Category Archives: RAGBRAI

Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 4 of 4: Unexpected Joys, Lessons Learned, and a Look Ahead

What better way to spend a Friday than spending a few minutes with Tara and Simon as they wrap up their RAGBRAI trip. Read on to find out the unexpected joys they encountered, lessons they learned through the week, and their pondering of the question– would we do it again?

Unexpected Joys

As coffee drinkers, our discovery of the Iowa Coffee Company tent brought us great joy. For the first few days, we suffered with watered-down coffee with a side of powdered creamer served at most of the pancake breakfasts.

The Iowa Coffee Company tent was usually set up somewhere along the route in the first 20 miles of the day and featured good strong coffee and, just as importantly, real milk.

Iowa Coffee Company

Iowa Coffee Company

We didn’t initially understand just how thrilled towns were to have RAGBRAI visit. Each town posted “Welcome RAGBRAI” signs and decorated their town, often with decorated bikes hung from street lamps or lining the streets. Almost always we would be greeted by an emcee, often the mayor of the town.

Our favorite was the town of Runnells, about 20 miles east of Des Moines. Runnells had a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with house decorations, wristbands, and a giant hay bale snowman. Tiny Packwood, Iowa (population: 223) advertised itself on volunteers’ t-shirts as “God’s Gift to Iowa.”

Christmas in Runnells

Christmas in Runnells

Simon’s impressions of classic Midwestern town architecture were first formed by Hill Valley, the town in the 80s movie, Back to the Future. His expectations were met towns like Oskaloosa and Knoxville, with green town squares bordered by storefronts and local restaurants.

The RAGBRAI rider is treated as a celebrity: little kids asked us to sign their t-shirts and posters for their bedrooms or school show-and-tell. We marked our hometowns with pushpins on world maps set out in restaurants and were invited to sign our names on barns and buildings.

The interaction between riders and locals was also overwhelmingly positive. Each morning when we left a town, a crew of town residents stood along the road waving us good-bye and genuinely wishing us a safe ride.

The feeling got even better as we descended into Ft. Madison, as people on their front porches and lining the streets greeted us with applause and cheers and motivational signs. A special “thank-you” to the person who thoughtfully put out a “Three miles to go” sign in their front yard.

Dallas Center, Iowa

Dallas Center, Iowa

The other unexpected positive was just how well our bodies held up to the challenge. RAGBRAI organizers recommend riding 1,000 base miles to fully enjoy the week. Although we hadn’t hit that magic number before we left, we had several hundred miles under our belt, and we had done a few 60-80 mile rides for practice.

We could not prepare for how our bodies would feel day after day of riding. At home, if we weren’t feeling great, or if it was really hot, we’d often use that as an excuse reason not to go riding or to cut our ride short. We didn’t have that choice at RAGBRAI.

After a few days of riding, our legs start out stiff and tired, but the tiredness would work itself out after about an hour of pedaling (and a hearty breakfast). We were surprised at how well our bodies not only survived, but performed well, particularly considering we were getting only two to four hours of sleep most nights (as discussed previously). We definitely left RAGBRAI stronger riders than when we arrived.

Lessons Learned

  • Never ride by a port-o-potty (or kybos, as Iowans call them) when there is no line.
  • Pick a fun goal for each day. Usually, this goal involved eating some type of food. One day, we set our sights on homemade pie. Another day, we stood in line for 45 minutes for the mythic Mr. Porkchop pork chop, served unceremoniously in a piece of wax paper and eaten by hand.
  • Always carry emergency food. Other than a big breakfast, we weren’t too methodical about what we ate throughout the day’s ride. We had been told that getting enough food and drink was never a problem due to the abundance of vendors along the route. As we learned the hard way, a smoothie vendor up the road is of small comfort if you start bonking two miles from it.
  • Everything costs money at RAGBRAI. I was shocked, as we stood in line for a mobile shower in Harlan, to learn that we would be charged $5 for the privilege (another dollar if you hadn’t brought your own towel). Even road-side signs advertising “free water” or “free indoor bathrooms” would usually request a donation to a charity.
Free kittens-- more false advertising.

Free kittens– more false advertising.

The Ultimate Question: Would We Do It Again?

A definitive maybe. There were definitely sleep-deprived moments during the ride when that I thought we had made a mistake in coming. Other times, I’d marvel when the pedaling, a cool breeze, and a pastoral view would all come together for us. As we’re now mostly recovered from our fatigue and sunburn, and our duffel bags are mostly unpacked, the accomplishment of completing RAGBRAI is starting to sink in.

