Day 1 takes us from Council Bluffs to Red Oak in 56.2 miles with 3,684 feet of climbing.
We roll out of Council Bluffs for 17 miles en route to the first in between town, Mineola. Once there, we find breakfast in the form of Chris Cakes. Chris Cakes is an Iowa specialty. I’m not sure what makes these pancakes so special but they are light, fluffy and go well with toxic syrup, space juice, greasy sausage links and watery coffee. That makes a well-rounded Ragbrai breakfast.
One of the rules of Ragbrai is that you will eat pancakes and you will like it. You will pay 7 bucks for those pancakes which comes out to 1 dollar per pancake. You will also stand in long line for these pancakes. You will break out in a hot sweat as you stand inside a rundown barn while giant griddles mass produce those pancakes. You will hold up your paper plate to either protect your face or catch a pancake as it is flung through the air by a 70 year old woman shouting COMING AT YA!
You eat when you can on Ragbrai. If you come in search of healthy alternatives and a morning bowl of oatmeal, you will go hungry. You eat what you can when you can. Junk food, lunch for breakfast food, processed food, real food. Food is fuel and fuel is power. It takes more than brown rice and spinach to power you through nearly 500 miles in a week. And Ragbrai is mostly prepared for big appetites. Vendors contract with Ragbrai to set up tents along the route. Then they tempt you with signs touting smoothies, pasta, Mr. Pork Chop or coffee that you will find “in 16 miles” to either make you salivate or make you crazy with riding into a headwind to get to said coffee/smoothie/meat on a stick.
Once we get (catch) our pancakes, we stand outside at the typical makeshift Ragbrai table. A couple of dozen trash cans with some sheets of plywood between them as a “table.” These tables are in the beating Iowa sun that grows hotter with each sip of I can’t believe I’m actually drinking this coffee. I pawn my sausage off to someone else in exchange for another cup of the world’s worst coffee. But like food, you take what you can get on Ragbrai.
It’s the first day and everyone looks fresh, smells clean, has hope. The weather is glorious and the hills haven’t been too bad – yet. After breakfast we find shade behind a trailer and hang out for awhile. Watch Ragbrai roll in to town. Notice a stop sign that has the words “HAMMER TIME!” written out under the word STOP.
That is classic Ragbrai.
From Mineola it’s another 16 miles to Henderson. 16 hilly miles. We roll along in a paceline which at some point I decide is not moving fast enough. Welcome to day 1. You feel like a rock star and I started the ride knowing that I was going for it. Every day. Until my legs scream no. And even at that I will put in ear plugs and keep pedaling. I come up along the right side of the line and up the tempo on the hills. It’s a hard pace, it feels good and I’m stomping out of the saddle now. This is not how you climb hills unless you are small and you’re willing to eat your heart in your mouth and throw up a little pancakes. In other words, it feels fucking fabulous.
Into Henderson we decide to keep rolling another 10 to Emerson. Red Bear and I head to the beer garden to sit in the grass for awhile. It’s worth noting that I don’t drink beer on Ragbrai which makes me as popular as a pile of dog crap that you don’t see and step right into on a hot day. I just don’t like doing anything that might jeopardize my ability to ride a bike for the next 6 to 12 months. If that makes me unpopular so be it. I just like to ride my bike too damn much.
I like to hang out though. And you can hang out nicely in a beer garden. After awhile we all assembled inside the bar and things started to unravel. It was late in the day and the entire place was exploding in spandex and beer cans. “Jasmine” (not his real name but when I asked him what he wanted as his code name he suggested something stripper like and he came up with Jasmine). He’s the one that taught us the lesson that if you have to choose between going to jail or going to the hospital, choose the hospital. He also spent the better part of the day telling everyone he won Ragbrai last year. It’s not open for winning. Today Jasmine heckled me for “not having fun” (read: not being drunk) and so bought me a drink. I took about 3 courtesy sips of before putting it on the table with the rest of the casualties; empty beer cans, plastic cups.
Meanwhile everyone else was building a beer can pyramid on the table. I found a magic marker and started giving everyone tattoos. They were totally inappropriate and I paid for it – when Red Bear grabbed the marker out of my hand he tattooed me with the words “Asian Invasion” and some arrows. I labeled someone as “drunk” and then someone wrote below that “and easy.” Perhaps the most daring thing I saw at the bar – other than what we all wrote on each other’s bare stomachs and legs – was an Atlas girl doing a beer bong using a Go Girl (if you don’t know what a Go Girl is, look it up). That girl had balls. Chris was in the corner with a redface after 3 beers. Dr. Nuts mentions we should label Chris with “not to exceed 1.5 beers” since he doesn’t have the enzymes to process anything more than that. It was your typical Ragbrai madness happening – and it was only day 1.
Awhile later the bar was getting hot and I decided to ride on to camp. 9 miles to go until Red Oak. Chris must have left before me because I remember passing into the headwind while going 17 mph. I came up behind him and saw the word “Ragbrai” scrawled in brown marker on the back of his left leg and the word “Princess” written on this right leg. Oh my, he has been Ragbraied. Plus he was going about 14 mph. Later on he told me that the ride to Red Oak was his personal cycling hell. He was stuck behind some guy with a radio playing country music – and he was so tired from the beer that he couldn’t pedal any faster than 14 mph to pass him. (it’s worth adding that the next day I asked Chris if he scrubbed his legs while showering because he still had Ragbrai Princess written on his legs; his response was “you mean Ragbrai Prince” and I said no, someone wrote princess on your leg; moments later Red Bear confessed that he told Chris it was Prince but couldn’t help himself from writing Princess).
In Red Oak we stayed in the yard of a couple that had been married 62 years. They set up their lawn chairs on their driveway and watched us like we were a show. We set up our tents and then it was time to shower. I took a cold hose shower. After a long day in the sun, it felt refreshing. The hose shower is something I look forward to every year. Throw on your swimsuit and stick your head under a garden hose. Southern routes promise comfortably cold water. Northern routes promise water deep from the aquifer that chills you no matter how hot it is outside. Being in the south of I-80, this water was cold but not intolerable.
Dinner was only a 15 minute walk away to the HyVee. Hyvee is like heaven. Towns that are big enough to have one promise a smorgasboard of food items that don’t involve a white tent and a long line. I opted for a giant salad, bread and milk. Three things that you rarely find on Ragbrai so I knew to tank up on it while I could. That evening I hung out with JB and Dr. Nuts before heading off to the tent for a train-free night of sleep. Day 1 complete with over 400 miles to go.