OMG! Pay attention motorists. Today is the first day of RAGBRAI–the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa–and the first year that they are honoring fallen cyclists killed in crashes with motor vehicles. Riders were asked to respect a mile of silence to remember those cyclists who were killed by motorists this year. And dammit if a motorist didn’t already strike and kill a 72 year old cyclist at 6:40 a.m. on the very first day!
What is it going to take for car drivers to pay attention and share the road?
As I write this the Tour de France has wrapped up this year. It is a halfway point in the racing season and already there have been serious accidents involving motorbikes and automobiles and cyclists. In January six members of the Giant-Alpecin team was seriously injured (requiring hospitalization) when a British woman was driving on the wrong side of the road in Spain. Another rider is still in hospital in a coma, and the list goes on. Tony Martin and others are lobbying for changes in the way professional races are organized to increase safety.
As many of you know I am enthusiastic for the Bike and Build program where young adults ride their bicycles across the USA from east to west, stopping to build affordable housing along the way. Unfortunately there is no way to make it completely safe. In 2011 Bike and Build suffered their second fatality and it was one of Sarah’s team leaders, Christina. Last year we were heartsick again when 2 people were struck by a vehicle and one killed. And then it happened again this year.
I know some cyclists act like idiots and cause aggravation by disrespecting traffic signals and taking risks; they should knock it off. Drivers remember–especially if you are in an SUV–you are like a tank to a pedestrian or cyclists, and it takes you about 1 ounce of energy to stop or start. Plus cyclists and pedestrians are doing good things for their health and the health of the planet. So share the flippin’ road.
This is a heavy-hearted post. So much needless loss of life. And we know the drivers must live with this on their hearts too. Here is some comic relief. If only we could create this kind of joy on the road everyday.
I have stood along the side of the racecourse on many a stage of the Tour de France. I followed the 2014 from Stage 1 to 21. I have been a spectator at the Tour of California, the Tour Down Under and the Giro d’Italia. Watching a professional bike race in person is a thrilling experience. Whether you are traveling across the globe or stepping out your front door, there are certain dos and don’ts to being a good spectator.
I have a new appreciation this year watching religiously on my NBC Sports Gold app. I set my alarm every day at 6:00 a.m. to watch the day’s Tour de France stage. This year I have spent as much time yelling at spectators to behave as I have at the cyclists to race to the finish.
The spectators need to exercise self control. Here are some suggestions. First and foremost, pay attention to your surroundings at all times. After the caravan of sponsors go by you have about an hour before the first cyclists will pass. If you pay attention and stay sober enough you will hear the helicopters, notice an increase of motorcycle police and official race cars. This will get more and more intense and then you will see either the breakaway group of 2-20 (on average riders) or the whole frickin’ peleton of 180+ riders. Then there are always a few stragglers fighting to get back with the group. Notice how fast they are going compared to you on foot? This is why it is foolhardy to try to interact with them. Besides it is not about you.
Never touch a cyclist or his/her bike. You think you are helping but you are actually more likely to throw them off balance or off their cadence. (Yes, there are more and more women’s cycling competitions. Same rules apply.)
Never throw anything at a cyclist: water, pee, chalk, smoke, fireworks. This is rude and dangerous. On RAGBRAI when amateurs are cycling across Iowa, spectators sometimes turn on their hose and offer to spray cyclists, but it is entirely voluntary, they never cover the entire road. Same with high fives, etc. And it is non-competitive. In a race the cyclists are going full gas throwing something at those speeds can hurt!
Stay off the racecourse. This means that you can not extend your arms out over the barrier to take a selfie, or lean into the road with your mongo camera lens to take a photo. It also applies to your children (don’t hold them over the barrier so they can see), and your dogs (always on a leash please!).
