Experience Report – RAGBRAI, by Becky Dreasher

27 07 2007

 

First of all, you ask, Why an “Experience Report” rather than a “Race Report?” Still frustrated with my “A” race performance from last year, I decided that this season should be one of “experiences” rather than “races.” My “A” experience for this year would be RAGBRAI.

 

Some background for those unfamiliar with RAGBRAI – the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Ride Across Iowa (www.ragbrai.org). It is a weeklong tour of Iowa, running the last full week of July. It travels a different west-to-east route each year, anywhere from 400 to 500 miles. The best description I have heard is that it’s equal parts Tour de France, Woodstock, and state fair. This was the ride’s 35th year.

 

We traveled with a group of eight ranging in age from 11 to 60+. The group included me (Becky), my husband, Ron, and my oldest brother Frank. Three of the eight had done RAGBRAI at least 15 times; it was the first ride for two (including me). We drove in a rented, white 15-passenger van hauling a homemade bike trailer that has been on more RAGBRAIs than any of us.

 

RAGBRAI is huge. Officially RAGBRAI is limited to 10,000 riders by Iowa State Patrol. The Register issues 8,500 weekly and up to 1,500 daily passes. I don’t know how to tell how many riders there are, since it is so spread out of distance and time. Limiting the ride to registered riders doesn’t appear to be a priority (example: only 3 of our group were registered). One of our RAGBRAI veterans thought this year probably had 20,000 riders – same as recent years. But the riders are only part of the crowd. Besides bikes, there are support buses, trailers, vans, and RVs of every size type and description. I’ve included the 2000 census numbers for the various towns below to give a feel for how this traveling circus engulfs every town along the route.

 

I’ve done my best to condense the full week into something worth reading. Mileages and times are taken from my Garmin. If something piques your interest, just ask me sometime. (If I go on too long, just point at your watch and I promise to wrap it up.)

 

 

Sunday, July 22

Endpoints (Miles)

Rock Rapids (pop. 2,500) to Spencer (pop 11,300)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

Living room floor. We were awakened around 5:00 a.m. surrounded by people waiting in line for the bathroom (“SHHHH. They’re SLEEPING!”). Went to bed with 11 in the house; by morning there were 52 in the house, garage, porch, and yard.

Trip summary

77.7 miles; 6:30 a.m.– 3:30 p.m.; 6:20 hours riding

Day’s highlights

— I have a childhood memory of hogs in open pens and frolicking in fields. Now the hogs are concentrated in confinement barns. You can hide the pigs, but there is no way to hide the stench. If you are riding a bike, you can’t get away from the smell before it has taken root in your nose hairs.

— Decked-out port-o-potties in Hartley (pop. 1,730). You know it’s something special if a total stranger announces, “You HAVE to go in THAT one!” Nearby they had live, local music. The most memorable was a kid repeating the 12 signature chords of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water over and over and over….

Notable food:

— Rhubarb pie for mid-morning snack. The elderly woman serving at the park pavilion said her mother called it “The Springtime Elixir.”

— Was the Lutherans’ lasagna home-cooked? Their dumpster indicates “Stouffers” was involved.

Lance sighting:

We didn’t see Lance, but as we entered Spencer, we met one of the “Livestrong” team busses – hood up — being towed into a repair shop. IRONY.

 

Monday, July 23

Spencer (pop 11,300) to Humboldt (pop. 4,400)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

In the bedroom of a temporarily displaced 12 year old boy.

Trip summary

76.9 miles; 7:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; 6:00 hours riding

Day’s highlights

— Arguing with husband about whether we were in Gillett Grove (pop. 55) or Webb (pop. 165). We asked the couple next to us (also eating biscuits and gravy). They answered, “We’re in a small town.”

— My brother spent his “best day of RAGBRAI ever” off the bike, at a friend’s lake house more than 50 miles off course.

Notable food:

We were running low on cash, and needed to ration lunch money with steep food prices in Marathon (pop. 302). (Bananas $1 each!) We were later relieved to find an ATM in Laurens (pop. 1,470). Newly flush with cash, we each bought $4 smoothies at the Masonic Lodge.

