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Where I ramble on, and on, and on, and on about a bicycle ride through Iowa

August 1, 2011
Mississippi in the background, Lucille above my head

Before the ride, I was told that the ride was huge. I was told that Iowa was not, as commonly perceived, flat. I was told that it would be hot. I thought I had prepared myself for all of this, but I was wrong. The ride was truly crowded at points. There were portions that were hilly beyond comprehension. I don’t think my body stopped sweating the entire time I was out there. And, I had an absolute blast.

I left, in my truck, with Bill, early Friday morning . . . 14 hours later, I arrived in Davenport, Iowa (road trips are always fun & worthy of their own commentary, but we’ll just suffice to say that the drive was long, uneventful, and audiobook-filled1) where we met up with Glen (Art, the last member of our four person team, would meet us in the start town of Glenwood). We checked our bikes into the Pork Belly Truck and went to have some beer dinner.

After eating, we checked into our hotel, and I checked into the hotel bar. Years ago, before I got my first tattoo, I signed up with a social media site for tattoo aficionados, Check Out My Ink. Here, I met Margo, who is absolutely awesome. Well, I knew Margo lived in Iowa, so I texted her to see if she might be able to visit somewhere along the way. It turns out that she was in Davenport – where I was spending the night, and where I could give her an exact address . . . so I finally met this friend of mine that I had known for years yet had never “met.”

And, um, I might have had a few beers. My recollection is fuzzy.

Anyway, I woke up bright & early & hungover Saturday morning in the hotel room. A McDonald’s breakfast, a bit of running around to ensure we were properly registered to park, a shuttle bus to St. Ambrose University, and off to board the bus to Glenwood.

Waiting on the bus, all hungover & stuff, I chuckled as a team of four guys from DC started hitting on a mother/daughter duo from Indiana. Then a cute blond walked past me carrying a bike rack. Of course, I commented “nice rack,” because, really, wouldn’t you? Anyway, she rolled her eyes. Minutes later, the bus came and it just so happened that the cute blond with the nice rack sat down right near me, along with another cute blond. And a cute brunette. And a good looking guy with an Australian accent. Along the trip, I would become quite friendly with Team Robot Legs (at least two of this foursome, in addition to being endurance cyclers, are ultra-marathoners). The bus ride across Iowa was slow . . . which was fine, because it was air-conditioned and I had a hangover. Matt, from Team Robot Legs, bought a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon along the way (really, why not?), and I may have helped him finish said six-pack. Apparently, while I slept on the bus, we passed a pretty bad wreck where trucks had blown over in heavy winds . . . while I’d spend a fair amount of time cursing winds on this trip, I, thankfully, never had to deal with a wreck.

What is this Pork Belly that I keep referencing?

The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is open to the public for a modest fee. By signing up, you get a wristband, transportation of a single bag from town to town, and the promise of a Support and Gear (SAG) wagon if you (or your bike) should break down along the way. Once you hit the town, though, you’re on your own to find a place to set up, find dinner, etc.

We hired a service to help provide extra amenities, Pork Belly Ventures. These guys transported two bags per person, brought along EMTs and a bike mechanic, staked out guaranteed camping spots, provided port-a-potties, coffee (every morning), beer (every night), hot showers, three dinners (along with two optional dinners, which I declined), offered an optional laundry service (which I declined), and a team of massage therapists. On top of all of that, they provided nightly entertainment (though we’ll talk about entertainment on RAGBRAI separately).

Additionally, they offered a service where they’d provide, set up, strike, transport, and set up a tent for you from town to town . . . or, you could stay in an air-conditioned trailer. Those all cost extra, which I declined. However, I’ll fully admit that not having to worry about setting up a tent . . . and the option of making sweet love to sleeping in air-conditioning was tremendous as the week went on.

They weren’t cheap, but there are lots of “what-if’s” that you could deal with if you don’t have a good support team on RAGBRAI, and Pork Belly was a very, very good support team. Basically, if you travel with them, you simply need to worry about getting yourself from town to town.

