Work takes me to Nashville, Tennessee more frequently than anywhere else. Given the preoccupations of the weeks I spend here I’m normally keen to let off some steam at some point. At that point I go to RB’s Cyclery, hire one of their Felt road bikes and take off out of the small town of Franklin where I’m billeted. The first week of January I did it twice.
Winter in this part of America veers between bizarrely mild to ridiculously cold, often with only a few days notice. Christmas Day this year was shirt-sleeves weather. I arrive on January 4 to sub-zero darkness which slowly warms up over the week. On two midweek runs I need to wear my cycling tights, which slowly fall down as I run, leaving me pulling them up in a most ungentlemanly fashion. By the time the weekend rolls around things are 7c in the morning, right on the cusp of full glove conditions.
My colleague and I roll out of town at first light. The road is wet and I quickly develop a badger’s tail of water on my back. The roads are silent. I push on, relishing turning pedals for the first time this year. Commuting in London it is not. I look back and I’ve left Daniel far down the road. He’s usually quicker than me. I expect he’s fiddling with his phone, or watch. No matter. I tell myself I’m fitter, and put the hammer down some more. We finish with a coffee in town, happy with the morning’s work. I keep the bike for another day.
Saturday is drier, and jet lag gets me up before dawn. As soon as I think I can get away with it I’m out again, with the freedom of the weekend offering the chance of some more miles. This time things are drier, and the streets of Franklin give way quickly to the silence of rural Tennessee. Occasionally there’s a slow-slowing river, a fork of the Harpeth, a old bridge, an ancient stretch of Old Natchez Trace. I’m heading for the new version of this famous road, and ride a decent stretch of it on a triangular run out of town, across and back. Winter here means bare trees, grey-green grass and a kind of heavy cold air, sitting over everything bar an insipid but persistent wind.
Eventually I reach the huge bridge that marks my entry point on to the Natchez Trace Parkway. This road runs from Nashville to Tupelo, Mississippi and forbids heavy vehicles, appears to have none at all on it at 8am on a Saturday morning. I drove a stretch of it one warm summer’s evening last year in a convertible while listening to Aretha Franklin. Today there’s no music, just the subtle noises of cycling on a silent road.
I rest my chilled bones at Leipers Fork, a country halt with a fine tradition of deep drying everything, and pause for breakfast. Later that day I fly home, back from the strange outer space of cowboy hats and boots, giant trucks and southern manners.