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Is this heaven?

August 19, 2010 Fear, Fido, Fitness, Food, Friends, Fun 3 Comments

At long last, I have organized my thoughts about RAGBRAI for your reading and viewing pleasure. Rather than drone on in chronological order about what we did every day, I’ve categorized a few choice stories by F-words. I’m including several photos in-line, and you can check them all out here.

FIRST THINGS FIRST
RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. It’s pretty much a week-long party on two wheels. I grew up in Iowa and have always known about it, but I’ve never done it. When my local friend Caryn said she was considering doing it with a few friends… and then my friend Ryan said he was considering doing it with a few friends, I knew this was the year to lose my RAGBRAI virginity.

We put together a team — the PIEromaniacs — with members from all over the country. Kirsten and Jennifer drove a 15-passenger van from Salt Lake City. Corinne offered to be our SAG driver, all the way from Washington, D.C. Jeff and Caryn flew in from Folsom. Chris calls Santa Cruz home. Greg and I live just south of San Francisco. Planning for a week of camping with people you’ve never met before over email is difficult at best. We probably weren’t as efficient as we could have been, but we all arrived in good spirits and ready to have fun. And we did!

Our days went like this: we woke up somewhere between 6 and 6:30 and slowly came to life while other teams were already leaving for the day. Kirsten and Chris would entertain us for 20 minutes or so, wrangling their tent into its bag. We’d all set our gear at the back of the van where Jennifer and Corinne almost always got stuck packing it. The team would leave camp together, but then quickly break up as people stopped for breakfast or photo ops along the way. Greg and I usually rode to the meet-up town before stopping, though sometimes he’d find a smoothie stop with a reasonable line. As I was enjoying a beer around 10 AM in the meet-up town, we’d send a text to everyone and often it worked out that we’d see Jeff and Caryn there. The other three were having their own fun, taking their time immersing themselves in Iowa/RAGBRAI culture. Corinne would send a text around 1 PM, letting us know where she had set up camp. We’d roll in to the campsite and find our tents/luggage all set out, a cooler full of chocolate milk and other non-alcoholic recovery beverages, and a cooler full of beer, wine, and snacks. Have you tried the Dill Pickle Kettle Chips? Delicious! We’d drink awhile at camp before some of us would find a swimming hole and others would find a shower. Then we’d wander into town for dinner, entertainment, and more drinks. We were usually in bed before 11 PM.

Of note: Corinne had never been camping before. Ever. She deserves extra points for making her first camping excursion a week-long endeavor with people she didn’t know and in a situation that required you to set up and break down camp every day. That alone is hard-core. Add in the heat and humidity and lack of showers and electricity — she was out of her element! What a trouper!

Here’s the story from where I sat:

FITNESS
This is a big one, and let me start with what this ride entailed: 462 miles (including the century loop) and 14,527 feet of climbing over 7 days. For you non-math majors, this averages out to 66 miles a day.  From a physical endurance standpoint, I was fine. I ride my bike year-round, in addition to other things like swimming and running and yoga and housework. My legs were certainly tired by about Day 4, but it was nothing like the relatively “acute” endurance required for a triathlon. Several of us have done the Death Ride, and that’s 15K feet of climbing in ONE DAY. But just because I personally was more-than-prepared for it, I have to hand it to many people we saw along the way. People on crazy bikes like unicycles and penny farthings, people 50+ pounds overweight, families of 5 or 6 on extended tandems, people carrying their own saddle bags with camping gear, our teammate Jeff who had never ridden a road bike…  It’s not like you could come off the couch and do this ride easily, even if you stopped at every road-side stand and little town. Even in “the best shape of my life,” there have been days at home when I would want to die after a 50-mile ride and I wouldn’t have to get on my bike for another three days. There was no choice in this endeavor — you got on your bike the next day whether you liked it or not.

This was my first experience touring and it required a completely different kind of endurance for which I was ill-prepared. You see, I am a master at cross-training. My butt has never had to endure seven days in the saddle. Or seven days in cycling shorts + humidity. I AM A DELICATE FLOWER, GODDAMMIT. I rode with my sister on Day 3 from Algona to Clear Lake. By the time I pulled into our great campsite, I wanted to write the rest of the trip off. Greg fixed me a stiff drink while I changed into my bathing suit and we rode our bikes the short distance down to the lake to cool off. I didn’t put my butt on that seat even once on the way there or back. Nosireebob. We went into town that night to hang with my sister and watch the Spin Doctors come out of retirement. I was ridiculed by many for “looking good” because I was wearing a dress. Yeah, folks. I’m not wearing this dress for your sake. Have you seen the dudes in kilts? They’re not Scottish.