Sunset over Tent City in Carroll, Iowa

Anyway, we got into Glenwood, where I met Art, the fourth member of our “Thorny Bastards” team. After setting up the tents (Art kept to himself, and I tented with Bill and Glen, though we had a second, supply tent for the three of us) we registered with Pork Belly, covered in sweat. See, the temperatures were in the mid-90’s, and it was threatening to rain (it drizzled at one point, and storm sirens went off, and things got hairy, but the storm never really hit). I hadn’t ridden a single pedal-turn, and I was already uncomfortably hot. I think “uncomfortably hot” might be a pretty good description of me from this point through the end of the week.

I had a pasta dinner (carbs = good), checked out the vendors in town and studied a t-shirt. There was a shirt that listed all of the towns we’d be stopping in, and passing through, along with a map of the elevation. Day three was interesting . . . right before Boone, the map went straight down, and then straight up. In other words, a monster climb, right after a steep descent.

Considering that I fought a hangover all day, and setting up a tent kicked my ass, and I had a full day of riding the next day, I made it an early night.

Fortunately, it didn’t rain. Unfortunately, neither the heat nor the humidity broke. It was a new place. It was hot & humid. I was really fucking excited. I didn’t sleep well.

Quiet time at the camp was set for 6am, so I set my alarm for 5:45. That said, I was up soon after 5 with the noises of people striking their camps. After running about, getting everything done, I was on the road by 6:30. Most cyclists would hit the road by 9am . . . I was a good 2.5 hours before them, and I was still amazed by the number of riders on the streets.

When I worked an internship between years of college, I befriended a man near retirement. His plans for retirement? To become a professional bicyclist. He, however, died in a bike crash near the starting line of a race. RAGBRAI is a bike ride, not a race, and I can’t word the differences between a race and a ride strongly enough, but let’s just say that getting stuck in the middle of a large group of cyclists freaks me out a little.

I found, quickly, that there were no shortage of people who didn’t adequately train for RAGBRAI. Now, I didn’t log the recommended 600 hilly miles that the organizers set, but I had run a hilly marathon, and I thought I was pretty good. What struck me was the number of walkers up the first few hills, which I would place between “super-easy” and “easy.”2 I knew, then, that I wanted to get out “in front.”

I wound my way through the country roads until I got to the first “pass through” town (Silver City), where I came to a dead stop. I was starting to get a little hungry, but there wasn’t enough room to ride around . . . just to get off the bike and walk it, and then try to find a place to set it aside to wait in line at an eatery. Simply, it was too crowded for me. So I rode through. And then I went up & down the hills and stopped at a roadside smoothie stand. I ordered a smoothie and quickly made the decision to not do so again. The stand was run by a corporation . . . and these little towns, crowded as they might be, were really hoping on the rider’s money. I’d spend my money, in town, supporting local businesses and/or charities wherever possible.

I struck a pretty good routine which worked for me. I’d get up as early as possible, go “my pace” on the road (which is faster than most, but not nearly as fast as others) and go straight through the first couple of towns. Then, stop for a relaxed breakfast, getting back on the road well before the multitudes come in, and then ride “my ride” for the rest, stopping in every town (even if it’s just to talk with the people). This meant that I always ended each ride with the stronger riders. I’d start the day passing nearly everybody in my path, but at the end of the day, getting passed was commonplace.

The path itself was . . . unexpected. The roads were, mostly, pretty well maintained (though I nearly crashed getting my rear tired caught on a center-line), and with my strategy, I avoided most of the crowds. But, damn. Hills. And Hot.

While I was surprised, early, with the general lack of fitness of some of the riders, I was also surprised by the diversity of bicycles ridden3. Seriously, there were road bikes (to be expected) and cyclocross bikes. There were hybrids. There were recumbents. There were tandems (2, 3, or 4 person), and even tandem recumbents. There were mountain bicycles. There were penny-farthings (it appeared that the riders here, who were super-in-shape, were sponsored by Books saddles), even at least a unicycle. A dude on a skateboard made it through. I went through on Lucille, my 2006 Giant OCR1 (a mid-range road bike). She has relatively fat tires, which hurt me as far as road resistance, but that also makes for a smoother ride. I think I’m a strong-enough rider that I could have made it through on a mountain bike, if I had to, but it wouldn’t have been fun.

