Saturday and day negative one of Ragbrai begins at 4 am with a 5 am departure for Burlington.
Logistically, Ragbrai requires getting yourself, your belongings and your bike to the starting town on Saturday. Chris and I drive our car to the end town – Burlington – so we will have a ride back to Chicago. We also rented a car to drive to Des Moines so we could meet up with the rest of the crew en route to Council Bluffs – the start town.
At 12 pm we were in Des Moines with our personal belongings waiting in a parking lot for the Minneapolis crew. They bring down a 15 passenger van that will hold all of our belongings for the week. What do you need for a week on Ragbrai? The only thing you find that you truly need is a clean pair of shorts each day. Everything else is optional or unnecessary. A clean jersey is nice but overrated. Socks are comfortable but you can go without. Rain gear is useless when you’re in the rain for an entire day. Arm warmers, leg warmers – it’s Iowa in July. Two water bottles, a helmet and – you’ll only regret if you don’t put it on often enough - sunscreen.
By the time they reach us, someone had already incurred a speeding ticket. Going 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. We ask how it is possible to get a 15-passenger van up to 85 mph but then again we know that these guys wait all year for Ragbrai. To say they are in a rush is an understatement. The quicker they get there, the quicker the good times can begin.
Names have been changed to protect the guilty. Along with us this year: The Timmers, Shady, M, Chris (real name, husband), Jen, Red Bear, Trixie, Soko, Giff, The Weatherman, JB, Spencer and Dr. Nuts. Old college friends, friends of friends...spouses, however, are not allowed. With myself being the one exception that changed the team dynamic about 9 years ago. While most don’t like that I’m there, I can think of more than a few times when I pulled each of them (except M) across Iowa at some point.
And that is all I have to say about that.
Together we drive on to Council Bluffs. Along the highway, Iowa rolls out in green fields and red barns. A few hours later we arrive in Council Bluffs and locate a campsite. Lodging on Ragbrai is your tent. And you have a few choices of where you park it each night. Of course there is “tent city” – the giant Ragbrai campground full of tents of registered riders convenient to the expo, showers and food. Great place to camp if you enjoy being woken at 5 am by the sound of 1000 tents zipping in unison. Therefore we camp offsite. The van driver finds a site by driving through of the town looking for a local school, a park or a resident willing to offer up their lawn for a night.
Council Bluffs is an easy one – we choose a local park with a sprawling lawn, bathrooms and the nation’s largest horseshoe arena. It even had spectator stands. Atlas (other team we hang out with daily) is also camped on this site. We greet each other with a year’s worth of absence between us but it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. Same faces, same friends all looking for similar good times.
Tent is pitched and then all there is to do is…relax. For the next week that will be our job. In addition to the ride. I relax in the tent after a long day leaving the window unzipped to watch the guys sitting around in camp chairs. They are laughing, drinking, I listen to the stories of Ragbrai’s past unfold. This is my 7th time on the ride while some of the guys have gone over 15 times.
Later in the evening, M reads the rules. Atlas listens in along with Steve from Bastardos. Steve clings to our group this year as his team has mostly disbanded. He’s a good guy with a funny Wisconsin accent. The reading of the rules is an annual tradition. Experience teaches you there are things you can expect on Ragbrai and those things have become the tenets of the team.
You will eat pancakes and you will like it.
At least once during the week there will be one storm that scares the crap out of you.
Do not bring anything on Ragbrai that you do not want lost, stolen, broken or eaten by the van.
The rest of the evening is a noise of train whistles and bizarre late night awakenings. At least 4 rail lines converge in Council Bluffs. And run through the night. The only way the trains could have been any louder is if we had actually slept on the tracks. Sleep is one of the hardest things on Ragbrai.
In the morning I woke up early to go for a run. Then it’s time to get suited up for the day. The team wears the same jerseys – bright blue with white hibiscus flowers. No, we’re not Team Aloha nor are we from Hawaii. The jersey is joke. A loud joke that allows us to standout and also pick each other out in towns where thousands are dressed in cycling attire. Imagine 10+ men wearing bright blue flowered jerseys with matching blue shorts that say TROUSERMOUSE on the side panels. It’s ridiculous, it’s immature, it’s Ragbrai.
Team Fly, Whiners, Team Bad Boy, Bead Whore, Team Spin, Drinkstrong, Killer Bees, IWanna…the names are all inside jokes that you need not share with anyone but your own team. Some wear purple wigs, some wear pink feather boas attached to their jersey and bike, others have wedges of foam pie atop their helmets and there was even a guy that wore a full suit (as in business suit). M's response to him, “well executed.”
Most of the riders are on teams. You can go by yourself or in the case of the Livestrong group – with 200 of your closet friends. You can wear the same jerseys or – in the case of some – wear nothing at all. It’s a festival on two wheels. And you don’t even need two wheels. One guy uses a unicycle. Another rollerbladed the entire thing. There was even a woman running Ragbrai this year. How you do the miles each day is up to you, how long it takes is up to you, when you leave, how long you stay in the in between towns – all your choice.
The route is marked and patrolled by state troopers. No stoplights or stop signs to disrupt your speed. Along the way there are in between towns that have set up festivals of food, entertainment, beer gardens. You can linger as long as you’d like in each town. Some riders leave for the day at 5 am. The bulk of them leave by 7 am. Our team rolls out after 9 am to avoid getting caught in the meat of Ragbrai.
The meat of Ragbrai is everyone. And I mean everyone. Mountain bikes, single speeds, time trial bikes, clunkers, recumbents, tandems. $10,000 bikes to catastrophes that look like someone picked it up from a rusty shop for 10 bucks. As long as it gets you from the start town to the end town – you’ll be ok. And it can take you all day. Most of the riders out there this year were probably going 10 – 12 mph. Each year is a different route and this was one of the hilliest routes in history. And it showed.
The right side of the road is entirely shut down and open for the ride. The left side is where we mostly ride and as long as you are willing to shout Car Up, Cannonball, Crack or ON YOUR LEFT you’ll fly through it as fast as you like.
Generally we wake up around 7:30 am and by the time everyone takes down their tent, gets dressed, finds a KYBO, applies sunscreen and packs up the van it’s about 9:30 am. We make the call about breakfast – either in town or along the route. Signs advertising all you can eat pancakes at the local church, breakfast burritos in a stand along the road tempt you as you ride. Sometimes you find the food right away. Other times you ride 30 miles on nothing but Gatorade and a fire in your belly that says feed me 30 miles ago.
On Sunday morning we suit up and set out for 52.6 miles. M makes a difficult decision easy when he decides to sag after having some food poisoning the night before that left him reeling in the sand pit of the horseshoe arena. Sagging is code for driving the van and setting up camp. Most of the time it works out that the person feeling not so sparky in the morning gets to sag. Some years I sag when I want to get in a longer run. Others sag when it’s raining. No one usually wants to sag but at some point it’s inevitable – someone has to drive the van from the start to the end town.
Being that it’s the first day it’s unamimous that we will ride until we find Chris Cakes – a Ragbrai specialty. A sign tells us they are up the road in Mineola about 17 miles away. I pop a bar and get ready to ride. A whir of blue jerseys in a paceline down the road. It’s my favorite sound that will start each of the next 7 days – wheels on pavement.
Ragbrai 2009 has begun.