I formulated my grand strategy to ride in the U.S’s most celebrated bike ride soon after moving to Iowa. I’d get in shape, see the state that I now call home, and learn how to become comfortable in spandex biking shorts. The ride is called RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.
Now in its 34th year, RAGBRAI attracts over 15k people from across the United States, and some from other countries. I personally saw folks from the U.A.E, Italy, and from the most exotic of countries…Southern California. RAGBRAI is really a melange of stimuli: 25% bike ride, 25% state fair, 25% camping trip, and 25% Mardi Gras.
The ride’s route changes annually but it tends to cycle from Northern, to Central, to Southern Iowa. It begins on the Western half of the state and moves Eastward every time. The reasoning for this directional choice seems to be a belief (misbelief?) that prevailing winds are Eastward this time of year. This year the route was through Central Iowa stopping in the town next door to mine. This gave me an excuse (and probably a life saving one) to stop after the 3rd day versus going the full 7. The idea is that towns host "stopping points" along the way…some mild some wild. The big draw of pie and pork chops was not overblown in the media. Every church and senior center in Iowa prepared delicious pies and a bevy of other food and goodies to keep riders right as rain.
This year, Lance Armstrong decided that he’d been wasting his time all those years by spending July in France. He rode the last 4 days of RAGBRAI giving talks along the way as an advocate for cancer research spending. He’s committed to doing the entire ride next year and has hinted that he may bring along some celebrity friends. Surely this will become the Sturgis of the cycling world. Get ready for Lance-a-pa-looza.
54 Miles: Sergeant Bluff to Ida Grove (Map)
My first day I took special care not to overdo it and try to outrun my ability. I was warned by the newspaper, websites, and other blogs that the first few days had hills. If you’ve only been to Central Iowa, you’d have a tough time believing this as did I. Much to my chagrin, all of those sources were right. I often found myself peddling just a bit faster than some were walking their bikes. I refused to get off my machine…opting for granny gear, head down, no talk, sweatiness to reach the next peak. Other times, I was blazing downhill at 35 mph. This route was balanced. Ups led to big downs and a cool off and welcomed rest period. Amazingly, 54 miles went pretty quickly. I never peddled to exhaustion, rather I seemed to be in cardio heart rate mode for about 8 hours of the 10 it took to get there. Upon arrival and set up of our campsite, my buddy and I began to find a prone position out of the sun. Prone yes…out of sun no. For 4 hours I lay there sweating through clothes and trying to understand my physical condition. I felt "off"…I had trouble completing thoughts. I was exhausted mentally and physically. My water/Gatorade/fruit smoothie consumption was very high all day so I knew I was not dehydrated. Additionally, I had eaten about 5000 calories to keep me going all day so "bonking" was not an issue. I was simply SPENT of all energy. Weighing in at a scale tweaking 250lbs on a 6ft. 1in. frame was the core problem and I was paying the price for my penchant for 20oz rib eyes and dipping pizza in bleu cheese dressing. We spent a night of tossing and turning in my 2 man tent trying to find comfort in the hot Iowa night. Rain drops cooling my skin at 5AM woke me and day 2 was on.
77 Miles: Ida Grove to Audubon (map)
I will never forget this day. Just the ride out of town began with leg paralyzing hills that never seemed to go back down. This day provided the most feet of elevation climb of all. Top this off with a stiff headwind that was gusting to at least 20 mph. A rider’s reward for this hilly pursuit was a robbery of downhill speed and rest due to wind resistance. There was little conversation between main stopping towns, only pain and sweat. Riders cursed under their breath. A man from Illinois was heard saying, "Does Iowa have a headwind in every direction? #$@#%$$%@" There was simply no relief. We began this day at 6:30AM and arrived at our destination town at a little before 8PM. I had spent 10+ hours on a bike and had the redness to prove it (in more than one spot). Again I had more trouble moving, thinking, and doing. Another buddy of mine Tom met us at the campground that night, hooking up so we could do the last leg together. We had a couple of beers, walked the town square, ate as much as possible and headed back to our mobile domicile. At 1AM, I woke again, scrambling along with many other campers to put our rain fly on. It looked clear when going to bed and the forecast was for "partly cloudy skies". That’s Iowa speak for "It could downpour but we really don’t know." I should have gone with my gut but my body and mind would not execute. After some frustration we simply draped the rain fly over the tent and by then, the rain had stopped. We woke at 6AM and began to tear down. On the way out of town, we were again met with grinding hills. Gerard quipped, "Is every town in Iowa built in a sink hole expletive expletive expletive!"
68 Miles: Audubon to Waukee (map)
Ah the home stretch but not so fast. This day like all others began with more hills. Mike legs ached and burned as though I’d been riding for over 100 miles. Just getting to the outskirts of the town where breakfast was being served hurt badly. A raspberry white chocolate latte and some muffins procured from the local Methodist Church and we were on our way. Tom was fresh and spry but that would all change. The route notes indicated that the first 26 miles of this 68 mile day were as hilly as before..but HUZZAH!!!, the wind had subsided a bit and there was little net elevation change, i.e. downhills follow uphills that allowed for rest. The first 26 miles didn’t pack the severe punch of day 2 but tell that to "The new guy", Tom. Eight miles into this day, Tom’s bike somehow broke a spoke and we spent nearly 40 minutes at the mobile bike repair station getting a new wheel. Imagine a corn field, a bunch of bike riders, and a truck with everything one needs to get fixed up. What a sight. The prices were exactly what you’d pay in their shop too. Thanks to good Midwestern values and a desire to help its fellow man, the bike shop got us on our way again with no complaints. At about mile 40, Tom began to get annoyed with Gerard and I. His physical discomfort was obvious, no longer praising his cycling shorts and seat for comfort, rather cursing most things including Gerard and I for "Just leaving him behind, etc." I recognized this behavior since I had done it with Gerard the day before. Step 1, anger. We began to pace each other, trading off the lead position, and began to make some progress. The last 20 miles or so were FLAT. Even with our energy stores depleted, we could maintain a 15mph pace. Oh the joy! If Tom had moved past the anger into acceptance, I think we really could have cruised. I had energy again…the inevitable boost one receives from knowing they’re nearing the end. This leg ended on my "home trail" west of my town of Clive. I felt like a confident tour guide at this point, sharing my local knowledge with Gerard. My wife called and arranged to meet me along the route with the kids. As we got closer, Gerard and Tom pulled back in true Tour de France style allowing me to bask in the glory of my home town. They gave me my moment. Approaching the mini-van, I saw the kids and they were holding signs! The signs read "Go Daddy" and had hand prints all over them. If not for the emotional exhaustion of the ride I surely would have crumbled and wept. In an instant my pain and strife were gone and I’m standing in front of my beautiful wife and children. The thoughtfulness of my wife never ceases to amaze me and I’m truly blessed to have her. After plentiful hugs, kisses, and greetings from fellow riders, we set out to reach the final destination. We arrived, met the wives, loaded our gear, and it began to downpour. Mother nature winked at me just then and put a tick mark in the Doug column. That night as lightning lit the sky and thunder rumbled across the heartland, we broke bread together (topped with cheese, sauce, and toppings) and had plenty of liquid bread (beer) to nourish our bodies. We sat around and told tall tales of our adventure while the kids played..and life was good.
Although our bodies were weak, our spirits had already been lifted by friendship, love, and the buzz from achieving a physically and mentally demanding goal. I hadn’t felt that physical sense of accomplishment in a very long time and I’m craving it again already. Bring on the hills. Bring on RAGBRAI 2007!