Gary Nichols

Zip, zipzipzip, zippppppp, zipp, zipzipp. My eyes flicker half-open, and my right hand tentatively explores the tent floor beside me for my cell phone so I can see exactly what time it really is, although I already know from the sound of tent zippers all around me that it’s right about 5:00 a.m. Ahhh, another day of RAGBRAI. Verizon confirms that it’s 5:07. I crawl out of my sleeping bag, find my Pork Cup and my flip-flops, add the sound of my own tent flap zippers to all the others, and clamber out of my tent, cup in hand, and shuffle off through the wet grass of the still mostly-dark maze of tents and bicycles toward the bob-tail truck with the big red LED light stuck high on its rear identifying it as the source of morning coffee.

Full cup of coffee in hand, I then shuffle over to the next line, longer than the first, for my morning visit to the kybos, aka, porta-potties. This is my RAGBRAI morning routine. To my own amazement and amusement, I actually enjoy it. And I can’t remember the last time I either slept in a tent or voluntarily got up at 5:00 a.m. to stand in a line for anything. Anything!

After coffee and my kybo visit, it’s back to my tent to get sun screened, butt buttered, dressed in my riding gear, and packed. My duffle bag with the camping gear and my smaller bag with my clothes and personal items has to be on Pork Belly Venture’s truck no later than 7:00 a.m. So by a few minutes after 7:00, there I stand somewhere in Iowa, with my bike, dressed funny, and with nothing else to do except join the 12-15,000 others getting on the road to ride another leg of the 38th annual “other bicycle tour in July” – the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI was started by two writers for the Des Moines Register newspaper (the “R” in RAGBRAI) back in 1973, when they decided to ride across their state and write about it. They published their intentions in the paper, invited anyone who wanted to join them to come along, and to their surprise about 300 people joined them. And they had fun. And they decided to do it again the next year. And more people joined them. And they all had fun. And the fun hasn’t stopped since. Now, instead of 300 participants, there are 10,000 official, registered riders and several thousand “bandit” riders on the road every day the last week of July. The ride has always starting at Iowa’s western border, the Missouri River, and ending at it’s eastern border, the Mississippi River, with riders traditionally dipping their rear tires in the Missouri at the beginning of the ride and their front tires in the Mississippi at the end.

I first heard about RAGBRAI shortly after I started semi-seriously riding road bikes, about 4 years ago. I heard talk from those who had heard of RAGBRAI, heard a few stories from people who claimed to have ridden it, and read a couple articles in magazines and on the net. Everything I heard and read painted RAGBRAI as a marvelous week-long rolling camp-out party. And so it is. But it’s so much more, too.

It’s meeting friends you were supposed to meet but never would have if you hadn’t gone on RAGBRAI. It’s riding so you can EAT! Eat the Farm Boy’s incredible breakfast burritos, and an hour later eat one of Mr. Pork Chops 2-inch thick pork chops at 10:00 in the morning, chase it down with a beer in the next town, have a piece of huckleberry pie baked by some church ladies in the town after that, and cap it with some Beekman’s homemade ice-cream, from churns powered by antique sputtering, snoring, wheezing donkey motors. It’s meeting people standing in lines, riding along the road, taking a rest, and never meeting anyone you don’t truly, honestly like. It’s riding as part of a gargantuan throbbing, pulsing, shifting, surging, seemingly never ending mass of riders of every conceivable description riding every conceivable configuration of 2 and 3-wheeled human-powered conveyances, and never in seven days hearing a harsh word between any of them, It’s having farm families sit in lawn chairs at the end of their driveways in the middle of the sea of corn that is Iowa, and welcome you, and thank you for coming to their state, and asking where you’re from, and offering you shade and a drink of cool water. It’s a 4th of July street party just for you in every town you go through. It’s staggering. It’s amazing. It’s rejuvenating and invigorating. And it makes you remember that bicycle riding is fun.

It restores your pride and pleasure at simply being and being a part of humanity. It makes you understand what’s special about the heartland and makes it a part of your heart too. And did I mention it’s fun?

