Last week was my first RAGBRAI ever. (Poor quality camera-phone RAGBRAI pictures here. They’re only meant to covey concepts, not realistically portray anything.) RAGBRAI and I are the same age and its a real shame that this is the first time I’ve been. We’ve both been around since 1973. Some bits and pieces from my first RAGBRAI, recorded here without too much organization:
- The first night we got there we found a county-fair-like atmosphere in the small town’s town square. It was as if the whole town had come out, but the town was made up of 10,000 cyclists and their families and, instead of staying in one place, the county fair covered 70 miles of roadside.
- It rained the first night. Thunder and lightening woke up Jim (my cycling buddy) at 3AM. We both had trouble getting through the night. But we were both up with the tent packed and on the road by 7AM.
- The first day of my ride (Thursday) included an optional 27 mile loop to bring the day up to a full century (100mi). Jim and I split up and I took the century route. I quickly met a 60 year old contractor and we spent those 27 miles talking about work, family, death, and changing times. It was a great ride. We split up when I decided to take a ride in one of the ultralights that a group of pilots had set up beside the road.
- I didn’t get my “century patch”. This is kind of disappointing since I learned later that everyone who rode the century route could get the patch. Ride enough RAGBRAI centuries and you get to plaster a jersey with them.
- By the time I arrived at that night’s campsite, Jim had been there for two hours and had the tent set up. We had a choice of the primitive shower my team (the Road Hogs) put together or a $5 group shower. I was already soaked by the rain that came down during the last half hour of my ride. I chose the makeshift shower instead of paying $5.
- Pie! Practically every small (and medium) church along the route was selling pie or some sort of food. Pie is an essential part of the mythos of RAGBRAI — so much so that this year’s RAGBRAI poster depicted the ride stages using a pie chart — made up of pictures of a real pie being consumed.
- As a result of all the pie, as well as home-made ice cream and other heavy food, I actually managed to weigh in a couple pounds heavier at the end of the race. This, despite the 4000+ calories that the ride took each day.
- The thousands of cyclists riding 450 miles across Iowa were not the insane ones. Well, not the *most* insane ones. There was a woman attempting to run the 70+ mile route each day. I heard that she was admitted to the hospital at least once, possibly twice.
- The age and size of cyclists ran the gamut. Let no one say they’re too young, too old, or too fat to ride RAGBRAI. I saw men on recumbent who were easily 350lbs+. Fathers and mothers brought their kids on third wheels or tandems. I even saw one young couple on a tandem pulling their 2 year old in a bike trailer. Most of the men on my team were retirement age or older. One father from St. Louis told me that the team he was with was made up of a few different families with at least three different 11 year olds.
- Jim and I fell into a rhythm: we would ride together in the morning and then make our way to that night’s camp site separately. The third and last day, only 40miles, we split up after grabbing coffee (“Organic, Fair Trade!” the proprietor would repeat at every sale). Feeling relatively awake, I started pumping the pedals. I spent the last 20 miles that day chasing a cyclist from the Air Force cycling team. We blew past everyone at 23mph. In the end, he outlasted me, but it was a blast.
- Some people treat this rolling town as a big party and stop in every town along the way to drink. Don’t try this at home. It is only possible because of the sheer number of cyclists, the state police, and Ambulance drivers every few miles along the route. The partiers don’t generally arrive until sunset — about 9pm at night.
I plan on doing the entire RAGBRAI next year. I’d love to get a tandem so I could take two of my kids for at least part of the day. Highly recommended, even if you aren’t in that fit or are just a casual cyclist. The chance encounters were a great way to restore my faith in humanity. The party atmosphere and conviviality made the time on the road a ton of fun.