, 2018 | link          Comments

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Of things seen and unseen

Three feet high, painted yellow, deep black-swabbed letters incised on at least one face of a triangular post, marching down vertically:


I am intrigued by these monuments.

First because of the thing itself, or the thing each represents: St. Joe Paper Company.

Second is about myself and what I see while I roll through this world, or more to the point what I fail to see.


I have not discovered where these monuments fit in the story of the St. Joe Paper Company or anything about their context – neither era, nor purpose, nor provenance. I do own an inkling, however, about how prominent a role St. Joe occupies in the last century of North Florida. It squats atop all else in the last 85 years as the most significant individual economic actor in the Panhandle.

That I appreciate.

This makes me want to figure out the rest. Who made these concrete monuments? What years were they conceived and placed? Were these section corner designations an innovation of Ed Ball? There are definite periods of manufacture, as well as paint and paint style. What do they signify and how were they used? How many still exist? Was there ever a comprehensive tabulation or map?

I’ve never known the SJPC pillars to prompt recognition much less nostalgia among natives. Someone, somewhere, knows the story of the SJPC obelisks and can easily recall anecdotes about their production, stories of hauling them, erecting them, knowing the stories they herald. I’m determined to find that person, that book, that resource to tell all. I want to inform these photos with a real story about a place that no longer exists. The St. Joe Company still exists, but as a mere memory of a shadow of its former self. There was a time in my own experience as a Florida resident when any reference to St. Joe was invariably followed with the ubiquitous description of the company as the single largest private property owner in the state.


That’s no longer so, of course, but also bygone is the day when that phrase stood in as a way to show and not tell about St. Joe’s power and influence. You didn’t even have to recount the tale of Ed Ball rejiggering the time-zone line to accommodate his production meeting schedule. Now there’s The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with a transfer of title boost from the acquisition of much of St. Joe’s holdings. It’s now the state’s largest private landowner. In no small part because it wants it that way, AgReserves Inc. is little written or told. Florida’s largest landowner is not seen.

But maybe it’s there and we’re just missing it. This happens. All the time.

Here is my second fascination.

Pictured on social media are 15 SJPC monuments photographed over 16 months in four different counties. I pedal different routes, but rarely new ones. Now when I discover a new SJPC monument it is more likely than not to be along a stretch of road I have traveled before. I pass the revolutions of pedals by searching the roadside for flowers and St. Joe markers. Changing seasons make for changing views. Trees leaf in spring. Limbs bare themselves in winter. Sunlight angles at an autumnal slant through the dust of dry fall or sunbeams shining through the pollen-choked yellow motes of fertile spring.


And yet, how many times did I ride by the four SJPC markers on Natural Bridge Road, the four I noticed for the first time, all on the same ride? At least six times in the last 21 months. I never saw any of them. Then, on Sunday, I saw all four.

How can this happen?

The fact it happens is befuddling and frustrating. The idea it happens, the certain knowledge of unseen and unknown specimens I’ve rolled by innumerable times without seeing is what really grabs the imagination. 

What else am I missing in this world? Plenty, it’s been proven. What are those things I am failing to see? It’s impossible to know until I see it, until it is revealed, until I am able to see it.

There will come a time of day, a perspective offered by the depth of light or the contrast of shadow or the slant of beam, a view opened up by prescribed fire or winter’s wind or FDOT’s mowing deck and the thing I’ve been seeking will show itself.

Will my eyes be open enough to see?

Thu, March 22, 2018 | link          Comments

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Seized grub nut

Departure in 72 days.

Preparing for this trip – an adventure I’m uncertain I can pull off physically or fiscally – is now in full bloom. I have multiple fronts –files with hyperlinks, blog entries, lists; spreadsheets with mileage, links, mileposts, and intersections; images with Trace map sections, county highway maps, and adjacent bike paths – on parallel tracks with the tandem refurbishment detailed along one rail and the voyage planning along another shiny rail running off toward the infinite horizon.


At the same time, I’ve piled up the texts. The relevant Foote volume is pulled down, another Eudora Welty collection is requisitioned, Faulkner is staged, Trace histories are ordered. Returning to the Vicksburg campaign narrative has been a revelation even before my son and I roll through history on the Natchez Trace National Parkway.

