Cycling Pros, Average Joes At The Tour De France

Rob Annis

When I told many of my friends and family I was riding some of the Tour de France routes, they automatically assumed I would be participating in the race. As nice as that would be, I would be shelled off the back of the pack before the Tour had left the start village.

Although I’ve occasionally dreamed of joining the pro peleton and perhaps donning the maillot jaune – the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader – pro riders are on a whole other level than average cyclists like me.I’m lucky enough to know and have ridden with several domestic elite and professional riders. While I’m a decent enough cyclist – I’ve won a couple of amateur races and lead my share of segments on Strava – I know my pro friends could ride me off their wheel with little effort. They’re on a whole other level, and the elite international pros that contest the Tour de France are at a whole other level above them.

Just how much better are they than your average Joe squeezed into spandex? According to an article in Bicycling magazine, quite a lot.

Your typical cycling enthusiast averages up to 18 mph on flat roads and about 10 mph on hills. But according to Bicycling, the pros in the Tour de France average up to 10 mph and 15 mph faster, respectively. Your elite Tour de France rider averages more than double the wattage of the enthusiast, and can top an incredible 1,400 watts in the finishing kick of a stage sprint.

How do they get so fast? A lot of it is genetics for sure, but it’s also insane amounts of training and discipline. (We won’t get into other, less-legal reasons why.) I average about 150 miles a week on my bike; pros can average up to 800 miles during that same seven-day period.

But we do have advantages over the pros. While I can reward myself with a beer or three after a particularly grueling ride (or a not-so-hard ride as well), pro riders need to be cautious with every calorie they consume in order to maintain a body-fat percentage under 10 percent. If I have a bad race, I might be upset at myself for a day or two, but for a lower level or budding pro, a few bad races could mean the end of their career. Best of all, pro riders must look at cycling as a job, while we can just hop on our bikes and have fun.

America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride? Maybe

Rob Annis

As I round the final switchback of the climb, the road grade tilts upward yet again. My fingers nudge my shifter, trying to retreat to a lower gear, but I’m already on my final cog; it’s up to just my legs now to get me to my first destination of the day.

About 30 hard pedal strokes later, I coast into the Emerald Bay scenic vista, my reward for hundreds of feet of climbing that cool spring morning. I lean my bike against a sign and stare down upon the beautiful blue lake below. Had I seen this same image on a travel brochure, I’d swear it was photoshopped, but it’s here in front of me, in living color brighter than any Kodachrome image I’ve ever seen.

If you’re calling a bike ride “America’s Most Beautiful,” the scenery had better deliver. Luckily for the organizers of this 100-mile jaunt around Lake Tahoe and the surrounding countryside, it does … and then some. I’ve ridden these roads multiple times over the past three years, and the lake continues to take my breath away nearly every time I see it.Two Lake Tahoe centuries are offered by ride promoters each year – America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride in June and the Tour de Tahoe in September – but it’s simple enough to create your own epic ride. Although the lake’s circumference is only 72 miles, a 28-mile out-and-back excursion on Highway 89 to the nearby town of Truckee will give you the mileage you need to crack 100 miles on your cyclocomputer.

To ride the 72-mile loop, just keep the lake on your right side and pedal. There are more than a few convenience stores offering Gatorade and granola bars along the route, as well as plenty of mom-and-pop diners, delis and bakeries to grab lunch during the ride. Be sure to stop in Tahoe House Bakery & Gourmet, which bakes the best coconut macaroons my buddy Ross has ever tasted. I’m partial to the Denver omelet at the Driftwood Café, and I’ve also heard great things about Café Fiore in South Lake Tahoe.

You don’t need to be a super-fit rider to finish the route, nor do you need an expensive $6,000 racing bike. I passed several folks who were stretching the limits of their XL cycling jerseys, but still managed to make it up every hill and mountain. Throughout the ride, I came across several riders who earned my admiration and respect – a New Jersey cyclist riding a heavy steel single-speed, a woman on a tiny folding bike with 20-inch wheels and multiple riders atop heavy old-school mountain bikes.

