As I stood in Council Bluffs last Saturday, I wondered if I was crazy to be attempting this. Having just returned home after eight months of traveling, the thought of sleeping in a tent for a week wasn't too alluring. Plus I knew I was quite out of shape, and the almost 500 miles of roads between me and the other side of Iowa seemed hilly and daunting. For those of you that aren't from Iowa, RAGBRAI stands for (The Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Since 1973 it has become something of a tradition for people from all over Iowa and the world, to dip their back tire into the Missouri River, spend a week bicycling the back-roads of Iowa, and then dip their front tire into the Mississippi. From a small group of friends, it has grown into a major event with 10,000 week-long riders and a countless number of day-trippers. The route changes every year, and the total distance ranges from about 400 to 500 miles for the week. The 7 days of riding can be as short as 35 miles and as long as 105 miles.
So although I had my doubts about the wisdom of attempting to survive RAGBRAI, it didn't take very long the next day to remember what made it so special. Sure, the lines were long for the porta-potties, and my dew-covered tent made my bag soaking wet and very heavy to pack up. But once I pumped up my tires and filled the water bottle, I joined the throngs of bicycles filling the highway and realized that this was an experience I wouldn't want to miss. Unlike most of my solitary bike rides, with cars whooshing by at light speed and my eyes focused on the white line, I was finally free to own the road. Of course, with 10,000 or more bikes out on the course, there were plenty of them to avoid, but that's part of the fun of RAGBRAI.
It's hard to explain RAGBRAI if you've never seen it. Perhaps my photos will clear up the confusion...and perhaps they will leave you shaking your head in wonder. It's not a race, it's more of an excuse to eat from the wonderful food stands along the route. Or perhaps, to get to the first town of the route, ditch your bike, drink a few beers, then a few more, watch the other bikers pass by all day,and finally catch the SAG Wagon into the overnight town. For many people, it is a chance to meet other cyclists, have long conversations while pedaling down country roads, and to make friends that you may see again the next day, or the next year. For visitors from out of state, it is a grand tour of the beautiful Iowa countryside, through rolling hills, fields of waving corn, and more green than you could ever believe.
The people on RAGBRAI come in all shapes and sizes...from grandfathers pedaling one-speed bikes to children riding in special kid seats. There are teams using the week to get in shape for their next race, and folks who dust off their bikes the day before and ride with no training at all. There are groups wearing snazzy matching jerseys, shorts, and helmets; and other folks who still have the same helmet they bought 20 years ago. Some of them ride for causes, like the woman with a dog on the back of her bike raising money for an animal shelter. Some ride for entertainment, dressed in elaborate costumes meant to cause laughter in the riders around them.
The bikes they ride come in many shapes and sizes as well...sometimes they can't even be considered bicycles. Although the majority of riders do use a convention bicycle, this year I saw three unicycles, a runner, and a rollerblader out on the course. Not to mention the recumbent, tandem, triple, and quadruple bicycles out on the road. One guy even had a large sail rigged to his recumbent, so the wind was right, he didn't even have to pedal! Some of the bikes are the latest in speed and technology, and the riders finish the course by 8 or 9 in the morning. Others have mountain bikes with knobby tires, and struggle to finish by late in the afternoon.
But everyone will soon find that RAGBRAI is mostly about the food. The riding is just a way to burn more calories so we can stop more often. I'm sure Team Gourmand and Team Cuisine will agree with me there! The folks in Iowa do an amazing job of feeding the hoards of people that pass by their farms and towns throughout the day. Not many miles go by without seeing a lemonade stand outside of a farmhouse, or a school group selling baked goods for their summer fundraiser, or the church ladies serving mouth-watering slices of pie. The towns usually go all out when the route passes through their area, and the loud music leads to rows of food vendors, beer tents, and local entertainment. In fact, the towns are sometimes so interesting to hang out in, that it's hard to leave again and make tired legs pedal along to the next diversion. Also along the route are memorable vendors returning to RAGBRAI year after year, causing hungry bicyclists to moan, "I hope we get to Mr. Pork Chop soon, I'm starving!". Sure enough, every day the signs leading to Tender Tom's Turkey, Mr. Pork Chop, Pastafari, and other favorites will help many riders go just a mile or two farther to eat from their favorite food stand.
The unpredictable Iowa weather is the biggest variable in the whole week. The predominantly west-to-east route takes into account the prevailing headwinds of the midwest, but anything is possible, and a little of everything is expected. Some years the rain drives many riders to distraction, and others wilt in 100 degree days of burning sun. This year was the best weather that anyone has seen in years; yet we still had hail, fog, rain, wet roads, heavy dew, headwinds, humidity, heat, lots of sun, and a few storm clouds chasing us down the roads.
