Ragbrai XXXVI has come and gone, and it was a fantastic time. I forgot how much fun it was. The last full Ragbrai I participated in was in 1991. All the years since I’ve come up with a myriad of excuses why I couldn’t do it (busy with other things, don’t own a tent, put it off, I hate camping, etc.) When I heard that Ragbrai was stopping overnight in Ames this year, I knew I had no more excuses.
My good friend Denny Smith drove up from Corpus Christi to participate. The longest he had ever ridden his bicycle was 14 miles, so I knew he was in for a challenge. Ragbrai averages about 68 miles a day, rain or shine.
One thing I noticed is how much easier it was. The weather, mileage and climbing were all about the same as they were last time. I was 18 then, I’m 35 now, and it wasn’t nearly as challenging. I think because now I ride my bike every day and am just in generally better shape. I have a better bike, but not that much better.
We rode with Team N.A.D. (Not Against Drinking), which consisted of a couple guys from my work and a bunch of their friends. The bus got into Missouri Valley late Saturday afternoon, and Denny and I decided to ride our bikes to the Missouri River, which was about 13 miles away. We ended up missing the turn into the state park and went 4 miles too far. We eventually got to the river and dipped our back tires in the Missouri, a Ragbrai tradition (at the end you dip your front tire in the Mississippi). When we got back into town at dusk we had ended up doing about 35 miles.
The first night we didn’t get much sleep. It was terribly humid, and we had to keep the rain fly on the tent because thunderstorms were near. Denny and I ended up sleeping outside on the grass. Day 1 was a good start. It was hilly, but calm, so we didn’t have a headwind. I had to stop and wait for Denny several times, which I expected. He was doing well. We rolled into Harlan at about 2PM. It was hot and humid, but we pitched the tent.
Team NAD had arranged a host house in each of the overnight towns, which makes a world of difference. We had a place to pitch our tents on their lawn and they let us use their showers and bathrooms. It was fantastic. The Kastens, the family that hosted us in Harlan, were wonderful. They had cookies, lemonade and other goodies waiting in their basement. A group of us hung out there all afternoon in the air conditioning after a shower. The house was two miles west of the actual town, and none of us felt like riding into town and getting all sweaty again, so we ordered pizza. That night we were in the tent, and we woke up at about 2:30 to howling wind. The sky looked awful. Just then a sheriff’s deputy rolled through the neighborhood and on his loudspeaker announced that all Ragbrai campers were to take shelter immediately. So we all packed into the Kasten’s basement. After a while some people went back outside to their tents, but Denny and I ended up crashing on the floor.
We woke up at 6:00 again in an effort to beat the heat. We packed up the tent and got ready for the next day. After emphatically thanking our hosts, we hit the road, more or less ready to ride 83 miles to Jefferson. Day 2 was more of the same. Calm, sunny, mid-80’s and hilly. I had pulled ahead of Denny and came upon a food stand called Pastafari. I dedided to grab a spot in line and wait for Denny to pass, intending to call out when I saw him. Minutes passed, and no Denny. I tried calling him a couple times, but his cell couldn’t get a signal. Sprint sucks. By this time I was halfway through the line, so I decided to grab some pasta on my own. I had a tomato penne with cucumbers that was delicious. I hopped back on the bike and rode ahead, passing riders and scanning for Denny, hoping that he wasn’t in either of the two ambulances that passed me.
Later I heard that one of the ambulances was for a guy who was one of the self-contained riders (hauling his own equipment). He hit a parallel crack in the road, lodged his front wheel and went over the handlebars. Audrey, I’m sure you can relate to this.
After a while Denny called me. He couldn’t even get a roaming signal until he reached the next town. He told me he had hauled ass trying to catch up to me, and he had been walking around Coon Rapids for about 30 minutes looking for me. “Well, you caught me alright”, I said. We took a break and had some bananas and Gatorade. We then pressed on to Scranton, making jokes about The Office all the way (“Hey, I wonder if Scrantonicity is playing a gig there!”). Scranton ended up suckin’. We noticed a storm front up north, complete with lightning, and decided we could make the 9 miles to Jefferson if we hurried. We got back on the road and with Denny on my back wheel we burned into Jefferson. The rain started falling right as we rolled into town, which felt good. 83 miles in the can. The longest day was done!
Day 3 was cake compared to the previous day. 57 miles, mostly flat. We replaced Denny's rear inner tube due to a slow leak, but fortunately that was the only mechanical problem the entire trip. We made good time, stopping at a smoothie stand on a farmhouse lawn outside of Ogden. Best smoothie I think I've ever had.
We hit the Des Moines River Valley and the monster hill that came with it. I stopped at the top to film Denny's ascent, but he must have passed me while I was farting around with the camera. I guess he wasn't that far behind. Anyway, the same thing happened as it did on Day 2. I pressed on to Boone and walked around for about a half hour looking for him. Called him twice, but again, Sprint sucks a fat one. I decided to press on alone to Ames. Denny called right as I left Boone; he finally got a signal.
Me: "Where are you?"
Denny: "I'm about 2 miles from your house!"
It seems he hammered again, trying to catch up to me, not knowing that I was way back looking for him. I still had 18 miles to go, and he was already in Ames. So I hammered on, passing everybody, with nobody passing me so I couldn't even get into a decent draft line. Finally I hooked up with Team Air Force and drafted them all the way into Ames. I thanked them for the pull and headed to my house. Denny wasn't there, but he had left his water bottle at my garage door. I went into the apartment and said hi to the cats. He came in 5 minutes later. Seems he couldn't wait so he took a shit at the convenient store around the corner.
After showers I threw in three loads of laundry and we crashed for two hours. I was going on 8 hours of sleep in the last 3 days. I could've slept for 12 hours straight. Later we had dinner at West Towne Pub. Afterwards we went to Jax Outdoor and picked up all the camping stuff we should have brought with us in the first place. Stopped by Skunk River Cycles so I could pick up a new bike computer. Mine had crapped out. Later we went to Welch Ave. Station and met up with some of Denny's friends. I'm so glad you can't smoke in bars in Iowa anymore. Sorry, smokers, but it was pretty annoying. Anyway, we wanted to see Styx but we decided a good night's sleep in a proper bed in air conditioning was in order.
Part 2 coming soon…