According to my body’s clock, right now I should be rolling into a small town nestled in the middle of Iowa, welcomed by signs luring me towards pie, pancakes or spaghetti dinners and peppy screams from the local school cheerleaders.
I keep rolling down a street filled with cyclists on recumbents, hybrids, mountain bikes and other relics that have survived, albeit rusty, since 1978. At some point the road becomes so bottlenecked with cyclists that I am forced to unclip and walk my bike. There by the local bar I locate my friends clad in bright blue bike jerseys obnoxiously splattered with white hibiscus flowers and the words trousermouse on the collars and side panels of their shorts. We regroup and decide if we will hang out in town or roll. We decide to roll on to the next town.
In between we will ride somewhere between 10 to 20 miles in two long blue lines whirring down the road. On our right, the meat of Ragbrai rides. Mostly averaging about 10 mph with radios blaring from their bicycles, burleys filled with camping gear in tow, toe cages, tutus on their heads, ragbrai virgin written on their calves. They are recreational riders at best – some that have never picked up a bike until the week before when a friend convinced them they had to take part of the biggest party on two wheels that moves across Iowa.
Our line rolls by them swiftly. Tim and Chris lead the way pulling the team along over 23 mph. To pull the team is hard. To sit behind the puller is almost harder. To sit third, fourth, fifth back is the difference between driving a car across country and taking a nap in the backseat. To sit in the back position is to be willing to play an endless game of yo-yo or bridge the gap. And to police the line from overzealous riders that try to latch on only to fall off as we crest the next hill. We roll down the road speaking the language of the paceline bump, slowing, crack, on your left, left side, course right, car up, car back, rider up, cannonball. To the right is corn. To the left is soybeans. Above is nothing but endless blue skies scattered with wispy clouds indicating the headwind we have been facing for most of the ride has plans to stay.
Yes, friends, that is how Monday would go if I was still on Ragbrai.
It is like that for miles upon miles. 500 miles total if you were to ride every day. You start in a town where you have camped for the night. You wake up the next morning ready to ride. Typically we wake at 8 am and take anywhere from 1 – 2 hours to tear camp apart before facing our bike seats. First task of the morning: you search for a kybo. Sometimes this requires a bicycle ride to the middle of town to desperately hope that the line of kybos in the beer garden is still there. If that fails, you head to the local courthouse, always open early and know for the best bathrooms on the ride. You return to tear down your tent covered in morning dew, put on bike shorts that you cannot - at this point - tell if they are dirty or clean, strap on the bike shoes and stand by your bike.
The weather forecast is given. Marsh rips a tuft of grass from the lawn of the homeowner we convinced to host 15 weary yet raucous riders along with their tents, lawn chairs and a cooler filled with beer. Marsh lets the grass go to see which way the wind blows. The ride will either be hard work or a tailwind delight. Most days it is hard work. A plan is made for whether we will eat pancakes 4 miles out of town or in the first town. If you arrive too late and miss pancakes you miss a significant part of your nutrition plan. The team gets atop their bikes and we roll. Slow at first but then building speed. A sign tells us pancakes today are 7 miles way. A collective moan. Some grumbling tummies. A grit of your teeth wondering how far and fast you can go before you completely run out of fuel.
Each morning, someone offers to sag and drive the van filled with our belongings to the end town. Usually that person is in the most pain from either the day’s ride before or the night’s drinking. The rest of us will ride anywhere from 60 to 100 miles to get to the end town. In between there will be about 6 to 8 small towns that have planned for over a year to bring the festival of Ragbrai into their town. Along the way, the course is mostly closed as Iowa seems to have accepted that in exchange for gobs of profit they will need to give up some of their roads. Each town has a theme along with food, drink and music. Imagine a Taste of Chicago but spread it across Iowa. And instead of fancy city food you have nothing but pork, pie and sweet corn.
