Friday, August 5, 2011

RAGBRAI: The Untold Stories

During the week of RAGBRAI I did my best to write a blog entry every day. But typing on a droid micro-keyboard in the heat of the afternoon while surrounded by a dozen other riders and thinking about where I can get dinner is not an environment that is very conducive to thorough writing. Now that I am comfortably seated at my desk and I have all the time I need, I can go back and write up all the stories that I didn't have time to tell before.


When 30,000 people descend on a town with a population of only 6,000 you can expect that overnight accommodations will be a little scarce. Consequently, most of the participants on RAGBRAI camp in tents or stay in an RV. Campsites are set up anywhere there is an open field: a park, a school, a library, etc. Many people pitch their own tents but I used a charter service that did tent setup and teardown for me. The service also moved my baggage from town to town each day. I have high praise for this company: their team consisted of a dozen college age kids that set up around 80 tents and airmattresses every day in the heat, then tore them down again the next morning. They worked hard and were very good to us. But the experience of camping out in the heat and humidity after a long day's ride was, for me, not very pleasant. If I had a chance to do this over, I would make other arrangements.

On a typical day people would start waking up around 5 am. Tent flaps would zip open, and the porta-potty doors would slam. Our helpers would start brewing coffee and set out water and Gatorade powder. Riders would dress and pack up their bags, deflate their mattress and fill their water bottles. Some riders would hit the road as early as 6, while others would linger and wait until after 7. Eventually we would all join the 10,000 other riders on the road (although by some estimates it was as high as 20,000). Words cannot describe the experience of riding in a group so large. Bikes spread out across the entire width of the road and are visible as far as the eye can see in front and behind. You can stop at a roadside stand for over an hour and still see a constant stream of bikes on the road.

Riders would start rolling in to the next town by around noon. The first challenge they faced was finding the new campsite. The overnight towns set up campsites anywhere they could find room, and the sites were quite spread out. Sometimes arriving in the town still meant another 3 mile ride to get to the right campsite. Once the site was located we would roll up to the shady lounge, peel ourselves off the seat, grab a soft drink and a handful of chips, then collapse in a lounge chair. The conversations would start as we all told our individual stories of the day's ride. Later riders would arrive to the sound of applause: "Congratulations, you made it." Soon it was time to find dinner. By 9:30 the sun was down and the tents were bearable, so many folks would retire to get a good night's sleep before repeating the experience the next day.

Tributes and Causes

Some folks were riding as a tribute to a cause or in memory of someone else. I saw several cancer survivors, proudly proclaiming their status. I also saw some folks riding in memory of loved ones lost to cancer. In a previous note I mentioned the schnauzer rescued from a shelter in Chicago. Suzy would pose for pictures but only if you donated to the shelter.

Some of the roadside stands were raising money for a cause. One was raising money to help with a child's cancer treatments. Another was raising money for a college fund. There was even a roadside stand set up to raise money for a new pool. But one that really captured my heart was a stop that I made entirely at random. After I accepted their free water I was also handed a card that read, in part:
On 5/10/11 Kadyn Halverson (7 years old), was hit & killed by a careless driver who failed to stop as she crossed the road to her school bus. Her family, friends & community were devastated by the loss. While no law could ever bring Kadyn back, it can help to protect others.
The cause is called "Kadyns Law" and is intended to make school bus stops safer. This cause hits particularly close to home as we had something very similar happen in nearby Cobb county. A driver lost control of her car while trying to stop for a school bus, veered off the road and struck and killed a 5-year-old child who was getting off the bus.

I shared a shady spot with The Dream Team one morning. This is an organization that takes disadvantaged youth and challenges them with the goal of completing RAGBRAI, then provides them with what they need to meet that goal. It offers the kids comraderie and a sense of setting and achieving an ambitious goal. As the mission statement puts it: "To assist youth in developing a healthy spirit, mind and body by developing a productive, positive approach to life’s challenges".

The Children

It's hard to be away from my family for an entire week. Every time I saw a young child riding I'd think of my own. Some kids were on the back of a tandem. Some younger kids were on a tagalong with its own coaster pedals. I suggested to one of these yound riders that she should take a break and make her dad work harder. Other children were riding their own bikes alongside their parents. Some of the young teens would race on ahead and say to their parents "meet you in the next town". One family that I came across several times was a father and daughter team on a tandem, and a son riding his own bicycle. On the last day I passed a father/son team that I had seen on previous days. However, this time the young man was slumped over in his seat nearly asleep, but he was still pedaling! At the very end of the ride I was traveling along the Mississippi bike path between Davenport and Bettendorf. I came up behind a mom and her young daughter (probably 5 to 8) also riding on their bikes. The child was a bit erratic (as they tend to be at that age) and was weaving across the path. The mom saw me coming and said something to her daughter, who straightened up and then actually started pedaling faster. So I pulled up alongside her and asked "do you wanna race?" She said "NO! You'll win."

