RAGBRAI XL – Part One

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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.

As the departure day got close I got all my gear together, most of it purchased just for the ride since I’d never done a multi-day ride where camping was required before, and packed for the trip. On the Thursday before the ride was to start I got up at 3am and hit the road to drive 850 miles up to Nashville to meet up with Pat, George, and the van and trailer we’d be using for the ride. The trip to Nashville was largely uneventful, notable only for being the first time I’d been to Arkansas and the first time I’d peed into a bottle instead of pulling over, and took an hour less than Google said it should (probably because of the bottle). It had been a long time since I’d been to Tennessee and I was taken by the beauty of the landscape, the hills and the green of the trees between Memphis and Nashville. A striking contrast from Texas and Arkansas. Pat and his wife were wonderful company and I enjoyed my last night in a bed for a while in their guest room while a thunderstorm rolled through town, lighting up the night with a nearly constant series of lightning strikes.The next morning George drove over from Jackson and the three of us packed up the van to drive the 560 miles northwest to Clinton, Iowa, the city where the ride would finish and where we’d meet the rest of the team who were coming to Iowa from Chicago and Ann Arbor.

Pat and I got caught up as we drove and George alternately napped and responded to Pat’s requests to tell stories about various rides that he or the two of them had done. George averages 55 miles per day and has ridden almost every trail or notable ride between the gulf coast and the great lakes. He had lots of stories. Pat followed Google’s directions from Nashville to Clinton, and we drove north through Kentucky, passed briefly through the southern tip of Indiana, then crossed the heart of Illinois until finally crossing the Mississippi river (second time for me on this trip) and getting into Iowa. Seven states in two days, 13,000 miles in 23 hours on the road. The drought that’s been hurting the midwest was very much in evidence as we crossed Illinois, with fields of stunted corn that often looked more brown than green. We wondered what we’d see when we got onto the route across Iowa.

Our first destination was the gym at an athletic center for Ashford University in Clinton. We drove around for a while, looking for tents because we thought this was a camping site, but eventually discovered we’d be sleeping inside the gym itself. Some others team members had already arrived and were at a restaurant on the river so we dropped off our gear and headed down to join them. If you’re ever in Clinton, you could do worse than to have a drink and some fried pickles at the Candlelight Inn. The place was packed with riders, and we found the beginnings of our team downstairs by the river, enjoying $1 margaritas. Within an hour or two, and a growing number of $1 margaritas, everyone who was going to ride had shown up and we spent the remaining part of the evening getting to know each other and enjoying the cheap drinks and amped up crowd. Our waitress was completely into the spirit of the event and our team, repeatedly running around the table to high-5 all of us and passing out out team stickers to other tables around the bar. We had a really good time and continued that back to the gym, hanging out just outside and enjoying a few more beers until it was time to turn in. Sleeping in the gym wasn’t that much fun, the room ended up warmer than it would have been outdoors and the noises of the building and the 25 other people sleeping there woke everyone one up at some point during the night. At 3AM I tried to creep across the floor to the bathrooms, but the floating wooden floor of the basketball court creaked and groaned with each step. The most unwelcome surprise was when they turned all the lights on at 5AM so that the people who needed to leave early to meet their charter buses could get ready. After a night of $1 margaritas no one in my group was ready for sodium lights before dawn. Pat woke up angry, at first playing it for laughs but as he got warmed up he actually got pretty upset, and got into an argument with whomever happened to be standing near the light switch. Afterwards he sent an email to the event sponsors and the first legend of our RAGBRAI was born.

We got up, got ready, then gathered up all of our bikes and gear and somehow managed to pack them into the trailer and van for the trip across Iowa. We stopped at a dinner for a big breakfast, carbo-loading on pancakes and syrup, before heading out of town for the seven hour drive from Clinton, the finish town, to Sioux Center, the start town located in the upper northwest corner of the state and just a short hop from South Dakota. The drive over was fairly quiet, everyone sleepy and in various stages of hangover recovery, but we saw lots of corn, soybeans, and cars and buses loaded with bikes. The buses are a particular RAGBARI tradition, old school buses and the like that are highly modified for use during this event, and only this event in most cases. I wondered how many of them, with jury rigged balconies, racks, and platforms, were allowed to get on the road by the police.

Somewhere along the way we passed a paddock of horses and Eric, the person I ended up spending most of my time with, was reminded of a joke:

Eric – “What does a gay horse eat?”
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….

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