RAGBRAI XL – Part Four (104 Miles of Wind and Sun)

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Day Three – Lake View to Webster City via Karras Loop (104 miles):

[UPDATE FROM YESTERDAY’S POST] So it turns out I did take one picture from the second day. I had run low on cash and needed to get to an ATM, and the only one they had running in town was inside a bar. I went in to get cash and the bar was *packed* with people ordering beers, Bloody Marys, and Vodka-lemonades. It was 9 AM. A few days later I was talking with a guy who’d ridden in 25 consecutive RAGBRAI’s. He said there were two broad types of riders – water bottle riders and beer bottle riders. It was clear where most of the people in this bar fit.

The third day was going to be a long, hot, windy day. The official distance was just over 81 miles and there was an optional 23-mile loop to make the day 104 for those so inclined. We agreed that it would be best to get an early start, so we elected to wake up at 5 and try to be on the road by 6:00. Unfortunately, most of the other teams we were camping with had elected to be on the road by 5:30, so the early wake up was preceded by the sounds of 20 other riders taking down tents and getting themselves moving. As the sun was coming up we got ourselves out of bed, dressed to ride, and packed up. I was tired from not getting enough sleep, but felt pretty good and mostly recovered from yesterday’s effort. Eric and I agreed that today we would take it easy and try to get the Karras loop done with the fewest number of heartbeats.

It’s possible that I’m confusing this next bit with another day, but unless you were there you won’t know the difference, so I’m going to pretend that it happened this way – Since the first stop was roughly 12 miles away, we decided to stop for coffee at a roadside stand near our start. George thought this was madness and carried on alone, which would become a problem later in the day. Our stop was at a vendor that had setup a tent on the side of the road by a corn field. While we were standing in line, someone noticed a small marijuana plant growing in the ditch alongside the field and snatched it up. This was a bit of a novelty, although in fact you’d find these all over the place, and the people in line had two explanations – 1) Farmers are farmers, man, and if you can grow a little weed along with your corn and beans then why not? (or) 2) Iowa grew lots of hemp during WW2 and what you see now is just the by-product of a hardy weed that no one bothers to get excited about. It was eye-opening either way.

At the first town I had to visit the bike repair stand to get my rear wheel trued up, the only mechanical issue that I experienced on the ride. The rest of the group hung out in the shade and ate some breakfast. With so much food, and a group full of nerds, we came up with a slogan for our team jerseys (should we ever get them): “Team High Five – Ride like the wind, Eat like a Hobbit!” Breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea (ice cream w/ pie), dinner, supper (beer, mostly), pretty well described a typical day on RAGBRAI.

The bike repair took a big chunk out of my available cash for the day, so I had to be thoughtful about what I bought for food and drink as the day went on. I ended up riding the 104 miles on a hot dog, a few smoothies, a coke, a few coconut waters, and a bunch of water and Nuun. As the day warmed up the wind came up too, hard. We’d face nearly 80 miles of 12-20 mph headwinds for the ride as the wind blew out of the east and east-southeast all day. Crosswinds at that speed, and with these crowds, were kind of exciting, but the few times the road turned north and the wind pushed us along were really, really nice.

When we started the day most of us were saying we’d ride conservatively and see how we felt before deciding if it was worth the effort to tackle the additional 23 miles of the Karras Loop. Eventually Eric, Bill, and I separated ourselves from the rest of the team and worked together against the wind to get through the ride. Riding with Bill was fun. He’s a big dude, built more for wrestling bears than riding bikes, and strong as an ox. Tall, with broad shoulders and a solid gut, riding behind him in the wind was like riding on a trainer in my garage. On the rolling hills he’d fly downhill and then use momentum and his power to get over the uphill on the other side. But the wind took its toll on everyone and while we’d been easily doing over 20 mph the day before today we’d have to work hard to keep up 15.

Even at 15 mph we were still going a bit faster than just about everyone else. If I was going to do it over again I would take things slower on the road and spend more time talking with the other people. I did a little bit of that, but I’d come to RAGBRAI to ride my bike and to ride pretty hard, so I was happy with how the day was going. To get through the wind paceline groups were forming up frequently. We’d ride from group to group, carefully, since a paceline of strangers is a risky place to be. When I found myself on the front I’d get down in the drops and keep a close eye on my computer, watching my heart rate to make sure I wasn’t going too hard and would have something left at the end of a very long day.

