Farms directly butt against the town, fields of corn and soybeans. Alongside the road are helpful signs – “This is corn!” and “These are beans!” and that’s pretty much what you’ll see as your ride. So many people. The road is arrow straight and as far as you can see ahead and behind bikes fill the two-lane highway. Just a few miles out of town we get a reminder of what can happen in a crowd like this as a call goes up, “Ambulance back! Move right!!” Sirens. We slow and slide to the far right shoulder, getting off the bikes and walking. On the left side of the road a rider lies on his back being attended to by a few other riders. He’s being still but talking, lying on his back with his knees raised. The ambulance arrives and the EMS crew hops out, pulling a stretcher from the back. Pay attention, talk to the people you’re passing, don’t go too much faster than everybody else. You don’t want your ride to end like this, and we’ll see lots of ambulances on the route this week.
An early coffee stop breaks up the team as half opt for a quick cup and the rest press on to the first town. We’ll ride alone, in small groups, and in various combinations during each day but very rarely with our full contingent. Different attractions, a drink break, potty stop (in the corn frequently), fatigue, or pace preference will pull us apart and push us back together as the day goes one. On the road there are so many people, so many different bikes. The rides I’ve done before were geared directly toward the “amateur enthusiast” demographic, and the people you see are on road bikes and dressed in lycra. There’s plenty of that on RAGBRAI, but there’s also just about every other kind of bike and rider that you can imagine on the road as well. Hardcore touring riders, loaded down with their gear and beards; recumbents and tandems, the latter frequently being stoked by kids; elderly women in long pants and long sleeves, with floppy hats under their helmets, slowly pedaling hybrid bikes with big, comfy seats; middle aged guys in shorts and t-shirts riding department store mountain bikes with fat, knobby tires. If it can be pedaled it is being ridden by the young, old, fat, thin, fit, and disabled in Iowa this week.
Flat terrain and short rollers, such easy riding for so many miles compared to what I’m used to in Austin. And for today at least, the weather is nice too. Plenty of sun, but not too hot and not yet windy. We’re making good time, riding at a moderate and consistent pace, but I’m fighting the urge to cut loose and see how fast I can go. I stay with our group, which is working in an efficient paceline. I learn the etiquette of the ride – “On your left, thank you, on your right, car back, car up, bike off right, bikes on, riders up” The landscape slides past – corn, beans, repeat.
The first town is only 10 miles away, Orange City, which is playing up its history as a Dutch settlement with townspeople dressed as they would have in Holland in the 1800’s. We get coffee and various almond danish and sit for a while and soak up the scene. On the way out of town they have troughs filled with water, signs reading “Dutch Hot Tubs” on the side. A cobbler is making wooden shoes and people pose for photos. Back on the road I can’t hold back, so I cut it loose for a little bit to ride fast, somewhat recklessly I realize as I’m picking my way through gaps among the riders. I learn to be patient, pass only on the left, give people warning as I approach. I pull over and wait for the rest of the team on the outskirts of a pass-through town. We ride into Marcus, Iowa, the “meet-up town” where teams can find their busses or vans and where there’s usually something special. We grab lunch from vendors on the streets and then enjoy beers and air conditioning at the Old Panhead Lounge, a local bar listed in the “Team Good Beer Bar Guide”. They’ve got Blue Moon on tap and cans of Hamms for a buck, so I get one of each. Beer on a bike ride is a novelty, but it is an indisputably good thing.
The rest of the afternoon is just a pleasant 20 mile ride to the finish. Pleasant except for the melting tar. The roads in Iowa, especially the minor secondary roads we’re on, take a beating between the freezing in the winter and the heat of the summer. The road cracks, especially along the centerline, and the cracks are sealed with tar. This is fine for cars, albeit a bit bumpy, and for the most part the road we were on were as good or better than roads I’ve ridden around home. But in the hot summer sun the tar gets soft and melts. I’ve seen that be an issue on the mountain roads in the Tour De France, but this was my first time dealing with it in real life. The soft tar would unsettle your bike every time you went over it. It wasn’t enough to throw you off, but it was unsettling and if you overreacted to it you could have a problem. It made crossing the centerline to go around slower traffic, something we’d do often, an experience. The rough roads also meant the occasional bump that was bigger than the others. Inevitably you’d hit this bump while you were holding on with one hand and getting a drink in the other. I nearly came to grief from these surprise encounters a few times.
Half of the team arrive in Cherokee together around 4PM and Laurie leads the way to the house where we’ll be spending the night, camping in the back yard. I felt great for the whole ride, but as soon as we leave the route and start heading out of town fatigue sneaks up on me and grabs my legs. We have to climb away from town and my legs don’t want to go. We head out for a mile or two along a busy road – Hey, Cars! – and then turn off towards the house. We turn onto a road that goes up, steeply, the first proper hill on the ride so far. I don’t want to climb it. And mercifully we don’t have to, as there’s a sign on the lightpole at the base of the hill that says “Welcome Team High 5” and points off to a side street. So happy to see that sign, the best thing I’ve seen all day. We follow signs to the house where we’ll be spending the night and find that some other team members have already arrived. We get our stuff unpacked and setup for the night and then enjoy a nice shower, some air conditioning, and the best Sloppy Joe dinner I’ve ever had.
Our host family is a single mother and her seven year old daughter, Narissa. Once Narissa gets over being shy, she’s delighted to have a dozen new eager playmates and we all have a ball playing around with her while we relax. After dinner, while Eric (who Narissa really took a shine to) was resting on the floor of the living room, Narissa carefully and completely decorated him with things she found from her room, including a dozen SpongeBob DVDs, pajamas, and stuffed animals. He was so cute. At some point we taught Narissa about holding your pinky up as you drink (maybe from SpongeBob?) and that the higher you held it the “extra fancy” it was. Another RAGBRAI legend was born, as “Extra Fancy” with a pinky held aloft above the head became a frequent gesture among the team. We took in a round of bowling at the lanes down the street and pitied the radio station that was sponsoring a party in the parking lot that had attracted exactly zero attendees. It was another hot night in the tent, another unexpected rain shower after midnight, and a few less hours of sleep than I would have like to put an end to the first day on the road.
It was a great introduction to RAGBRAI.
To be continued…
Getting dressed inside a one-person tent is a bit of a trick, but I manage with my dignity largely undamaged and having only put my shorts on backwards once. Getting your gear packed up is an “every person for themselves” activity with this group, and it will be a few days before I have my stuff sorted out properly to have essentials and nonessentials in the right place and separated. Eventually we’ve all got ourselves ready to ride and the van packed up with our bags and tents, chairs, and coolers. We get some pictures of the team on our first day, a portrait and an action “high-5” shot. Pat takes a Sharpie to my legs and writes “Virgin” on my calves so everyone will know it is my first RAGBRAI. It’s a ride tradition, although later in the day I saw a young girl riding her first with “Maiden” on her calves. Classy. By 7:45 or so we’re ready to roll out.
Our campsite was right on the route out of town and one of the things that I noticed, even before it was light, was the constant stream of bikes rolling past. There are 30,000 people who’ll participate in the ride at some point during the week, so many that you never will see the beginning or end of RAGBRAI. It is just a continuous stream of bikes and bodies rolling across the Iowa countryside that pools up at night in various towns. The ride profile shows that we’ll be gradually descending all week as we head east, so we’re starting pretty near the highest point of the ride as we join the riders leaving Sioux Center. “It is all downhill from here!” I call out as we hit the road. Of course the first thing we see is a slight rise in the road, “Oh yeah, then what’s that?” came the response from a teammate.