That said, be ready for between 3,500 and 4,000 feet of climbing on the route. There are two major climbs – the 800-foot climb up to the 6,900-foot Emerald Bay summit, which features multiple switchbacks and a steep kicker toward the end, and the 7,100-foot Spooner Lake summit climb, which rises 1,000 vertical feet over eight miles. After Spooner, just when you think the climbing’s over, you’re faced with seven demoralizing rolling hills. More than a few riders say those climbs are the toughest of the day.

My Cannondale Supersix was armed with a standard Ultegra crank and an 11-28 rear cassette, and I never felt in jeopardy of going backwards on a climb. For the less-vertically inclined, a compact or triple chainring will allow you to spend more time in the saddle rather than standing on the pedals.

Dedicated bike lanes and wide shoulders for most of the route allow more nervous riders an extra degree of security. Because Tahoe is a popular destination for road cyclists, local motorists are used to riders and typically give them a wide berth. Nevada’s new 3-foot passing law helps as well.

You can ride in either direction, but I’d recommend most riders stick to navigating the roads in a clockwise direction; going counter-clockwise, you’re stuck pedaling up Spooner on a busy multiple-lane highway for nearly 8 miles. Better to safely descend on that same road, where your speed will nearly match the automobile traffic. Because of the occasionally twisty nature of the highway, stick to the center of the right-hand lane; the shoulder is too narrow to safely navigate at speed.

But the biggest dangers to cyclists aren’t drivers, but themselves. The route offers at least two screaming downhills, and less experienced riders must resist the temptation to break the sound barrier descending. During my most recent trip, I rounded a blind corner to come across two ambulances in the center of the road tending to injured cyclists. I squeezed my brakes, causing my rear wheel to fishtail slightly as I came to a stop. Had I been going faster, I might have joined the riders on the pavement.

Being a popular tourist destination means plenty of lodging options around the lake. I usually use Harvey’s, a casino hotel straddling the edge of California and Nevada as my base of operations, although there are literally hundreds of other options nearby.

Ironically, visitors will see photos of the area’s immense natural beauty throughout the casino, but many won’t venture outside the gambling parlors. In the early-morning hours before day one of riding, I stumble out of bed and find myself in the casino. On my way to breakfast, I’m forced to weave through hordes of heavy-lidded gamblers wearing last night’s party clothes. Walking toward the escalator to the restaurant, I noticed a man nursing a half-empty Corona at the bar, holding a cigarette burned down nearly to the filter with one hand and sullenly punching the buttons of a video poker machine with the other. Forty minutes later – and nearly as many cups of coffee later — I saw him again, in the same spot, holding his head in his hands.

Beware the mountainous region’s notoriously unpredictable weather – three years ago organizers of the Amgen Tour of California canceled two stages of the race after a heavy blizzard made the roads nearly impassable. A week later, I rode the route and was pelted by rain and hail as the mercury struggled to pass 45 degrees for most of the day. When the temperatures rose, so did the condensation — as the water on the roads evaporated, the roads were blanketed with a thick vapor making it nearly impossible to see more than 10 feet in front of you. However the last two years have been nearly perfect, with the chilly morning temperatures in the upper 40s giving way to highs in the 70s later in the day.

I’ve ridden all over the U.S., in some of the most incredibly scenic places that human eyes have come across. Are the roads surrounding Lake Tahoe truly America’s Most Beautiful? That’s hard to say, but I can promise you won’t be disappointed.

International Adventure Guide 2013: Stockholm, Sweden

Known as the Venice of the North, Stockholm is a city defined by water; it’s in the soul of the city’s inhabitants. Cold and icy in the winter and ready for sailing and bathing in the summer, water is as much a symbol of Stockholm as Old Town and the Royal Palace. This makes the Swedish capital the ideal hub for adventure – the chance to blend an urban center with the beauty of the outdoors.

Swedes are known for their deep connection to the outdoors. Nature is a part of Swedish literature, art, music and everyday life, and you’ll find this throughout Stockholm. From boat trips out into the Stockholm Archipelago to afternoon walks around Djurgården, Stockholm is the city for those that love the outdoors. In a time when Scandinavian culture is at the top of every travel hit list, Stockholm and its outskirts are worth an exploration for those that are looking to blend the big city with the beauty and possibility of the outdoors.