One guy we spoke with explained that RAGBRAI is what you make it to be. You can paceline your way to Strava glory, roll leisurely and chat with people you meet, or you can turn RAGBRAI into a beer-soaked week-long adult summer camp experience.

Now that we have the experience of one RAGBRAI, I think we could better tailor our ride next time. While it served our basic needs, we probably would not use the same charter service. We would do more advance planning to ensure a home-stay, hotel room, or dorm room for most of the nights.

Aside from ensuring a better night’s sleep, the other advantage to having a hotel or place to stay would be having the opportunity for a lie-in in the morning. Starting later in the day gives you more of a mindset to take it easy and enjoy the ride, rather than trying to rush to the overnight town, only to then stand in long lines for a shower.

We didn’t relax as much as we could have, particularly in the early part of this trip. Now that we know we can finish the ride, next time we’ll focus more on enjoying the experience.

Tara, thank you so much for sharing Simon and your RAGBRAI story. I read your posts a few times this week, and I loved reading your perspective of Iowa, RAGBRAI, and how you fared throughout the week. Congratulations on this bike touring milestone, and I look forward to reading about other tours you do the future.

Have a great weekend, all!

Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 3 of 4: Other Riders and Unexpected Challenges

RAGBRAI is a sprawling event with more than 10,000 riders criss-crossing the state of Iowa over seven consecutive days of riding. Today’s post features Tara’s observations about some of the other RAGBRAI riders as well as unexpected issues that Simon and she confronted.

Finishing in Ft. Madison

Finishing in Ft. Madison

Observations on Bikes, Riders, and What they Wore

RAGBRAI attracts just about every kind of rider and every kind of bike you can imagine. From high-end carbon fiber racers with aero bars to department store mountain bikes. We saw a few Sevens and Rivendells, one or two folding bikes, but mostly Trek and Specialized.

We saw hand-cranked recumbents, trikes, triples, and even two guys on unicycles. Although the majority of riders were on road bikes, a surprising number used hybrids and even mountain bikes with knobby tires.

The tandem pairs were also interesting to see: spouses, of course, but also several dads with small kids, as well as tandem teams of a disabled stoker paired with an able-bodied captain.

While I don’t see it in D.C., the male to female rider discrepancy was apparent at this event. Based on our observations and some discussions we had with other riders, for a lot of men in their 40s and 50s, RAGBRAI is their week away from home life to bond with buddies, drink beer, and let loose. While we saw impressively chiseled calves on some riders, most riders we saw looked like reassuringly average people.

RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa

RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa

Clothing choices provided a constant source for conversation. Simon’s Heinz Beanz jersey seemed to draw every British ex-pat to chat with us on the road. We saw a lot of RAGBRAI jerseys of varying vintage, as well as a fair number of beer-themed jerseys (even a Miller High Life jersey, which we can only hope was worn ironically).

A surprising number of riders were fully kitted out in replica Leopard-Trek RadioShack gear, which we thought was an interesting choice of a professional team to adopt. Terry and Moxie apparel were well represented among women riders.

We did see some funny outfits, particularly on the first day: a Hello Kitty themed team; a tandem bride and groom (with top hat perched on his helmet and a veil fluttering off of hers); and a group that attached fluorescent-colored zip ties to their helmets for a spiky effect. We brought one Ibex wool jersey each, but did not see another single other Ibex jersey.

While waiting in lines or on shuttle buses, another frequent topic of conversation with riders we met was the elusive “Lance sighting.” As he has done a few times previously, Lance Armstrong came to Iowa to ride the first three days of RAGBRAI. We never saw him, but we met several people who shared stories (and photographic evidence) of riding with Lance Armstrong.

Rolling hills

Rolling hills

Unexpected Challenges

Being out in the sun all day wears you out, and we learned early on that we needed to re-apply sunscreen and lip balm often, given the full sun and relative lack of shade throughout most of the ride route. After the first day of riding, the more sun-sensitive of the two of us bought sun sleeves to wear for the remainder of the week, which helped immensely.

Although we had been warned that the biggest danger on RAGBRAI was other riders, there is no real way to prepare for sharing the road safely with 10,000 other riders. On the third day, when riding to Des Moines, the crowds swelled to perhaps as many as 34,000.

