Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pedaling Across Hog Heaven - The RAGBRAI Experience

RAGBRAI – Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  It's a bike ride that crosses Iowa from the Missouri to the Mississippi. It's the largest organized bike ride in the US, typically drawing over 10,000 riders each year. It started over 30 years ago. It’s so large, riders/participants are selected by lottery. For serious bikers, it a right of passage. I rode it for the first time in 2006, doing  471 miles on one of the hilliest routes they've ever had.  As a serious cyclist, it was a bucket list item for me.  I was in great shape for the ride, but little did I know about what I was to experience with such a large group riding 70 mile days in the Iowa summer heat. What follows is my daily journal about the ride and the RAGBRAI experience.

For most, RAGBRAI is a bicycle riding and tent camping adventure.  You ride from town to town on back roads that are closed down just for the cyclist and spend nights camped in the small towns of Iowa.  Many of the towns are small with maybe 2,000 people so when 10,000 cyclist arrive to spend the night they're camped in every spot of open grass - most of the time in ball fields, school property, church lots, and town parks.  For the layover towns, its a fund raising and merchandise bonanza.  All the cyclists need to eat, drink, and be entertained.  And they're all so happy to see you.  The towns lobby to be on the route so as to benefit from the economic impact.

Campsite at Sergeant Bluff High School
To make the logistics of hauling my gear and finding a sleeping spot easier, I signed up with a charter service group called Pork Belly Ventures (aka the Pork People) run by a brother and sister (Tammy & Pete). They hauled our gear from town to town, spec'd out campsites, fed us, and provided nightly entertainment.  They did a really great job and I would highly recommend them.  There are several groups like them and its the way to go if you want to do RAGBRAI.

Below are some of the things I heard, saw, and experienced along the way. Its my collection of mental post cards from the ride.

Saturday, July 22nd Sergeant Bluff

1. As I’m getting off my plane in Omaha one of the pilots see’s my wristband and says to me “RAGBRAI – Yah!”
2. I had pensive thoughts on the bus ride to St. Bluff about what to expect when we arrive. We’re passing a lot of team buses and seeing lots of buses returning south on the highway after dropping off riders. All I can think about is that there’s got to be a ton of people in St Bluff. I hope I can;
a. find our group - driver said he hopes to get us as close as he can (does that mean to the closest town or closest 1000 feet), and b. find my bike (Tammy send she had it)
3. I got to quickly experience the Iowa summer heat for the first time. My first spate of extensive sweating started as I assembled my bike. Sweating would be a constant throughout the week.
4. Finding food became my next priority (it would become by primal goal throughout the week). I ate dinner at the St. Bluff High School with some RAGBRAI veterans (Claude, Mimi, and Veronica). When they asked “So you’re here all by yourself” I answered “No, I’m here with all of you folks!” Yes, all 10,000 of you!
5. I find that RAGBRAI is a sort of heaven for old school buses. Ever wondered what becomes of a retired school bus? I found that they go to RAGBRAI were they get reincarnated with fresh paint and cycling racks and turned into cycling team camping buses.

 Sunday, July 23rd Ida Grove

1. Several lady’s in house coats, PJ’s, and slippers met us on the road as we rode out of town at 6:00 am, handing us food, and saying goodbye and thanking us as we leave their town of St Bluff. It was a really nice gesture. Made me feel really special for being part of the ride.
2. All the instructions in the ride said ride right, but I rode left for most of the day to avoid the slower / erratic riders. To stay safe, I would ride left most of the week unless there was a car-up or a car back.
3. Wow, there really are hills in Iowa! I muscled up all of the hills on Sunday and Monday, By Tuesday and the rest of the week I was in the small ring spinning my way up.

4. I was really surprised at the way the first town (Anton) had a great welcome and food set-up for us. I would see this in every town; for each one it was like the 4th of July. And I would learn by the end of the week that RAGBRAI is not about the bike riding and the route. It’s about the towns and the people in the towns.
5. Our campsite in Ida Grove was not easy to find. After asking directions (twice) and two rides back to Moorehead park, a volunteer finally told me to ride the bike path until it ended. I did that and then I found the Pork People.