60 to 100 miles can take 3 hours or can take all day. Depends on the course and how many times you stop. The day of the century we were on the course for 9 hours. Of course the century itself took a little over 5 hours. But when you include time to eat pancakes, wait in line for a kybo and create an impromptu beer garden, the day adds up. And besides there is no rush. Your job for 8 hours each day – or more if you work overtime – is to get to the end town. You could roll in at 12 pm or 10 pm and it would still be the same. In the end town there is nothing pressing. Nothing but your tent that needs to be put up, a hose shower that you need to find and the quest for enough food. And that shower is optional – for you will learn on a week long ride that hygiene is highly overrated, as is stretching, power zones and heart rate. Food, however, is never overrated nor optional.
Along the way you meet people. People of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, abilities. People riding six thousand dollar bikes to people riding something with a chain so rusted you wonder how it carries them up any hill at all. There are two guys riding unicycles. A rollerblader. People carting their kids, dogs, personal belongings and an entire team of men – Team Bad Boy – that hauls a grill, a stereo and literally a kitchen sink. You talk to them. You talk to anyone and everyone that will help you pass the miles after you’ve been dropped or decided to roll ahead. You realize that very few are on their first Ragbrai; most riders have years of Ragbrai’s in their legs. Along with rides through the Rockies, across Europe or following the Tour de France. Riding is life. Spandex is comfort. A good saddle is like a good home – one that is upon wheels but home nonetheless.
Everyone has a team name. A team kit. Some have stickers, hats and other trinket giveaways. A school bus they have painted and covered in inappropriate slogans and equipped with a balcony on top to hold bikes, a balcony on back to hold a kybo, a portable shower or a barbeque grill. It is mechanical creativity at its best and the buses are sometimes more interesting to look at than the ride scenery itself. Team names are lewd and remind you that for one week out of the year Ragbrai is a much needed obscene respite for many that hide behind pent up desk jobs and other real life obligations. For most riders, Ragbrai is like a spring break. Except that it is at the end of July.
Team Mojo, Team Bad Monkey, Party Patrol, Fish, Commoniwannaleia, Bastardos, Spin, Cockroach, Schmooze, Me-Off, Two Tired, Bead Whore, Diegos, Evil and then there is Trousermouse. That is our team. Of course it was a team name created when the guys were about 14 years old. Somehow, though, on Ragbrai it fits right in with the other Ragbrai team innanities. Like the fact that most teams are all grown adults wearing purple wigs, capes, beads, spandex that was a wee bit too tight and the man wearing nothing but the loin cloth – we’re still not sure how he rode at all. And for the record he really was wearing nothing underneath. He showed us so.
It’s not just him - the ride is filled with people like that. Those that are not satisfied with just the toughness of an everyday ride. They take it up a notch. Or take off their pants. Or ride a bicycle without a seat, rollerblade, wear a giant piece of foam pie on their helmet – imagine the aerodynamic drag of that. But with all of that – they still ride and make you realize that in life there really is no excuse. If you are able, you can ride. If you are breathing, you can exercise. If you can move, you should in any way you can.
This was my sixth time on the ride. In years past I remember much more debauchery, nudity and free beer. Not that I went looking for any of that but in the two years I haven’t been on the ride – the bad behavior just doesn’t seem to be there as much anymore. Ragbrai has grown kinder, gentler, cleaner, perhaps just older. For many it seems more like a weeklong binge from town to town to indulge in bratwurst or walking tacos, lemonade or beer. Ragbrai has grown a little slower, a little more soft around the middle.
But still it hasn’t lost what attracts most of us to it after all – its simplicity to bare life down to the basics for a week – eat, sleep, ride. Hang out with friends. Drink some beer. Pass some miles. And, most importantly – take your time. To suggest you will do something other than that is to break the Ragbrai code. It is not welcome and as I realized many days – not the point of the ride.
And how do you pass the time? Whatever way you can. Or want. Sit on a curb and talk to your friends. Grab some food. Listen to the music. Heckle riders on a hill. Walk around a town of 1,000 – which usually takes about 3 blocks. Go to the Casey’s to buy some Gatorade. Pick up free romance books at the library and read selections sitting by the post office. Play games. Silly games that you make up under the influence of too many miles, too tight of spandex, too much Iowa summer sun.