A team that was hard to miss was a three-seat tandem family: mother and two children. I saw them most every day. Then one day I saw another three-seat tandem dressed in identical gear: father and two children. So what at first I thought was a family of three on the road really turned out to be a full family of six. This family was riding as part of Pedaling for Parkinsons.

But the one that gets very special mention is Jake and Jake's mom. At the age of 6 Jake has completed his first full day of RAGBRAI on his own bicycle. I knew it was Jake because the large sign on his back said so. Right behind him with a proud but watchful eye was a woman with her own sign on her back that read "Jake's Mom". This is actually the third RAGBRAI that Jake has participated in. Two years ago, when he was 4, he rode 27 miles. Last year he rode 40. This year he rode the entire 57.5 mile day.
It took him 12 hours to finish (from 6 am to 6 pm) but he finished. You can watch a video of him starting and ending his day.

The Bicycles

I saw a fair number of unusual bikes on the road, but the one that impressed me the most was the unicyclist. I saw him on the road every day so I'm pretty sure he did the entire route on his unicycle. You can't coast on a unicycle so he got no rest on the roads: he had to seek his rest when he stopped. The most surprising participant wasn't even riding a bicycle or tricycle. He was on a skateboard! And I do believe he did the entire route.

There were several days when I saw someone riding a pennyfarthing bicycle, and one day when he had a companion riding alongside him. These are also "fixies", so no coasting. I watched him get off and on the bike and it is quite involved. At one point as we were riding up to an intersection the police officer stopped the bicycle traffic to let a few cars go through. As we all yelled "stopping" back along the pack I heard the pennyfarthing rider groan. Yeah, I imagine it's a bit of a hassle stopping and starting on that beast. Fortunately we got rolling again before he had to stop.

At one point I saw The Bananaman riding in his Bananabike, grooving to his music. Later in the week I saw another Bananabike. I understand there are several of these on the ride: Bananaman and his Bananafans. But I never saw all of them together.

In an earlier posting I mentioned the tandem bicycle that has a recumbent seat up front. I have since learned that this is called a "semi-recumbent tandem" and it is a model called The Viewpoint made by Bilenky.

The Towns

Each day we started in one Iowa town and ended in another. Between these two towns we passed through several more towns. Every town we visited was holding a festival. Music, food, drink, and beer too. Each town had its own sites to see, and its own theme. The local residents were out in full force welcoming the riders with Iowa hospitality, and many were enjoying the fun along with the riders. The roads through these towns were so packed with cycles that it was impossible to keep riding. I had no choice but to walk the bike. But this wasn't entirely bad: it gave me a chance to rest and stretch my legs out.

Every town had plenty of food and sweets. Many churches were selling pies along with lunch food and drink. Sometimes the lines would get long, too. I usually selected my food based on the length of the line, and sometimes it was better to grab a bite just outside of a town where there were fewer crowds.

Some towns had attractions to tempt us. Lewis boasted the world's largest bicycle. I don't think it's very ridable, but it certainly made for a good photo opportunity. Elk Horn showed off its authentic Danish Windmill, originally from Norre Snede. Templeton opened its brewery so that riders could sample its famous Templeton Rye.


Lance Armstrong rode on Tuesday. I didn't see him, but I understand he had a large group of people around him jockeying for good photo opportunities.

The Maintenance

There was a wide variety of bikes on the road. But what really struck me was the number of bikes that weren't very well maintained. I heard a lot of chain grinding when downshifting for hills. I lost count of the number of dropped chains (although that could be as much due to poor technique as poor maintenance). I also heard squeaky brakes (and I don't mean a tiny little annoying squeak, I mean an outright howl), and quite a few creaky cranks. Sometimes I'd hear some squeak or creak and I'd have to stop pedaling to make sure that it wasn't me making the noise. But each time I'd confirm that my bike was just fine, then I'd once again thank the fine folks at my local bike shop who keep my bike running so smoothly. I now have much more appreciation for the work they do.

The End

The ride on the bike path to Bettendorf was quite a bit longer than I expected. The week was enjoyable, but it was a long time to spend away from home and I was anxious to see the end of the trail. As I came up the last hill and around the final bend, I saw the best site I had seen on the entire ride: my family.

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