While visiting my RAGBRAI buddy in March, he showed me the Denver area bike trail map. It was the size of the Iowa DOT’s road map and we held it together as he traced the routes he often rode.
I was awed by all the colored lines, especially the network of paved, off-street trails. One could, it seemed, ride from his place in Littleton to downtown Denver without ever riding on a street. (In a roundabout way, of course. Most bike trails in the US are afterthoughts shoehorned into existing developments and infrastructure, or built in undevelopable floodplains, so it’s not the most direct route.) I was very jealous. While I trained on busy local routes and poorly maintained country roads, hugging the shoulder as cars passed me at 60 mph, he rode long, smooth, dedicated, uninterrupted trails.
However, he said training in Colorado did not prepare him for one thing about RAGBRAI: the sometimes oppressive Iowa humidity. So I had that going for me…
Another edition of RAGBRAI is just around the corner, which means I need to finish my RAGBRAI retrospective. (Having written part 1, I suppose I need to write part 2, right?) So here are some last thoughts and memories regarding my seven-day bike ride across the Hawkeye State last summer.
THE FINAL 40
For a long time, Iowa has planned to widen US Highway 20 between Sioux City and Interstate 35, making it a divided, four-lane expressway/freeway. It is happening slowly and surely, but a “final 40” miles still needs to be upgraded.
The need to get it done was annoyingly evident when we drove to Sioux City for the start of RAGBRAI. The traffic of cars and trucks, their racks and roof rails full of bikes, ran fast and smooth past Fort Dodge, but semis and sluggish (yet colorful) RAGBRAI team buses slowed everyone once the road narrowed to two lanes. It seemed to take forever to travel between Early and Moville. Massive strips of moved dirt and newly constructed culverts to our right were teases of the future.
OMINOUS, TWO-WHEELED TOMBSTONES
In the first mile of the ride, I saw broken-down bikes along the side of the road, orange tags taped to their wheels waving in the breeze.
My back tire was probably still wet from being dipped in the Missouri River and casualties of RAGBRAI already littered the side of the route. Chains were broken, tires were flat, wheels were missing. What the hell happened so close to the dip site? I wondered. Were those bikes not in riding condition? Regardless, it was an ominous and concerning start to the week.
NO TALKING ON HILLS
As we sat around our campsite in Sioux City, eager and anxious to hit the road the next day, our support guy told us newbies that although many riders would be happy-go-lucky, chatty, and gung-ho during the easy stretches, everyone would shut up when climbing hills. Sure enough, as we climbed the hills of western Iowa the next day, everyone shut up. All talking stopped as riders struggled to maintain their cadence, their breathing heavy. It was the same through the rest of the state. Hills were quite quiet.
WALK NO HILL
Speaking of hills, I’m proud to say I did not walk a single one. I conquered every single hill on RAGBRAI, including the three doozies near the very end.
The only times I walked along the route were when it was absolutely necessary, usually through the packed main streets of pass-through towns. There were also two gravel detours around bridge construction projects west of Alden that everyone needed to walk through. (It probably was not smart for the DOT to demolish two bridges along the route days before RAGBRAI.) After many riders wiped out at a rain-slick railroad crossing on the second day, route officials made everyone walk their bike across the rails. (Making matters worse was the fact that the rail line crossed the road at an insane angle. Our tires slipped and bikes nearly slid away from our grasp even though we were walking.)
Drinking is a big part of RAGBRAI. In fact, drinking and partying may be the only thing some people do on RAGBRAI.
There was always alcohol around. Every town had a large beer garden with beer and Bloody Mary specials — even for breakfast! — and there were three or four Iowa Craft Beer Tent locations along the route each day, each filled with Spandex-clad riders holding plastic cups full of Iowa’s finest liquid bread.
Did I drink much? Hell no! Drinking alcohol was the last thing I wanted to do. I probably drank three or four beers all week, all in the cozy confines of our campsite at the end of each day. The thought of drinking beer, or anything dehydrating, was unappealing. I passed each Iowa Craft Beer Tent without stopping.
I did drink a lot of water, though, to stay as hydrated as possible. Which meant that I watered a lot of corn along the route.