The race organization ASO also has much egg on its face for a series of logistical catastrophes. On Stage 7, the inflatable red 1 kilometer marker collapsed and caused an accident. When the race entered the Pyrenees it was clear that the ASO was not investing enough in safety as many spectators interfered in the race. Then on Mt. Ventoux, the ASO moved the race short of the mountaintop because of severe winds but didn’t move the fan barriers. At 1 kilometer to the new finish the crowd closed in resulting in an accident, a broken bike and Chris Froome, the race leader (yellow jersey) did a 100 yard dash up the road.
Could this have been avoided? Absolutely. The ASO decided to move the finish line the day before, so they had time to move the barriers. The ASO excuses just grated on everyone’s nerves. It might have caused more angst, but the tragedy in Nice shifted the focus.
George Bennett’s run in with a spectator was impressive on Stage 9. For some crazy reason a spectator decided to cross the road as the cyclists came roaring around the corner. Bennett put out his arm and she fell backward out of the road. Asked about it later and the New Zealander said he “Sonny Billed” her. (Sonny Bill is a fantastic rugby player for the All Blacks.) Cyclists should not need rugby experience to compete at top levels.
One of the marvelous things about cycling is how accessible it is to fans. Sure you can pay for VIP access, but most fans enjoy it either on television or from the racecourse for free.
Remember after 21 days of racing the top 3 finishers are often separated by only seconds. So if you think waving a flag in front of their bike and screaming in someone’s face can’t make a difference, look at how close the finish can be:
You can still dress up like a devil, or bring your inflatable kangaroo. You can hang your team or country flags. You can play music or sing and dance. You can experience your heart leaping into your throat as the peleton takes a corner and goes by so fast your eyes water. And you can go home satisfied that the race was decided by hard work, talent, grit and luck.
I 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.
I 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.
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.
RAGBRAI 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who turned on the sauna? I thought it was humid before today, but oh my! I was wrong. Today was like hot yoga on my bike. I still enjoyed the 26 miles I rode before meeting up with Team Larry.
We left at 7 a.m. and I wrote the first 10 or more miles with Steve from Team Larry and got to hear his many life stories. I appreciate that he can talk while going uphill. I especially liked seeing the Iowa University campus in Iowa City. I was moaning about how hard the hills felt and then I met a young man who is cycling whilst towing a canoe. He is doing it to raise awareness and money for ALS research. He said he likes towing his canoe around on his bike and when he gets tired of traffic he lloads his bike and trailer onto his canoe and pedals awhile. He added that he gets tired of people staring at him with his canoe and he lost a friend to ALS in 2014 so he painted the ALS web address to basically make him seem less odd. Anyway he reminded me that it is easier to go uphill when you can use both your arms and legs. Good perspective.
Steve stopped to pee in a cornrow and I decided to keep riding to the Farmboys pop up restaurant and use the porta-potties. You know it is humid when you cannot pull your cycling shorts back on. Awkward. Even with all of the adjusting I was not able to get my chamois aligned. Fortunately I only had 6 to 8 miles left to ride.
Team Larry SAG support Lane from Atlanta met me in West Liberty and drove me to the Team Larry meet-up. In Wilton we shifted my bike and our van set off for Des Moines. A third of Team Larry did not ride at all, a third rode to the end at Davenport, and a third of us rode part of the way. People have a variety of schedules to meet.
On the way home we stopped in Grinnell and ate great food at Montgomery’s Sandwich Shop (one of the original Made-Rite restaurants). It was fun and tasty. Good thing one of these restaurants is not in my home town or I would weigh a ton.
We arrived at Steve and Barb’s in Des Moines and unloaded the gear. We all said good-bye and Cousin John brought me to the Hampton Inn. Blame it on RAGBRAI brain but I thought my key was not working and when I got back to the front desk I realized it was room 208 not 206.
I am now showered and relaxing and listening to the Satellite Sisters podcast. I am so exhausted and I have such a good feeling of accomplishment.
This morning was cool and cloudy—perfect for riding! I decided to ride the first half only to stay on track with my recovery. I was confident that I could get to the meeting town in Mt. Vernon between 10 and 11 before it got hot.
There was a crazy number of people and we could not spread out across the street because the traffic control was not as thorough and the drivers much more impatient. It made for some challenges.
