Day 6 arrived with 75.5 miles and 2,841 feet of climbing.
At this point you realize that in events of endurance some athletes breakthrough while others breakdown. Some athletes thrive and grow stronger as the days go on – they find untapped speed and endurance to push through another day even after yesterday’s thrashing. Each day I feel fitter, stronger, hungrier to take on the hills, the miles, to make a move to see just how far I can push it until I explode.
The night of sleep in Ottumwa went well. No trains, no bugs and nothing but sunny blue skies in the morning. The team took forever to tear down camp this morning and pack up. At the moment when everyone looked ready someone would need to pump their tires, find their wallet or look for water. At the last moment before departure, Chris realized that he needed a new tire. His words, “Don’t wait for me, I will definitely catch up.” A little foreshadowing: I do believe some of the team saw this as a challenge of catch us if you can, Waterstraat.
We rolled out of Ottumwa riding over the Des Moines River and greeted with a large river valley hill. Nothing like grinding at 8 mph in the first 10 minutes of a ride. Once over that hill we made a decision to ride to the first town for breakfast. No one had eaten this morning. Unless you count the one half of a bar that I dipped into a jar of peanut butter.
The first town rolled by and it was a nontown. This happens on Ragrbai. It’s a town on the map but not really a town just a white tent on the side of the road selling bananas or Gatorade or something you don’t want for breakfast. We made the decision to roll on because, after all, it was day 6 and we finally had tailwind.
(rarely in Ragbrai do you get a west wind though it seems logical that you would have a tailwind every day moving from west to east since most weather in Iowa moves that way).
It was M., Giff, JB, Jen and myself. Shady had rolled off due to computer malfunction and The Timmers had taken off ahead of us. The five of us cruised down the road with tailwind at a most zippy pace. A few miles later I heard something behind me. The position had been vacant but I realized a girl had hopped on. We don’t usually like random riders to hop on to our line. No sooner was M. next to me and asking if I thought it was time to shake the excess of our line. I tell him it’s time and he gets up in the front and accelerates the pace.
He bolts. So fast that Giff is pedaling like a tornado and I’m struggling to grab his wheel. M keeps pushing the pace until I realize I am about to get dropped. I am giving it everything I have pushing as hard as I can go wondering why why why can’t I grab that wheel when I momentarily look down and realize…it is because we are going 31 mph and I’m spun out.
Finally we make a turn, the pace slows into the crosswind. We are all together again and realize another one of in between towns is not really a town. We’ve gone nearly 60 minutes now and haven’t eaten breakfast. I had a gel about 30 minutes ago and really did not want another so I just kept riding on Gatorade and fumes. I was determined to eat real food today but I was also starting to feel panicked and desperate. I need food. Real food. Not food in a package, not a banana.
At 30 miles into the ride we pull into a real town with real food. Except now it’s about 11:30 am and the only food they are selling is lunch food. At this point, we realized the 14th prophecy of Ragbrai came true:
There will be one day where you do not find breakfast for at least 30 miles.
“Looks like it’s an ice cream for breakfast day,” M. says. I settle for yet another grilled chicken sandwich and coffee. Ketchup was my vegetable. About 20 minutes later Chris and Shady pull into town. I can tell that Chris is not happy because while he meant that he could catch up to us he did not mean for us to go rip out 30 miles straight at a ridiculous pace. Which is pretty much what we did. I could see the veins pulsing in his head and knew a deviant plan was brewing. A move would be made today.
After eating what now was lunch, we roll out toward the next town as a group. We make a turn into tailwind and I find myself in the front of the line with Chris effortlessly going 25 mph. Chris looks at me and says “at the next turn I’m going to make a move.” I nod my head and knew what I had to.
Get ready to eat pain. Goes well with grilled chicken sandwich. And fueled mostly by free coffee.
We make the turn and I make a massive leap pushing my power over lotsa watts per kilogram to another all time new power high. HOLY CRAP! But there was a purpose. That was to throw off the riders behind me and make them jump at the corner to grab my wheel and fatigue them. Meanwhile, Chris followed that up with his bolt to make a break. Sean, the ex-pro who could probably sense a disturbance in the force from 3 wheels back – immediately broke with Chris. The strategy worked. Most of the group had broken off. I was pushing as hard as I could go to stay with Chris and Sean. I’m seeing stars as Sean and Chris start to pull away. At that moment, Todd pulls up alongside me ON HIS CYCLOCROSS BIKE and rides next to me. I am going now at a pace beyond balls out. Yes, I lost my balls a few miles ago. JB pulls up behind me and says “I had to bridge like a mofo to catch you.” Todd just laughs and says something I’ll never forget….
“You have to be attentive in the line. Did you see as we turned the corner Sean, Liz and Chris took off together? You have to always be ready for that and make the break.”
M. is there with JB and says to me “what was the purpose of that?” I said it was time to shake some excess off the line. What comes around goes around. And I’m thinking somewhere up the road Chris is saying “aw, fuck you guys.”
