Falling Under Pella’s Charm Spell

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Pella, Iowa is a charming town built around a square, as many communities in #MiddleAmerica are, with architectural distinctions from its Dutch founding families. There is a historic portion of town where the buildings are preserved as they might have been in the 1800s. I focused on the more modern parts of town during “Thursday Night on the Square.”

This particular Thursday had an agricultural theme with Vermeer tractors, NRCS soil health booth, and the Iowa Corn trailer explaining the many wonders and uses of corn. There are also a number of fun stores to browse (including a quilt shop), but a must is Jaarsma Bakery where I tried the Dutch Letters for the first time. The only letters are an “S” and they are a light flaky pastry around an almond filling similar to that used in bear claws. It was delicious.

My cousin Lori lives in Pella, but because the other six siblings and families live closer to Stuart and Des Moines, she’s always been the one to drive to our gatherings. I decided on this trip to satisfy my curiosity about Pella. It is famous as a Dutch town with a tulip festival. It is a sister city to Holland, MI (where I visited in May). It is also the headquarters of the window manufacturer. It is a prosperous and friendly community. It is definitely worth the drive, even if you don’t have a cousin to visit.

#Bookstrong: The Book Vault in Oskaloosa

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Book Vault, 105 S. Market St., Oskaloosa, IA

I love saying the town name Oskaloosa! The locals shorten it to Osky. So fun. They have a beautiful town square and a bank that that has been transformed to an independent bookshop. The Book Vault is wonderful. Lucky Oskaloosans. I found a classic hardback version of Clifford the Big Red Dog. I had not read The Wonky Donkey and my fellow grandmas/cousins pressed it into my hands.

I also discovered a map of independent book stores: The Midwest Indie Bookstore Roadmap. I was excited to see there were two indie bookshops in Omaha, NE plus one in Des Moines.

I am supporting the arts on this #MiddleAmericaTour. Big time. I mailed an entire box of books home!

Million Spokes: RAGBRAI the Movie

A Million Spokes DVDI am writing a guide for riding your first RAGBRAI so I am doing more research. I found a terrific movie, A Million Spokes, that follows a half dozen riders and tells their stories over the 7 day course, plus short profiles of lots of other participants–riders and townspeople. I was teary-eyed over and over again. Please watch it and tell me if you teared up too and if you have ridden RAGBRAI. I also laughed, winced and grimaced. I plan to use this video to recruit/educate potential team members for next year, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Note: I only found the DVD at Amazon–not available on Netflix, iTunes or Google Play.

RumbleYellI read Rumble Yell over the weekend. It is a memoir of Brian David Bruns first and only RAGBRAI ride. He is a travel writer by trade and does a fine job of telling his story. It is a quick read and gives you a taste of what your experience might be from the perspective of a small team that used an RV for their support vehicle. He emphasizes the characters you will meet on RAGBRAI and how a team may bond over the seven days.

RAGBRAI Karras

Dumbest book title goes to RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong. The author John Karras co-founded RAGBRAI and this is a history of how RAGBRAI became the biggest, longest, oldest bike ride in America (when you factor in all three).  By the way, it is pronounced Rag-Bri (long i), not Rag-bray. Think “i” for Iowa.

Greg Borzo authored RAGBRAI America’s Favorite Bicycle Ride. This book features lots and lots of photographs. It is the most Insight-like guide–more essence of the ride than practical guide.

RAGBRAI BorzoRAGBRAI is also featured in Ian Dille’s The Cyclist’s Bucket List.  It is one of 33 rides listed in the United States. It gets a whopping three pages of prose and no photos. Most of the other rides are longer on photos and shorter on prose. Just a taster though, no real information on how to participate.

The good news is my RAGBRAI Virgin book idea is going to fill a niche currently not fulfilled in the marketplace. Now I just have to write it.

Ginormous Des Moines Farmers Market

Des Moines Farmers MArketI thought I have seen some really big Farmers’ Markets, but nothing in my experience rivals the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market in downtown Des Moines. Wow. It stretches from the riverwalk to the Courthouse. and goes down at least a block in each direction on every cross street. My cousins and I spent a Saturday morning taking it all in.

There is a fairly large Amish community in Iowa. They had baking stalls at the Farmers' Market and along the RAGBRAI route.
There are a fair number of Amish communities in Iowa. These women had baking stalls at the Farmers’ Market and others set up along the RAGBRAI route.

We ate breakfast, stopped at Java Joe’s for a cup of coffee and checked out the entertainment as we slowly strolled the grounds.

Steel drum band next to the Amish basket and craft booth.
Steel drum band next to the Amish basket and craft booth.

The diversity in Iowa is “white diversity” with different religious sects and nationalities. Bluegrass entertainment

Amish craftsDowntown Des Moines appears to be in full renaissance and features a beautifully redeveloped riverwalk. At the end of my visit I enjoyed dining at Centro (also downtown) and could envision spending more time in Des Moines.