COMMANDO, BABY!

My fellow PIEromaniacs were concerned about my ability to ride on Wednesday, but I was adamant. Greg and I went into an empty tent with a first aid kit and some diaper rash cream that morning. He emerged, surgeon-like, with scissors in one hand saying, “Does anyone have duct tape?” Amazingly, no one did!! We made do with medical tape… I donned two pairs of cycling shorts in addition to the “padding” he provided and swallowed a handful of Advil before starting. As soon as we loaded everything up and hit the road, I noticed I had a flat… Greg, my faithful mechanic, fixed me up and we were rolling in no time.

The only other thing I’ll say about FITNESS is that the last day required a lot of it. We were all tired. It was a lot of camping. A lot of drinking. A lot of eating less-than-nutritious food. A lot of miles. Yet, we all knew that the last day involved Potter’s Hill. I wasn’t sure what to expect (although apparently there was a lot of talk about it on the RAGBRAI forums). It was a beautiful day of riding and the terrain seemed much different than it had since just coming out of Sioux City. It almost felt like California! *GASP* There were curvy roads with big hills and descents. It was a really fun day to ride! Well, we hit Potter’s Hill pretty much as a team and it was clear that This Was The Climb. It was California-esque for sure! There was a guy at the bottom of the hill with a sign that said it was a 19% grade, but this was clearly a scare tactic. Our team made it to the top without walking — ALL OF US!! We stopped there (minus Caryn, who was pushing hard toward the finish line) for a free beer and $1 donation for a photo op. I think we all assumed — and hoped — that this would be the last hill of the day. It wasn’t. Riding into Dubuque, the final destination, wasn’t easy at all. Everyone who finished felt a true sense of accomplishment from that day alone, forgetting what the entire week had dished out.

FOOD
A lot of people ride RAGBRAI for the food. Our team name is PIEromaniacs for a reason!!  Alas, I am not one of them. Who am I kidding? Don’t forget the underlying premise for this blog is “How Many Calories Does Fear Burn?” I am not looking to gain weight on this endeavor!! If it was “worth it,” I’d be eating it. But for me, this is not the Holy Grail of food. I don’t eat red meat and I try not to eat pork because pigs are smarter than dogs and I feel bad for them. It’s why the National Pork Board‘s ad campaign says, “Pork: The Other White Meat” and not, “Pigs: They Sure Are Smart.”

When I was questioned about my no-pork-eating-and-yet-I’m-an-Iowa-native status, someone along the ride said, “I don’t feel bad about that. Only the dumb ones get caught for the slaughter.” Oh really? Hmm… I see a business venture here for the smart ones. Call it, “This Little Piggy Went To Private School” — and good luck with enrollment!

I also don’t love pie. There was a lot of homemade pie to be had, usually prepared by fine Christian women at fancy churches. There were also a lot of Mrs. Smith’s frozen pies to be had, baked by women who live along the RAGBRAI route (these women may or may not be Christian). My friends who do love pie were smart enough to ask which ones were homemade before buying. And God love ’em, they always gave a donation, even if they traveled on for the homemade goods! I do love the sugar high from Scotcheroos, though, and I said all along that these would be my guilty pleasure while there.  Wouldn’t you know I didn’t find a single one until we stopped at a gas station 50 miles after the ride?? I bought one there and it was delicious. Totally worth it.

Contrary to popular belief, I do eat breakfast every day — but rarely do I eat breakfast foods for breakfast. So, stopping to wait in line for Chris Cakes pancakes or the Farm Boys’ burritos held no appeal for me. LOOK AT THOSE LINES. You would think these people hadn’t eaten for 10 miles! I mostly ate at places that had the shortest lines. Lines became a real drag along the way… Food, bathrooms, booze, anything worth seeing, etc… Greg and I often ate dinner at a booth that sold Chicken-On-A-Stick and grilled vegetables. Their banner also mentioned something about being “award-winning.” Hooray! We probably ate this three or four times and it was delicious. Otherwise, I ate my own breakfast in the morning (banana + protein bar) and then drank my lunch (beer or bloody mary) and shared whatever Greg was having along the way.

