Day 5 is the century day.
It’s an optional loop you encounter around mile 35 of a 77 mile day. Taking the loop tacks on the extra 23 miles. But it’s never guaranteed. Sometimes the loop mileage gets you to a full 100 miles. Or in the case of the one year where Ragbrai did really bad math, you end up going 114 miles.
Very few do the century on our team and I see their point. Once you get beyond 85 miles the fun factor in the ride decreases exponentially. Regardless, I’m always in for it and usually out of pity, fear or coercion, Chris joins me. This year, Red Bear and JB decided to tag along too. We were up early and out of camp by 8:30 am. Early for us. Whereas the rest of Ragbrai was on the course in full force on the roads and hanging out in the left lane.
ON YOUR LEFT!
The first 20 miles Chris pulled us into a headwind. I put myself in the back of the line to give JB and Red Bear a fair chance at a draft since there is no draft behind me. The pace was strong but too controlled which allowed the meat of Ragbrai to start to cling to my wheel. Typically Giff and I police the back of the line together, shouting at stragglers, squirrels and pack meat telling them with a simple shake of the head, you don’t belong here. It’s for their own safety. I told Chris to pick up the pace but I could tell he was doing his “appropriate century pace”. I realized that doing 100 miles on day 5 is totally inappropriate so I decided to take a risk and blow the century pace. Not very appropriate but…problem solved.
At some point, 3 college boys passed us at a pace that was damn fast. Chris, cruising at his appropriate pace soon found me pulled up next to him shouting GO WITH THEM! There’s no point in doing work on the century day when someone else is willing to work for you. Make those boys your bitch!
Three boys with fast bikes. One had race wheels (WHO brings race wheels on Ragbrai?), one was just darn cute (didn’t even catch what his bike looked like but I liked his sunglasses) and the other had a serious seat-too-high issue plus he was spinning at 120 rpms. Still, they were fast. They pulled us for a bit then we pulled them. I let them go in front of me with the warning that I’ll give them the better position in line for a draft but if they drop me I will find them and eat them alive.
The road was getting thicker with Ragbrai and we were moving now at speeds that were not too safe for weaving. At one point, Chris backs off, a gap forms and I see my opening. The college boys were taking off so I make a big jump to catch their wheel and ride to the next town. The cute one said “so the boys couldn’t keep up with you?” No, the boys just didn’t want to hold your squirrely wheel anymore but I’m willing to take a chance. It lasted a few miles before we arrived in the next town where I waited for everyone.
Finally we arrived at the start of the century loop at the 35 mile mark. Our plan was to do a rotating paceline so no single rider got too tired for the rest of the day. The course started into a headwind taking us around Rathbam Lake with beautiful views. After a few miles, we heard the unfamiliar whir of something really fast approaching us. It’s not often we hear that on Ragbrai. A guy leading a paceline of riders dressed in the same sleek grey kits pulls up on our left and says “hop on.”
When someone moving faster says “hop on” you do it. I hopped in behind some guy and realized we were riding with a team called Balance out of Minnesota. If our team is fast, these guys were fucking unbelievable. It was as if they were pedaling in unison, the same cadence locked in a rhythm so smooth it was hypnotizing. They were pulling us at 24 mph into a crosswind. The wind was coming out of the left – and yet again I learned a valuable lesson in cycling. Position is everything. When you’re riding with a crosswind and you’re small it’s better to be on the inside of the line. The outside you find less of a draft and end up working hard for that 24 mph. Too hard. And so I hung on for about 10 miles before I just could…not…hang…on…any…more. I fought it, redlined, it hurt hurt hurt and then I was…off.
Alone on the century loop but I knew in another few miles there would be a turn into tailwind. Besides it was a gloriously sunny day with impeccable blue skies. I can go this alone – any day. At the end of the loop, I found Red Bear, JB and Chris. A few miles later we found the rest of our team along the road (those that didn’t do the century loop) and joined en route to Moravia. A few miles later we were greeted with a giant sign promising free beer and, well, it’s team law. We stopped. For whatever reason, I wasn’t interested in civil disobedience today.