We rode into Brighton and gathered under the Metz Boys tent to hang out for awhile. I grabbed some pretzels at the Kum n’ Go and enjoyed the salty snack. Moments later, someone came up next to me. ”Liz, can I have some of your pretzels?” I hand over the bag and an unfamiliar hand digs in. He introduces himself as Johnny who used to ride with Evil. Ah, Evil. I remember Evil. Who doesn’t? A large mass of riders all dressed in black kits with a kitschy EVIL logo across the front. Evil was the team that drove a painted black school bus with something like “District 666” written on the side. Evil was the team that pulled off the 6.6 mph paceline. Evil was what every team wants to be – memorable and blatant with a casual disregard for the feel good “virgins” and church dinners that otherwise fill Ragbrai.
A few years ago, Evil disbanded. Leaving behind a few random riders that still do the Rag. Johnny being one. His hand in my pretzel bag (wow, another one of those that sounds really bad moments there), he starts talking me. When he’s still talking 10 minutes later I give him an out:
Listen, you don’t have to talk to me if you want pretzels. Just grab what you want and go back to the guys. Even with the out, he stays and talks more. We both live in Chicago, we both were teachers, we both ride bikes. Connections.
Meanwhile the empty beer cans are piling up under the tent from the other guys. After about 30 minutes, we gathered up most of our team, a few Bastardos and rumor had it that Atlas was nearby. Hearing that, we all roll out of town. Correction: we roll about 1/2 mile to the outside of town to sit on someone’s lawn. To join Atlas in hanging out where the route exits town. Not really a Heckle Hill because it was flat, but plenty of heckling nonetheless.
A little bit later the entire group decides to roll out of town, this time for real. The headwind was blowing from the south around 20 mph. Safety in numbers is what everyone said. One giant group of double paceline cutting through the wind. Problem was there were so many riders of different abilities that our pace was something like 14 mph. A draft is a great thing. But I don’t need someone to pull me at 14 into the wind. Imagine going 9 mph up a hill trying not to bump the wheel of the squirrel in front of you while the guy behind you is crossing wheels by coming up the midline. This is not safe. Nor is it fun. I got increasingly more frustrated until I told myself next town – I’m off. I’ve pulled myself through Kona twice, I can get through some Iowa wind.
We didn’t even make it to the next town. The sound of bike frame hitting pavement and a few squeals meant that someone went down. Fortunately it wasn’t one of our team but everyone stopped to check it out. That was it for me – I was done with this line. I was alongside the road and Johnny came up to me.
Want to roll?
Together he and I pushed on to the next town. The wind was like any other day at Fermilab or home. We were going slow enough to talk and conversation eventually turned to our respective experiences on Ragbrai. I tell him I don't really drink that much. Sure I’ll have a good glass of wine but I’m not willing to suck down cheap cans of beer and jeopardize my health or ability to ride a bike for the next few months due to accident – or worse yet, death. I just like to ride too damn much. Johnny agreed. But admitted a penchant for really bad beer sometimes. Like Pabst. Or Schlitz.
We pull into the last town and I find Chris. Johnny hands me over to him. In his words, “I stole your wife for a few miles.” Excellent. I’ve always wanted to be in demand property. Chris and I decide to roll into Mount Pleasant together. Once there we set up camp and realize a storm is moving into town. The Weatherman (really, our team has a real weatherman who is on air in Oklahoma; my biggest question for him was….do you have to wear make up? Yes. Do they put it on for you? No. Do you take it off before you go home? Hell yes!). He tells us we have two hours before it hits. We grab some food, some ice cream and then make a plan for the storm.
(I should add that my dinner tonight was a chicken wrap, a giant piece of pizza, a few bites of Chris’ fried pork tenderloin sandwich, two peanut butter cups and ice cream. You can keep your 1 cup of brown rice, 2 carefully peeled bananas, organic broccolini, a tablespoon of olive and 14 – count them 14 and not one more – almonds. Whatever. You try riding 480 miles on that bird food and tell me how far you go. I ate pizza three times this week AND I LIKED IT!!)
Back to the storm. Storms on Ragbrai are serious when your shelter is a tent. You can move to a local school, a church or a bar. Who’s in for the church?
The bars were already filled with waiting lines. So when I spotted the VFW with a sign that said OPEN, I grabbed Chris and Dr. Nuts. If you’re ever on Ragbrai, the American Legions, FOEs and VFWs are sometimes the best kept secrets. Dollar draws and small crowds. We head inside to find the beer plentiful (good for the boys) and the music on live karaoke. We sit in there to allow the storm to pass when the Weatherman arrives to tell us that the storm went around Ragbrai.
According to his meteorological wisdom, it appears that the vortex of good times, the smell of cycling shorts and the large man that dyed his beard pink and had been riding in a pink tutu with a pink boa attached to his helmet all week was a force field too powerful for the storm to penetrate.
The storm was not powerful for Ragbrai. Hence, we stayed dry.
The last night on Ragbrai and I went back to the tent early to head to sleep. On the way back, I took my time. Got lost. Looked at the stars. Enjoyed the true quiet of the night before finding the comfort of my air mattress (which all week long had been slow leaking and leaving me on the tent floor by the morning...). It was a long day. A long week. And honestly I was starting to feel ragged. But there’s only more day left. And, like I always say, I can do anything for…42 miles.