Activities

By Water
You can’t know Stockholm without exploring its waterways. For anyone that loves life on the water, there are plenty of options. The archipelago is a hub for summer sailing trips, and kayaking is another easy way to get to know the area. Renting a sailboat for a week and touring around the islands is a popular summer pastime of Swedes. If your sailing skills aren’t quite up to par, you can go on an organized sailing tour with Event Segling. An excellent way to explore the city of Stockholm is to kayak the waterways. The Stockholm Tourism Office has a list of companies that have kayak rentals in the city. You can also go out for a day in the archipelago and rent a kayak on one of the islands. Horiston Kajak offers guided tours of the archipelago, as well as rentals and help for organizing a self-guided trip. For even more water-based adventures, check out Stockholm Adventures, which organizes everything from kayak trips to hiking tours.

By Foot
Because of its many parks and the surrounding natural areas, if you like trail runs or hiking, you’ll have plenty to explore in Stockholm. Get a good feel for the city with a Waterside Jogging Tour from Stockholm Jogging Tours, which will take you around all of the central city’s well-known waterways and monuments. If you are looking for a more urban adventure, check out the guided Rooftop Tour, a combination of climbing (in harnesses of course) and sightseeing. For a slower pace, there are a variety of hiking trails easily accessible, providing the opportunity for day trips or even multi-day excursions. In the vicinity you will find Sörmlandsleden, Upplandsleden and Roslagsleden. Stockholm Adventures organizes hiking tours, but you can also take off on your own. In Sweden you are able to take advantage of Allemansrätten, the Right of Public Access. It is an important part of Swedish outdoor culture and allows you to fully explore areas, even if they are on private land.

By Bicycle
If you want to really learn how to be Swedish you will get on a bicycle because in this country, cycling is a way of life. Stockholm City Bikes is the local bike share system and allows you to use one of the bicycles for up to three hours at a time. A three-day card can be purchased for 165 SEK at various retailers around the city. If you are staying for more than three days, consider getting a season card for 300 SEK. If you want to rent your own bike instead of using the bike share system, check out Rent a Bike, located right by the water on Strandvägen. Pick up the Stockholm Bike Map from the tourist office or the department store NK and you will have a good guide to exploring the city. There’s also a digital version you can use to find a route from point A to point B. For guided tours, check out the following companies:

  • Bike Sweden – Bike tours in the city and in the archipelago. They also do multi-day trips starting at 2390 SEK/person, including lodging.
  • Guide Stockholm – Guided bike tours of Djurgården.
  • Stockholm Adventures – Stockholm on Two Wheels Tour, a tour of all the classic Stockholm sites for 300 SEK/person.

Hotspots

Lidingö
Home of Lidingöloppet, an annual 30-kilometer run around the island that’s popular for Stockholm residents that want a dose of the countryside. It’s also home to Långängen-Elfvik National Park, which has 125 acres of open farmland and also houses one of the largest old farms, Elfviks Farm, which is still functioning today. In the winter the island is home to both cross country skiing trails and long distance ice skating routes, and in the summer it’s a hotspot for anyone interested in being close to the water.

Skärgården – Stockholms Archipelago
Stockholm’s Archipelago is made up of approximately 30,000 islands and islets, meaning there is more than enough to explore. Some of the most popular islands are Vaxholm, Sandhamnm, Grinda and Utö. The easiest way to access the archipelago is by ferry. Waxholmsbolaget runs an extensive network of boat services to many of the bigger islands. Visit Skärgården is the archipelago’s own tourist bureau and a good resource for planning a trip to the islands. The Right to Public Access allows you the right to pitch a tent in public places, so for a budget adventure, bring your accommodations with you and sleep on a beach by the water.