Best thing I’ve ever eaten on Ragbrai? Pulled smoked chicken sandwich bathed in smoky barbeque sauce washed down with a cold beer. There, I said it. I drank the free beer and I liked it. It was the perfect pick me up, an unexpected addition to my nonplanned fuel plan and it sat in my stomach like gold. All that bullshit about only doing gels and bars while riding? Clearly no one has ever tried the pulled chicken fuel plan.
The rest of the day cruised by with the original route being 76.9 miles with 3,388 feet of elevation gain. Somehow the century loop made the total mileage 104 miles (and that is Ragbrai bad math). The pace averaged about 20 mph which is nothing for a triathlon but on a road bike, today, here, now, it surprised me. I had 5 days of hills, mileage, interrupted sleep, no stretching, no recovery, no consistent sports nutrition, no green food in my diet, no smoothies, no whey protein, no naps, no ice baths, no salt tabs, no massage, no foam rolling, none of that crap that everyone says is so important that you cannot be an athlete without it - actually I was going about everything so “wrong” that I had no idea how I was still pedaling. The pain in my feet pulsed and my crotch died about 2 days ago. But my legs – felt surprisingly fresh and responsive to whatever challenge I threw at them. Whether it was a surge, a bridge, a hill, up tempo, coasting…they were there.
And that surprised me. Because honestly when was the last time I rode hard for 5 days in a row? Therein lies the answer…it’s all cycling. There’s no impact, no balancing 3 sports, no stress from switching from swim to bike to run. Hop on your bike and just ride. Of course a lot of the riding was easy paceline work but when I needed my giddy up it would get up and go. Power output was good. And heart rate – hilarious. Like you would catch me on Ragbrai with a heart rate monitor. I still could be dead for all I know. I could have my heart rate at 190 or 120. It really didn’t matter. The legs did what they needed to do over and over again. I surprised myself but in a way – not really. When I’m driven, connected and when I want it bad enough I find a way. You always find a way.
Finally we pulled into Ottumwa for the night. Dr. Nuts parked our campsite behind an auto parts store. I repeat – we camped behind an auto parts store. It was a beautiful grassy lot along the river but like I told The Weatherman, if last night we camped at the corner of Frequent Train and Barking Dog, tonight we camped at the corner of Rusty Nail and Malaria.
And, when was the last time you showered in an auto parts store parking lot? I’ll answer that for you – never. And good thing because you really shouldn’t. You find yourself standing in a parking space between two rentable trucks, holding a garden hose for a shower with your toiletries spread out on one of those cement blocks at the end of the parking spot with the Red Bear who is shouting at you “STOP SHOWING ME YOUR JUNK.” For the record, I wasn’t. I was so mortified by the fact that I was bathing in a parking lot that I bathed in my bike shorts and jog bra and swore to myself I would get a full body tetanus shot when I got home.
That night we walked into Ottumwa. Ottumwa is an economically depressed river community with a troubled population. A large bridge crossed over the Des Moines River into a ravaged downtown filled with burnt out remnants of an economy no longer thriving, empty buildings with broken windows, one bar and a few adult entertainment venues. We walked along the broken streets to see a most sad sign posted on one of the brick walls that said “Renovation in Progress.” This town hadn’t seen renovation in years.
After a quick trip to a bar and then an even quicker trip to an adult entertainment venue (yet another “I’ll spare you the details” but when Jen asked what was worse to go there with her brother or me to go there with my husband I had to think that NEITHER of us drew the lucky card), we walked back to the beer garden and hung out with Atlas.
The night ended in the dark field behind the auto parts store after walking what felt like 6 miles around Ottumwa. I was ready for sleep, hoping that being along the river meant we were far enough from the train. Hoping the sleep would be uninterrupted and deep. But as a cockroach skittered across the parking lot I knew there would be little chance of that. I zipped myself into the tent and knew morning couldn’t come soon enough. Get me out of this town and back on my bike. I’ve still got some giddy up in these legs and even after 300+ miles I’m still raring to go.