Vehicles are normally not allowed on the RAGBRAI route, so it really does feel like we own the road. Policemen patrol the route and control most of the intersections, and it is thanks to them that we can safely feel free to ride the yellow line not worry about speeding cars. When the odd vehicle does manage to get onto the route, they are forced to go the same speed as the bikes most of the time. I have enjoyed passing quite a few of them as they are stuck in the slow lane with the slower riders. I even drafted off a big motor-home for a while as we rode into a strong headwind!
There is quite a language that develops among the riders on any group ride, and it is important to stay safe along the route by communicating with other bicyclists. Since there are so many riders, going at speeds from 5 mph to 50 mph, stopping and starting again at vendor stands, having flats or losing chains, zooming down hills and around corners, it can be quite dangerous at times. Loud calls of "Bike Off", "Bike On", "Slowing", "Car Up", and "Gravel on the Corner" both amuse newcomers and keep riders informed of the activity around them.
You can imagine that so many bikes on the road could have a few mechanical problems along the way, and bike shops from all over Iowa set up along the route every day to help get riders back on the road. Their mechanics never stopped moving all day; fixing flats, repairing chains, adjusting derailleurs, and digging mud out of bike cleats that no longer wanted to snap into the pedals. I spent quite a bit of time at the BikeWorld shop each day, since I had joined their group for the week (ok, perhaps it was just an excuse to sit in the shade and watch the bicycles pass by!). They, and the rest of the mechanics along the route, were amazingly knowledgeable, and with their help not a few bikes made it into the next town instead being stranded along the roadsides. But RAGBRAI is known far and wide for its friendly folks, and from the volunteers giving directions to the patrolmen waving us through an intersection, there were smiles all around.
At the end of the day's ride, all of the team vans, buses, luggage trucks, and semis are waiting in the campgrounds for the riders. Following the signs for your group into town will eventually lead you to the correct area. There you can pick up your luggage, set up your tent, get a hot shower in the mobile shower trucks, and even find a hot meal to round off all the snacking that was accomplished during roadside stops along the route. Since small Iowa towns aren't normally accustomed to accommodating 15,000 people crashing their party for just one day, the campsites are anything from ball fields to hay fields. The spaces can get pretty crowded, and it was very common to find my tent surrounded by hundreds of others, some just 4 feet away from me.
Day 1 - The Warm-Up
With beautiful sunny skies and nice temps, it was a short day of only 52 miles. I rode really slowly in the knowledge that this would be a long week of riding...and after a few miles, the flatlands gave way to rolling hills. This year on RAGBRAI is supposedly the hilliest route ever, and after the hills started, they never really quit. It seems everyone had the same idea of starting early, and at 7 a.m., the road was crowded with bike and the vendors had lines so long that I didn't even think of stopping. When my stomach started calling the shots, I found my first piece of cherry pie for the week. Since everyone was fresh and the weather was great, the ride went very smoothly, even with the hills. I got lucky that evening and discovered that the Livestrong (Lance Armstrong Foundation) Team bus had a big screen on the side of the vehicle and that they were playing the Tour de France every evening via satellite. I started crashing their area each day to watch the last week of the Tour.
Day 2 - Racing the Storm Clouds
We woke up to a dew-less morning, a red sunrise, and storm clouds in the west. I may not be a meteorologist, but I know the signs of rain pretty well. I figured the rain would catch us sooner or later, and decided to hurry to the next town to get my tent set up before my bags would get wet. Of course, there is no hurrying through 75 miles, and I had to stop for not just one, but two pieces of cherry pie, plus a few other mouthwatering goodies. This was also the hilliest route on the ride for the week, with over 5000 feet of elevation changes. Since no hill in Iowa is usually more than 100 feet or so, that adds up into a lot of hills. In fact, many of them were probably only about 50 feet high, which meant that in our route we went up and over at least 60 hills for the day. I tried to build up speed on the downhills so I could use the momentum and sprint up the other side, which sometimes worked, and sometimes left me gasping and hoping I wouldn't have to look very weak and walk my bike up the hill (whew, never had to do that, luckily!) But, I did make it to the next town before the rain, and got my tent set up just 5 minutes before the drops started to fall.
