The tale of RAGBRAI 2011

Here are some things I don’t really like: Lines. Crowds. Extreme heat. Unrelenting sun. Porta Potties. Suffering. Anyone who knows anything about RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) knows all of these things are an integral part of the event. When I signed up for RAGBRAI, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Hey! Let’s ride our bikes across Iowa! In 7 days! 450 miles, that couldn’t be so bad, could it? That sounds like a good idea and not hard at all! Let me just say that it is, in fact, hard. Very, very hard. At least if you’re me. Now, most people are not me, so maybe they will have a different opinion on the difficulty of this ride. But right now we care about my opinion (and to give you some idea of the crowds I experienced- about 10,000 people signed up to ride the whole week. I heard reports it swelled up to 22,000 during the week from one/two day riders. That’s a lot of freaking people).

Had I known beforehand the amount of suffering doing RAGBRAI would cause me, I’m not sure I would have done it. It truly was a miserable experience for me. The three things which most adversely affected me were the sun, the heat, and my saddle. Iowa, being part of the plains states, does not have many trees to offer blessed shade while you are riding. So riding in the full blazing sun all day is par for the course. I have no idea what the actual temperature was most of the time (I was too afraid to find out!), but I know it hovered around 100 most of the week. Add the extreme heat to the unrelenting sun and the humidity and you have the perfect combination to knock me out. I really don’t think I can adequately express how much the sun and heat makes me want to die. I can literally feel the heat beating on me- it feels like a physical pressure on my body. And this pressure is burning me up- like someone had laid a super hot, heavy electric blanket over my body. It presses me towards the ground and all I want to do is cry. Even though most days would be pretty overcast until about noon, when the sun did come out, it was brutal. My favorite days were either totally overcast days or the ones with plenty of clouds to offer relief from the sun.

THEN, there was the saddle. It transformed my bike into a two wheeled torture device. Because it pretty much felt like I was sitting on nails. Specifically two nails, one on each of my sits bones. And then when I went over bumps, it was like two gnomes were taking hammers and pounding them into my butt. And let’s not even talk about how bad some of the roads were in Iowa. When I was on the bike, all I wanted to do was get off the bike, but when I was off the bike, the heat was so much that all I wanted was to get back on the bike- a vicious cycle. Then the sores started from all the sweating and rubbing from an ill-fitting saddle. So then pedaling was a chore. It got to the point where I was dreading getting on the bike in the morning. But for some reason, every morning I would put my ass back on the saddle. And this is how it went. (check out more photos here)

Ready for the first day. Blissful ignorance.

Day 1: Glenwood to Atlantic: 60 miles; 4,298 feet of climbing

About half way through the first day, I thought, “If every day is like this, I don’t think I can finish.” The sun was out in full force and it was ridiculously hot out. It was the 2nd hilliest day, as well. It only took about two hours for me to become totally demoralized. The sweat was just dripping off of my face and the hills were causing me to feel like I was going to hyperventilate. I was off the back (of our group- there’s no back in RAGBRAI) by myself and wondering how I was going to make it. Luckily, at some point I ran into Shannon and she was kind enough to stay with me through the rest of the day. She would go on ahead, but wait for me at the next town or at the top of a particularly brutal hill. Her presence really helped get me through that first day.

Today was the day I had my first flat. Luckily, it happened within a short distance of a nice shady tree, so changing it wasn’t too much work. Except for the part where I forgot to put the tire back on before I inflated it- duh! So to avoid having to deflate the whole tire, I just took off one of the brake pads to get it back on.

Atlantic was a cruel end town. The sign welcoming you to Atlantic was about a mile outside the town and there was a steep little kicker right outside of town. We were staying at a family friend’s house and the route to their house was suuuper hilly. It had some nasty climbs and I was thisclose to getting off my bike, but decided I had ridden the rest of the day, so dammit, I wasn’t going to let this last hill break me! Shannon and I were the last ones in, at about 5:30. It was a long, hard first day, and I was glad to be able to take a real shower and sleep in a bed!

So. Many. People.

Day 2: Atlantic to Carroll: 65.5 miles; 4,719 feet of climbing

The day started off overcast and humid. That was perfectly fine by me- I don’t care how humid it is, as long as there is no sun! For whatever reason, today was not as horrible as the first day- maybe because it was not as sunny? The day went really fast, although I have no idea why. The shock of climbing also seemed to have worn off as well, as I don’t have much recollection of suffering much on that front.

Day 3: Carroll to Boone: 71 miles; 1,787 feet of climbing

It is safe to say that this day was the lowest point of the ride for me. The sun was out in full again today, I’m sure it was over 100 most of the day, and the saddle pain was reaching its heights, not to subside until the ride was over. The meetup town (the town, usually about halfway through the day, designated as the lunch stop) for this day was horrid. There was no shade anywhere, there was no nice place to eat your lunch, there was no chance of catching a good breeze. In fact, many of the towns we stopped in were not nice towns- just depressing little towns with no character. Today, when the meetup town failed to offer any relief or break from the oppressive heat, I just couldn’t take it any more. There were tears. There was drama. And there was Liza. She saw how upset I was and sent the others along and she shepherded me through the day. She put up with my crying and whining to help me get to Boone.

Day 4: Boone to Altoona: 56 miles; 1,147 feet of climbing

In keeping with the tradition so far that a bad day was followed by a good(ish) day, today’s ride was not so bad. It was totally and utterly flat- how those not from Iowa imagine Iowa is like. The one thing that really kept me going was the thought that I would be meeting some friends once we got to Altoona- although I felt bad because Shannon and I were so tired, we weren’t great company!

