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 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