Campsite at Ida Grove

6. Got my first massage of the week from Sandy at the Iowa School of Massage girls. No reservation needed, just walk up and pay by the minute. Twenty minutes is what it took for her to take away the neck and shoulder pain that I got from riding 77 miles.
7. I missed the dinner and the music the Pork People put on at Moorehead Park so I could see the entertainment in Ida Grove. I saw some great swing and blues music by the Board of Directors. But I drank too many beers and would pay for this and the missed dinner the next day.

Monday, July 24th Audubon

1. As we rode out of town, I saw a rainbow one the right side of the road and a thunder storm on the other. All were off in the distance, but it was an awesome view of nature’s demonstration.
2. After 40 miles, we came into a great party at Arcadia. What a celebration for us; food, music on a sunny hill top town. This was one of the best pass thru towns for the whole week.

Rest stop in Acadia
 3. A hot 14 mile hilly stretch of zig zag roads finally got us into Manning, a German heritage town. I saw some beautiful farms as we rode our way into town. Had home made ice cream and a Maid Right (Iowan name for a sloppy joe) at the edge of town.
4. At mile 53, heard a Iowa State Trooper say at a road junction that there were 3 more big hills and then we’ve got it relatively flat into Audubon.
5. Yes, not too hilly but there were 9.3 hot and windy miles with no vendors, no water, and no nothing into Audubon. I heard later in the week that some Audubon official had not allowed people to sell stuff along the way unless they had paid $1,200 for an official vendor’s license.
6. At this point in the week, my brain started to get a primal focus on getting sustenance. Prevalent thoughts started to be about food and where to find it. I ate my first church dinner at the Catholic Church. Great spaghetti dinner for $6.
7. Next activity was to lay on the cool shady grass of the town common for about 90 mins and watch Audubon Idol (local version of American Idol). It was good entertainment and a great rest.

Audubon Town Common
 8. I walked back to the Pork People and laid in my tent and sweated. Fanned myself with a church pamphlet that I picked up at the Catholic Church. It said that if put my faith in God he would be my savior. I just hoped he would save me from sweating all night. I would use it for the next several nights to fan myself.
9. Prayed a thank you to the guy who told the kids in a house next the park to stop the loud drumming that they started at 10:30 pm. or a bunch of angry bikers would be over to take care of them.

Tuesday, July 25th Waukee

1. I was awaken at 4:30 am by the Pork People’s generator so they could make coffee. Lesson learned – don’t camp near the Penske trucks.
2. Lots of hills and head winds as we rode out of Audubon.
3. Guthrie Center was a welcome break after 26.5 miles; residents welcoming us with great food and entertainment at 9:00 am. I passed on the beers and bloody mary’s that were being offered.

Beer Vendor in Guthrie Center
4. I started to find my RAGBRAI groove on this day. Wake up at 5:00 am so I can hopefully find Kybos (Iowa name for a porta-john) with a short line; pack everything up and get on the road by 6:30 am so I can avoid riding in the extreme heat; start sweating; ride left to avoid getting into a crash; look for the Healthy Farm Boys at about mile 14 for a terrific breakfast burrito; have a snack of pie or sweat corn at the next pass through town; wipe sweat off; look for the Pasta Man at mile 30-40 for a great lunch; wipe sweat off again; have a snack of pie or sweet corn at the next pass through town(s); wipe more sweat off; look for the pink pig signs and find the Pork People; set up camp, and find a shower; find more food; rest and relax and find a cool spot to minimize sweating; find a church dinner and get in line by 5:00 pm; rest and relax and find a cool spot to minimize sweating; check out the host town and the entertainment; get in my tent by around 9:30 pm hope and pray to stop sweating; start over again at 5 am.
5. I was really whipped after all the miles, headwinds, heat, and long uphill after Redfield and Adel. I welcomed the kids to spray me with water as we rode into the outskirts of Waukee. It was also nice to be greeted at Waukee by girls giving out lei’s.

6. In Windfield park, I’m one of the first dozen few riders to arrive, but I needed to just get off my feet. I hauled my luggage to a shady spot and just sat in the shade and sweated. It was pouring off me. I unpack a little gear. I must have looked really whipped because another biker came over and offered to help me set up my tent. I was slightly dehydrated and had a little heat exhaustion, but recovered fine after drinking some water and having some food. Some local kids were selling brats, hot dogs, water and Gatorade for a buck. The brat really hit the spot. I heard that one of the kids (Timmy) made $200 selling food and drinks to us.
7. Had the Pork Chop Man for dinner – it was biggest piece of meat I’ve ever eaten. Can’t see how people ate them for breakfast out on the route.

