Pre Ride Perambulations
Trip Start Oct 05, 2008
3Trip End Oct 10, 2008
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I live in the Chicagoland area and planned to do this ride as an unsupported one-way trip, returning via Amtrak to Chicago. So, getting back wasn't the issue--getting to the start of the ride, however, was another story.
Recall that the Natchez Trace Parkway starts in Natchez and mileposts go northeast from that point (there is no Milepost 0) to the terminus which is roughly 17 miles southwest of Nashville at the junction of TN 100. (Milepost 442 is the last MP on the route; at the cloverleaf intersection you will have travelled approximately another mile but I did not see a MP 443). I had read that the Trace is 444 miles long, but I didn't see any other mileposts before 442, which is inside a barrier gate about a mile along the route.
It made sense for me to do the ride from the Terminus down to Natchez, and then I would transport my bike after the ride, box it, and put it on the train in Jackson, MS for the return trip. So this is why I decided to do the ride "backwards" from northeast to southwest. Additionally, this had the benefit of having most of the more difficult stretches out of the way during the early parts of the ride.
Since Amtrak doesn't go to Nashville, I opted to drive to Indianapolis and take my bike and gear with me, leave my vehicle in Indianapolis at a relative's house, and catch a bus from Indy to Nashville, and start the ride accordingly. This allowed me to leave Indianapolis on a Saturday morning and be in Nashville later on that day, and stay overnight and then get an early start on Sunday October 5th. Those of you who fly into Nashville to start the ride on the north end would probably be best served by biking from the airport to the terminus, or grabbing a shuttle or something similar. Once you head down TN 100, look for the Shell station to your right, the start of the Parkway is just beyond it, accessed by a cloverleaf intersection.
Let me point out that if you opt to do this trip unsupported (as I did), you will have to decide what distances to tackle each day. I wanted to finish the ride in five days, which meant an average of about 90 miles a day; I was carrying an absolute minimum of gear so that I could meet that objective. This also meant that I would forego the fully-loaded touring setup with camping gear, sleeping bag and the like (there are campgrounds along the NTP and also off the NTP, depending upon how far you want to journey). I did not have any inclination to go fully loaded since that would have significantly cut down on my mileage.
My decision was to strictly stay in motels along the way and carry only a few days worth of cycling shorts, jerseys, and socks, and a rain jacket if needed. Once I got to Natchez and finished the ride, I could then go into the "Wal-Mart mode" and purchase a set of clothes or two for the bus to Jackson and the train ride back to Chicago. As it turned out, except for a downpour in Tupelo at the start of Day 3 where I had to buy a pair of rain pants, this strategy worked like a charm. I only had a rear pannier rack bag with flaps that unzipped on the sides to hold my gear, plus a small gear bag with some tools and a few essentials that I bungee-corded to the top of the pannier. This kept all of the weight on the rear wheel. All in all, it was about 12 pounds total, but on the uphill segments of the route, it still did slow me down. A fully weighted bike would have been far more difficult under the circumstances.
It's great to be able to edit these blogs! I nearly forgot to put in what bike I rode, and its components. I used my tried and true Trek 7600, which I bought in 1993 and still use frequently. It is aluminum framed and has a more aggressive frame stance which allows me to be less upright but not completely in a drop stance like my road bike. The Trek has a triple front chainring and I used Bontrager wheels with a rear cassette of 11-19, which is extremely tight gearing for a seven speed rear cassette, and, as it turned out, rather unsuitable for steep hills. I would suggest that your rear cassette or freewheel be no smaller than a 24 gear low gear for that purpose. Most bikes seem to have 12-24 or 13-28 or even 13-32 gears, anyway, and those would be more than adequate for tackling the NTP.
I never used the front chainring granny gear, but there were plenty of times where I was in the middle chainring and first gear on the rear on the hills, just spinning the pedals to keep moving. Thankfully, the steepest hills were at the beginning of the Trace, and on the reverse slope, the downhills were steep enough to get some excellent speed going to be able to "cut the next hill in half" as I like to say.
Other than the helmet and sunglasses on my head, I carried the following gear for the trip: (you could get by with less if you allow for laundry time, which I didn't) All of the following fit in a Trek rear top rack pannier bag with zip down flaps:
Extra pair of cycling gloves
5 pairs of cycling shorts
5 cycling jerseys
5 pairs of socks
cycling shoes with SPD cleats (funny how they didn't stink as bad as I thought after riding 5 days)
lightweight rain jacket
lightweight Polartec 100 weight fleece top (used in the mornings for an hour or two)
1 pair of cycling tights with windpanel front
Small sized zip bag containing Darfur-sized bottles of sunblock, aloe lotion, mini-toothpaste, toothbrush, razor etc
In a handlebar bag, which I ended bungeeing to the top of the rear pannier bag, I brought:
2 700x32 Presta valve tire tubes. (To record: never had a flat, never had to add air to my tires after I started)
Small crescent wrench
Triangular Allen/Hex wrench
Small tire pump, with dual Presta/Schrader valve head
Extra NTP maps (you'll find these at AAA offices and also along the route at visitor center)
Various sundry food items (extra generic granola bars and snacks)
MP3 player, which I never turned on
Blank journal and pen to record my "trip"-ulations
In Tupelo, MS, I Wal-Mart-ted a pair of rain pants, which I stuffed into the handlebar bag. My windpanel tights weren't waterproof and wouldn't keep my legs dry, anyway.
Once again, I'll reiterate how important it is for you to decide how far you want to cycle each day. You won't have as many near Parkway lodging options in TN after the first 30 miles or so and AL as you will in MS, which will impact your decision. I recommend that you do a Google search for Natchez Trace Parkway to come up with the towns and areas off of the NTP (at road intersections) where you can find water, food and lodging. If I recollect, some of these are published by the National Park Service on their NTP site. There are plenty of turnoffs on the NTP which will allow you to take breaks as needed, some with picnic areas and occasional ones with restrooms and drinking water. The NTP map is indispensable for this purpose.
And on to Day One with the ride!