Hellasgården
A 20-minute trip from Slussen, Hellasgården is an outdoor area that’s full of bike paths, hiking and running trails, swimming areas and even beach volleyball courts. In the winter you’ll find ice-skating as well as cross-country skiing trails. After a day on the snow you can go sit in the sauna for 60 SEK/person as well. From Slussen, take buss 401 to Hellasgården I Älta, or take subway line 17 towards Skarpknäck and get off at Hammarbyhöjden.

Where to Stay

Af Chapman
Centrally located on the island of Skeppsholmen, Af Chapman is one of Stockholm’s most well known budget accommodations as it’s a hostel on a boat. Since you’re staying on Skeppsholmen, you’re well located for a morning run around the small island and into the city. Staying right on the water also gives you a very different feel of the city than staying in a standard hotel. Starting at 260 SEK/night.

Cabin Rentals in Stockholm’s Archipelago
If you’re looking to explore Stockholm’s archipelago for more than a few days, consider renting a cabin. There are plenty of accommodations available throughout the archipelago, on both the big and smaller islands. This gives you the chance to enjoy a summer week like a true Swede. Prices vary. www.skardgardsstugor.se

Långholmen Hostel
Renovated in 2008 the Crown Remand Prison was turned into the Långholmen Youth Hostel. Today the dorm rooms are built in old prison cells. There’s beach access to Mälaren and a jogging trail, so you get plenty of chances for fresh air while at the same time living centrally in the city. Starting at 255 SEK/night. Långholmsmuren 20. www.langholmen.com

Where to Eat

8T8
Craving raw, organic and vegetarian food? 8T8 is the place to go. An environmentally conscious restaurant and café, 8T8 has breakfast, lunch and the classic Swedish “fika” offering of a variety of goodies to go with your coffee or tea, all with raw and vegan options. Perfect for the health conscious adventurer. It’s centrally located close to Mariatorget. Swedenborsgatan 1, www.8t8.se.

Vete-katten
There is no more classic Stockholm café than Vete-katten. This is the place to go for a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll or a freshly baked scone. During the summer months you can even sit in the inner courtyard to get a dose of sunshine. Kungsgatan 55. www.vetekatten.se

Café Panorama
Located on the top floor of Stockholm’s centrally located Kulturhuset, Café Panorama offers simple Scandinavian fare in a classic cafeteria setting with an excellent view from above the city. You can come here for a full lunch or just an afternoon coffee. www.kulturhuset.stockholm.se

Logistics

Get Around
Central Stockholm is easy to navigate by foot. For longer journeys there are buses and a subway system, as well as a bike share system from April – October. One-way tickets on public transportation within Stockholm are 12.50 SEK, and you can get a seven-day unlimited pass for 300 SEK.

Seasonality
Depending on your sport of choice, seasons in Stockholm are very different. Winter is dark and cold, but perfect for winter activities like long-distance ice skating and skiing. Stockholm even has its own downhill slopes at Hammarbybacken. For trips out to the archipelago, summer is a better bet. Many Stockholmites flock to the islands during the summer, which means that stores and cafes that are closed during the off-season come back to life. You’ll find that during the summer there are certainly more visitors to Stockholm and the surrounding areas, but the weather is ideal and you’ll get to take advantage of the long hours of daylight.

Safety
Sweden in general is a very safe place to travel. As in any big city, in and around Stockholm, be aware of your surroundings and stay street smart.

10 Things To Like About Detroit Now

Detroit is like an empty lot down the street that’s sat vacant for years. Some people in the neighborhood doubt it will ever be put to good use. Then one day, you notice that the rubble is being carted away, and there are actually some green shoots popping up from the newly cleared ground. Somebody, it seems, thinks they can make something of it.

That’s what’s happening with the Motor City these days. Despite wrenching financial problems (it’s this close to Chapter 9 bankruptcy), deteriorating city services and endless political wrangling over its future, the empty lot is seeing life.

Entrepreneurs, some civic minded, others out to make a buck, are snapping up long abandoned properties and sprucing them up. The ground swell of activity is attracting younger residents and empty nesters to the downtown neighborhood. National brand names are starting to appear next to local businesses, with more on the way.If you aren’t familiar with the city, you not might think it’s very full, and that’s because it isn’t. Detroit is sized for 2 million, and only about 670,000 live there now. You don’t find the critical mass of neighborhoods and pedestrians in New York or Chicago or parts of New Orleans.