I pulled into Atlantic, sweaty, & had the first Coke (not a Diet Coke, but a Coke) that I’ve had in years. It was free (Atlantic, Iowa is the home to a major Coca-Cola distributor), and absolutely delicious. Seriously – you forget how wonderful “non-diet” soda is after awhile, until you have one.

I had assumed, after the “welcome Coke,” that I was done – but I wasn’t . . . straight uphill to the campsite! Woohoo! After setting up the main tent, and then the supply tent, I noticed that there simply weren’t too many people around. So, after showering, I started talking to those people who were there4, enjoying the Porkbelly-provided beer in a tent with water-misting stations. It was hot (high on Sunday was 98F), it was humid, and I was in heaven. There was Gary from Phoenix, and Sheila from Atlanta. Either Connie or Renee, a team of jewel thieves friends from somewhere in the South, entered their tents and said “holy shit, I’m a hot girl,” which was meant literally. Of course, I couldn’t leave that be . . . somehow, at the end of the blatant flirtation, I offered to fill up their beer mugs. Cheryl and Monica, that mother/daughter team from before joined soon after5, and we stayed together through dinner.

The road into Willey, Iowa

If you look really, really closely, you can see a stream of riders climbing the hill

I actually think #RAGBRAI would be a truly great blogging convention. The appeal might be somewhat limited to those who would want to bike across a state, dealing with heat and weather, and camping every night . . . but can’t you imagine the hijinks? Take, for example, my rendition of what A Diary of a Mad Woman might say from the back of a tandem shared with me.

8:14am I wanted to have another beer, but @daddyrunsalot thought we should get going, so I’m blogging instead of pedaling in protest

8:15am BTW, John’s butt in spandex? Right in front of me? Seemed like a much better idea TWENTY MILES AGO!

8:19am I asked John if he thought I could pull off that sports bra on the woman we just passed. He said that he wasn’t paying attention. I call bullshit. We slow way down any time we pass a pretty girl.

8:23am yeah, he just cricked his neck doing a double take on a well-endowed rider.

8:23am So what if I have whiplash, too? She was hot!

8:27am helllllo, Marine-team pace line. Really, John, can’t you get this thing to go faster?

8:30am I think John just farted, but he claims it’s manure.

8:39am Really, big guy? Are you aiming for the bumps in the road? Some of us don’t enjoy sitting & getting pounded on the butt time after time after time.

8:40am Yeah, I just said that.

8:41am My own thoughts on sitting & getting pounded on the butt time after time will remain unwritten at this time.

8:43am Maybe that really was manure before. How do I know? Take this PSA: if John asks you if he should “turn on the afterburners,” just say no. I’ll take that manure smell over that used strawberry-rhubarb pie he ate for breakfast.

8:45am (he is still giggling)

8:49am Ok, that’s it, I’m putting the blog away to pedal. Gotta catch up to that Greek god on the bike ahead of us. He doesn’t know he’s buying me a beer in the next town yet.

I’m not going to bog you down with the details of every stop along the way, but all of the stop-over towns were set up pretty similarly: you worked your way from the camping area to the downtown area (either by walking, biking, or taking a shuttle), where they had a “town carnival”-type atmosphere (vendors, both local & corporate, selling truly bad-for-you food and some activities for the kids – usually a bouncy something and maybe a dunk booth), and then a “beer garden,” that you needed to get a bracelet for, where there was town-supplied (not Porkbelly-supplied) entertainment and, of course, beer (no longer free, though – that was only at the Porkbelly area).

Rather than recap every detail of each day, let me summarize the rides:

  • Sunday: Glenwood to Atlantic: Hot and hilly and crowded.
  • Monday: Atlantic to Carroll: Hotter and hillier, but far less crowded, with the absolute cutest little town we passed throughout the trip: Willey, Iowa. In Caroll, I ended up missing the sign to the camp site here, though, so I took a little inadvertent detour through town . . . for about 12 miles.
  • Tuesday: Carroll to Boone: The hottest day, but also relatively flat until the end. I did the 30 mile loop in the middle, making for a 100+ mile ride. Before heading into Paton for the second time on the loop, though, I had to pull off & recharge my batteries in the shade. It was simply too hot with no shade. I ended up “towing” several pace lines this day, as we started to pick up a nasty headwind that would stick with us throughout the rest of the trip (no matter which way we were pointing). I’m a bigger rider, so I’m not unaccustomed to looking over my shoulder & seeing someone trying to catch my draft. What caught me was when I’d look over my shoulder and see someone catching my draft, and someone catching his/her draft . . . onward. I know, at one point, I had at least 8 behind me. Also, Lance Armstrong rode this day – but, I managed to finish before him6. This also had the Boone hill, which was daunting . . . but, as I had ridden 30 miles more than most people, I figured I’d be stuck to the far right. I was wrong – most people were walking, and I went up the hill on the far-left (the space usually reserved for the freakishly good riders). Tuesday night saw me chatting the night away with a bunch of locals & some random riders in a used book store, and then laughing at the main band: Hairball, an 80’s hair-metal cover band.
  • Wednesday: Boone to Altoona: Relatively flat, and, well, a pretty boring ride, all things considered. All that made Wednesday a good “recovery day.” We saw our only rain on the trip, in the form of a quick & violent downpour, midway through the day. I saw Grand Funk Railroad and met @BikeAltoona that night, though, and both were truly marvelous.
  • Thursday: Altoona to Grinnell: the shortest ride, but deceptively hilly, with a steady headwind all day. I actually ate in a restaurant this night . . . mmmmmm, cajun pasta and bloody marys. This was the one night that I stopped & enjoyed the Porkbelly entertainment, as they had an Irish duo come in – they were really quite good.
  • Friday: Grinnell to Corralville: Back to hot & hilly. The headwind was such that I was having difficulty getting much, if any, momentum going on the downhills. The hills leading into Corralville were pretty damn big, but by this point, we were all used to that. Work put into the “hello” from Corralville was impressive, with college signs literally paving the way in . . . though I’ve never been one to be all that into college pride. We saw 38 Special in the beer garden here. They still have their hair.
  • Saturday: Corralville to Davenport: easily the worst roads that we dealt with all week – and less police presence along the way. I don’t know if it’s because these two towns were bigger than any other two along the way or what, but leaving Corralville was the first time that I felt like the cyclists were more nuisance than welcome on the roads. I also had mechanical issues all day – I broke a spoke, so I had to limp into a town. Then, just before the next town, I popped a tube on that same wheel – so I had to walk myself into the next town to get it changed7. From there, it was easily riding, where I ended dipping my tires into the Mississippi in Davenport, Iowa.

Mississippi in the background, Lucille above my head

Keeping vegetarian on the trip was a real hardship. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I managed it. See, I’ve never been a strict vegetarian, and I’ve always done it for health (not for moral or ethical reasons). I never asked if the oil the deep-fried cheese curds were fried in might have also fried chicken nuggets. I never asked if the pie crusts contained lard (because, according to Alton Brown, we all know that the best pie crusts contain lard). I’m vegetarian because I know that certain meat-products affect me adversely the next day. Funny, though, that biking an average of 71 miles a day makes all of that type of stuff moot. I didn’t go “full-blown meat-eater,” because, well, I didn’t want to shock my system. I’d eat, generally, as I cycled:

  • Breakfast: A breakfast burrito (egg, cheese, potatoes, salsa, onions, and mushrooms), a piece of pie (strawberry/rhubarb, peach/blueberry, cherry, or blackberry), and/or a cinnamon roll
  • Second Breakfast: A smoothie
  • Lunch: Something from one of the towns (a corn & black bean wrap, a potato pancake with applesauce, a freshly grilled ear of corn with butter, and/or an additional piece of pie, etc.)
  • Snacks: fresh fruit along the way (grapes, watermelon, peaches) and/or pickles (pickles really are key to keeping sodium in your body, and they’re really tasty)
Heading into Corralville

Taken by a girl operating a lemonade stand on the top of a hill outside of Corralville

Then, in town, I’d have something more substantial (a veggie gyro, or deep fried cheese curds (which are fucking delicious), or a big old bowl of pasta, or a slice of veggie pizza, or a big bowl of nachos with black bean & hot salsa8 . . . and always with an ear or two of freshly grilled corn) between beers.