Fun at 5:00 a.m. Fun when your tent partially floods in a mid-night thunder shower. Fun when it’s hot and humid and up hill into a head wind. Fun when you get to ride like a demon for 50 miles in the rain wearing a garbage bag vest so you don’t get a chill. Fun sitting in the rain at a wobbly old wooden picnic table, not worrying about yourself getting wet because you’re already soaked, but just trying to keep the bun of you Tom’s Tender Turkey sandwich under the umbrella and dry until you can finish wolfing it down It’s burning 6,000 calories a day but eating 7,000. It’s pedaling faster so you can keep up with the guy whose boom box is playing music you like, and pedaling slower so you don’t have to listen to the boom box of the guy’s whose music you don’t care for.

It’s like nothing else you’ve ever done, and it may well be the best thing you ever do. So just do it!

The Practical Details:

Training: Most people will need train for RAGBRAI. I trained by riding most every day for the three months before RAGBRAI. But I had the luxury and good fortune to have just retired, too. My rides varied from 15 to 60 miles a day. The RAGBRAI web site’s training blog tells you that if you are doing 150 mile a week just before RAGBRAI, you should be good to go. (http://ragbrai.com/index.php/2010/06/02/ragbrai-training-theres-lots-of-ways-to-train-but-plain-old-riding-is-the-best-way/) If you can take a week to go ride RAGBRAI, you can probably work up to 150 mile weeks before you go even with a full-time job. That’s only a little over 20 miles a day. Take long rides on the weekends. This year, the official route was a total of 442 miles in seven days, for an average of just under 70 miles a day. By the time I left for Iowa, I was comfortably doing 200+ mile weeks, with more climbing than I expected on RAGBRAI. I had no real physical issues during RAGBRAI. The first two days I had a couple cramps in my thighs I had never experienced before, but Ibuprofen did its job and no more cramps after the second day. Just remember, stay hydrated, drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, and rest before you’re tired.

Lots of people think Iowa is “flat as a pancake.” Not so; that would be Kansas. While the elevation change between the highest and lowest points in the state is only about 1,400 feet, the countryside is rolling hills. Hills of 100 to 200 or more feet are the norm. They are mostly gentle climbs and the downhills get you half way up the next hill, but occasionally you run into long slow climbs into a head wind that beats you up On this year’s ride, there were only two days with elevation gains of over 3,000 feet. But then there was Potter Hill going into Dubuque – 1-1/4 miles and 10+ per cent grade in part And that was on the 7th day when all you wanted to do was finish and rest, not walk your bike up a really steep hill like 2/3 of us did.

Attitude: Get your head in the right place. This is a tour, not a race. Relax and enjoy it. It’s your vacation. It’s a party. Nobody cares if you can average 22 mph for 75 miles. And if you do, you’re going to miss what RAGBRAI really is, and you might as well stay home and go on club rides with the CAT-2s instead. Nothing you do, wear, or ride is going to impress anybody on RAGBRAI. Your goal here is to have a good time riding your bike. You will stand in lots of lines, sleep on the ground, shower where you can, eat sitting on a curb, be hot, get rained on, and see lots of corn. So will everybody else. So get ready to smile a lot, talk with complete strangers, never be in a hurry, and just go with the flow.

Your Bike: I had my bike well prepped for RAGBRAI. My bike is very comfortable, which is important when you ride all day every day. I had strong wheels with good puncture resistant tires, and carried enough tools and supplies to repair almost anything that might need it. I didn’t need any of it. The roads in Iowa are far better than I expected, and there is a lot of support, and mechanics in many of the towns. Next time I’ll carry 2 new tubes, a pair of tire irons, a patch kit, a multi tool, a CO2 inflator with 2 canisters, a bottle of chain lube, and my Topeak road morph pump. That’s all you need if your bike is well prepped.