Detroit has also big, wide avenues built for the kind of traffic that’s only seen after Tiger games let out, or there’s a festival downtown. Don’t let that daunt you: there’s plenty going on, it’s just that you’ll have lots of space around you as you’re exploring.

Here are 10 things to love about Detroit now.

1) and 2) Eat a crepe, munch a cookie. One of the most charming aspects of Detroit’s revival is that it has been led by crepes. You’ll find crepe places in main parts of the city, but the best known is Good Girls Go To Paris, a few steps from the Detroit Institute of Arts on East Kirby in Midtown. Get there early for a good seat and be prepared to share a table. The 50 varieties of crepes start at just $7, and can easily be shared. The “O” (feta, spinach, kalamata olives and Greek dressing) is ideal for salad lovers.

Skip a dessert crepe (although they’re delicious) and head nearby to Avalon International Breads. Avalon has grown from its original storefront in Detroit’s tough Cass Corridor to a thriving company whose breads and cookies are found in shops and restaurants all over the Detroit area. Its cafe is the centerpiece of an “agri-urban” movement it’s trying to foster, by focusing on local ingredients in a city environment. Try a Dequindre Cut trail mix cookie, chock full of cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, which has been known to double as a breakfast on early plane flights.

3) Cocktails in Corktown. The Corktown neighborhood, west of downtown, is the oldest in the city. It boasts cobblestone streets and some of the hippest renovated housing. There’s also been a flurry of new restaurants and bars, some of which have had various degrees of luck in staying open. One that’s enduring is The Sugar House, a 1920s-style craft cocktail bar on Michigan Avenue.

Detroit played a major role in prohibition. Stories tell of a legion of bootleggers running cases of whiskey across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, late at night, and landing on the city shores to be loaded into unmarked trucks. The Sugar House, like other bars here, brings that era back to mind. There’s punch service, for groups of three or four, and plenty of vividly named drinks. It’s not a big place, and when seats aren’t available, you’ll have to wait to get in, so time your visit.

4) Eye-catching colors. Southwest Detroit, home to the city’s growing Latino population, has undergone a metamorphosis in just a few years. Once, it was only a few streets, with tourist-focused Mexican restaurants. Now, Southwest Detroit, which some people call Mexicantown, sprawls along West Vernor Highway. There are shops, bakeries, taquerias and restaurants, and most notably, a series of murals.

The eyes of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera gaze out at passersby on the Bagley Street pedestrian bridge. Kahlo and Rivera lived in Detroit while he was painting his own murals inside the art institute, long a favorite tourist attraction. Nearby sits The Cornfield, on a wall at Ste. Anne and Bagley Streets, with its vivid imagery of Mexican farmers. There are enough murals to take an afternoon of art gazing. The murals are often being touched up, so feel free to chat with the painters while they are doing repairs.

5) Melting pot. Eastern Market, on Detroit’s near east side, is the oldest continuously operating public market in the United States. Every week, up to 40,000 people trek here for produce that is trucked in from Michigan, Ohio and Ontario. One of its biggest days of the year comes up May 19, when the annual flower market takes place. That’s when local gardeners lug home the flats they’ll plant for summer color.

Eastern Market underwent a renovation over the past few years, and its customers are a lively mix of Detroit residents – black, white, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern. There’s a wholesale market that supplies many area restaurants and produce shops, and permanent stores and restaurants around the market’s perimeter. One favorite shop is the Rocky Peanut Company, which has been at the market for 110 years. You’ll find dried fruits, nuts, chocolate covered goodies and seasonal specialties.


6) Jump on a bike.
You might not think of the Motor City as a good cycling city. But those big wide (and often empty) streets are ideal for bicycling, and Wheelhouse Detroit has capitalized on that to offer two-wheeled tours of the city. From now until October, Wheelhouse offers trips every weekend and sometimes during the week. Its guides will take you to spots like Eastern Market, Belle Isle, the island park designed by the creator of Central Park in New York and to Hamtramck, the Polish enclave surrounded by the city.

