Tag Archives: RAGBRAI

RAGBRAI 2015

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Happy to dip our tires in the Mississippi River and call it a week.

In 2011 & 2013 I wrote daily entries about my RAGBRAI experiences. This year I think I can summarize it all into one post.

First off, on Day One, Doug and I decided this is the last time we’ll do RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI is hard. It’s a lot of work for a “vacation”! And it’s not even the bicycle riding that makes it so hard, it’s dealing with the crowds, being surrounded constantly by other riders on the course, waiting in line for everything, getting up at the crack of dawn to take down the tent, get ready (including standing in line for the toilet), schlepping baggage to the truck, and trying to hit the road by 6:15 a.m. Et cetera, etc!

And sometimes the bicycle riding *is* hard. Our first day was 76.5 miles with almost 4000 feet of climb. That’s pretty hilly, and long. I actually had a good Day One, though. I felt that my hill climbing was solid, and not as slow as in years past. Day Two we awoke to rain overnight, and in the morning flew to the first town to beat more rain. After stopping for breakfast & waiting for a while, we rode in the rain for maybe an hour. I really did *not* enjoy this. I got cold, I worried about maneuvering on wet pavement surrounded by hundreds of other cyclists, and so on. But nothing bad happened & of course it got nice & hot later in the day.

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One of the many public libraries we visited.

Day Three was beautiful–good weather that was worth the price of a little rain the day before. 73 miles and not much climb, fun to ride…but at the end of the day I had no interest in riding the Karras Loop, which gives folks the option to ride one hundred miles. Day Four was the shortest day at 58.4 miles, but the entire day was a slog for me; I just never felt energetic. I had to grit my teeth and just do it.

Day Five was fun, 70.9 miles and we stopped at several small public libraries along the way. Day Six I can barely remember (wait–it was the day that a storm blew up and we camped out in a pie-serving church for an hour or two, and then we road in blustery winds until it got hot & sunny & humid & hilly again); the overnight town was Coralville, and I don’t much like the approaches into the bigger cities. They usually involve long ascents on noisy highways and finding our campsite gets more complicated… Day Seven was fun and fast (we hitched a ride to the midpoint and gave ourselves an easy day), and we got to cool off at a public pool in Davenport before being bussed back to Ottumwa.

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Pie. RAGBRAI is fueled by pie.

So that was that. The one thing that makes it hard to say we’ll never do RAGBRAI again is the friends we’ve made by joining Spoke Folk, the Ottumwa cycling club. This is the third time we’ve camped with several of the same folks, and they are the best. It’s hard to say “never again” to them.

I have concluded that if I choose to do another cycling vacation, a few criteria must be met:

  • it must last fewer than seven days
  • the mileage per day should be around 50 miles
  • the number of riders must be considerably smaller than RAGBRAI (15-16K riders per day, sheesh!)
  • beds, flush toilets, and easily-acquired meals must figure in

Hills

Last night my riding (and life) partner and I went out to ride a few hills. Here in north central Indiana you have to seek out hills, and it’s rather easy to avoid them. But in the spirit of preparing for RAGBRAI, I thought I’d better give the ol’ bod some idea of routes to come.

We took off through the Indiana countryside, made a few turns, and headed down a lovely, curvy wooded road that slopes down toward the river. Got to the bottom and rode along til we got to the practice hill, 500 W. It’s a very steep hill that goes straight up; spouse’s GPS reported that the hill was 140 feet high, fourteen storeys. Spouse zipped right up, but I downshifted to my smallest chainring early in, and used my lowest gear, which I usually try to reserve for emergencies. It was a slog…but doable. The worst part of it was how buggy the air was combined with my breathing through my mouth.* Oh, and the fact that 500 W hill doesn’t stop where you think it will–you get to the perceived top and there’s another 50 yards that continue sloping up at a gentler angle.

We rode home via Newman Road, which offers a couple more hills, including one that has a curve so you are never quite sure what’s going to happen. Then we rode to campus and up Hilltop Drive through university apartment buildings. A speed bump at the top added a little insult to injury. And this hill drill included a “mystery hill” that I won’t yet name in case any cycling club members read this (you’ll have to do the ride to find out where it is!). All I will say is, spouse was right that it was a hill I had never climbed, or even *considered* climbing, by bike. I made it about a third of the way up, and he nailed it. I’ll definitely try it again!

First RAGBRAI, hills filled me with dread…but I watched and learned from other cyclists passing me, and as days passed became a much better hill climber.

Second RAGBRAI, I looked at hills dispassionately. I wasn’t scared of them, and felt confident that I could conquer just about any hill on the route, as long as I took my time.

This time around, I haven’t ridden many hills this year, so I was kind of languishing in the fear/avoidance realm, but after last night’s ride I’m starting to feel confident again.

