RAGBRAI: 20 Questions Edition

I honestly don’t know how to write about RAGBRAI. It was just too big and wonderful. Maybe I’ll just answer some of the questions I’ve been asked over the last few weeks, along with a couple I wished I people had thought up. For now, I’ll stick to the bike-riding part of my trip.


How long was it? Average distance per day? Longest day? Shortest? I’m not 100% sure how far I rode. My Garmin computer’s battery died a few times, so I didn’t get accurate distances. (Access to electricity while camping is a luxury.) The “official” distance was 443 miles, but we always rode a little farther each day going between our campsites and the actual start and finish spots. I’d say the average distance was about 65 miles per day. One day, we rode about 45 miles. The next day I rode 112 miles after biking across Forest City a few times.

How many riders were there? Officially, 10,000. I’m pretty sure that there were between 10-15,000 on the road every day, though, as many people just rode without going through the lottery. Having that many riders on the roads meant that you were always in sight of other people. In fact, I’m sure that there was never more than a couple hundred yards between me and another rider while I was on the route. That was really cool! There were just so many people to talk with and gawk at. The highway patrol did a very good job of discouraging drivers from being on the route, so most of the time, we had both lanes to use. Of course, with that many riders, there were a bunch of times when everyone had to dismount and walk into town.

Whom did you ride with? Lots and lots of people! A couple of days, I rode mostly by myself, occasionally hanging out with some people I didn’t know for a half-dozen miles or so before moving on. It was always gratifying to look behind me and see that I had a tail of riders letting me pull them across the prairie. Most days I rode with a group of new-to-me people from Grinnell: Nihad and Melanie from Colorado, Joanna from New Mexico, Jared (Melanie’s brother) from Chicago?, Mary from the ’80s, Ellen and Molly, etc. (Grinnellians are quirky, and it’s nice to have people who get me.) I also spent time on the bike with a couple of cousins.

Favorite moment? I’m not sure it’s possible to pick just one. I loved seeing each little town go all out for RAGBRAI. It’s hard to describe just how into it everyone was. It was like a huge block party every 10-15 miles: music, games, attractions, tons of food, etc. And it wasn’t just in the towns; people sat on lawn chairs outside their farmhouses all day to wave at people passing by.

Most memorable moment? Buying the freshest, most delicious glazed donuts from an Amish teenage girl on the last, most beautiful day of the ride and standing around eating them with the four people I’d ridden with most of the week.

What did you eat? Everything! Granola with yogurt, bananas, burritos, PB&J sandwiches handed out by marines, BBQ, pork tenderloin sandwiches, breakfast burritos, slices of pizza, gyros, ice cream, and pie (of course). Everything except fresh fruits and veggies, that is. I even stopped by “Mr. Pork Chop,” who only sells—wait for it—a pork chop (and a napkin).

Favorite pie? I ate a lot of pie, and most of them were quite tasty. But, believe it or not, the gooseberry pie I got on the first day left the best impression. I’d never had gooseberries before, so I was pretty surprised by how delicious it was. À la mode, of course. The simple apple pie I ate during a downpour in Tripoli on day 6 was really good, too.

Hardest part? Trying not to EAT ALL THE PIES! That, and not talking to Lisa in overnight towns lacking AT&T mobile reception.

Was it a race? Were there any timed segments? Nope, not at all. Some people made Strava segments, but that really wasn’t what the ride was about. That isn’t to say that I didn’t ride quickly or work hard. The first day I didn’t yet understand RAGBRAI and left without anyone to ride with, so I just did my average going-to-work pace. I was the third person (out of 130+) to arrive at our campground. It was just after noon, and I had a hot, sunny afternoon to think about what I had done wrong. On part of another ride, I rode really, really hard to catch up with my peeps after taking a “nature break” without realizing that they had stopped just up the road; I rode an extremely aggressive tempo for 20 minutes before deciding I wanted some ice cream. Mostly I took it pretty lazy, though.

What was a typical day like? Wake when the camp starts to get loud at 4:30 or when my “just in case” alarm goes off at 5:00. Stand in line for a port-a-potty. Get kitted up in my tent. Take down the tent. Put everything on the truck. Hang out until it was time to leave, usually before 6:30. Ride 45 minutes. Stop for breakfast/coffee. Ride 45 minutes to an hour. Refill water, eat pie. Ride. Stop. Eat. Visit a cornfield. Repeat. Roll into the overnight town. Find our campground. Set up camp. Stand in line for a shower. Maybe have a dip in the pool. Get a snack. Have dinner with people from the group (or my relatives). Sit around and chit chat. Crawl inside my sleeping bag by 10:00. Repeat each day in a new town.