Maps make the difference.


Maps bring a story alive, place a tale in context, allow it to occupy a space beyond imagination and project it onto a segment of the globe. Without one revolution of pedals or wheels, I gain a sense of the landscape. Cycling cue sheets are complemented by elevations along the Trace. At my online disposal are dynamic maps of the full length of the parkway, its exits and services within 2 miles of those access point. This is valuable information, all available at a touch on my phone. Even so, I’ll print out county highway maps and cue sheets and mark up Trail guides. Because that’s what I do.


The path we’ll follow is real. This is distinct from our first tandem trip, along U.S. 90 from Tallahassee to Pensacola, following what is called the Old Spanish Trail, a remnant of the subscription road associations created to encourage construction of auto-worthy paved highway systems. It was only called the Old Spanish Trail, without any connection to a historical version.


Contrarily, there has been real suffering and tragedy along the Natchez Trace’s route. For the United States alone, a short-term actor on the global scene, here is the nexus of the nation, its dark underside and unforgivable past, the truth and shame of our present so many of us cannot or do not or will not acknowledge. It is here where so much has been nurtured into being. More than the alluvial soil is rich. U.S. Grant, Lightning Hopkins, Andrew Jackson, Eudora Welty, Marcus Dupree.

It’s a remarkable place, fertile land with a unique ecosystem and a firm hold on the narrative of this country’s history.

All of this fascinates and motivates me. For now, though, one of the set screws securing the eccentric sleeve of the captain’s bottom bracket on the Santana is locked up in its corroded threads. The other, the left of the two, I successfully backed out. Further, with the right one being thus stuck, I’ve managed to round off its hex sides. I dropped the Santana’s frame off at a bike shop and asked them to have a go at extracting what I was told is called a grub nut.

I knew I’d been feeling out of sorts. Of course. My grub nut is seized up.

Sat, December 30, 2017 | link          Comments

Sunday, December 24, 2017

In store


Ahead is a full strip down.

Followed by powerful cleaning, degreasing and de-griming.

Next, the buff up.

Finally, wrenching it all back together finely tuned and fully lubed.

I must commit to it. No half measures allowed or shortcuts taken.


All the way. Don’t hesitate to unroll the tape from the handlebar because it will only have to be rewound. Replace all the housing along with the stretched and compromised cables. While the tape is off, the cables pulled, the levers removed I will not fail to replace the handlebars, misshapen in a 2014 collision.

This Santana, as compared to the Bianchi, is outfitted with exceptional componentry, specially chosen to withstand extreme tandem stresses, provide the keenest performance, and integrate with seamless precision the frame and drivetrain and wheels. The Nebraskan who owned it before me – we exchanged my check for his tandem in northwest Missouri in Rocheport or King City – loved it so. He made meticulous, reasoned choices to outfit the bike – switching out much if not all the original componentry and sending the frame in for a great-looking two-tone paint job while he was at it. He maintained it lovingly.


Since 1998, when I think I bought it, I’ve done nothing of consequence to the tandem. In part that’s a testament to the quality of its components, in part it’s luck, in part it’s pure bicycle maintenance malpractice on my part.

I’m about to remedy that.

One set screw on the eccentric bottom bracket shell – it’s an elliptical shape, not endearingly idiosyncratic (though, now I ponder, I believe it’s both) – is seized up. The actuating arm of the drum brake, or else the pads of the brake itself, is out of whack and causing considerable drag. The rim brake pads are hardened and useless against glazed rim walls. While the Phil Wood bottom brackets are notably resilient, and distinctly not grinding or binding, the pair are just as clearly performing below peak. Without an acceptable alternative solution, I’m not particularly pleased with the lever setup: the two rim-brake cables run to the same, right-hand, lever and the drum brake cable is assigned the left lever. As mentioned, the captain’s handlebars are stove in on the left drop.

All that and more is ahead.


I believe we’re fully outfitted, with an answer in place for all the above. Chances are, overwhelmingly, against this holding true.

We shall see. More on my mind is while it may be Christmas Eve, it is also 78 days until March 12, and that day is what should be the first day of the Natchez Trace ride. Several thousand things need to go the right way for this to come off as envisioned. 

Sun, December 24, 2017 | link          Comments

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