Finally you roll into the end town. You visit the message board and hope the van driver posted. You locate the campsite on someone's lawn. The homeowner usually offers up their hose. They completely sacrifice their backyard for 12 hours to a bunch of hooligans that will litter the lawn with beer cans, bikes and wet clothes. In the morning those same hooligans will clean up and leave without a trace. First priority: decide if you will tolerate the coldness of a hose shower or pay 5 bucks for one at the local school. On hot days the hose shower feels like heaven. You stand there in your bike clothes and get yourself as close as you can to clean. You put up your tent. You then visit the town for food. It is like a carnival with music, beer garden and food vendors. Afterwards you sit around camp in lawn chairs and talk some more. You meet up with friends you only see once a year. You talk bikes. You talk life. You talk sometimes about nothing at all.
You are at the whim of the weather – the sun, the rain, the wind. Ragbrai makes you tough. You sleep through one storm that literally scares the life out of you. You tough through 98 degrees with 90 percent humidity. You bear down in the pouring rain. You ride straight into a headwind with no other choice. It’s not like you can put your bike down and stop. You have to get to the end town. No one will pick your sorry ass up. You get up and ride. You realize there is no such thing as fatigue. You can wake up day after day and push yourself and keep expecting more. If you had a nutrition plan it got off track after the second stop of the day. You eat what you can when you can and tell your legs to just pedal more. You forget about power and heart rate and just ride.
By day 7 your legs become like an army – they just listen and do the work. Any pain dissipates after about 20 minutes or just becomes replaced by the soreness of your private parts after hugging the saddle for so many miles. The chafing, the saddle sores – these are the most painful memories. The pain in your legs – at some point it stops or you don’t notice your legs realize this is now your day’s work. Riding is your job. You get a sense of how it must feel to ride in the tour. Your body goes on automatic. To take a day off would be painful because you feel your body and legs would completely shut down.
Yesterday I did a 2 hour run. My legs are not yet aware that they rode hundreds of miles last week. For some reason they were fast, light and speedy instead. In fact, I ran better than I’ve run in a long time. But today – Monday – my legs are feeling not so great. Climbing the stairs was an epic feat. I’m burning up from a metabolism that won’t slow down. It’s 1 pm and I’ve already eaten 3 meals. I’m officially suffering from the post-Ragbrai. In which I will find myself heavier than ever from all the carbohydrate and fluid retention. From the extra muscle mass. Grown fat from a week’s worth of heaven in Iowa disconnected from responsibility, reality and the rest of the world.
And now I sit here back to work. A kitchen chair is nothing like a bike seat and all of a sudden I feel the urge to shout on your left. I’m looking for a wheel to draft and getting buzzed by one of the Metz boys. I wonder how long I can hold on at this pace. Off in the distance I see the water tower indicating the next town and know I can hold on until I make it there. A car up, a rider up, a big crack in the middle of the road. I roll over and by each obstacle with fastness that makes me feel vulnerable yet strong. I realize out here I am completely alive but also nearly facing the possibility of death every pedal stroke of the way. The corn is my fire escape. And sometimes I realize even if I had to peel off into the corn I would still go airborne and wonder if the corn would soften my land. I shuffle thoughts like this quickly away and just focus on the wheel in front of me. I tell myself to be fearless. To be on Ragbrai riding in a line is to become fearless. To ignore the burn in your legs and focus on the task at hand. You approach 25, 26, 28 mph – at one point 31 mph on the flats and you realize at the end of this week your head will hurt more than your legs from staring at a wheel, from facing the possibility of your own fast crash, from forcing yourself to let go. Throw caution to the Iowa wind and let your legs ride. That’s from where confidence grows.
If you have the time next year, you too should escape. Look out over the rolling Iowa hillsides. Find yourself lost in a row of green stalks of corn. Quiet your mind to the sound of wheels on pavement. Make riding your job and a tent your home. You realize that you can disappear for a week and life will continue to go forward. Nothing much is so important that it needs you there and now. Nothing much resists you from slowing down and stepping back, from disconnecting, letting yourself get a little ragged and forgetting you have worries at all.
So next year come late July, grab your bike, your backpack and cycling shoes. Throw some salt tabs in your jersey pocket just in case but keep in mind that a turkey drumstick or a bloody mary probably has all the salt you'll ever need to continue down the road.