The towns between Hiawatha and Mt. Vernon were really small and unprepared to cope with so many people, so I made short stops, ate my almonds and raisins and kept pedaling.
I felt good and I kept telling myself that 32 miles is like a typical training ride. I also ran into some Team Larry folks and enjoyed getting to know Mike and Carol better. I also played leapfrog with Theresa from Iowa.
We were welcomed lots of enthusiastic residents and even a pipe and drum band as we pedaled into the beautiful little town of Mt. Vernon. It is a college town—home of Cornell College. I learned it was one of two colleges in the nation that students enroll in one course at t time.
I met up with Phyllis and Lane and ate breakfast at a real café! We explored the former intermediate school that was turned into antique shops and art galleries and a community library. The sky broke open while we were browsing and slowed to a drizzle by the time we headed to the truck.
We are staying with Marlene in Coralville. She has a beautiful home but no yard so we are sleeping on her floor instead of pitching our tents. No one is sorry. We arrived, took showers and proceeded to watch a marathon of HGTV Love It or List It. Afterall, we are on vacation. As other team members arrived we were smug in the knowledge that we missed the 20-30 worst miles of the week’s route: long, steep hills with twists and turns in rain.
Some people already had to leave for other commitments, so we were just 16 for dinner at the Iowa River Power restaurant fine dining establishment. It is on a river and next to a dam and a great atmosphere. After dinner we walked out on the dam and listened to Cheap Trick perform at the RAGBRAI concert. We went to Dairy Queen afterward and the poor beleaguered teenager who was working the register watched as her visions of leaving early evaporated upon our arrival.
Tomorrow almost everyone wants to stop at the meeting town—about 41 miles in—so we can pack up and get back to Des Moines by evening. Two team members have to keep driving another 4 hours to return the van in Minneapolis.
I can hardly believe that this adventure is coming to a close. Ted said at dinner that RAGBRAI is like summer camp for adults–camp on steroids. We laughed a lot together tonight. We have celebrated 3 birthdays multiple times. We have inside jokes. We have suffered together and this makes a tight bond. I will miss these characters on Sunday.
I was planning to ride from Vinton (the meeting town) to Hiawatha. This allowed a group of us to relax in the morning and enjoy the town before the hoards of cyclists invade.
We walked around town while the vendors set up. All of the pie choices were available. Usually by the time I get to a rest stop there is only one or two choices left.
We went to the 5th Street Koffee Haus and ordered espresso drinks. First latte this week and it was delicious. We met a cyclist who left Cedar Falls at 5:30 a.m. so he could avoid the crowds and ride on his own. After he left we laughed at the idea of signing up for RAGBRAI but not enjoying people.
About 10:45 I mounted my bike and set off. I did not feel right and after two hills and facing another long, long one, I pulled up under the only shade tree for a few miles to weigh my options. While I was standing there another cyclists pulled up alongside and began telling me about his sponsor. I finally tuned in and realized that his sponsor was Absolut vodka. I laughed and asked what it entailed. He handed me a little bottle of vodka and an Absolut sticker and explained that they provide him a case of little bottles and a case of big bottles and his main job is to share. I thought of Team Larry and wondered if Bombay Sapphire gin already has a team.
I rode back to Vinton and got to appreciate how much work the town did to make the RAGBRAI experience fun for townsfolk and riders. Then I found Lane, one of the Team Larry SAG drivers and hitched a ride with the support vehicle to our host family. This host family is really rolling out the red carpet: homemade ham balls, potato salad, two kinds of pie, and scotcharoos.
I am really still dehydrated from yesterday and it is frustrating not to have the energy to ride today. The upside is the chance to get to know some of my teammates better.
Last night we slept little because of the concert in town and then people coming home from the concert. We took off about 7:15 a.m. and worked our way through the bike congestion in Eldora.
I chatted briefly with an Australian cyclist from Perth. Then I caught up with team member Nancy. We rode the first 20 miles together at a smart clip. We stopped briefly at the first town and the 6 coffee pots had blown a fuse so no coffee. We were on our way to collect our bikes and I ran into Tony from Chicago. So you never know on RAGBRAI.