Lance sighting:

Lance and the Livestrong Army (and every Tom, Dick and Jane) buzzed by in a giant swarm. Ron turned and said, “Hi, Lance.” Lance replied, “How’s it going?” And he was gone.

 

Tuesday, July 24

Humbolt (pop. 4,400) to Hampton (pop. 4,200)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

Living room floor. Our hostess, the school superintendent, made like Martha Stewart at 4:00 am preparing a huge breakfast a few feet from where we slept.

Trip summary

This was our assigned day to drive the van. Support vehicles have a prescribed route (to minimize interference with the ride). Since we left town late, our search for ice for the group’s coolers went on for miles. We spent a long time sitting in traffic waiting to get into Hampton. Kind of like the Diagonal on a week night.

Day’s highlights

— We visited an elderly cousin of Becky’s in Humboldt in the morning. Mary Lou’s youngest brother took away her car and moved her to assisted living from nearby Badger (pop. 610). Now she’s one of those crazy ladies that ride a mobility scooter on the highway. How else is she supposed to get to Dairy Queen?

— Once in Hampton we set up tents for the laggers in the group. It made us look altruistic, but we were really trying to make sure that the snorers were far away from our tent.

— Ron was next on the table after Neal Henderson at the massage therapists’ tent downtown. Neal did Ron’s LT test at BCSM.

Notable food:

Late lunch of lamb burgers in Hampton.

Lance sighting:

None. We were driving, after all.

 

Wednesday, July 25

Hampton (pop. 4,200) to Cedar Falls (pop. 36,100)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

Tent. We had been promised bathroom privileges, but the back door of our host’s house got locked in the middle of the night. Had to dress, decamp, load van, and ride downtown to “KYBO row” without exploding.

Trip summary

69.2 miles; 7:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.; 4:53 hours riding

Day’s highlights

It’s not unusual to see people with “V” or “Virgin” marked on their calves. While in line for pancakes, we saw a bald woman decked out in Livestrong gear with “CHEMO SUCKS” marked on her calves. Maybe the whole Livestrong thing isn’t just a publicity stunt, after all.

Notable food:

On recommendation from our Hampton host, we stopped for pancakes prepared by the Aredale (pop. 89) Fire Department. While waiting in the long, but fast-moving line, we ran into Scott Dixon, winner of Paris-Brest-Paris in the 80’s (not the Indy car driver). Ron’s defining memory of Scott from when he rode with him 20 years ago was of him often saying, “I know a shortcut. It only adds 20 miles.”

Lance sighting:

Lance and his tight posse of 4 or 5 flew by going 28+ mph. Jason McCartney was protecting his wheel. Within a minute or so, a young buck in a U. of Illinois jersey rode up to us and asked if Lance had gone by. We pointed him down the road and he sped off, head down. Within a minute or two, we passed where Lance was stopped roadside to buy Gatorade. We assume that the overly-eager young man rode right by, unaware.

 

Thursday, July 26

Cedar Falls (pop. 36,100) to Independence (pop, 6,000)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

We stayed at the home of a daughter of one of our group. Private guest room with attached bath. AC! Laundry! Woo-hoo! Best sleep all week!

Trip summary

65.8 miles; 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; 5:00 hours riding

Although we left our host house around 7:30, we didn’t get on the road until 9:00 after visiting an ex-employee of Ron’s at her downtown studio. We felt like we were at the tail of the ride the whole day, although we knew there were still hundreds (thousands?) behind us.

Day’s highlights

— We were passed by two guys dressed in elf costumes, complete with curly-toed shoes. A couple miles later, we spotted the same elves, standing field side, watering the crops. (It’s customary to venture into the field where you can relieve yourself, unseen.) Later on, we were passed by more elves, and Santa, who promised to deliver “a new carbon fiber frame.”