On Day 5, Ryan and I caught up with each other and had a great ~15 miles of riding together into Parkersburg. We got there and were walking our bikes through town and there was NO LINE at the pizza booth. So I was like, “I’m getting this veggie slice. I don’t care what anyone else is doing. No line? Me + instant food = Awesome.” I felt like I had avenged the previous days’ waiting with that one incident. Ryan had to do a little bit of jockeying for his meat-laden slice, but it was well-worth it. We met up with Greg and Michael elsewhere in town and they were like, “Where’d you get that so fast?????????” Not only was it fast food, it was tasty!

If you haven’t gotten the picture by now, food is obviously a big deal and every overnight town did as well as they could to serve the 10,000+ hungry people who invaded them each night. We quickly noticed that the same vendors were in each overnight town. This was effective in accommodating the crowds, but you got less of the “local feel” for what X-Town had to offer. The churches would usually host a “Pasta Feed” of some sort and the local restaurants would try to accommodate the crowds, but it was clearly difficult. And have I mentioned that I/many don’t eat meat? These pasta dinners were largely made with meat sauce…

I was a little surprised that so many vendors followed us along the whole route. It REALLY began to feel like Groundhog Day. You woke up in a campground each morning, you rode your bike on a grid through cornfields and soybean fields all day, and were offered the same food choices along the way. I realized that it was some sort of “rite of passage” and by the end of it, Greg had gotten at least one Farm Boys Burrito, we both got Pastafari, and he got a Turkey Tom’s after climbing Potter’s Hill. Between the two of us, we didn’t get Chris Cakes or Beekman’s Homemade Ice Cream. The Pastafari was expensive ($14 or $17, depending on your choices), but it was very good. We stopped on the rainy day, so there were no lines. They served a penne pasta with either a spicy red sauce or a homemade pesto sauce. The added grilled vegetables to each one and we added on a grilled rosemary salmon. Worth it, especially on that cold day.

I know I am picky on the food front, so don’t judge the ride on my opinions…

FRIENDS
This is where every dollar, every mile, every Wet One, every Budweiser, and every Band-Aid became WORTH IT. When I signed up, I knew I was doing it with friends. This alone was worth it. I also knew I was meeting new people — the members of the PIEromaniacs. I had no idea what fun I’d have with these people!

Greg and I got a late start on the first day, so I was on the lookout for friends in the first meet-up town, Washta. I saw college friends first — Michael and Ryan. I was in a ridiculously long line for a Garden of Eden burrito (BTW – not worth it), so we got to catch up there. I was glad to see them on the first day, knowing we’d be looking for each other along the way all week long. They got an awesome lake-side spot in Storm Lake that night, and we rode our bikes down from our campsite to say hello. I got to see Marcus after 15+ years before we took a dip in the water that evening.

I saw many people from Lenox along the way: my dentist, my high school volleyball and track coaches, my high school shop teacher (yes — I took shop!), and my parents’ accountant. It was great to take note of people’s jerseys and say hello while riding. I felt the same sense of community riding among these tens of thousands of people as I had always felt living in my small town.

The overnight town on Day 5 was Waterloo, which is adjacent to Cedar Falls. A bunch of us (me, Ryan, Michael, Marcus, etc…) went to undergrad there at UNI and we were excited to be back in our old stomping grounds. My BFF Sarah drove 5 hours to meet us there, as did Michael’s wife+kids and sister. It was a great reunion! I drank so many vodka lemonades in Dike that the boys loaded my bike into Sarah’s Jeep and she drove me the final 20 miles in to the campsite in Waterloo. There, we collected Greg, our luggage, and the team’s laundry to stay at Sarah’s parents’ house that night. A REAL SHOWER! A REAL BED! We all met up at an old favorite bar on College Hill that night and had a great time.

After a rainy ride from Waterloo to Manchester on Day 6, the skies cleared and it was a nice evening in Manchester. The Nadas were playing that night and they did not disappoint. Adding to the fun, another college crony, Aaron, met us! It was just like having the old gang from 2106 Merner back together again. I felt fortunate this year, getting to see this group of college friends twice in one summer — the first time for Ryan’s wedding in June and now for RAGBRAI.