Iowa Pork Chop Dinner
8. Walked over the Centennial Park to see the entertainment and get food. Had another great massage with the Iowa School of Massage girls. After $20 and 20 mins and my neck / back pain were gone again. Ate more food (pie) and drank more water. Decided to skip the entertainment and turn in early. I wanted to do a good recovery so I would ride well the next day.
9. Had thunder, lighting, and lots of rain that night. The police had come by earlier and said there was a tornado watch out and told us where the local shelter was.  It started about 10 pm and lasted until 4 am. How do I know this – I was awake the whole time. I had high ground so I didn’t get any water and only a couple of drips in the tent. My tent handled the wind find. Had everything packed up and ready to go in case I lost the tent. Slept in my biking clothes with a rain coat over me.

Wednesday, July 26th Newton

1. Had a long ride to the first pass thru town (Polk City -26 miles). I found a Kybo and was hastened out by a female rider banging on the door needing to pee. She would be the only rude person that I would encounter all week.
2. Stopped in Elkhardt to get water and have a snack. Had some great sweat corn. I was stopped by a local contractor who was selling well pumps. Don’t know why he thought I needed one or where I would carry it on my bike. It was really hot in Colfax and I could have done without the steep hill climb out of town
Pie for snacking

3. Newton was hot. Had a shower at Maytag Park and was sweating before I left the shower building. I took the shuttle into town to eat and wait for Lance Armstrong. Had another great meal at the Methodist Church. Sat with some nice local ladies who had done the cooking.

4. Waiting for Lance was hot. I got there at about 6:45 pm and was near the front of the stage. I had to leave at about 7:30 pm as it was shoulder to shoulder with no air movement. I retreated and listened to him from about 300 ft back.
Lance Armstrong in Newton

5. I walked back to Maytag Park with Anne Boone. She is the chatterbox from Atlanta that I met 2 yrs ago on Bike Florida. A nice friendly woman, but she talked non stop for the next 45 mins as we walked back to camp. I got in a couple of Yup’s and Really’s, but that was about it.
6. I had my first good night sleep this night. Almost overslept.

Thursday, July 27th Marengo

1. It was an uneventful ride to Marengo. We were greeted by Cheerleaders as we entered Reasnor. It was a nice touch. It was an easier route today with a general elevation decline.
2. I decided to skip the century loop (100 miles) in Lychville as I had more than enough miles and didn’t need to prove anything to myself. Had a nice stop in Montezuma. Used the Iowa Telecom trailer to send an email to my Dad. Took a quick stop in Brooklyn as it was threatening rain. Had a nice and flat 15 mile segment into Marengo with a slight tail wind. Cranked it up to 26 mph and just cruised into Marengo.

Iowa Telecom Mobile Internet Trailer
3. Camped in a ball field. It was supposedly the only camp site in town without mud. I chose centerfield as it was the highest ground and rain was in the forecast. Met Lori and Marsha from MO and helped them with their bags. They also chose centerfield as their camp site.
4. This was grill night. It was suggested that we each buy something to grill at the local store and the Pork People would have grills set up for us to use. Decide that since I was on vacation I didn’t want to cook so I ate out at the Catholic Church. Had another great meal.
5. Had my last massage with the Iowa School of Massage girls. Had them work on my legs, which were a little sore from all the riding. Having a massage each day really helped me recover the the days of hard riding.
6. Laid in my tent and listened to all the band music from town as I sweated. Fanned myself with my holy pamphlet. I could hear all the music from town fine from my tent even thought it was about 1 mile away.
7. Slept with all the doors, screens, and flaps open on my tent to try and get some air to minimize the sweating.

Friday, July 28th  Coralville

1. Rode to Coralville. It was a short ride. I was caught off guard and accidentally ate breakfast at the faux Farm Boyz. It was probably the single focus on food that tripped me up. It was ok but not as good as the real Farm Boys.
2. Had a nice stop in Holbrook. Small hilltop town with a massive church and only 4-5 houses. It was about ½ mile off the main route and many bikers bypassed it. It was a real treat. Had home made lemonade and a piece of pie. Listened to a local bluegrass band play for us. It was great. I knew every song they played. Had another nice stop at Cosgrove. Pedaled up a steep hill to get there.