It felt chaotic to be on the road with that many people, and it was hard to settle into a steady rhythm. Particularly in the mornings, we spent more time trying to avoid crashes with inexperienced or distracted riders than enjoying the scenery.

One frustration was that often the crowds were such that getting to the side of the road to take a photo of a scenic vista just wasn’t worth the trouble. The later in the day it got, and as the ride travelled further east later in the week, the crowds thinned out and it was easier for us to ride along at our own pace and really enjoy the ride.

The underlying theme of our whole week, however, was the complete and total lack of sleep we were getting in camp. We had every form of nightly disruption you can imagine: car alarms, heavy snorers in nearby tents, hail and thunderstorms resulting in wet tents, freight trains, and the din of the nightly concert only blocks away.

Bikes along the railroad tracks in Knoxville

Bikes along the railroad tracks in Knoxville

Despite wearing the recommended ear plugs, we would wake up after about an hour of sleeping, and then be unable to fall back asleep. By far the worst night of sleep was in Knoxville. Our tent was no more than ten feet from a freight train line.

That wasn’t even the worst part, since only one freight train went by that night. The campsite was also across the street from a bar with a DJ and pulsing dance music that vibrated our air mattress. The party went on until 3am, when the police finally shut them down. Without our one quiet night of sleep in a hotel in Des Moines, I’m not sure we would have survived the entire week.

We were not the only ones caught out by record low temperatures at night. Coming from the mid-Atlantic, it was hard to imagine that a sleeping bag would be needed on a July evening, but our thin sheets and sweatshirts we brought were not enough to keep us warm, adding to our difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Next: Despite some of the discomforts, RAGBRAI also has a lot to offer a rider. And the ultimate question: would they do it again?

Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 2 of 4: The Ride

What is it like to be a rider on RAGBRAI, the largest cross-state bike ride in the country? Tara takes us there with her vivid recount. 

Tara and Simon in Council Bluffs

Tara and Simon in Council Bluffs

The Ride

Because we had to be out of the campsite each day by 7 a.m., each day’s ride began early. The first morning in Council Bluffs we stood waiting to turn from the campground, looking for a gap in the steady stream of riders already on the route.

A passing rider yelled, “If you wait to the end of the line, you’ll never get started!” Point taken.

We joined the steady stream of riders, rolling through Council Bluffs’ historic district, and then quickly up what turned out to be the second hardest hill of the week (although we didn’t know that at the time).

The first thing we had to immediately get used to was riding on the same road with 10,000 other people, something we couldn’t have prepared for.

For our own survival, we quickly learned to shout out “Slowing!” and “Rider off!” when we pulled to the side of the road, and to yell “Rider on!” when attempting to find some gap in the pack of riders pushing down the road.

Each day had five to six towns that we passed through, creatively called “pass-through towns.” Due to the crowds, we ended up dismounting our bikes and walking them through town.

We parked our bikes by leaning them against a building, on someone’s lawn, or hooking our handlebars over a cable laid on for the occasion. Although we carried a bike lock with us, we never used it.

Impromptu Bike Parking in West Des Moines

Impromptu Bike Parking in West Des Moines

Once off the bike, we would grab something to eat from a vendor: burritos, smoothies, corn on the cob, and other delights. Slices of homemade “church lady pie” (apple, rhubarb, cherry) were in high demand, particularly if paired with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

There was usually a beer tent. Disappointingly, it never offered any local Iowa brews, although we were able to try a few at the Peace Tree Brewery in Knoxville, Wednesday’s overnight town.

Some riders seemed to be taking full advantage of beer tents and beer gardens wherever available, but between the heat and the limited choices (Bud Light or Michelob Ultra?!), we stuck to one beer during the riding portion of the day, and often skipped it altogether.

We fell into the same rhythm most days: on the bikes between 6 a.m. and 7a.m., far earlier than we would normally start when at home in Maryland. We would ride out of the town for a few miles, find a pancake breakfast sponsored by the local Kiwanis or Knights of Columbus, and then ride another 10 to 15 miles before stopping at the next little town for a bathroom break or to top up our water bottles.

We almost always picked up something to eat or drink in the pass-through towns, and looked for shady spots on people’s lawns to sit in and relax for a while. Riding an easy pace and stopping to walk through all of the towns easily took us to mid-afternoon.

When we arrived in the overnight town, we would search out a friendly town volunteer or follow signs pointing the way to our campsite, which was still often a couple of miles away.