— This day’s route went through Amish country. The hay had been cut and tied by hand. We road by a field where they were loading bales on a horse-drawn cart. Since the Amish don’t do confinement farming, there were no strong livestock odors. The call of the afternoon (rather than the typical “Car up”) was “Buggy up!”

Notable food:

— Others in our group had some kind of fancy salad with mango iced tea in a posh tea room in Aplington (pop. 1,054). We misunderstood the text message we’d received, and ended up overpaying for cold turkey sandwiches next door.

— Dinner in Independence was a “baked potato bar” at the Methodist’s with the darkest, thickest iced tea that any one of us had ever seen.

Lance sighting:

We didn’t pay to listen to Lance in Cedar Falls (speaking before the Blues Traveler concert), but we watched the rebroadcast of Michael Rasmussen’s stage win in the parking lot on the big screen TV built into the side of a Livestrong bus. Right after Rasmussen crossed the line, the guy next to us said, “He got busted. He’s out of the race” and turned and walked away. What?! Fortunately Frank carries a Treo with web access!

 

Friday, July 27

Independence (pop. 6,000) to Dyersville (pop. 4,000)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

Pull-out sofa in basement. Our hosts were out of town, but posted helpful instructions, e.g. “Keep toilet seat down or humidifier will run.”

Trip summary

59.5 miles; 6:00 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.; 4:40 hours riding

Day’s highlights

— Ron didn’t ride this day. His right heel had been giving him fits since the beginning of the week, but now his whole ankle was swollen and his toes were Vienna sausages.

— Becky dealt with female issues (need I say more?).

— At about 9 p.m. we decided that we would forfeit our chance to win the Miller Beer party (nee school) bus. We’d bought two $1 chances to win the bus back in Humboldt. They were to announce the winner at 11 p.m. at the beer tent in Dyersville – but must be present to win. I guess Fast Forward will have to go without a team bus for another year.

Notable food:

— In Winthrop (pop. 772), Becky asked a man if the breakfast pizza was good. After a few seconds pause, she realized that the man was holding the slice up offering her a bite. Um, no, but thanks. Instead she got a cinnamon roll bigger than her head.

— Otherwise, this was an all-around bad food day, from the fat-drenched Maid-Rite for lunch in Manchester (pop. 5,257), to a dismal dinner at a recommended steak house east of Dyersville. My biggest regret was that we’d passed Mr. Pork Chop’s pink bus before we got a call notifying us that he was retiring from the RAGBRAI vendor business that day!

Lance sighting:

Lance didn’t ride past Independence. Apparently he thought there was something more important going on in France.

 

Saturday

Dyersville (pop. 4,000) to Bellvue (pop. 2,300)

Previous night’s sleeping arrangement:

Tent in the yard of a retired bachelorette. Sign posted there: “The only reason there is a kitchen here is because it came with the house.”

Trip summary

We drove this day, so the priority was on obtaining an easy-to-find, shaded parking spot for the trailer. Score! Becky had a chance to text the trailer’s location to all in the group before her phone died.

Day’s highlights

Watching riders dip their tires (and sometimes themselves) at the boat ramp into the Mississippi River.

Notable food:

Grilled chicken sandwich at 8:00 a.m. After a long, crowded week, a short line trumps everything.

 

I spare you the details about the heat rash, assorted damage to the trailer, and sibling in-fighting.

 

I was concerned about being fit enough to ride all the miles. I’d only recently surpassed 400 miles for the year, and now I would need to double that in a week’s time! But it turned out that RAGBRAI is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. If I started to tune into my own aches, I could count on some type an attitude adjustment to be just down the road: a paraplegic with a hand crank bike; an overweight mom towing a toddler on a tagalong; a “bagger” loaded down with all his gear.

 

In triathlon we are taught to plan, ritualize, and rehearse. You can’t do that on RAGBRAI. Each day the only plan is to get to an address in the end town. There is no rehearsal. There is no sense in trying to control it. To experience it, you must open yourself to what each day has to offer. After a couple of weeks’ reflection, I’m finally starting to fully understand.

 

Although you may not ever do RAGBRAI, I offer this word of wisdom: Earplugs

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