Day 3 - Cool and Rainy
It rained all night, mostly, but stopped just at 6 a.m. for long enough to get my tent and gear packed up and onto the truck. Then it was quite a rainy day, as I put on my leg and arm warmers and a rain jacket to stay warm. It was another 75 mile day, and for most of it I was chilly and damp and just hoping to make it to the next town in one piece on the wet roads. I found a few more pieces of pie (yes, I always choose cherry!) to keep me going, and mustered onward into the cool winds. It did finally get sunny and a bit warmer, and in our overnight town of Indianola, the locals put on a show with at least 30 hot air balloons floating overhead.
Day 4 - Short and Sweet
The fog had rolled in the next morning, and for the first couple of hours we rolled through thick haze, making for great photos and a surreal riding experience. But it was a short day of 44 miles, and when the sun finally came out I was most of the way to the overnight town already. So I stopped for quite a few hours at the BikeWorld shop, with my camera handy to catch the real crazy costumes riding by. I also found a few more pieces of cherry pie!
Day 5 - The Century (Karras Loop)
I got woken up abruptly when thunder and lightning started crashing down, so loud that I couldn't hear the alarm ringing on my cell phone. I had wanted to get an early start for the long ride that day, but the heavy rain, and then hail, made me resolve to stay in my tent until the sun came out. Amazingly enough, it did, right before 6 a.m., and it was a beautiful sunrise and an even better day. A perfect day, in fact, to do the Karras Loop, which is an optional loop to bring the daily mileage up over 100 miles for the century. The miles clicked by pretty fast, and in one stretch of pavement I saw what looked like a bunch of ice dumped out of a cooler, only so much ice would have filled a semi trailer. Turns out that it hailed so much in this little area, that a snowplow actually had to come clear the ice pellets off the road for the bicyclists. Wow...good thing it wasn't over our tents, at least! The extra loop went really fast, and that left the majority of the daily miles already completed. After a few more hours resting in the shade watching the bike mechanics work their magic, the last 45 miles clicked off even faster than I had averaged in the morning, with my legs flying down the highway without tiring. I did draft a few pace lines for fun, giving me an even fast kick. Unfortunately, it started raining just 5 minutes before I got into the overnight town, and I spent a bedraggled hour under the charter's huge tent, waiting for the rain to stop so I could salvage my bags and set up my tent for the night.
Day 6 - Heat and Headwinds
Of course, after a long day of hard work and overexertion, it is normal to pay for it the next day in weakness and exhaustion. I think a large percentage of the riders were in that same state of tiredness, and the weather didn't give us any breaks. We had quite a headwind for most of the day, and the heat really cranked it up a notch or two, until I was guzzling water and just hoping to see the end in sight. This was probably my slowest day yet, and everyone was suffering under the glaring sun. It was also a bit of an odd day for RAGBRAI...there weren't as many vendors out and the towns were quite small and didn't offer as much as usual. I think we were all glad to just finish. But the weather wasn't done with us, as late in the evening a strong cell of thunderstorms worked towards our campsite at the Old Thresher's Reunion Campsite in Mount Pleasant. Emergency personnel issued an advisory that we should all head to the shelters to avoid the chance of getting injured in strong winds and hail. Many of us did end up in the shelters, which were two enormous museums filled with old tractors and other bits of Iowa history. They easily fit our thousands of people with plenty of room to spare, and the more adventurous actually walked around the darkened exhibits and amused themselves. I positioned myself to watch on the oncoming storm, which surprised all of us by petering out right over us and not even bringing a bit of rain to cool off the humid night. By 11 at night we were all back sweating in our tents and trying to get back to sleep.
Day 7 - Tailwind Finale
By the last morning, with another dewy soaked tent to deal with, everyone was up and packing early. By then most people had only smelly, damp clothes to wear, and a sore butt from all the miles in the saddle, and we were all ready to get home again. Luckily for my hurting, weak muscles, the weather was absolutely in our favor this morning. On flat, smooth roads with a strong tailwind, I flew through the miles, and by mid morning I was cruising into the last town with hours to spare. Shortly before the river in Burlington is a block called Snake Alley, which is a winding brick path climbing steeply up a twisty route. The official RAGBRAI path bypassed this option, but the locals were at the bottom cheering us all on to "Rattle the Snake", and ride our way up to a free souvenir at the top. I made it to the top with a grin on my face, standing and pumping the pedals, and coasted back down to the river. In the tradition of RAGBRAI, we all made our way down to the river's edge, where we dipped our front tires into the Mississippi and took a breath in relief at being finished. As I rolled up to the luggage truck to hand over my bike for the trip back to Boone, my odometer clicked over 500 miles for the week. No wonder my legs hurt!