That was one of the greatest things about RAGBRAI. When nature called in the middle of nowhere — and it did, a lot — all I needed to do was dismount along the side of the road, usually in a gravel driveway, walk a couple rows into a corn field, and relieve myself. It was glorious!
Bean fields were not helpful. Beans don’t grow very tall and therefore don’t provide any privacy. There were a few times when I needed to pee badly but was surrounded by acres of beans. I could do nothing but hold it until the next corn field.
LINES FOR EVERYTHING
One reason I did not stop at any of the Iowa Craft Beer Tent sites was because the line for drinks was often 50 or 60 yards long. I have no clue how long riders waited, but the line itself was enough to deter me.
There were lines for just about everything. For breakfast — deservedly for the famous Pancake Man — for lunch, for dinner, for snacks along the route, for bathrooms, for showers, for hydration stations, for this, for that.
Okay — so there weren’t lines for everything. But it sure seemed that way.
SADISTIC ROUTE PLANNERS
When I rolled into Davenport, I thought the worst was behind me. It had not been a hilly day, so I was not expecting any epic climbs, nothing too challenging in the last handful of miles. It has to be smooth sailing from here on in, I thought.
Well, my hopes of coasting to the Mississippi were squashed when the route turned south on Utah Avenue and I saw the first of what turned out to be three of the biggest hills on the entire route.
After summiting the first and seeing the second, I thought, “One more?! This has to be the last one.” But when I saw the third hill after conquering the second, my heart sank. I also realized that the hunch I had developed the entire week was confirmed: the RAGBRAI route planners are sadists.
According to my Mac’s dictionary, a sadist is “a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others.” I don’t think any of the route planners is sexually aroused by the thought of tired bicyclists slowly climbing massive hills (I wouldn’t be surprised, though), but it seemed like they love to inflict pain on RAGBRAI riders. Given multiple options of sending riders from point A to point B, it seemed RAGBRAI’s planners almost always opted for the longest, hilliest, and least logical route.
Granted, there were many long, flat, easy stretches during the week. But many times I could not help wonder what the planners’ motives were. The entire route can’t be easy and hills can’t be avoided. But give me a break! It’s not as if riding a bike across an entire state is easy as cake.
“I SHOULD HAVE TRAINED FOR THIS”
Sometime during day 4 or 5, while slowly riding through one of the of the pass-through towns, I passed a group of men sitting beside the road just in time to hear one of them sigh and lament, “I should have trained for this.”
No shit, Sherlock!
Riding RAGBRAI safely, effectively, and successfully — especially for the entire week — requires conditioning and training. Lots of it. I read a couple recommendations while preparing last year: one recommended 500 miles of training and another suggested 1,000. I think the training schedule posted on the RAGBRAI website is somewhere around 1,200 miles.
Basically, you ride your bike to ride your bike — which is what I did. I trained four times a week, gradually building miles until I rode 25–30 miles on Tuesday and Thursday, 40–50 miles on Saturday, and 20–30 miles on Sunday. Averaging 10 mph, I spent a lot of time on my bike. Needless to say, training required a massive time commitment. For three months, it felt like my entire life revolved around RAGBRAI training.
But it helped. Though I was not able to do any of the 60-mile or more training rides — a back injury sidelined me a few weeks before the ride — I was prepared.
So to that poor dude I passed on the side of the road: Yes, you should have trained.
Small stands dotted the route between pass-through towns. Locals or vendors following the ride set up stands selling sports drinks and high-calorie snacks, usually at farms where there was a place for riders to rest in the shade. Every morning I stopped at the Slipstream Organics stand for breakfast. (Slipstream offered parfaits with yogurt, one of their organic granola bends, and a heaping scoopful of massive blueberries. So good!) Beekman’s Homemade Ice Cream was always somewhere along the route, and those who eat meat raved about Mr. Porkchop.
There were also many pickle stands. They sold pickles and, especially, shots of pickle juice. Why pickle juice? Because it cures and prevents muscle cramps.
I love drinking pickle juice. After finishing all the pickles in a jar, I will drink the juice. Thankfully, though, I did not need any on RAGBRAI.