Des Moine Riverwalk

I only saw corn and soybeans on my ride through Iowa. They grow these beauties somewhere (besides Cousin Kathy’s huge garden). The Farmers’ Market is a fun outing.

vegetables at Des Moines farmers' marketonions, onions, onions

To RAGBRAI or Not to RAGBRAI?

Even before I finished the seven day bike ride across Iowa known as RAGBRAI, people asked me if I was going to do it again next year. I demurred and said I would not decide until I got home and recovered. As soon as I returned home I began to hear from friends and work colleagues who were so inspired by my adventure they declared their intention to be on my team next year. Oh! Okay.

BBF: Best Bike Friends
BBF: Best Bike Friends. Christi and Kathy met cycling across the US with Adventure Cycling and reunited for RAGBRAI.

Not that their enthusiasm locks me in to riding RAGBRAI 2016 from July 24-30. Since I believe I should be intentional about the adventures I choose and with whom I do them I am taking this space to think through “to RAGBRAI or not to RAGBRAI?” Maybe it will help you decide if this adventure is next for you.

  1. Do you have a team?

I am so thankful to Team Larry for inviting me to be part of their experience for my Virgin RAGBRAI. You can ride solo, but you make it much harder on yourself. If you do not have a Cousin John to invite you to be part of his team, then you can form your own. It makes it easier to compete for registration and it gives you company along the way. We were able to stay at friends of friends houses by camping with tents in their yard and using their bathroom. Some made us dinner, some did not. Your team may choose to use one of the support tour companies that provide various levels of support. Some teams were all about getting their drink on–all day and all night. Others were more about getting their sleep on at night.

The other key team member is your support driver (or SAG). I could not have completed my RAGBRAI experience without Lane from Atlanta and her nurturing and logistical support.

2.  Do you have time to train?

I spent 10-12 hours a week riding my bike in the months leading up to RAGBRAI to get my recommended 1000 miles of training. I fell a little short, especially of hilly rides. I will travel to Sonoma and Marin to log some more Iowa like miles if I ride again next year. The fitness benefits made it a great investment of my time. And I enjoyed it.

Team Larry members head out to the RAGBRAI route  at 7:00 a.m.
Team Larry members head out to the RAGBRAI route at 7:00 a.m. 

3. Is it in your budget?

RAGBRAI fees are low–just $160 in 2015. Jerseys and other stuff is optional. I paid $225 into the Team Larry kitty for the van/gas, alcohol, snacks and the occasional pizza. The real expense was for equipment and transportation for me and my bike from Sacramento to Des Moines. As a consultant I have to factor in lost earning opportunity. It would have been impossible to work remotely because of the crap wifi in rural Iowa and the mushy brain after 8+ hours on the bike. Maybe you have to decide if it is worth using your precious paid vacation leave. If you already own a decent road bike (some people even used hybrids), then this is an affordable adventure.

The Intangibles

I totally understand how RAGBRAI becomes a yearly event for A LOT of people. It motivates you to get back in shape. You spend quantity time on your bike. My bike skills and speed improved dramatically this year because of RAGBRAI. You meet great people and have a ton of fun.

I am leaning heavily toward forming a team and going back for 2016.

7 RAGBRAI Lessons: Wisdom Revealed

1. Be part of a team.

A team is not required to participate in RAGBRAI, but why do it alone? I appreciated Team Larry in the morning when they got me going by 7 a.m. I appreciated them when I rode with a member along the way. I really appreciated them when I got done at the end of the day and we swapped stories. I learned so much from the hundreds of years of experience of the collective team.

RAGBRAI Team Larry 2015
Team Larry 2015

2. Be thankful you have your arms and legs.

Whenever I felt sorry for myself when the lactic acid was building in my legs going uphill, I only needed to look over at the person with no legs pedaling up the hill with their arms, or the tandem bike where one of the people could not use their arms or could not see. If they can overcome those challenges I can deal with a little discomfort.

3. Drink lots of water.

It is so easy to get behind in drinking water. I love Nuun and I drank at least one bottle of water with these magic electrolyte tabs, sometimes two a day. When I substituted diet Coke or beer or chocolate milk I fell behind and got dehydrated. This is the fastest route to getting a headache or “hitting the wall.” If it is humid drink even more. Similar wisdom: use sunscreen (and keep slathering it on) and use chapstick with UV protection. Get plenty of rest.

Biker catching some z's on floor of fire station.
Biker catching some z’s on floor of fire station.

4. Brake for pie.

There is a National Public Radio team (NPR) that gets lots of attention each year because their team name is No Pie Refused. This is a great philosophy for RAGBRAI. There is so much good pie available and it supports good causes. Tony from Chicago substituted rootbeer floats for pie. I normally brake for pie so RAGBRAI was awesome.

Rhubarb pie a la mode from United Church of Christ in Alden, IA.
Rhubarb pie a la mode from United Church of Christ in Alden, IA.

