Day 2 we wake up to a flat tire on the van. And a dead battery.
Apparently you cannot charge 190932489023804 cell phones all night long. And you probably shouldn’t leave the doors open. And running over a 6 inch nail on the way into Red Oak didn’t help either. The problem wasn’t changing the flat tire. It was finding the spare. Then extracting it from the van. After that, Dr. Nuts quickly changed the flat and cursed himself for choosing to sag that day.
The rest of us readied ourselves, bid farewell to Ross the 92 year old World War II veteran who let us set up camp in his front yard and then set out for the ride. Chris, Red Bear and I chose to make our breakfast stop at the HyVee breakfast buffet to fill up on eggs, bagels, potatoes and other things you shouldn’t eat before a ride but food is fuel and today we were going to need it.
Today we would cover 72.6 miles with 5,096 feet of elevation gain. Hilly courses suit me well and there is nothing more gratifying than passing people up a climb. On a hilly course you quickly realize what it takes to climb a hill and climb it well. I get this question a lot from athletes, how to climb better on the hills:
1 – Power to weight. A high power to weight ratio is important for climbing. To figure your power to weight, take your 20 minute power output and divide it by your weight in kilograms (which is your weight in pounds divided by 2.2). That number is your power to weight ratio. From what I’ve seen, athletes that have ratios over 4 watts/kg are generally top age groupers and good climbers. How can you improve your ratio? Drop weight or increase power. Pick your poison (of course in dropping weight you can also lose power so it’s a delicate balance).
2 – Anticipate the hill. Shift early and shift often. You should be in the proper gear at the bottom of the hill, not shifting in the middle of it. Along those same lines, learn how to shift. Know that you cannot drop from the easiest gear in the big ring to the little ring or else you will drop your chain. It’s best to shift down a few gears in the back then go drop from big to small ring. That said, also learn how to put your chain back on while riding should you drop it (shift into your big ring while continuing to pedal).
3 – Keep your cadence high. While you might initially get over the hill faster in a big gear, you will blow your legs out and blow up at the top of the hill. The proper gearing and cadence when climbing should allow you to get to the top of the hill, shift down and push harder over the hill. If not, you have climbed your hill too hard.
4 – Learn what works best for you and for the hill. Smaller athletes can afford to get out of the saddle and climb their hill harder whereas standing would increase the HR of a bigger athlete – thus costing them more. Standing allows you to put more torque on the pedals and increase power to get up and over that hill faster. Longer hills are better climbed seated with less torque and higher cadence. Shorter steeper hills can be stomped by either athlete and the cost is minimal.
5 – Develop the ability to jump on a hill. Especially if you are riding in a line, the ability to respond to surges on a hill is important for staying with the group. Learn how to jump out of the saddle or surge your effort in the middle of the hill and then get back up to tempo pace. The ability to quickly surge, recover and return to tempo is a skill that requires excellent fitness and power – which is something you realize very few athletes have (some are fit with power, others have power but are not fit).
At some point, a few random riders hopped in our line and were now in front of me. I remember getting frustrated with their surge and coast crap riding (lesson #126 of group riding, never stop pedaling, avoid the surge & coast) so I came around the side of the line and decided to attack to drop some of them knowing there was only 8 miles to go. I always think in terms of 20 mph and multiply everything by 3. 8 miles is only 24 minutes at the worst. You can do anything for 24 minutes. I took off hard. Chris was right next to me matching the tempo and pulling some of the group. I climbed the hills hard out of the saddle screaming like a mad woman ON YOUR LEFT! and accelerating at the top of each hill. This is power. Fitness is power and power feels good.
We finally near Villisca and we slow the pace as we come upon the meat of Ragbrai rolling into the town. The hill up into the town is so steep that many are walking. On the left hand side of the road we see Atlas and realize they have turned this into Heckle Hill.
Heckle Hill is a game they play nearly every day. Find a steep hill, sit along side it with a few cases of beer and heckle riders as they come into town. Today’s heckling had some of Atlas and our team asking riders if they wanted an escort up the hill. M hopped on some girl’s bike and rode it to the top of the hill for her. They also heckled anyone actually riding up the hill (overachiever) and scolded those walking with “welcome to Walkbrai”. We spent the next hour or so heckling and watching riders walk the hill. And watching the rain fall. Rain is inevitable at some point on Ragbrai and by the time we were ready to leave Villisca it was falling in full force.
I left the town with the group but at some point I pulled ahead to ride on my own. I don’t like to ride with groups in the rain. Not on Ragbrai. Too dangerous to go around people on the left hand side of the road avoiding cracks, cars up and whizzing by riders with I-Pods on slippery roads while exceeding 20 mph. The rain was pouring now and by the time we reached Fontanelle I was cold and soaked. The temperature was about 65 but after a day of being wet it felt like 45 and I was actually shivering.
There were about 8 miles to go to Greenfield, the end town. There was nothing you could do but ride. Nowhere to warm up, no shelter unless you count a few large trees in the town square. I rode into Greenfield with Chris just wanting to be dry and warm.
But alas that is not possible. Because you shower outside and you sleep outside too. It’s all fun and games until the outside is wet. The tent gets wet, the bags get wet. Ugh. Wet. Days like this are downers and you think to yourself that tomorrow everything you own will still be wet.
Yet whomever chose the campsite could not have picked a warmer place. We arrived in Greenfield to Virgil and Joanne’s house. They were sitting on the most beautiful porch filled with chairs, trinkets and surrounded by colorful flowers. Virgil was a retired milkman and Joanne had raised their 4 kids. They were the quintessential small town Iowa retired couple.
Our team trickled in, the rain poured harder and at some point we all found ourselves sitting on the porch with this couple talking about their life, our ride and eventually feeling so at home with them that Joanne brought out her homemade peanut butterscotch bars (oh my yum). Their hospitality reminded me why I love this ride. It’s about laughing, it’s about feeling good, it’s about Iowa.
At some point we walked around town in the rain looking for dinner and ended up at a local church. There we ate possibly the worst Ragbrai dinner ever – buttered corn, applesauce, baked potato and chicken that had clearly been cooked the entire day. Again, it was food and you need it so you eat it. Afterward we walked up to the town square. Chris and I spent some time talking to B. and W. – both guys on Atlas and who would have known, both PhDs. This is what impresses me about Ragbrai. You have all of these adults behaving badly like teenagers and find out in their real life they are doctors, lawyers, PhDs.
Everyone needs an escape.
That evening, Shady, Jen, Spencer, JB, Chris and I sat on the porch drinking wine and talking about old Ragbrai memories before heading off to bed. The rain still poured throughout the night. Tomorrow will be wet. I was going to need to pull out my big girl shorts and get over it. Because it would be another day of 70+ miles and hills ahead.