When 15,000 bicyclists and their support vehicles ride into town, they have to stay and sleep somewhere.
Tents are pitched and the hundreds of team buses, trailers, RVs, vans, and whatnot are parked wherever available in the overnight towns. High schools, industrial parks, city parks, business campuses, front lawns. It is amazing that everyone fits somewhere, especially in the really small towns, but they do.
While our support guy and team leader slept in the air conditioned cabin of our team’s toy hauler, us other riders slept in tents. I didn’t have a problem with it since I love camping, but camping on RAGBRAI is a little different than camping at a state park. Wherever there was an open patch of somewhat level grass nearby, it was good enough to be my tent site. I pitched my tent in a median between a parking lot and a street in Sioux City, a small patch of grass between RVs and tennis courts at Storm Lake High, the lawn of Fort Dodge High, a grassy area between a creek and factory in Eldora, and the lawn of a medical center in Cedar Rapids.
Despite riding my bike for hours each day, it was difficult to sleep. My adrenaline ran high, my mind processed everything from that day’s ride, and I looked forward to — or perhaps dreaded — the next day. (I anxiously awaited the hills of Sugar Bottom and the Rez all week.) Plus, generators and RV air conditioners were humming and thumping all night.
ROAD BIKE ENVY
For RAGBRAI, I rode my trusty hybrid — a 2012 Specialized Sirrus Sport. I use it to ride around town, usually to the Co-op and downtown. It’s great for that, for hauling groceries and growlers, but less than ideal for riding across the state.
Though I love my Sirrus, I don’t ever want to use it on RAGBRAI again. Its 700x32 ties are not as thin as they can be and it is relatively heavy. (Its larger gear range may be one reason I dominated hills, though. However, I am not convinced many fellow RAGBRAIers know how to use their bike gears properly. Perhaps I don’t, either…) I suppose I could buy narrower tires and remove the rear rack, but I would rather get a road bike.
With lighter bodies and narrower tires, road bikes are made for efficient and speedy distance bicycling. The vast majority of riders on RAGBRAI used road bikes — and the ride was probably much easier and enjoyable for them. I seemed to be one of the few riding something else.
About 40–50 percent of the other bikes I saw on RAGBRAI were Treks. I couldn’t help wonder why. Is it because they are cheaper? Is it because they are more widely available, especially at major sporting goods stores? Though they seem to be widely available, especially at Scheels, they are not cheaper. I was recently told that Trek is based in Wisconsin and its high-performance bikes are made in the US, so that could be a reason Treks were widely used on a Midwestern ride.
(ALMOST) NO FUN
A lot of people have fun on RAGBRAI. I wasn’t one of them.
Why? Because I did not want to do anything but finish. That was my focus, above and beyond anything else. Every single day, my goal was to finish the ride as quickly and with the fewest number of delays as possible. I didn’t linger in small towns and chat with the locals, or stop along the route to check out the classic cars or tractors displayed at farms. I just rode and stopped when necessary.
Well, I suppose I did have a little fun. It was not the rip-roaring, boisterous, drunken, wet t-shirt contest type of fun that people associate with RAGBRAI. That’s not who I am or my scene. (I wish other people would realize that and stop pressuring me to do stuff I don’t want to do. That would be so fucking nice.) Instead, I enjoyed the company and comradery of my teammates at the campsite at the end of the day. It was fun to sit back, relax, recount our experiences that day, guzzle Gatorade, snack, and bask in the accomplishment of having survived another 60- or 70-mile ride. (When one works from home for a living, it is fun to simply be around other people for a while.)
Now that I have one RAGBRAI under my belt, perhaps next time I will take it easy, enjoy the sites, and stop for a couple beers.
Even though it was grueling, I want to do RAGBRAI again.
I won’t be doing it again this year — I need a summer off — but am eager to do it next year. It depends on the route, I guess. Our team leader wants to do it one more time so perhaps we’ll team up again. Maybe all of Team Wiz-Bang will reunite for another ride across the Hawkeye State. That would be cool. I have an uncle who also rides RAGBRAI every other year, so perhaps I can team-up with him.
Regardless of when I do it next, I am going to do it right — with a road bike and experience.