5. Ask for help.

I found myself wanting to appear tough and self-sufficient to Team Larry, so first I would only text my questions to my daughter. Ultimately I had to ask Cousin Sandy for help finding a dentist, then ask the dentist to come in from the Rotary booth to fix my tooth. And the list goes on. The great thing about RAGBRAI is that people were helping people all around  me: I saw a dad help his younger daughter up hills by putting his hand gently on her back to help her uphill; I witnessed members of the Air Force Cycling Team helping women change their flat tires; and lots of local town volunteers were ready to help with directions or other assistance. Ask for help and graciously accept it when it is offered.

6. Be open to new experiences.

Try new foods like chocolate dipped bacon. Or stop for the slip n slide or the car museum. Talk to the person next to you on the road. Eat with the person you just met in line. Good stuff happens when you remain open and present to what is happening in this moment.

Chocolate dipped bacon is amazing!
Chocolate dipped bacon is amazing!

7. Unplug, but not the coffee.

There is very little cell coverage in rural Iowa, so I enjoyed this excuse and disconnected from the news and thinking about work.

These volunteers had the best intentions of providing free coffee--except they blew a fuse and so no coffee.
These volunteers had the best intentions of providing free coffee–except they blew a fuse and so no coffee.

Bonus wisdom: Enjoy the view. It may not be changing much but you are outdoors, it is green, and you are on your bike. And as the great Manx sprinter Mark Cavendish says, Any day on your bike beats a day working in a bank.

Corn fields and more corn fields make up the dominant view.
Corn fields and more corn fields make up the dominant view.

Rock and Roll RAGBRAI Day Two

American Julie Day Two quickly became a day of many first time experiences. Storm Lake is aptly named. I woke up at 2 a.m. to the sound of rain falling on my tent. It made packing up a little more challenging, so most of us did not get on the road until 7:30 a.m. A larger than usual group decided to spend the day cruising thrift stores and record stores. The rain was wet but not cold and there was not much wind.

I have only been seriously riding a road bike for about 18 months and all of that time California has been in a drought. I rode 20 miles in the rain today and that is the longest I have ridden in the rain. Again my coach Sarah Harriet gave good advice: watch the road because sometimes holes and other hazards are hard to see. There are these long divots in Iowa roads called rumbles. If you save rumble while you go over them it sounds like “ru-u-um-bl-ble” and does not hurt so much as wake you up. They are in the road to slow people down before a stop and they were invisible in the rain. There were accidents all over and a particularly bad one that required 5 ambulances at the railroad crossing. RAGBRAI first responders asked us to walk our bikes across.

As I rolled into Fonda I was going slow and noticed that a local resident was kindly handing out bottles of water. The guy in front of me rode past her and then decided to stop all of the sudden without warning. I had my hands up on my handlebars and off my brakes and then it felt like slow motion. I went to the left to avoid him and saw the curb and a driveway full of people. I was saying whoa, whoa, whoa and this may have stopped the guy in front of him and I ran into him. We both began falling and thankfully I parted from my bike and kind of rolled. The people on the driveway gave me a 10 for grace. I was not hurt (just a couple of scratches) and my bike was okay. So was the other rider. The rider who started the commotion was extremely apologetic.  This was my first RAGBRAI fall and the first on a road bike.

American JulieI bought a piece of consolation strawberry-rhubarb pie in Fonda and tepid cup of coffee. The next 10 miles was a challenge because I was soaked from the rain and there was a hearty breeze chilling me. My legs felt leaden. When the sun came out I stopped to apply sunscreen. I met Paul and Liam, originally from Galway and now from Iowa. We had a lovely wee chat. I climbed back on my bike and set off and then had my first lengthy conversation with another rider–Lisa from Iowa who is riding her first RAGBRAI since claiming victory over breast cancer.

Team member Andrea Rooney from Horton, Iowa has a thing for Amish men. There were several roadside stands run by Amish people. I was curious and trying not to stare. On the second booth a woman with “Princess” on her bike and a crown on her helmet started shouting to the folks on the side of the road. “Do you have donuts? Do you have donuts?” Then she and her riding buddy started to wax eloquent about how good Amish donuts taste. I caught up with them and asked why they are special. They are like Krispy Kreme only better. They melt in your mouth.

I also met a fellow USC alumni who graduated in 1984 in Manson. He was an aeronautical engineering major and in ROTC for the Air Force so our paths did not cross. He lives in Massachusetts now and we had a great conversation. Then it was time to move on. I did not try the ham balls also known as meat candy. I thought about it, but I am hoping to avoid my first potty stop in a corn field.

The cruel course designers threw in 4 hills that were real doozies as we climbed into Fort Dodge. We are staying at a gorgeous big home of another friend of Team Larry along with another team. I am writing this post from the most romantic screened porch. The back yard is full of tents and friends and family talking. People in Iowa take politics seriously. Better go join in the fun.