There are architecture focused rides, a tour that looks at the city’s automotive heritage, visits to historic neighborhoods and more. Wheelhouse offers rentals of city style bikes, touring bikes, trek bikes, tandem bikes, and it rents child carriers as well. The company can create tours for groups and also can custom design a tour if your interests fall outside its regular categories.

7) Put a lid on it. There’s finally been some hustle and bustle in Detroit’s downtown retail district after a long spell in which stores stood empty. One place has stuck it out since 1893, however. Henry the Hatter is Detroit’s pre-eminent shop for men’s hats. Every man of distinction in the city has bought a hat at Henry’s. It has fedoras, caps, Borsalinos, straw hats, fishing hats. And given how many stylishly dressed men there are in the city, that’s a lot of hats.

Henry’s is a great place to hear conversations about everything that happens in the city, from the Detroit Tigers to Mayor Dave Bing (a hat wearer) to the latest place to eat. Given the vast selection, you’ll probably walk out with more than one chapeau. Because let’s face it, a man needs a hat.

8) Music and prayer. Detroit’s black churches have held the city together in its toughest times and one of the most important is the Greater Grace Temple on the city’s northwest side. Far from just a church, Greater Grace is the centerpiece of the $36 million City of David, a 19-acre complex that includes a conference center, media production facilities and a school. The church itself seats 4,000, serving a congregation of nearly 6,000.

There are two services each Sunday (one in the summer), providing an opportunity to meet Detroiters, listen to gospel music and hear a sermon by its eloquent senior pastor, Bishop Charles H. Ellis. Dress is business casual, but a number of women churchgoers use services as an opportunity to wear their newest hats. Many are purchased from local milliner Luke Song, the maker of Aretha Franklin’s inaugural chapeau.

9) The past and future. Detroiters are super sensitive about ruin porn. That’s the practice of photographing crumbling buildings, which some artists have turned into a livelihood. To be honest, Detroit offers plenty of opportunities to see the remains of its past, and it won’t overcome that hurdle until more renovation has taken place. But there’s one building in town where everyone wants to pose. It’s Michigan Central, the empty shell of the railroad station and office tower that was the line’s headquarters. Michigan Central, once the tallest railroad station building in the world, closed in 1988.

For years, the building (just off Michigan Avenue west of downtown) sat as a hulking reminder of Detroit’s past, its windows broken, its interior trashed. Threatened with demolition, the building was finally cleaned up in 2011. Now, there is active discussion about how it could be reused and a preservation society is seeking ideas. In the meantime, the building has become the city’s most famous backdrop and Roosevelt Park out front is a popular meeting spot. Realtors have even begun advertising apartments with a view of Michigan Central.

10) Batter up. Unless you hate baseball, there’s no excuse to visit Detroit and fail to see a baseball game. Given that Detroit made it to the World Series last year, you might think tickets would command steep prices. But deals abound, especially until the weather reliably warms up this summer. The Tigers are offering upper level box seats in May for $13, half the normal price.

Those cheap seats provide an opportunity to get the most out of a visit to Comerica Park. Arrive before game time, and stroll the concourse, which has a carousel and a Ferris wheel. Visit the statue of Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster. There’s also a booth behind Section 134 on the third base side where the Tigers sell authentic souvenirs, such as uniform jerseys, autographed balls and even bases.

[Photo credits: Austin Stowe and Micheline Maynard]

Bicycling Through Rural Tennessee And The Natchez Trace

We were only a few miles away from our rental and midway up our first climb of the day when I felt that familiar sliding feeling underneath me that every cyclist knows as a flat.

A minute later, I crested the hill and cruised into the driveway of an expensive suburban home about 30 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. The Continental tire was so thin and pockmarked it definitely wouldn’t have been asked to prom. The front was even worse, a nearly inch-long gash running down the right sidewall, threatening to blow out with every pedal stroke.

The smart decision would have been to turn around, pedal back to our weekend base camp and pick up a fresh set of tires for the next day’s ride. But after a brutally cold winter spent pedaling indoors, the allure of sunshine and sublime roads won out over common sense. A quick tube replacement later, we rolled on.