Bluegrass Band in Holbrook

3. As I’m riding the last 5 miles into town and spinning up a hill, I suddenly got a really really sharp pain in the front of my right knee. I instantly knew what it was as I’ve experienced it before. It’s a sprain of a patella muscle (one that holds the knee cap in place). This time is probably from overuse due to all of the hills. But it’s really painful every time I press down on the right pedal. In fact the pain is so great I can put no downward pressure on the right pedal. So I ride the last 5 miles pushing down with my left leg and pulling up with my right. Thank god for clip-in pedals. As soon as I get off the bike, the knee if fine for walking. In fact there’s no pain at all as long as I don’t bend the knee sharply or put pressure on it. I would forget about the knee for the rest of the day, but would be reminded of it the next day as I climb with first hill out of Coralville.
4. Spent the afternoon in the Coraville community pool - me and several hundred other bikers. It felt good to cool off, but too crowded to anything other than stand in place in the water. Took a nap in the shade under an umbrella at the pool. I woke myself up snoring.
5. Got back to the Pork People in time to experience blender night. Pete and the crew were making non stop margaritas for the riders. Had a “couple four” frozen margarita’s which gave me a nice little buzz for the evening.

Handing out the Margaritas

6. Ate at the Catholic Church for dinner. Had another great meal for $8.
7. Stayed up for the entertainment and dancing. Saw a great Latin band and several good salsa dancers. Wish I knew how to salsa as it looked fun.
8. The headliner was Jason D. Williams. He was a great honky-tonk piano play from Nashville. Sort of a Marcia Ball on steroids. He played a little bit of everything from country to opera. He was very entertaining.

Saturday, July 29th Muscatine

1. I got packed up as usual and start riding out of town. At the first hill I’m painfully reminded that I have a knee injury. I instantly back off from putting any pressure on the knee and gear way up. It then hits me that I’ve got 50 miles to ride and maybe I should have sagged with the Pork People. I have a slight panic, but it’s too late. The Pork People are 3 miles back and its all up hill, they’re leaving, and I don’t even have their phone number. So, I’ve got to do 50 miles with a bum knee. I’m fine on the flats; it’s just the hills or even a slight incline. So when I came to a hill I instantly shifted into the highest gear, pushed down with my left and pulled up with my right. I was the slowest rider up the hills but I got up all of the hills. This would work well as long as the left knee held out; which it did.
2. Kinda of a solemn day of riding. Not too much chatting on the road. Saw lots of team members riding in pace lines cranking away the miles. Seemed like everyone was looking to get it over with. I took the back way into Muscatine and found the Pork People at the high school at about 9:30 am . I’m like the third person to arrive and the Porker People are just unloading things.
3. I packed my bike up, grabbed a shower, and shuttled downtown with 3 other guys to get our bikes shipped. Once my bike was with UPS, I focused on a search for food and cold beer. I found some food by the river where all the bikers were dipping their rear tires. Next I find a bar to have a cold beer. I didn’t stay long because the bar is full of cigarette smoke and I need to breathe some clean air. I shuttled back up to the high school and spent the next 2 hrs waiting for our bus back to Omaha.

J. Dawg by the Mississippi in Muscatine

4. Had a long boring ride back to Omaha. All were pretty quiet and tired from the ride.

Best Quotes Heard on RAGBRAI

“Can we stop for beer?” rider to the bus driver within 3 minutes of pulling out of the La Quinta Inn parking lot on the way to St Bluff

“This is totally awesome!” one resident in Sully to another when asked what he thought about all the riders.

“The sports bra was the worst thing that happened to RAGBRAI” one police officer to another in St Bluff.

“I guess because I can” rider responding to my question about why he keeps coming back after doing 17 RABRAI’s.

“Don’t touch the bowl on the left; that’s for the boys to use. Lift the cover up and don’t look down into the hole. Whatever you do, don’t look down into the hole.” Lady in Guthrie Center explaining to her young daughter how to use a Kybo (aka porta john).


The week was great. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. I’d do it again and will do it again. I can see how people get hooked on it. I asked several people who were RAGBRAI veterans, why they keep coming back. None had a good answer.

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