Logistics and Support: You can do RAGBRAI several ways. Just paying your fee and getting a RAGBRAI wrist band entitles you to access the camp grounds each day, transportation of one bag between overnight towns, and sag support. Meals are not provided, but food is never a problem on RAGBRAI. It could be argued that food is the reason for RAGBRAI, and good food is never far away or very expensive.

There are a lot of “Teams” that ride RAGBRAI. Many of the teams have old school busses converted to haul and support the team members and their equipment. Some small groups have support vehicles such as RVs along for the trip. All support vehicles travel between overnight towns by a different route than the riders to avoid gridlock. One town near each day’s mid-point is designated as the “meeting town” where support vehicle can meet their supported riders. Support vehicles solve the issue of getting home from the ending city, but may not be practical if you have to travel a long distance to get to Iowa.

If you plan to fly to and from RAGBRAI, or just want a few more creature comforts and a little more support, there are a number of charter companies that offer a wide array of services. I did a solo road trip from San Diego to RAGBRAI, so I needed a place to park my car and a way to get back to it after the ride. I used Pork Belly Ventures, LLC, which is the oldest, biggest, and arguably the best and most expensive of the RAGBRAI support charter companies. PBV offers shuttle service between the Omaha airport and the RAGBRAI start town, shuttle service from the finish town back to Omaha, bike receiving and shipping services, a rent-a-tent service which provides you with a tent that they put up and take down and move each day along with your luggage. They make you coffee in the morning, will sell you bagels and peanut butter and bananas to go with your coffee, supply daily showers with fresh towels (worth the tariff all by itself), have on-site bicycle mechanics, on-site massage therapists, provide three catered dinners and a couple optional meals, have huge circus tent-tops with misters and lawn chairs for your afternoon comfort, supply endless beer in your pork cup, and live entertainment several nights. They have their own sag service and a sag bus so you can take a day off if you need to. They provide a charging station for you portable electronic devices, compressors with pressure gauges for airing –up your tires, and a cart with water outlets for filling water bottles and rinsing yourself and your stuff. And they really know this gig and, like most everyone connected to RAGBRAI, are just really nice, friendly, helpful people who make you feel completely comfortable and natural in strange surroundings doing strange things. A few hundred dollars well spent if a few hundred extra dollars is in your budget. You won’t ever regret it. Because of the extra cost, PBV’s clientele tends to be a little older and more mature than some other RAGBRAIers, however, they may tend to get up a little earlier, too. Tip of the day: Don’t pitch your tent near or on the path to the kybos unless you are a really sound sleeper.

Chow: Regardless of how you do RAGBRAI, you will be engulfed by people wanting to feed you. You can’t ride a mile without encountering a stand offering to sell you food and/or drink. Every town you ride through or spend the night in has, in addition to local eateries, tons of food vendors selling everything from pork chops on a stick to pizza to smoothies to gyros. The one thing you will have a tough time finding is fresh veggies. Here in the middle of farm country, you can get lots of corn and pork but good luck finding a tomato or broccoli. Some food vendors are starting get the picture that lots of bike riders would rather have a salad than a pork chop, or at least a salad with their pork chop. They may not understand it, but they are getting the message, albeit slowly. If you’re are a vegetarian, RAGBRAI may not be for you – you could starve in a sea of pork unless you can live for a week on corn, peanut butter, smoothies, and breakfast burritos, hold the pork.

There is a whole lot of information and suggestions on the websites of RAGBRAI and others. Visit them for all the information you can digest. www.ragbrai.com .

I was a little apprehensive about this whole thing. I’m not a regular tent camper and I’d never ridden 50+ mile days back-to-back, let alone for seven consecutive days. But the riding is not all that hard because the road becomes the main street of every pass-through town and you have to get off your bike and walk through town because the street fair is far too crowded to ride through. The result is each day is more like several short rides than one big long ride. And besides, this is really a “tour” it’s not a race. You ride your own pace, stop when and where you want, and enjoy your day. And enjoy you will

Maybe I’ll see you on the road someplace in Iowa next July.