As Chloe always says, “I’ve never met a hill I couldn’t walk!”

* Note to self: Wear lots of lip balm so bugs and cottonwood fuzzies get stuck to your lips instead of flying down your throat!

Fourth of July tradition

IMG_0112For the past three years a small group of us has ridden to a town about thirty miles away to attend their Fourth of July fair, then ride home. It’s a lovely, almost completely flat ride out in the Indiana countryside. There is little shade along the way but this year the morning part of the ride stayed reasonably cool, and the afternoon never got terribly hot.

Although there is a variety of food available, our group gravitates toward the fried chicken plate with fries and slaw offered by one of the local churches. They’re usually really nice about letting us fill up our bike bottles with lemonade. We listen to the band for a little while, then walk around the antique car and tractor show and flea market before heading home.

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Our ride leader explains something to us, probably about history or agronomy

Sixty miles was the longest ride I’ve done this year. I was pretty wiped out when we got home. First day of RAGBRAI is coming up fast and it’s 76.5 miles. However, on RAGBRAI we get a little more rest because bottlenecks in the pass-through towns force you to stop and walk your bike, and we’re all about taking a break, eating a snack (such as a smoked pork chop), and filling up our water bottles, anyway.

Speaking of RAGBRAI, I had been worrying a little about the hilly first day. In addition to 76 miles, there will be 3900 to 4100 feet of climb (those different altitudes are posted at different spots on the RAGBRAI website). Ack! That’s like the second day of our Annapurna Sanctuary trek, which I felt was harder than my ENTIRE first RAGBRAI. But I looked up the climb from day #1 of 2011 and we climbed just shy of 4300 feet. I didn’t walk a single hill that day, and I feel that I’m in at least as good shape now as i was then (not to mention a better hill climber). Mercy! If I could do that then, I can climb 4100 feet this year. And subsequent days are much less hilly. I guess all I have to worry about, then, is the weather!

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Rivendell Man in his natural habitat

RAGBRAI training 2015

IMG_1491 Ride leader Gary waits while I take some photos

I have about a month left to train for RAGBRAI. Last night I did a 22-mile ride during which I felt a little worried about not being prepared enough. Then I realized that I’m probably right where I need to be, and that a lot can happen in the next four weeks.

After a six or seven week hiatus from working with my personal trainer (during which I went to Nepal and then Merlefest) I’ve been working with Matt consistently, even upping my sessions from two to three a week especially for RAGBRAI training. And I am feeling (more than seeing) results: I feel a lot more powerful in my hips while I’m cycling. I spring up from sitting in chairs more easily. My shoulders and back feel strong. When I walk, I feel very tall and straight, no listing to one side–as a matter of fact, I actually feel taller. In short, I’m not too far from strutting around like I’m a total badass. (That usually comes after completing RAGBRAI!)

To do for the next month:

  • Ride most days of the week;  body needs to get used to doing it day after day
  • Aim for a pace of 15-16 mph rather than 12-13 mph;  faster finishes will mean more rest time
  • Seek out more hills (remember, I live in Indiana);  RAGBRAI day #1 has 4100 feet of climb

Here are some pics from yesterday’s ride in the bucolic Indiana coutryside. On Tuesday evenings we usually ride past the Farmers Institute, a Quaker meeting house that was originally a college.

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RAGBRAI days #6-7

Thursday night we got to stay in a church in Oskaloosa, thanks to one of our camping group members. Pro: we were indoors during the overnight rains; spouse and I had our own bathroom. Con: even with my yoga mat and Thermarest, sleeping on the hard floor of the church nursery left me very stiff in the morning. Fortunately the rain stopped by the time we all got on the road, and despite cloudy skies we never got rained on. It was a cool, cloudy ride that I now barely remember! But when we got to Fairfield, IA, the clouds blew off and it got nice & sunny.

Our camping group ended up in a park…next to the train tracks. Fairfield has a no-whistle ordinance for the trains, but apparently the ordinance was lifted for RAGBRAI. And in the afternoon trains went by every twenty minutes, even more often than our first night in Council Bluffs. Therefore, we were happy to accept an invitation from Cathy and Mike, who live about ten miles from Fairfield, to stay overnight at their house. Spouse and I got to sleep in a luxurious bed, on a night when the temps dipped down into the low 50’s. It was the best night of sleep I got on RAGBRAI this year, with bonus coffee in the morning.

Today was day #7, the last day. It was very cool in the morning, unseasonably cool, and I was happy I brought a merino undershirt. Today’s mileage was 63, with some hills, but they turned out to be longer, less-steep hills for the most part, hills that I can ride up at a goodly clip. The last day of RAGBRAI tends to be fast and furious, as everybody is keen to finish up and head home. I was doing 18-20 mph on the flats, and getting passed by more people than I passed. But we had plenty of time to get to our bus for the ride home. Had to stand in line *forever* to dip our tires in the Mississippi River, but eventually our turn came; ironically that was probably the longest line any of us had waited in all week.

