The very late post-RAGBRAI retrospective, part 1

Last week I received an email from RAGBRAI, reminding me that registration for the 2016 edition is April 1. Right now I have no plans to ride this year, but I suppose that could change before turning the calendar to April. (It may not be a good idea given the swirling uncertainty regarding my morning journal.) But RAGBRAI’s kind email did remind me that I have yet to finish the post-ride retrospective I started writing — in August.

So here it is — the first part, at least. Better late than never, huh?

Way back in early-August, I completed the RAGBRAI rider survey. When it asked if I rode all 467 miles, I proudly selected “Yes.”

That’s right — I rode every single mile of RAGBRAI XLIII. From a boat ramp leading into the Missouri River in Sioux City, to a boat ramp leading into the Mississippi River in Davenport. Every mile.

And more. I think the route mileage each day is the distance between the official information booths at the starting point and overnight town, so it does not include the additional miles I rode to find my team and support vehicle in the afternoon, or the morning miles from the campsite to the route. Plus, I was told the official daily mileage is always low for whatever reason. I couldn’t confirm that personally — my bike computer stopped working on the first day — but others on my team said the official mileage was always five or 10 miles low. In all, I probably rode about 500 miles.

How was it? Grueling.

The first day was horrible. Officially 76.5 miles with 3,941 feet of climb, it was the longest, hilliest, and hottest day of the week. It kicked my ass even though I attacked the long, gradual climbs slowly and surely, and stopped often to hydrate, rest, and cool off in the shade. It made me question my preparation and sanity. Throughout the day I kept asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” It was a baptism by sizzling concrete. When I arrived at our campsite, 12 hours after leaving the dip site in Sioux City, I took a huge chunk of ice from one of our coolers and took turns holding it to the back of my neck and wrists. I was beat, but was assured by my team veterans that the first day is always the worst.

Thankfully, it was.

The second day — cool, rainy, overcast, and relatively flat — instilled much needed confidence. It was still a long day, but it was far from the hell of Day 1. The ride from Fort Dodge to Eldora on Day 3 was smooth sailing and I settled into a daily routine and rhythm. As I passed under Interstate 35, it was hard not to marvel at the fact I had crossed half of the state on my bike. I may not have showered that night (it happens), but I slept like a baby on a wide lawn between a creek and an industrial building on the south side of town. I think I even enjoyed a beer that evening.

Day 4 was the shortest and quickest of the week, but hilly at the end. We rode ahead on the route and stayed in Hudson with team relatives. Despite the extra mileage, I finished the day’s ride around 3 p.m., my best time of the week. It allowed me time to unwind and relax. I marveled at the convenience of running water (a hot shower!) and air conditioning. I did not realize how hot the day was until I spent time inside the house and stepped outside. The hide-a-bed chair I slept on that night was a dream come true.

We slept in Thursday — until around 6 a.m. — and hit the road later than usual since we were one town ahead of everyone. Day 5 was a challenge after three days of relatively flat terrain through central Iowa. It was a wake-up call, and good practice for the epic Johnson County rollercoaster that awaited on Day 6. Our campsite was a little odd — the parking lot and lawn of a medical center in Cedar Rapids — but it worked. We dined on sushi and once again took hot showers at the nearby YMCA.

Just like I was assured that the first day of RAGBRAI is always the worst, the RAGBRAI veterans on my team said I would get stronger as the week progressed. They were right and Day 6 proved it.

I was a hill-conquering beast on Day 6. The route entered Johnson County and followed the very roads I trained on. After Sutliff, I was on my home turf. In Solon, I stopped in the beer tent to say hello to a couple people, rested in the fire station for about 20 minutes, and then hit the road in the rain, eager to dominate what I had been thinking about for days — the hills of Sugar Bottom, Newport, Prairie Du Chien, and the Coralville Dam. (The hill leading to Sugar Bottom on Mehaffey Bridge Road from Solon is a beast, too.) When I heard people complain about the hills near Mount Vernon, I couldn’t help thinking, “Just wait. The best is yet to come!”