Not all was great. Traveling with a team of guys significantly older than myself, I enjoyed getting into camp & setting everything up, knowing that they wouldn’t have to worry about being tired & having to worry about pitching a tent. It was one less thing that I needed to worry about among my team – but it also meant that I had to deal with them in the morning. I’d start hearing the camp stir between 4:30 and 5:00 in the morning, and I’d be awake. And I’d be ready to go 15-20 minutes later . . . only, they weren’t. And while I wanted to get on the road right then, I had to wait for them to finish their thing, because the tent had to go in my bag. So, I’d spend an extra 30-40 minutes finding stuff to do (refill the air in my tires, have another cup of coffee, take the trash bag around to try to keep the campsite clean, etc) while they got ready. Then, I’d strike the tents, get the bags loaded, and head off with a little extra bounce in my step (because, let’s face it, me on extra coffee is something else).

Then, Bill got sick. Well, over-tired. He pulled into the campsite on Tuesday looking miserable. Of course, this was the day that was ultra-hot, that I had biked over 100 miles, and I was near zonked. Overnight, Bill sweated like a pig and cramped. He didn’t make it to his bike the next day, instead taking the bus to the next town. But, he didn’t feel better there . . . he managed to set up camp, but, despite constant ingestion of fluids (water & Gatorade) and some peanuts, he just didn’t feel any better. And I hate it, but I took away his man-card and called his brother, a physician’s assistant, who instructed us to get him to medical attention immediately. Simply, if you’re a grown man who has Type 1 diabetes and, despite drinking water all day long, you’re not peeing, bad things can happen. Bill sat in an air-conditioned van for a few hours, allowed his body temperature to drop, and started to feel better (he actually got back on his bike the next two days before taking the SAG-wagon the last day so that we could get a head-start on the trip back home) Still, that whole ordeal was not fun.

If I did things all over again, I’d have:

  • Made doubly sure that every cent I spent was directly benefiting a community-directly, or a charitable group within a community
  • Re-applied sunscreen more often9
  • Taken better notes about the communities I was visiting, to more-accurately relate my visits
  • Eaten more10 and taken more time in the towns along the way
  • Better secured my sunglasses on a wicked downhill on a bumpy road when the sun was hidden behind some morning fog on Wednesday – because they flew off my jersey & into the unknown.

1 Native Tongue by Carl Hiassen and World War Z by Max Brooks
2 For those who aren’t cyclists, generally speaking, it’s much easier to get some place via bicycle than by foot. However, going uphill is generally going to be easier on foot.
3 There was not any real racial diversity among riders . . . easily, 99 out of 100 were white, though females and males were about equal.
4 I know this will shock all y’all, but I’m very comfortable just up & talking to just about anybody.
5 Our conversation went like this:

Cheryl: Hey, you’re that quiet guy from the bus!

Me: Um, I was kind-of hungover.

Cheryl: What does that mean?

Me: I’m not, normally, what you’d call a “quiet person”.

6 I may have started my day about 4 hours ahead of him, but still . . . I finished before him.
7 I’m fully capable of replacing my own innertube, but history has told me that if I had a flat on a tire that just had a spoke replaced, I had better have the wheel checked out . . . I had to have the rim tape replaced and the new spoke re-aligned upon getting into Durant.
8 This was in Carroll, Iowa, simply because the billboards put up by Graddy’s Salsa Company were too good to pass up . . . the salsa was pretty good. There was one, with a kid reading a newspaper while sitting on a toilet that simply read “if you think your butt hurts now…” and, really, how can you not eat salsa which claim that.
9 I ended up with some pretty wicked tan/burn-lines, especially on my upper arms & upper-thighs. It doesn’t hurt, but it looks nasty and I had to answer a lot of questions about it hurting . . . and I hate people worrying about me. Simply, I was sweating off the sun-screen, especially in areas that don’t get a whole lot of sun.
10 There were times I think I was drinking beer simply because it’s delicious my body was craving calories in any way / shape / form. I love my beer, I truly do, but I’m not a huge fan of chugging for the sake of chugging, and I caught myself doing that.
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18 Comments
  1. Sounds awesome, John. And you should definitely take the MadWoman along with you next year.