The roads were nearly billiard table flat for most of the ride. The profile for the day showed just 1700 feet of elevation gain for 81 miles, with most of that coming from two climbs as the route crossed the Des Moines river. The Karras loop added another 700 feet of climbing, again with two climbs as we crossed and re-crossed another branch of the Des Moines river. Late in the morning we made it to the town of Dayton, the last stop before the Karras loop, and took in some lunch in what little shade we could find. I also took in a soothing application of chamois cream, purchased from a bike shop booth, as three days in the saddle had taken a toll on my primary person-bike interface. I was also taking care to keep sunscreen on my face, ears, neck, and arms. Adding a sunburn to the challenges of the ride would have sucked.

As promised, the residents of the senior center in Dayton were there on the road out of town to wave goodbye. The road also turned slightly downwind so we made good time for a little while as we left. Then the road turned back into the wind and we reached the turnoff for the Karras loop. Actually, turnoff isn’t the right description – the standard route turned north out of the wind, the Karras loop route just kept going straight into it. The traffic on the extra loop was much lighter than on the main route, but I was still surprised how many riders were willing to put in the extra effort on an already challenging day.

By the time we were out on the loop Bill was a bit tired, so the three of us resolved to let him set the pace and Eric and I would do what we could to keep him out of the wind. After a long 10 miles into the wind, the road started to get twisty and we had a very fast descent, a bit twitchy with a crosswind, over the river. We then had a little over 200 feet of climbing out of the river valley, which was one of the longest climbs we’d faced all ride. The grade was consistent and not too steep and I enjoyed standing up and getting up a big hill. I passed lots of other riders who were gasping and struggling as if they’d never seen a hill like this in their lives. Eric and I made it up and Bill followed a little bit later and needed to take a minute to collect himself. We found some shade just past the top and sat down for a bit, joined by a few other riders, while Bill caught his breath and cooled down.

Once he was ready to ride again we made our way into Stratford (Pop. 743), the pass-through town on the loop. They’d setup a luau-themed reception, but had run out of leis by the time we got there. We made a bathroom and water stop, picked up our Karras Loop patches, and headed out of town, finally getting a tailwind. We crossed the river again outside of town, a much steeper descent and climb than the first crossing. I got up over 40 mph on the descent. Some recumbent riders said they got over 50, and a guy in a fully-enclosed streamliner (which weighed over 80 lbs.) said he was riding the brakes to keep from going over 60. He carried so much speed down the hill that he said he didn’t need to start pedaling until he was nearly ??? of the way up the climb on the other side. Of course with so much weight to get up the hill he was going pretty slow by the time he made it to the top.

The second climb, on top of the heat and wind, put an end to Bill’s plan to ride the 104 miles. We took a break at the top of the climb again and nursed him back to Dayton but that was the end of his ride. He called Ross to pick him up in the van and Eric and I carried on together. We caught a tailwind out of town, again passing the soon-to-be-departed, and made our way up to Lehigh (population 500), the last pass-through town on the route. Situated right on the Des Moines river there were two significant climbs as we navigated our way in and out of the river valley. In the city itself they had a hill-climb competition up a city street with two very steep sections of over 20% grade. I took a look at it but decided I wasn’t dumb enough to try it for time. Rather than get something from the vendors on the street, Eric and I went into a convenience/grocery store and stocked up on drinks and some food. We also spent a long time standing in front of the refrigerated foods section soaking in the cool air spilling off the displays. After a too short break we hit the road.

The climb out of Lehigh was long and steep, and after nearly 80 miles pretty unwelcome as well. Lots of riders just gave up and pushed their bikes along the side of the road while others puffed and cursed their way along. I got to see one of the most amazing sights of the week as a father and son team on a tandem attacked the hill. The son, riding in the back stoker position (which I continually mis-pronounced as the “stroker”, to the amusement of my team) was maybe 10 years old and, again maybe, 60 pounds. Riding a tandem means you have to be in perfect sync and climbing a hill, especially if you stand up and get out of the saddle, is a hard thing to do. But the two of them were standing up and tossing the bike back and forth between their legs like pros. I followed them up the hill and congratulated them on an amazing display at the top. The dad said they were from Idaho and had spent a lot of time practicing together, especially doing climbs, so they’d be ready for RAGBRAI. The kid just grinned and gave me a high five.

