A few months ago I was asked if I wanted to ride in this year’s edition of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) by Pat Clements, the brother of my best friend from high school. He knew I rode bikes, thanks to the miracle of Facebook, and thought they’d have an extra seat in the support van for me if I was interested in joining the team he was putting together. My sister had ridden RAGBRAI a few years ago and loved it, Lance Armstrong rode part of it the year after he retired (the first time), and lots of other people I knew had ridden it or talked about it. At 40 years old, RAGBRAI is a cycling institution and an event that is on lots of people’s biking bucket lists. I thought it over for about 2 seconds before saying yes. I was going to be a member of “Team High 5!” for the XL edition of RAGBRAI.
Through Facebook, I got introduced to most of the other members of the team as we worked out the logistics of the trip. Those who’d ridden it before shared some of their experiences with those of us, myself and three others out of the 11 who’d be making the trip, who hadn’t – mostly promising that we’d have a great time as long as we were able to take things as they came. An unofficial motto of RAGBRAI is “If you’re not having a good time, lower your standards!” and that seemed like good advice for a week-long ride where just about anything can happen. Laurie, a Librarian at the Art Institute of Chicago who met Pat a few years ago on the ride, took care of registering and organizing housing for us and would serve as our de facto team leader for the week. The rest of the team was made up of friends, and friends of friends, from college at Michigan and Champaign-Urbana. Dan and Laura were friends with Laurie and had spent their honeymoon on RAGBRAI last year. This year they celebrated their first anniversary. Bill, Eric, and Ben had all gone to school at Michigan, where Eric had raced on the university’s cycling team for four years before going into grad school for his PhD in chemical engineering. Ben was joined by his girlfriend, Kiersten, who’s currently an engineering grad student at Michigan. Bill recruited his friend Ross, a computer security expert who discovered a way to hack pacemakers, to serve as our driver while the rest of us rode. Pat was joined by “Crazy George”, a 64 year old retired physics teacher and randonneur from Jackson, Tennessee. George had ridden with the group last year and his stories about riding over 100 miles on just two water bottles and without ever unclipping from his pedals were legend. As was his drinking and 3am tune-up rides. George would ride before or after each day’s ride, often after lots of beers, to make sure he was getting at least 100 miles per day during the week of RAGBRAI.
Us – “Dunno”
Eric – “Haaaayyy!” And the second of our RAGBRAI legends was born, as an enthusiastic “Haaaayyyy” became our greeting/non-sequitur of choice for the duration, right behind the “High 5” itself. It was pretty much guaranteed to get you a few sideways looks when lustily called out among regular Iowans on the route. As we entered Sioux Center we stopped for gas to make sure the van would be full for the first few days. Pat had some trouble getting the large van and trailer around the narrow confines of the station’s lot to the pumps and we inadvertently blocked a truck in for a few minutes. The driver of that truck was a corn-fed Iowa farmer, straight out of central casting. He was a round, barrel-chested mass of a man who took up most of the cab of his truck, close-cropped blond hair above his pink face, and huge cheeks that nearly hid his beady eyes. As he watched Pat struggle to maneuver the van and trailer, backing up and turning a bit, going forward and then having to do it all over again, he began to laugh. His body shook and jiggled as he laughed, just a few feet away from me through the tinted glass of the van’s passenger area. Without saying a word, I started a long, squealing laugh, imitating what I imagined this porcine chap might sound like giggling at Pat’s efforts. “Squeeehehehehehehehe, squeehehehehehehehe!” I kept it up, waking up everyone in the van, and they started looking around to figure out what the hell was going on. One by one they saw the man in the truck and understood what I was doing, and then they would crack up themselves. The third legend of the trip was born and my new goal was to try to make a team member laugh so hard that something came out of their body. I was surprisingly successful at this over the week ahead. Late in the afternoon we got the RAGBRAI Expo and were sent down the road to a lovely little park for camping. We found a spot near the bike path and set up our tents, me for the first time, and made camp as a team. The weather was hot, so I elected to leave the rainfly off my tent since it blocks just about all the airflow. After getting settled we hopped on our bikes and rode a mile up the bike path to the expo grounds to check out what there was to see. They had a variety of bike and equipment vendors – if you wanted to ride a high-end Bianchi, Giant, or Trek for a day you could sign-up for one – and plenty of fair food (roasted sweet corn, turkey legs, pizza) and drinks. We wandered around until dark, most of us wearing the only item of team apparel we’d gotten – a t-shirt that read, “Accepts High-5’s From Strangers”. We got more than a few High-5’s. After the sun went down we went back to camp and hung out for a little while, drinking beers and testing the limits of participatory democracy to decide on a time to head out in the morning for the first day of riding. We settled on 7:30. Sioux Center closed the night out with a surprisingly long fireworks show and we hit the sack just after 10:30. I woke up at 3AM wondering if the dream I had been having about a flashing light was significant. Then there was a bright flashing light, lightning, and a distant rumble of thunder. No rainfly. George and I both were in the same boat, and also in the smallest, one-person, tents. We hopped out of our tents at the same time, me to quickly erect my rainfly and George, older and wiser, to take his tent down and go sleep in the van. It was lightly sprinkling by the time I figured I’d done everything I could to survive a storm and crawled back into the tent. And then the rain stopped. And started, lightly. Then stopped. In the end we got lots of lightning, some thunder, and a few sprinkles, and I sweated through a few more hours of kind-of-sleeping until it was time to get up and hit the road for the first day of RAGBRAI. To be continued….