Another great surprise for me was having my college friend Kevin drive an hour to meet us in his hometown of Dyersville on Day 7. Kevin and I had partied in D’ville a few times during college, so it was great to be back there again. We had a couple of bloody marys at The English Pub before we said our farewells to him and his family and headed out of town. I was so grateful that he made the trip to see me. This is what true friendship is! Outside of Dyersville, we stopped at the Field of Dreams movie site. They built it, and we came!

In addition to hanging with current friends and seeing old friends, I know I have made life-long friends in the people on my team. Going into it, they were merely friends-of-a-friend and email aliases. After spending a week living and breathing and drinking with these people, we are truly friends. I look at it as an added benefit of the ride! We’ve already shared quite a bit of banter on Facebook and I look forward to visiting Chris for a triathlon in Santa Cruz next month and skiing with Jen and Kirsten in SLC next winter.

FUN
There were a lot of fun things along the way. It’s kind of weird because I think I “took them for granted” in a way. Having grown up in Iowa and visited most of these towns before, I probably didn’t look at everything with the same set of eyes as a newcomer. I didn’t stop to explore The Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend on Day 2; my grandma took us there when we were kids. I didn’t explore the fossils in Rockford on Day 4. I was drinking in Dike instead of hitting the water park in Waterloo on Day 5. I wasn’t with Jennifer to reapply my lip gloss for every photo op. But we certainly had our share of fun!

Our night in Clear Lake was arguably the best of the whole week. Given the less-than-great ride into town, the evening turned out to be pretty epic (which is maybe an oxymoron). My sister got to town before I did and randomly ran into Ryan and Michael at a bar. Reunion!! Bonus — that bar was air-conditioned. Then Wolfman Jeff and I met up and high-tailed it into the park and down to the third row of the Spin Doctors show, where we ran into every other member of our team. Iowa really is just one big small town! Upon seeing the shuttle lines, we all opted to hitchhike it home — a first for me!! Greg and I walked back through town to find a ride and stole a few kisses during the fireworks show. Bonus #2 — I couldn’t feel my wounds by this point. This night ended with a fantastic thunderstorm and sunny skies the next morning. It just doesn’t get much better than that!

In Algona on Day 3, we went to a bar with live music. Jeff set up an impromptu Musical Chairs game and our team played to the finish — and won sweet Bud Light wristbands for our efforts! Jennifer was mildly harassed by the musician for shaking her tambourine a little too well… All in good fun! The boys found the best swimming holes to cool off each day — Storm Lake and Clear Lake are obvious winners, but we found a small pond in Charles City and the guys found a small river in Algona. We stopped for quite awhile in Cartersville on Day 4. They had a big setup around the “town pond” here, with a trapeze-like rig for big jumps. They also had several games of corn-hole (probably not the official name) set up as well. Oh – and no lines for beer. So that was fun!

As with most things, there were some un-fun things:
Our flight out of SFO at 5 AM was delayed, and we knew we were going to miss our connection in Denver…which meant we were going to miss the team shuttle from Omaha to Sioux City. We opted to have our flight rerouted to Des Moines, where my parents left us a car and we drove the 3+ hours to Sioux City that night. Our teammate Chris suffered similar delays and didn’t get to Sioux City until after midnight.

I lost my camera on the rough road leading into Clear Lake. BOO! I even got off my bike and searched on foot for 30 minutes, to no avail. The pictures you see in the Flickr feed are from Greg’s camera and ones I’ve heisted from friends. Thanks to Ryan, Jeff, Kirsten, and Jennifer!

Greg’s rear wheel basically disintegrated on that same rough road into Clear Lake. He is pretty sure its integrity was compromised because he was riding so fast that day. Yeah, right… He stopped by the Specialized tent for a replacement, probably while I was still searching for my camera. That was an expensive day for us between the camera and the wheel.

The beer was not great. Other than what Corinne bought for us at camp, our choices along the route and in the overnight towns were not what we would usually order: Budweiser, Bud Light, Michelob Ultra, and an occasional malt beverage. We’re not beer snobs, per se (and I drank a lot of box wine at camp), but Greg would have appreciated a nice craft beer along the way.

Have I mentioned my ass was bleeding? Oh right, I have.

The rainy day from Waterloo to Manchester was pretty miserable. It was a ~60 mile ride and ~40 of it was in the rain for us; we left around 8:30AM. When the sun came out for us, it brought a brutal headwind with it. Whether you waited to start or not, it wasn’t a fun day of riding. The one up-side of this was that there were very few lines.