When it came, I dominated — even in the rain and wind, with lightning visible in the distance and faint thunder rolling past a half-minute later. Everyone who passed me on their road bikes going downhill ate my dust going up the other side. “ON YOUR LEFT!” I yelled at the struggling, spandex-clad riders on their Bianchi’s. “Almost there!” I told a man huffing and puffing up Sugar Bottom on a tandem as I zipped past him. I proudly dominated five huge hills — among the biggest of the entire route, river to river. It was beautiful.

After conquering the fifth epic climb from the Devonian Fossil Gorge, I thought I was done, thought I could take it easy and coast down Dubuque Street to Oakdale. We were staying in North Liberty so I could continue straight down Oakdale to the trail. Instead, I decided to follow the official route south along First Avenue in Coralville and break away at Holiday Road. Bad idea. I knew there was a hill on First Avenue, but didn’t realized it was that monstrous.

Well-rested and well-fed after another night with team relatives, we hit the road for the last day, riding through Coralville, University Heights, and past Kinnick Stadium and the UIHC. While stopped at Riverside Drive, a city cop warned us of 100-degree heat later in the day. Oh, joy. After turning onto the Jefferson Street hill and downshifting as much as possible, I could swear I heard the diabolical laughter of the route’s sadistic planners in the distance. Downtown Iowa City served as the day’s first stop, but I only stopped to stretch at the Iowa Avenue parking ramp and fill my water bottles at the hydration station near the farmers’ market. After that it was south along Sand Road, another training route, and then east to West Liberty.

In Atalissa, the official route looped into the little town from Highway 6. However, almost every rider chose to bypass the loop and continue straight. Wanting to stay as official as possible, I turned into Atalissa and was, for maybe a minute, the only person on the official route. After being surrounded on the road by other riders all week, it was surreal to be alone.

Then came the long, hot haul through Moscow and Wilton to Durant. The sun baked us form above and the concrete baked us from below. The route continued straight for what seemed like forever. Without any turns or change in scenery, it felt like I was riding on a treadmill — something I felt on similar stretches through the central part of the state days earlier. Needless to say, I have never been so thrilled to see the Scott County limit sign.

In Durant I stopped and lounged in the shade of a small park. A group of men drove a steam-powered car down the town’s main street, looped around, and then did it again. And again. And again. I’m not sure why they did it, but it was interesting, one of those only-on-RAGBRAI quirks. Before leaving, I paid the local girl scout troop $10 for two 12-ounce bottles of Gatorade — probably the most outrageous price gouging I suffered all week. (I could buy an entire 18-pack for less at Walmart.)

The last pass-through town was Walcott, which I learned is home to the American/Schleswig-Holstein Heritage Society. On the way to Davenport, the troopers stopping traffic at a major highway told us we had only 10 more miles to go. When I rode into Davenport I thought it would be smooth sailing down to the Mississippi. But the sadistsic route planners had something else in mind. We entered Davenport on Locust Street, turned south on Utah Avenue, and had to climb what may have been the three biggest hills of the entire route. Once the route turned on River Drive, it was smooth sailing down to the Mississippi. The route did circumnavigate Credit Island before reaching the dip site, the finish line, which was annoying after having ridden across the entire state. But I got over it.

I dripped my front tire twice. I saw other riders carrying their bikes down the short, sandy bluffs to the narrow beach and shoreline, so I decided to do it, too. It was a little premature because I then reached the official dip site, a wide boat ramp, and decided to dip again to be official.

Dipping served as the ceremonial end to the long, grueling trip across the Hawkeye State on two wheels. Did I feel accomplishment? Not really. I was happy to finish, of course; happy with the prospect of a post-RAGBRAI life, free of the training I had endured for months. But at the end, on the boat ramp in Davenport, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted to find our support vehicle, go home, shower, shave, rest, enjoy a couple beers, and get on with my life. Though RAGBRAI affirmed my love for bicycling and my bike, after a week on the saddle I needed to take a break from riding.

Every registered rider receives a voucher for a free RAGBRAI patch. I could have redeemed mine at any point during the week, but I wanted to wait until I finished, until I earned it. Before leaving the dip site in Davenport, I visited the RAGBRAI merchandise booth and got my patch.

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