    • It really was an amazing experience . . . just constant cycling among the world’s most pleasant people.

      I plan on being pretty obnoxious about my ride next year to try to talk some others into heading out with me. More than likely, I won’t be doing RAGBRAI (though, it’s the 40th anniversary, and others from this year’s ride are talking me into going, but I wouldn’t mind doing another state ride, especially if it’s a little smaller), but if the MadWoman had a road bike and wanted to head Iowa, I wouldn’t have a choice.

  2. Cheryl McIlrath permalink

    What a great commentary, so glad Monica and I hooked up with you. Hope to see you next year!

    • It was great meeting up with you two, as well . . . I’m already looking forward to the next one.

  3. Great and hilarious recap, John. Definitely worth missing the Harrisburg Mile for.

    • How was the Harrisburg mile? I’m with a new company now, and they’re all happy to have finished 3rd in the corporate category . . . with an average time of 5’32,” which I don’t know if I could run if I were being chased by a crazed killer.

      • It was about 98 degrees, so not ideal conditions. I ran a 6:21 and I think with some track work I can get myself under 6, but 5:30…I think not!

        Otherwise, a good time as always with the beer tent and crowd support, etc. There was a corporate challenge team dressed as pirates. I’m guessing that was not your work!

        Feel free to laugh at Chris and I about biking, too. We were completely dying at the end of our 15-mile ride on the rail trail last night.

  4. OMG John. Awesome recap, flattered that you invited me along and yes, if ever I get another road bike, I will ride that with you.
    Though I’d prefer a hilly marathon….the buns of the competition aren’t distorted by biking shorts.

    And if I haven’t mentioned it, I’m in complete awe of your athleticism and ability to combine that with alcohol consumption.

    • I’ll admit that my eyes might have wandered over the rolling hills of the Gettysburg marathon more than they should have. You’re right, the bike shorts distort, but most people have a loose layer between the compression layer & the naked eye when running (or, at least, I do, but that might be because of bullshit obscenity laws), and they’re not there when biking (the padding is usually enough to keep the details hidden).

      And if I ever hear that you have a road bike, I’m booking your ticket 😉

  5. This sounds AMAZING!! Wow. Super impressed. And I don’t care if you started the day earlier than Lance, you finished ahead, and that’s the cool part!

    • That’s what I was thinking. How many people can say that they participated in the same event as Lance Armstrong & finished before him?

  6. Laura permalink

    What an amazing week. I will never do what you did so I enjoy the vicarious pleasure.

    • Thank you – it really was an amazing experience, from top to bottom.

  7. I totally would have said “Nice rack.” Even if I weren’t hung over.

    Which of course I would be.

    Probably.

    I’m also definitely jealous of your experience.
    I’m overdue for a physical/mental challenge.

    And pie for breakfast every day?

    Sign. Me. Up.

    So glad you had an amazing experience.

    Well-deserved, my friend.

    • Are you kidding? Once you found out that she was an ultrarunner, you’d have been planning races with her. She was super-nice (despite the rolling of the eyes at my lewd attempt at ice-breaking humor) and played Annie in her high school’s production.

      What’s amazing about the hangovers I was dealing with throughout the trip (some days were worse than others) were that they were completely gone by the time I got pedaling. One day, I got in & had to nap, but I blame the heat & humidity for keeping me up the night before more than the alcohol oozing from my system. But, you know, I blame lots of things on lots of different things, and it’s not often that the target of my blame is actually responsible for something I had to do. And, there are far worse things in this world than napping.

      And the pie for breakfast? It was some of the best pie I’ve ever had.

  8. Jenjen permalink

    X0
    I loved this: “…studied a t-shirt.” For some reason that sounded like me talking.
    And you looked someone up because you happened to be in their vicinity? That you’ve never “met ?”
    I’ve never done that.

    • I don’t think there is ever a comment I’ve received that made me smile more than when this notification came in. Missed you, Jenjen.

      The t-shirt was the first time I had seen an actual elevation profile of the ride . . . so, yeah, completely sat down & studied it “flat day three, so I can do the 100 miles, but I need to keep something for that big climb at the end…”. And, you better believe that I talked to myself like that throughout the trip 😉

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