What was the weather like? Two words: polar vortex. It was unseasonably cool and dry for Iowa in late July. Daytime highs were in the high 70s and low 80s without much humidity. Overnight it dipped into the 50s, making a light jacket a nice choice. On the sixth day from Waverly to Independence, a cold front blew through overnight bringing thundershowers and miserable riding before it cleared out. I was riding hard to keep warm enough in the 55F (13C) chill with torrential rains and 20-40 mph (30-65 km/h) winds. It wasn’t really working, and I was so happy when the rain stopped. Other than that, most days were pretty great, with moderate winds.

How did it feel? Was it difficult? How were the hills? This was a pretty easy year, all things considered, and I was in pretty good shape. There weren’t that many hills. In fact I didn’t actually realize that we were going over some of them! I kept waiting for the massive hills promised on the last day. Riding 450+ miles in a week is going to be hard, though. I discovered something about my saddle, too! The faster/harder that I ride, the more comfortable I am. When I’m just tootling around at a conversational pace, my sit bones don’t really sit on the saddle, which is rather uncomfortable. (“You’re saddle is too narrow,” Joanna said.) Looks like I’ll be buying a new saddle for my road bike.

What were the roads like? One the last day of RAGBRAI, we passed a sign advocating for better rural highways in Iowa. For the most part the backroads were decent, but many of them shared a flaw, which ran down the middle of the pavement. Iowa’s highways are often constructed of slabs of concrete, with half-inch or wider seams between lanes. The result is a dangerous gap that traps bike tires. State and county highway engineers often seal these with tar, which becomes slippery in the heat. While the roads are mostly safe, it paid to exercise good judgment and pay close attention. On the last day, we were the first group with medical training on the scene of a rider who was thrown after getting her wheel caught. She claimed to be okay, but it was pretty clear that she had a mild concussion. Iowa also has a penchant for using full-lane rumble strips to mark intersections. These are annoying but not inherently dangerous . . . except to riders trying to dodge the cyclists trying to avoid them.

What were the bikes like? Any recumbents? Most bikes were “normal” road bikes. But there were also mountain bikes, recumbents, tandems, tandem recumbents, handcycles, ElliptiGOs, fixies, and just about anything else you can imagine. One person on Team Kum&Go had an articulated recumbent with yellow fabric on it, converting it into an enormous banana. Another person had something called a “Rowbike,” which (as the name implies) you “pedal” by rowing. Some people decorated their bikes with flags or flowers. Other people just decorated themselves. It was pretty weird and pretty awesome! Two people were riding skateboards. At least one person was running the whole route.

Any crashes? Thankfully, no . . . but almost! As I called out that I was passing someone on their left, they looked over to see where I was and veered into me. This isn’t my first rodeo, so I held my line, but his mirror banged into my elbow. I was worried that he was going to fall, and I’m really glad that he didn’t.

Would you do it again? Absolutely! But I wouldn’t do it every year. Some people do that, but it’s a big time commitment, especially if you have to travel to get there. But, you know, every few years or so would be fun.

Would Lisa do it? Let me see if I can quote Lisa correctly. “Aww hell no!” I think that’s a maybe?

Did you see any family on the trip? I sure did! My aunt and uncle in Forest City were nice enough to invite me over to their house for a nice meal and conversation. (I totally used their shower, too!) The next day I rode with a couple of my cousins. A couple days after that, a different auntie and uncle drove the half-hour from Vinton to visit me in Independence. We had dinner and ice cream. I’m so glad to have seen them all.

How was the ‘betes? Meh. I’m writing a whole post about that.

Did you take pictures? Did I ever! There will be more in another post.

The one thing you wish you’d have done? In Graettinger Ringsted, all of the townies had shirts that said “Velkommen, cyklister!” Later I realized that a lot of towns sold their shirts, I wished I’d found and bought one.

Best discovery? New friends? Gooseberry pie? Who knows. The wonders of Chamois Butt’r have to be right up there.

This entry was posted in 101 in 1001, Cycling, I am Rembrandt, RAGBRAI. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to RAGBRAI: 20 Questions Edition

  1. Nancy Patrick says:

    I’m glad you had a good time.

  2. StephenS says:

    Fantastic! I’m glad it was a good week. I’ve always wanted to do something like that.

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