RAGBRAI XL – Part Five (A Legend is Born)


Day Four – Webster City to Marshalltown (77 miles):
The fourth day on the road would be the hottest and windiest day of the ride, our fourth day with temps near or above 100 degrees. We were expecting a front to come through overnight after the ride and someone on the route said, “If it rains, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to lay down in it and THANK GOD!” No one in my group would have felt much different. We were tired, and RAGBRAI isn’t as much fun when you’re just trying to get through the day’s ride. When it is just too hot to stop and enjoy the pass-through towns. When you need water more than you want a beer.

We got up, packed up, and said goodbye to the dogs who’d kept us company from their kennel overnight. Just after 6 we were headed out of Webster City and on the road south and east to Marshalltown. We stopped for breakfast and enjoyed the best that good people of Kamar could put together for so many people. I also was reminded of two important lessons regarding the ever present porta-potties (or “kybo’s” as they’re commonly called on RAGBRAI) on the route: 1) They are often lined up back to back, so there may be a line on one side but no line on the other. Always check. and 2) Immediately lock the door after you enter. Forgetting number 2, especially during number 2, leads to the kind of RAGBRAI memory you don’t want to have.

The route for the day was fairly easy, with long straight roads and pretty easy rollers, and if it wasn’t for the heat and the winds it would have been a really nice day. As it was, with winds over 20 mph and temps topping 100, we kind of had to grind it out. It was sad to see all the work the pass-through town put into welcoming us kind of going to waste. Beer gardens without shade were empty, as were fields where bands were setup to play. No one wanted to spend more time in the sun if they didn’t have to.

We passed through Jewell, “A gem of a city in a friendly setting!” and all agreed that it had the best motto. We passed through Ellsworth (Pop 500) and over I-35 before making it to the meet-up city at Story City. Part of the logistical challenge for the ride organizers is finding roads that can be blocked to most traffic without causing too much trouble for the surrounding towns. Police were stationed at nearly every intersection and we’d make sure to thank them for their efforts, especially in the hot sun, in keeping us safe. Traffic unrelated to the ride was pretty rare, mostly people who lived on the route trying to get home or away from home, and the occasional semi that was dead set on making a delivery. For the most part traffic was easy to deal with but occasionally we’d see someone driving way too fast for the conditions. Looking at notes from after the ride it seems a few riders were hit by cars or trucks during the ride.

At Story City we met up with Ross and the van, and with Pat who was taking the day off from the bike. They’d parked off the route and had scouted out the town to find places to eat. We lay in the yard of someone’s house, they’d put out chairs with a sign inviting riders to have a seat in the shade, and waited for everyone to show up so we could have lunch together. Ross and Pat had found a neat little cafe nearby so after everyone had arrived in town we hauled ourselves off the ground and walked over for a group lunch. It was nice to sit inside to eat, in the air conditioning, and to be away from the throngs of riders for a while.

At the Royal Cafe I had the best single meal I had on RAGBRAI, an absolutely sublime pork tenderloin sandwich. It was breaded in miracles and fried in magic. With extra pickles and onions it was exactly the right food at exactly the right time, and I enjoyed every single bite of it. It was so good that it completely overshadowed the dish of mystery fruit cocktail that came with it. We all had a great lunch and enjoyed talking with our waitress who, like our waitress in Clinton, caught the Team High Five spirit and happily wore a team sticker on her apron. We had a long, lazy lunch then walked back to the house where we’d left our bikes to hit the road once again. Before too long the wind and the heat made our nice lunch just a memory.

Over time it ended up being Laurie, Eric, and myself together in a little group headed for Marshalltown. Laurie is a strong rider who’s been working with a team this year for the upcoming cyclocross and mountain bike season. She’s tall, six foot since she was 12, and uses her long legs as powerful levers to make her way up the rolling hills by pushing a very tall gear. Eric and I would generally have to chase after her each time we crested a hill. Her legs were a frequent joke after she shared a slightly-creepy comment a teammate of hers made about how long it must take to wash them after a ride. Fortunately she was a good sport about it because her legs were a frequent subject of jokes and off-color ripostes over the course of the week.

We ground out the miles, passing through small towns every few miles, including St. Anthony, probably the smallest town on the route with just over 100 residents. Well, other than the town that was, literally, just an intersection on the highway. In the later part of the day the heat and the pace that Eric and I were setting started to get to Laurie. We stopped for a little while in one of the pass-through towns so she could get some food and sit in inside with some air conditioning. As we’d done with Bill the day before, Eric and I let Laurie dictate the pace and we did what we could to keep her out of the wind. We stopped when she wanted to and made steady progress toward Marshalltown.

Near the end of the ride, with the temps on the road well over 100, Laurie started to bonk. Going up a pretty large hill she started gasping for air, panting, her body trying to inhale even before it was done exhaling. I’ve had the same thing happen to me chasing my buddy Dan up some hills around Austin and it is a very uncomfortable, and scary, thing. We pulled over at a water stop at the top of the hill and it was like walking into a heat-stroke ward. There was an older man who’d pulled in just before us, puking and then collapsing. As we sat down the person who’s house was at the stop was calling for medics from a nearby aid station to come up and help. It was so bad that she stopped selling the water she had and just started handing it out.