Nancy and I did stop at Chris Cakes for pancakes in Ackley. It was in the Volunteer Fire Department main bays and it was a fun atmosphere. The cooks tossed pancakes into the line every once in a while! I met Steve from Chicago and he joined our group from Team Larry for breakfast. The towns were closer together today and this hump day is also the shortest–just 62 miles to my host family in Cedar Rapids. Nancy moved on at a faster pace after a few more miles. We had more long rolling hills. It feels like the uphill to downhill ratio is 2:1.
I stopped in Aplington and indulged in the chocolate dipped bacon. It is delicious and the creator Karen is going to send me the recipe.
At this point I decided to go all in and get the walking taco or taco in a bag. I had fun talking to a group of the US Air Force Cycling Team. They have impressed other riders with how much they have been there for other riders–helping to change tires and offering encouragement to people struggling with the hills.
I stopped again in Parkersburg and enjoyed a piece of pie. Maybe I should have eaten some more protein and less sugar because at mile 53 I hit the wall. There were people collapsing from dehydration and falling over. The ambulances were busy. and it was sobering. On one of the steepest hills in the last 7 miles I shifted to the lowest gear and I was still teetering, so I pulled over to the side with a “biker off”. Moments later a woman passed me and then fell over. Her chain broke and may have caused her fall. Suddenly my decision to walk up seemed smart. I struggled all the way home, but I didn’t have to walk again.
I took some time to myself to recover and then enjoyed the convivial Team Larry circle and a delicious homemade dinner from our hosts. And they very kindly let me watch the Tour de France Stage 17 coverage on NBC Sports.
Louise from Bimiji shared with me her experience riding near a woman cycling with her trumpet. At one point she stopped at the top of a long hard hill and played the theme from Rocky for all of the other riders. The impact was tremendous for those struggling up the hill. That is RAGBRAI. Fingers crossed for better sleep and a better day of riding.
Today is a rest day on the Tour de France, so I decided to adopt the idea for Day Three. We had another 73 miles (turned into new a new personal best of 76 for me) and I rode it like it was a rest day.
I was tired and little sore but once I got rolling I felt good and I was able to ride with team Lizard Kings at 16 miles an hour for over 5 miles! I stopped at the first town stop and dropped my bike and messed up my gears. So I waited at one of the bike mechanic tents to get it fixed. Just like the pros, my bike got a quickie tune-up.
I had a couple of leads on dentists to glue the crown back on my molar. It came off on Sunday when I was eating some Power Beans by Jelly Belly. I have been chasing after dentists since then. I kept getting answering machines saying they were closed for RAGBRAI or turn downs. My cousin Sandy found a dentist in Webster City. He was working the Rotary breakfast burrito booth but he was willing to meet in Webster City. Dr. Leo Moriarty did a great job and he did not charge me for it.
I gave myself permission to stop as often as I wanted and to eat all of the good things in my path, including rhubarb pie and ice cream, Beekman’s ice cream, and corn on the cob. I also got a massage at the Alden stop.
I had my first RAGBRAI heartbreak. I rode with Tony from Chicago and we had a great conversation. And stopped at Beekman’s for ice cream. We met Terese from Cresco, IA and if we all lived in one place we could be friends. Instead we all climbed on our bikes said so long and rolled on at different speeds. I may never see them again.
It was a long day… 6 hours of riding over 11 hours. Cousin Sandy met John and I and we went to the beautiful Eldora town square for dinner and people watching. We are staying at another friend of a team member and sitting in our circle of chaire there are both fireflies and bats overhead. We can hear the country band downtown and it is a nice atmosphere.
When you see the Verizon service map and it is almost solid red, well rural Iowa is one of the white spots. And when you add 15,000 people trying to make calls and upload data, the internet connection is rubbish. I have tried to upload my photos and I am having technical difficulties. Since it is a rest day I will publish without photos and call it a day.