FIDO
Even with a few updates along the way from friends, we were missing Argus. Our campground in Charles City on Day 4 was in a large lawn behind the high school. We were shaded and the lawn backed up to a nice neighborhood. It was a nice spot, and close to a swimming hole! I spotted a Golden Retriever puppy across the way and made a beeline for her. Not only was it nice to get some 5-month-old puppy love (despite her sharp puppy teeth), we had a nice chat with the family. It’s always nice to interact with the locals and I didn’t do as much of that as I had hoped or thought I would. In Dike the following day, Sarah met us and brought along her Lab-mix puppy, Legend. Everyone at the golf course stopped to love on him and you could tell we were all missing our pets.

We did get a few updates on Argus while we were away. Several friends pitched in to help so that we wouldn’t have to board him. With his unpredictable aggression issues, we felt this was the best option and we were grateful that everyone stepped up to lend a hand. Pete  took him to the beach or for a hike every day and fed him at night. Melody “dog-napped” him during the day for a few playdates with Bailey at the Boat House, and our neighbors said he’d come to the fence and “talk” to them, inviting them to come get him for a visit. I was thrilled with his reaction to me being home when I finally got here on August 5. He did his playful jumping around, not knowing what to do or say first. I feel bad for Greg; he got the usual shun from Argus, letting him know just how upset he was to have been left behind…

FEAR
I ride by myself 99% of the time. Even when racing, I am rarely in a pack of people and I like it that way. Maybe it’s deep-seated trust issues or perhaps just a genuine dislike for small talk. RAGBRAI was pretty much a non-stop parade of riding ridiculously close to people. I’m fairly confident in my own riding abilities, but there were a lot of novices out there and they’re the ones that make me nervous. One false move and the whole crowd goes down.

We saw a few spills along the way, and everyone was very helpful to those on the ground. On the day it rained, I was right behind a man as his tires slipped and he went down. Luckily, there was no one immediately next to him because he went one way and his bike skidded the other. I was the first one on the scene and helped him to the side of the road and up to a seated position. He hit his shoulder hard and I was concerned that his clavicle was broken. Thankfully, it wasn’t!

Another rider wasn’t as fortunate. The whole “peloton” was brought to a stop on Thursday morning outside of Charles City. There were two ambulances on the road and a LifeFlight helicopter had landed in a nearby field. That’s never a good sign. There was much speculation about what had happened, but no one in my circle of friends knew for sure. We found out on the last day that the rider — a RAGBRAI veteran — had clipped the tire of the rider in front of him and went down. There was a lot of swelling around his brain and he died.

As a person who rides my bike several times a week and one who has survived a major accident involving me on a bicycle versus a pickup truck, I can’t let myself think about “What if?” for very long. The balance is fragile and I’m pretty sure I’d never leave the house if I focused on everything that could go wrong. While it might be a much less fearful existence, I sure wouldn’t burn very many calories that way…

FINALLY
It felt great to dip our tires in the Mississippi River in Dubuque! We can check RAGBRAI off the bucket list! We have given a lot of thought to whether we’d do it again and the short answer is no. We probably won’t ever do the full 7 days again, though we’ll likely go back when the route travels through Okoboji. We can easily see riding a few days and spending the rest of the week at my family’s lake house with friends. Knowing What We Know Now, it’s worth doing again, if only for a few days.

Just because we aren’t doing RAGBRAI again doesn’t mean we’re giving up on touring! We’ve been talking for a couple of years now about doing a ride from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara on our own. Other organized rides we are considering are the BREW ride across Wisconsin and rides through Oregon and Washington.

Fellow riders, feel free to leave comments with your favorite stories! It has been fun for me to reminisce in writing this and I’d love to hear your memories.

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Currently there are "3 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mike Cuffe says:

    Molly,

    Love this post, looks like you guys had a blast!

    Peace,
    -Mike

  2. Kirsten says:

    Great recap!! I didn’t realize you connected with so many old friends along the way.

    And you know that picture up there of all us, with me, with the boobs? Two words: swan song!

    it was great riding with you and can’t wait for you to come out and SKIIIIIIII!

  3. […] participated in. Barely recovered from that, we packed up our bikes and headed to Iowa to ride RAGBRAI. I stayed in Iowa several extra days hanging out with my family in […]

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