While we were sitting there Laurie shared a story from earlier in the day. She was going up the hill, in her usual aggressive style, when she was passed by two dudes. She ended up riding near them for a while, and one of them looked over his shoulder and said to his buddy, “That’s her, that’s the mythical woman we’ve heard about.” He dropped back and explained to Laurie that they’d heard about this tall woman who was powering up hills like nobody’s business. Whether they were serious or just hitting on her is something we may never know, but it seemed a fitting description of our leader and we got a good laugh out of it sitting there among the burned out bodies on the top of that hill.

After recovering for a bit, Laurie wondered aloud whether a trip to the cornfield was warranted. Conversation, especially about bodily functions, gets pretty frank on RAGBRAI, and since the subject came up I mentioned a story from a recent ESPN article about athletes and poop. One of the stories in the article was about Paula Radcliffe, who pulled over to the side of the route in the 2005 London marathon and pooped in front of everyone before going on to win. I suggested that if Laurie really wanted to burnish her RAGBRAI reputation there was no need to go into the corn. She could simply do what needed to be done right there on the side of the road where we’d all come to a stop. Since there was already a sizable puddle of puke in the grass nearby a bodily fluid collection point seemed to have already been defined. It may have just been the heat, but “Laurie the Shitter” struck the three of us as really, really funny. Ultimately she elected to simply wait it out.

Near the end of the route we came across another Tom’s Tender Turkey stand and stopped. It was staffed by a bunch of high school kids and a little guy named Josh. He was hilarious and we had a good time talking with him. Eric and I had the brilliant idea of getting smoked turkey legs wrapped up to go so we could enjoy them after the ride was over. It was a stroke of genius, even though the damn things were really hot and burned your back while they were in your jersey pocket. Still, it was so worth it.

While we were there we met a grandmother and her granddaughter who were riding part of the the route together. They had dressed up with sunflowers on their helmets and clothes, and I’d taken a picture of them earlier on the road. The girl was eleven and riding a heavy mountain bike with knobby tires. She didn’t say a word, either because she was shy, tired, or burning with barely controlled rage at this stupid thing she was being made to do for her summer vacation. Probably shy.

While we were getting ready to leave I saw the only instance of RAGBRAI-asshattery I can remember. The road was slightly downhill then made a sharp right turn at an intersection. A young kid on a road bike, apparently riding by himself, came around the corner a little hot and drifted wide into the line of man who was overtaking him around the corner. The man managed to avoid crashing into the kid, but as he passed he yelled at him about staying to the right and holding your line. He was being a dick, and if I hadn’t had my hands full at that moment I would have jumped on my bike and ridden him down to tell him off. As it was we caught up to the kid that he’d yelled at shortly after getting back on the road. As I rolled by him I tried to give him a little pep talk.

“Hey, man, did that guy yell at you back at the corner?”
“Yeah,” the kid, who may have been all of 12 or 13, said, sheepishly.
“I’m really sorry he did that. He was being a jerk and he shouldn’t have done that to you. It is important to be careful in a big group, and there’s some things we all have to learn about how to do that, but yelling at you like that was seriously uncool.”
I gave him a high five, told him I thought it was awesome that he was out there riding his bike, and rode on.

We rode into Marshalltown and found the house where we’d be spending the night. It was right on the route into town, just a mile or so away from the square downtown where there would be a big party. We got off the bikes, put up tents and then sat and clapped and cheered for the other riders who were coming in. I enjoyed the smoked turkey leg I’d carried in from the ride. It was so damn good. Across the street some kids were setup with a hose and were squirting riders as they rolled into town. It feels really good on a hot day to get a quick spray from a hose or sprinkler. The kids were having a really good time and I walked across the street to get them to hose me down after finishing my turkey leg. After a while we dragged out our own hose and had a great time cheering and squirting riders. We also noticed a dramatic change in behaviour when the hose was being wielded by Laurie, the 6 foot hottie, than when one of the guys had it. She got lots more attention than we did, and the number of double entendres went up dramatically.

Once everyone was in town we rode downtown to get a spaghetti dinner at a church that our host family worked at. We got there late and were told they’d run out of food, but as we were riding away a kid from the church chased us down on foot to tell us they’d found some more food. We enjoyed our dinner and talking with some of the other riders, including the sunflower duo from earlier in the day. As we were leaving we saw building clouds and an impending storm, the rain we’d been hoping for was finally coming. The group headed back to the house while Ross and I made a detour to get some ice. While we were out the storm hit, hard, with a lot of rain in a very short time. A crowd had gathered in the town square, and as the storm hit we heard screams, of joy or fear I’m not sure. I enjoyed the rain and riding in it.

The rain came down on and off for a while while we hung out in the garage of the house and did some laundry. On the radar we could see a wall of thunderstorms headed our way. As the wind came up I was a little afraid that my tent may not stay staked to the ground, so I ignored the rain and ran from the garage to my tent. After drying myself off I settled in to ride out the storm inside my tent. Fortunately my tent stayed dry though the rain and I enjoyed a spectacular lightning show in relative comfort. At least it wasn’t hot. The rain let up sometime after midnight and I got some sleep, but not as much as I needed. But with the rain we’d seen the last of the hundred degree days and the remaining days would be more pleasant, if not exactly easier.

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