After Lehigh was a long, 18 mile stretch to the overnight town of Webster City. We hadn’t been able to arrange for accommodations there so we were going to have to either stay in one of the crowded general campgrounds or hope for something special to happen. The plan was to go to the central information booth and look for a note or map to our team’s overnight spot, and also to check phones for a text message from Ross, the guy driving the van and managing logistics from the road. About 10 miles from the end of the day I had to pull off and get a drink and some shade. Eric and I stopped at a farmhouse where the owner had setup a stand with drinks and fla-vor-ice popsicles. He’d also pulled out one of the fans from his turkey house, which blew air at 50 mph and also sprayed a mist of water. Even though it was out in the sun, standing in front of that fan was a little slice of RAGBRAI heaven. Eric and I enjoyed some popsicles (4 for $1, the best deal of the ride!) and some shade for a bit then hit the road to finish our century. A double century if you take the 100+ temps into account. My computer had shown a consistent 105-111 degrees after leaving Dayton and we saw some posts later from people who’d measured 130 degrees on the surface of the road.

As we rolled into Webster City the road turned slightly downhill. With Eric just a bit ahead I took a moment to stretch and inadvertently birthed another RAGBRAI legend. After a long day my legs were kind of tight and my back and arms were tired. I stood up on the pedals, loosened my hips a bit, then stretched my arms and legs out and pushed myself backwards off the saddle to get my back. Unfortunately, when I tried to come back forward to put my butt back on the saddle the seam of my shorts and the padded chamois got stuck on the backside of my seat. I tried pushing myself back again and trying to come forward but I couldn’t get myself unstuck. Shit! This would be such a stupid way to crash. I tried to pull myself free by standing up straighter, but other than hurting my manly bits I accomplished nothing. Laid out in a awkward stance I pedaled a few strokes to get closer to Eric so I could tell him I was stuck and pulling over. He looked back and laughed and laughed, as did a few passing riders, one of whom called out “smooth move, slick!” as he passed by. I managed to get over to the side of road and stopped, thinking the whole time what a ridiculous way that would have been to die. Eric just kept laughing.

Without further incident we rode into Webster City. Ross had found a house for us to stay at, instead of the general campground, and had texted us the address. We arrived there to find some of our team, including Bill who’d ridden in the van after bonking, and our gear. The campsite was under a large chestnut tree and so every now and then baseball sized nuts would fall from it. We thought it wise to wear our helmets around camp. I set off in search of water, gatorade, and bathrooms after getting my tent setup and found them near the general campground. I’m so glad we didn’t have to stay there, it looked like a disaster evacuation sponsored by REI, with tents taking up every inch of available space. Having to walk 4 blocks to go to the bathroom was a fair compromise, although there were two dogs in a pen next door to us who would bark at little to no provocation throughout the night.

By the time I was back from my potty walk the rest of the group had arrived. Except for George. He’d ridden all by himself and finished well before the rest of us. He hadn’t had a clear understanding of what we were doing for accommodations in Webster City and didn’t know how to use his phone well enough to keep in touch with the rest of us. He’d left messages for Ross from other people’s phones after he got into town, but the two of them were never able to connect. We eventually got everyone together but it involved some hurt feelings and cross words and took a few days to get smoothed over. It happens.

We did take advantage of the towns pool, which had both a high dive and a large water slide. Jumping into the cool water of the pool after riding all those miles, with all the heat, hills, and wind, was a feeling I’ll remember for a long, long time. It was just the best. Being able to swim around and move easily in the water was just the thing for a body that had been stuck in one position for the better part of 10 hours. We stayed in that pool for long, long time, joined by lots of other riders and a fair number of locals. We stood in the deep end and heckled the people jumping off the diving board until the cool water had chilled us to the bone. Then we walked down into town and had dinner in a Mexican restaurant we’d found when we’d passed through town in the van on our trip west. We’d decided to come here after learning that we couldn’t get a pizza delivered to the house where we were camping. With so many hungry, tired people in town, the local Pizza Hut had run out of ingredients and had to close early.

With another long day ahead, and more high temps and high winds, we planned to leave at 6 in the morning again. That meant another night of not enough sleep, and a late night too as a nearby band played cover tunes until well after 11. Three Dog Night was also playing downtown, but we found sleep to be the more attractive option and passed. Maybe next time.

To be continued…

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