Unnecessary bike surgery

Day 5: Altoona to Grinnell: 57 miles; 3,202 feet of climbing

About 5 miles outside of town, I had my second flat (another slow leak). I was with my dad and as we pulled off and turned the bike upside down, this guy joined us and was like, “I can help!” then proceeded to start surgery on my tire. I just wanted to change the tube and get on with it, but he insisted we try and find the leak and patch it. This involved a lot of steps that seemed unnecessary to get me back on the road. While I appreciated his willingness and desire to help, I really didn’t need it and just wanted to stop wasting precious overcast minutes.

Once that flat was out of the way, it was a pretty normal day. The riding groups had been established by this point- Liza with her dad, uncle and family friend in the front; Shannon and John in the middle; and Dad and I off the back. The road into Grinnell was pretty brutal, with some nasty climbs the last 5 miles or so into town.

Tonight I got to sleep in a real bed, do laundry, use a proper shower and sit in the AC for a bit, as Grinnell is where my parents live. My brother who lives in California was also home this week, and I desperately wanted to hang out with him, but I was just so fecking tired, I barely made it past 9:00.

Day 6: Grinnell to Coralville: 75 miles; 2,681 feet of climbing

It felt weird to ride on roads that I’ve driven on countless times. It was a day full of rollers and by this time I had stopped caring about the climbing. It used to demoralize me when I would get to the top of one hill, only to see another on the horizon. Not anymore. Up, down, then up again. It started to have its rhythm. I just expected the hills to go on endlessly and they did. I can’t say I loved the hills or that they were easy, but the sight of them didn’t depress me anymore.

Day 7: Coralville to Davenport: 65.5 miles; 2,363 feet of climbing

The mileage today was average, but it felt like it went on forever. I got my 3rd slow lead today. I thought about changing it, but we were so close to the end, I thought, “If Johan Van Summeren can win Paris-Roubaix on a slow leak, I can finish this damn ride on one!” So I filled it with air and soldiered on. I was very ready to be off my bike and done with this ride. But…there was a part of me that was a bit sad the experience was ending. Not so much the bike part of it, but the rest of RAGBRAI that went along with it- the atmosphere, the traditions, the people. Even if the riding hadn’t been fun, just the experience of RAGBRAI was a little bit.  And thus ended RAGBRAI.

Total mileage: 454 miles

Total feet of climbing: 21,206 feet

Time dulls all pain so women will give birth to more than one child and so people will continue to do RAGBARI year after year. During the week of RAGBRAI, if you asked me if I would do it again, I would’ve said “HELL NO.” But a few weeks later it’s possible to remember the fun bits of the ride. I loved the sheer number of cyclists. I loved being around so many bikes, all the time. Bikes literally covered every inch of ground in the pass through towns. It was fabulous to see whole towns closed off to cars and to see bikes be given preference everywhere. I love the neat RAGBRAI traditions: bike parking made of cables strung between tractors; cornfield potty breaks; Beekman’s Homemade Ice Cream; the people who set up sprinklers or hoses for cyclists to ride through; the unique free water stations set up by the towns; afternoon naps in the shade; cyclists of all shapes and sizes; the musical bikes; advertisements for “free shade;” rest stations set up by anyone and everyone (especially rest stations set up at the top of hills!); High School pep band entertainment; pie; beer gardens everywhere; fair food everywhere. It was really fecking tough and most days I wondered how I was going to make it to the overnight town. I think only the fact that I never envisioned a scenario where I didn’t finish the ride kept me on the bike. Will I do it again? I’d consider it ONLY if I had a saddle I  knew I could sit on for 6+ hours a day without wanting to die. The heat and humidity- that I could get used to, as much as I hate it. And weather’s constantly changing. But your saddle- once that’s bad, it doesn’t go back! This year, I suffered every minute on the bike, and dreaded the thought of ever coming back. But…now…ask me again in January!

Things I learned while on RAGBRAI

  • when a Prius tells you it needs gas, it needs gas RIGHT NOW
    Outta gas at a toll station
  • Cornfields make suitable bathrooms (although I never had need of their services)
  • Although you may not be a big breakfast person when you start RAGBRAI, you will by the time you finish
  • Climbing is just climbing- turn the pedals over and get to the top, coast, repeat
  • Tree shade is vastly superior to tent shade
  • There is no right or wrong way to be a cyclist
  • Having big eyebrows would come in handy when trying to keep sweat out of your eyes
  • If you have forgotten to sunscreen one millimeter of your body, the Iowa sun will find it and fry it
  • It is possible to sleep through concerts, busing coming and going, noisy generators, and any other odd assortment of night noises
  • Iowa roads have lots of seams in them which, when ridden over, cause much bouncing and pain on the saddle
  • I really hate porta potties and will do almost anything to avoid using them
  • I love riding through the sprinklers by the side of the road
  • I don’t like to suffer and I’m whiny when I am
  • Sometimes 2 miles can seem like 15 and sometimes 15 can seem like 2
  • It’s okay to be slow. It’s okay to be off the back. (I’ve yet to fully convince myself of this, but I’m working on it)
  • Sometimes you can train a lot and not notice any difference
  • When someone is looking out for you, it’s easier to finish a rough day

    Liza and Shannon, my saviors