I’ve ridden my bike all across the country, but Tennessee surprised me in the best ways possible. I once half-expected narrow, pothole-strewn roads and chaw-spitting hillbillies angered by the sight of grown men prancing around in tight-fitting Lycra. The reality: perfect pavement as far as the eye could see. Varied terrain to keep the five- and six-hour rides interesting when the conversation lagged (or we were too busy hammering to speak). Friendly drivers were not only familiar with cyclists, they also gave us a wide berth whenever possible. It might be as close to a road-cycling Nirvana as a heathen cyclist like myself can experience.One of the highlights was riding the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile byway that stretches from Nashville, Tennessee, down to Natchez, Mississippi (although we covered less than a quarter of that during our weekend jaunt). Because it’s designated a National Park, with few entry and exit points and a speed limit of 50 mph, most motorists prefer to stay on the interstates, leaving the Parkway mostly to touring bikers, both of the motorized and non-motorized kind.

The scenery is gorgeous as you wind your way further down the road – forests filled with pine, maple and oak trees line much of the route and from the massive 1,600-foot Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge, you can see miles in nearly every direction. Just be sure to stay clear of the bridge’s edge on a blustery day. Although I’m not particularly afraid of heights, I found myself hugging the yellow centerline as I churned across the bridge.

The Parkway is one long, gradual climb after another, but the grades are typically below 5 percent, meaning casual riders aren’t going too deep into their pain cave as they ride. But a bunch of bike racers trying to hammer the others into submission, hitting 30 mph pedaling uphill? That’s going to hurt. And despite that, we kept doing it over and over again.

In the countryside around the Trace, you can find shorter, punchier climbs that will get your heart racing, followed by screaming descents that will get it pumping even faster. As we rocketed downhill, approaching speeds near 50 mph on our first day, my eyes constantly switched from the road to my thrashed front tire, praying it didn’t explode. It didn’t, at that time.

As we rode on, we passed by all sorts of animals, both domesticated and not. We screamed at the goats and bleated at the alpacas wandering around their pens. Dogs leapt from their hiding places and gave chase for a few hundred yards before giving up and scampered back home. We were tickled to see a gaggle of wild turkeys near the roadside, until a long-time Tennessee cyclist warned us that the mammoth birds are notoriously temperamental and will charge bikers with little or no provocation … kind of like a rowdy drunk who has indulged in a bit too much of the birds’ namesake.

On the more rural roads of Tennessee, finding a convenience store to refill water bottles or grab a Payday can sometimes be difficult. Fly’s General Store was a welcome sight on day two after several hours of hard tempo riding left our energy levels flagging. With just the one sign on the front overhang, it’s easy to pass by thinking the former filling station is just another shuttered relic of an earlier era. As our cleated cycling shoes clattered across the dusty wooden floor, we barely made an impression on the gray-haired proprietor – Fly’s is a popular stop among cyclists drawn to the area for the same reasons we were. As I went to pay for my items, I noticed the antique cash register and quickly realized they didn’t accept credit cards.

A little later, we stopped for lunch at Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant in Leiper’s Fork. After he took my order, the counterman and I bonded over our shared first names and bushy beards. I sat on a picnic bench outside the restaurant, where my teammates and I sipped our afternoon beers and listened to the country music coming from the outside speakers. Taking a bite out of my cheeseburger, I was glad I’d ignored my better judgment and continued on with the ride.

The front tire finally gave out with about five miles left on our first day’s journey. With a dollar bill wedged in as a de facto tire patch and loaner tube in place, I managed to slowly pedal back to our rental. A quick shower and $150 later at the closest bike shop, I was ready to go again.

To tackle these roads and hills yourself, find some routes ahead of time on a website like MapMyRide.com. Local cycling clubs like the Harpeth Bike Club and Veloteers are also good resources. Either pick a base camp — we chose Franklin, Tenn., because of its proximity to the country roads we were seeking during the day and things to do in the evening — and ride out from there or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, bikepack your way across the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Photo Credit: Rob Annis