We usually waited until the overnight town to have our big meal of the day. About half the time, we ate at a restaurant. Otherwise, church spaghetti dinners provided a good carbs-for-dollars ratio.

Iowans delight in telling out-of-staters that Iowa is not flat. We found that the gently rolling hills suited our riding style. You could get some good momentum going down the hill that took you most of the way back up the next bump without exerting too much energy.

We were by no means the best riders out there, but we handled the hills consistently well. Mockingbird Hill in Springbrook State Park appeared about 50 miles into the second day. Incidentally, this was both the hottest and longest day. Touted as the steepest hill ever to appear on RAGBRAI, Mockingbird Hill was a half-mile slog at 10 percent grade.

As we approached the hill, many (if not most) riders dismounted and began walking up the hill on the shoulder. Given the density of riders already going up the hill, drifting over to the right and getting off safely wasn’t really an option. Neither was falling over or stopping, which would have easily taken out other riders behind us.

Fear and pride meant we had no choice but to drop into the smaller chain ring, knock out a steady cadence, and pray we didn’t go into too much aerobic deficit before reaching the top.

Rolling Hills of RAGBRAI

Rolling Hills of RAGBRAI

There were plenty of flat roads as well, with corn fields and the occasional farm house on both sides of the road. We crossed Red River Lake and the Des Moines River. We passed farm kids selling bottled water and cookies by the side of the road, and commercial vendors offering fruit smoothies, pickles, coffee, and of course, pork chops from the venerable RAGBRAI institution, Mr. Porkchop.

One thing we learned to be vigilant about was road conditions. An unfortunate few riders ended up in an ambulance on the second day after getting their tires caught in a particularly nasty crack in the pavement at the bottom of one hill.

Sometimes there would be smooth tarmac, which made keeping a consistent and high pace seem effortless, while elsewhere (notably, heading towards West Des Moines, and on the last day) we found ourselves repetitively hitting jarring bumps in the road. Ouch.

With the hardest day out of the way early in the week, we slowly began to relax on the following days. Given our relative slow pace (due in large part by the through-town walking traffic jams), we were nervous about the last day’s ride to Ft. Madison, located in the southeast corner of the state.

We needed to be done early in order to ensure we made it on the early charter bus to Des Moines. It was a 63-mile ride, with about 2,400 feet of climbing on the route. We began riding in the dark at 5am, with two tail lights and a Knog front light between the two of us. It was not ideal, but we followed a thin line of red blinking tail lights for an hour before the sun started to rise.

On the last day, we were hurting on many fronts. Neither of us could get comfortable on the saddle, we had muscle heaviness that wouldn’t go away, and we were experiencing hand numbness from the vibrations off the bumpy cement road.

Finishing in Ft. Madison

Finishing in Ft. Madison

Fear of missing the bus proved a good motivator, however, because our average speed was a good mile per hour faster that day than all of our previous days. We finished in Ft. Madison with enough time to have our picture taken in front of the Mississippi River, drop off our bikes at High Country, and grab some lunch for the bus ride.

Up next: Tara talks about what makes RAGBRAI such a unique experience, including some of the other riders she and Simon encountered as well as the unexpected challenges they faced throughout the week.

Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 1 of 4: Why Iowa?

Every year in the final full week of July, thousands and thousands of people participate in the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), a west to east ride through the state from the Missouri River to the shore of the Mississippi.

RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa

RAGBRAI riders in Dallas Center, Iowa

As many readers know, Iowa is my home state. Growing up RAGBRAI intrigued me, in part because it seemed a long way to ride one’s bike, and also because of the numbers of people who wanted to spend their free time passing through small Iowa towns like mine.

When I learned that Tara and Simon of Wheaton, Maryland– touring cyclists, coffeeneurs, and regular readers of this blog– were doing this year’s edition of RAGBRAI, I asked if they would be willing to put a report together capturing their experience.

They agreed, and Tara penned a fantastic story (thank you, Tara!!), which I’m featuring over four posts. Today, we kick off with Part 1: Why Iowa.

Harlan to Perry

Harlan to Perry

Why Iowa?

Over the last two years, Simon and I have been improving our cycling from casual weekend novice to serious weekend novice. A bike vacation seemed like a fun way to challenge ourselves and test the progress we’d made. I don’t remember how we first learned about RAGBRAI (maybe it was even this very blog?), but its description appealed to us.