Overall, I had a really fun time at RAGBRAI this year. A week or so before we left home I felt really negative, and even told my spouse I didn’t think I’d be interested in doing RAGBRAI again after this year. But now I feel like RAGBRAI is an option on the table for future vacations. Sure, there were moments I was *slogging* up hills at 4 mph. Sure, my butt is kind of sore. Sure, I had to use some smelly portajohns. I got hot, I got cold, I got some scratches from tinkling under a tree. But the fun outweighed the downers. I met some great people, and felt really at home with our adopted cycling club from Ottumwa.

Now it’s time to put RAGBRAI to bed, and put myself to bed while I’m at it. I might as well abide by my 9pm bedtime one more night. Thank you for reading!

Day #5 has come & gone already!

Wow, two years ago my first RAGBRAI lasted a loooooong time, LOL. The first or second day I could barely imagine how the next five or six days would pass. This time the days have flown by!

Today’s ride was hilly again, big surprise. And I found that I was tired. My hands and wrists hurt, my foot was getting fatigued in the clipless pedal, my leg muscles are tender. But again I rode up all the hills as slowly as I needed to. Others in my camping group spoke of being tired today, so I was gratified to know it wasn’t just me. That said, I know I’m in nowhere near the discomfort I was in this time two years ago (thanks in large part, probably, to heavy use of Chamois Butt’r!).

Our first pass-through town was Pella, a very cute little Dutch town. Lots of good food! We fueled up on Dutch traveler’s sandwiches (big slabs of bread, ring bologna, Gouda cheese, & a fried egg) & Dutch letters, almond paste-filled pastries. Passed through a couple other towns. Ride was scenic, but the weather was not as good as yesterday. It turned hot today, and a little humid. We just drank and pedaled, drank and pedaled.

You can see just about any kind of biker on RAGBRAI. Well, demographically, mostly rich white people (and here I’m talking about rich by world standards, not necessarily USA standards). But you see all kinds of bicycles, and all kinds of bike riding styles, from the fastest guys riding the most expensive carbon fiber bikes in pace lines, to an 86-year-old woman riding a comfort bike “just for kicks.” Yep, I’ve seen her every day. So, even though I feel a kind of kinship of cycling with everybody here, I also have to acknowledge that not everybody rides like I do. I don’t have to keep up with anybody, and nobody has to keep up, or down, with me.

I’m grateful that my spouse chooses to keep pace with me. A lot of people come to RAGBRAI with friends, but they split up on the road and meet in towns or at some other point, like Mr. Porkchop or Beekmans ice cream. As for me, I think i would find that most lonely! I love cycling, and I love my solitude, but I’ve never been drawn to solitary road rides. It’s a social event for me. I feel the same way about traveling. Sure, I can do it by myself, and I have done it, but I enjoy it so much more when I’m sharing the experience with somebody.

Never believe anybody when they tell you,

“One more hill, and after that it’s pretty much all downhill to ____________.”

That’s what Iowans say to RAGBRAIers. Iowans who probably haven’t ridden a bike since they were kids. Iowans who drive everywhere & don’t recognize a hill in their car.

Dang! There were more hills today. But you know what? I now look at hills dispassionately. They are there, and I downshift and pedal up them.

Very steep hills will tire me out. They will strain my muscles. But I just do them, usually in granny gear and usually at 4 mph. And usually with one foot free of my clipless pedals, just in case I need to stop.

Long hills that are less steep are pretty much a piece of cake to me. Many people still pass me, but I’m not the slowest one, and I’m not exhausted at the top.

Today was a really nice day. The weather was great! It got really cool last night, and the coolness stayed with us until at least ten o’clock. And even after it warmed up, there was a dry, cooling breeze. I cycled well, although after several hills my butt muscles started to feel really tight, so we stopped for a massage by Julia. Julia & her husband Lynn set up a massage tent on the RAGBRAI route every year. This year they’re sharing farm space with Mr. Porkchop. Anyway, Julia worked on my muscles for twenty minutes, and I was on my way. I didn’t want to get any more relaxed than that when I still had twenty or so miles to go.

We had the BEST piece of blackberry pie at a Church of the Brethren way out in the country, several miles west of Monroe, IA. We later had good pie from the Kiwanis in Monroe. Later still, good pie at the Living Word Church pulled pork dinner–they admitted their pie wasn’t homemade, but from a very good bakery in Pella, which we’ll pass through tomorrow.

I still find it hard to believe how much more fun I’m having on RAGBRAI than I did two years ago. Some of the variables are quite out of my control, especially the weather. But It is gratifying to see my own changes, both in strength/endurance, as well as skill in cycling.