The Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa was this past week. You may know it as RAGBRAI, the "beer on wheels" event that takes place every July. The route changes every year, with both big and small towns vying to be on the west to east path. It sounds very simple, like its a bunch of bike geeks who get together just to say that they rode their bikes all the way across Iowa. Well, it's much different than that. It's over 10,000 bikes geeks who take a full week off of work to dip their rear tire in the Missouri River to start, and then ride some 475 miles to dip their front tire in the mighty Mississippi River. 10,000 is the "official" number kicked around, but if you include all of the people who "renegade" the event, I would put the number around 20-25,000. No joke. Oh, and there's a few beers and thousands of pounds of fried food and sweets along the way.
RAGBRAI XXXV started in Rock Rapids, IA and ended in Bellevue, IA. The main stops in between were Spencer, Humboldt, Hampton, Cedar Falls, Independence and Dyersville. The atmosphere in these towns (and all the towns you pass through in between) have a County Fair-like feel to them. Bands, food stands, pie and pastries, hippies selling veggie burritos (yeah brah!!) and fruit smoothies, even young girls clad in sashes that read "Pork Queen 2007", yes, this is Iowa, and small town Iowa at that. When it's all in good fun, you say "congratulations" and keep going.
The rock star of this years Ride was the ever-present Lance Armstrong. Last year Lance did two stages to see what this Ride was all about and to raise money for The Lance Armstrong Foundation. I'm sure the training regimen is a bit different for RAGBRAI than the Tour de France. Instead of ride, ride, ride, you have to ride, drink beer, eat pie, eat tenderloins, ride, drink beer, ride. Lance says he will ride it again (he did two stages last year) after riding from Rock Rapids to Cedar Falls, before hopping on a plane to Paris. Don't expect to ride next to him, though. He rides unbelievably fast on a one-speed bike and is surrounded by an entourage to keep people from trying to sniff his bike seat. Uh...
RAGBRAI for this author was an abbreviated one. Unfortunately I could not take off the whole week, so I was only able to ride the last two stages: Independence to Dyersville, and then Dyersville to Bellevue. Our riding started at 6am each day to beat the heat and more importantly, the crowds. Even at 5:45 while we aired up our bikes, there was an endless line of bikes into the distance. Even as an avid cyclist, you sometimes question the sanity of it all!
As the event is named, it is a Ride, not a race. Going into this ride with two uncles who were doing the whole thing, I foresaw two easy days of lollygagging and putting along, bagging some rays and taking it easy. It appeared that I underestimated my uncles' intensity and fitness levels, as well as their brisk pace. The first day saw us ride (by my bike computer) 76.9 miles of basically flat terrain on a sunny and warm day. It was pretty nice except for at the start of the ride when I realized that I left my cycling shoes in Davenport. Facing a decision of doing it in tennis shoes versus spending $175 on new shoes and pedals, I opted for the former. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but going from clip-in hard soled bike shoes to soft running shoes is like being used to hitting with an aluminum bat and then being forced to use a wooden one. Sure, it can be done either way, but the first is a lot easier and is what you are used to. Such is life.
The second day we rode 55.8 miles of very hilly terrain on a day that bordered on hot. As if that weren't enough, at least 50% of this ride was either into a headwind or a strong crosswind. And since I was the "young guy with fresh legs", my job was to ride out in front and block all of the wind for my two uncles. Needless to say, this was a bit of a long day. One highlight came as we descended into the town of Bellevue down the biggest hill I have ever seen. My computer said I was going over 46mph. Going that fast on an aluminum frame with tires that are about 3/4" of an inch wide is exciting to say the least. We stopped a few times to rest. Once was in the town of LaMotte, the other was just out in the middle of nowhere on a farmer's property who was giving out free Gatorade and water and had massive shade trees to sit under. You see a lot of this on RAGBRAI. Not everyone gives away stuff for free, but many do. The entire route has people along the way, cheering you on, thanking you for coming to their town, offering you a place to pitch your tent, even to take a hot shower in their own homes. That was perhaps my favorite part of the whole thing: the people. It really makes you appreciate the people of Iowa and the Midwest. It's so nice to see genuine kindness and enthusiasm. (Those were two of the sappiest sentences I've ever written)
If anyone has ever thought about trying RAGBRAI, I would highly recommend it. Bring along plenty of sunscreen and be ready to enjoy yourself and all of the crazy people that do it. I know I will again. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back upstairs to continue icing my butt, if I'm able to walk up the stairs, that is. Here is a picture of the current state of my ass.