Beyond being a week-long bike ride, RAGBRAI has a reputation of being a rolling party of music, food, and friendly people. RAGBRAI also seemed like a perfect opportunity to see a part of the country that we, quite frankly, would have not otherwise visited.

The daily mileage (about 50 miles a day this year) was enough to feel that we were accomplishing something each day, but not so much that we couldn’t enjoy the scenery and check out the quirks and charms of the small towns we’d be passing through.

After explaining to our friends and family how we were spending our week’s vacation, however, most of them remained skeptical that riding our bikes across the entire state of Iowa with 10,000 other people would be fun.

Logistics

Rather than driving to Iowa with our bikes, we flew to Des Moines and shipped our bikes via High Country Shipping, the official bike shipper for RAGBRAI. When we arrived at Council Bluffs, the start town, our bikes had been re-assembled by a local bike shop and were ready for us to pick up.

Due to the size of the overnight towns, camping is virtually the only mode of accommodation. Lacking contacts in Iowa that would put us up for the night, we paid for a charter service to take our luggage and set up our tent and air mattress every day. Our bags would be waiting for us outside our tents when we reached camp each afternoon.

The charter service, staffed primarily by teenagers, also provided a large canopy with camp chairs, cold soft drinks, and a charging station for cell phones and bike computers. The service also covered the two-hour bus rides to and from Des Moines to Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Iowa-Nebraska border.

Tire Dip in Council Bluffs

Tire Dip in Council Bluffs

The Route

This year’s route was the second shortest in RAGBRAI history— “only” 406 miles, although between extra trips here and there and the additional miles to actually get to our campsite as opposed to the town limits, our total mileage for the week was closer to 430.

To benefit from prevailing winds (or at least to avoid the worst of the headwinds), the RAGBRAI route starts in the west of the state and travels east to the Mississippi River. Most days, the mileage was around 50 miles, with the second day being 83 miles, and the last day, 63 miles. All told, there was about 16,000 feet of climbing.

For most of the ride, we were very lucky with weather: low humidity, temperatures in the low 80s, and a tailwind more often than a headwind. In our conversations with other riders, this was constantly contrasted with 2012’s ride, which presented temperatures close to 100F, high humidity, and headwinds.

RAGBRAI route

RAGBRAI route

Tomorrow: Time to ride! Tara and Simon make their way across the Hawkeye state with thousands of other riders.

Cycling Memories: RAGBRAI

This week, Girl on a Bike invited people to post their favorite cycling memory to her blog. Prize for posting? A chance to win a $50 gift certificate to Revolution Cycles. (See here for her writeup and contest).

Her post prompted me to dig into my bicycle memory bank. As I thought back, my first time riding RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) entered my head. Thanks, Girl on a Bike, for the opportunity to reminisce!

Bike Friday at RAGBRAI

One of my many favorite cycling memories is of my first time riding across my home state via RAGBRAI. Having grown up in Iowa, I was always somewhat aware of the ride, but could not figure out people’s enthusiasm for it. Ride from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River through little Iowa towns? What is exciting about that? Plus, 500 miles over seven days over the entire state seemed like a long way to ride.

Then I moved to the East Coast, away from my Midwestern roots. After my move, I took up riding. It was exciting to be a cyclist in Washington, D.C. It’s such an active city, and the weather allows riding year-round.

Even though I had grown up riding a bike, I had never done much multi-day riding. I loved all the places I learned about through being on my bicycle, and I realized that I had never done that in my home state, a state that has the largest organized cross-state tour in the country. What was I thinking? I set my heart on riding across Iowa.

Cyclists on the RAGBRAI Route

To make the trip even better, my sister agreed to ride with me and my mom offered to carry our stuff from town to town. It was a perfect setup.

Every day we rode, I thrilled in seeing the towns fill up with cyclists from all over the country. Amy and I savored eating maid-rites and kringla– foods I grew up with but rarely found on the East Coast. I enjoyed pedaling the country roads of our home state, taking photos of barns and cornfields, and feeling the occasional undulations of the road beneath my wheels.

Stop Town on RAGBRAI

The best part of our week was a stop for ice cream in Popejoy, a town of fewer than 100 people and within 30 miles of my hometown. My sisters and I were paying our bill when we heard one of the volunteers say, “Hey, aren’t you Cathy’s kids?” What?! Only in Iowa! That was the essence of RAGBRAI for me. I may have grown up and left Iowa, but it will always be home.