On Saturday, July 21, a crowd of bicyclists will begin to gather in Sioux City, IA on the eve of RAGBRAI 2012 (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). In one afternoon and evening a tent city numbering in the thousands will appear across the horizon bordering the river. To most of us, a crowd is usually a few hundred people, maybe a couple of thousand people at a concert or stock car race, so it’s difficult to fathom the number of people that will congregate in this caravan on wheels, but it could number anywhere from 17,000 to 25,000 people.
Not all riders register for the ride, although all are supposed to, so it’s difficult to get a reliable count. My first RAGBRAI was in the summer of 2001. I was 51 years old, and I had wanted to ride RAGBRAI for decade and a half. When, on Mother’s Day that year, my husband and sons bought me a bicycle, almost instantly RAGBRAI flashed in my mind. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since high school, however, and I had serious doubts I could be in any kind of shape to ride it by mid-summer. Still, I pulled RAGBRAI up on the computer to see when it was, and started reading everything posted about it on the web.
That week I vowed to ride a mile the first day, two miles the second day, three miles the third day, etc., until I had built up some stamina, just to see what I could do. Meanwhile, I went back to the internet to discuss in chat windows with veteran bikers, how to prepare for RAGBRAI.
Poison Ivy was my first hurdle as I traveled the obstacle course to RAGBRAI 2001. I wound up with such a bad case of it, I had to stay in air conditioning 3 weeks to allow it to run its course, even with prednisone.
Then I was caught in a torrential downpour on the viaduct crossing the Des Moines River that ruined my cell phone, which was in my pocket at the time. It occurred to me I was going to need a portable pack of some kind to carry on my bike so I had a poncho available because I would be miles from anywhere if the weather took a turn for the worse. There probably wasn’t going to be any shelter for miles, nor a change of clothes, no umbrella, so I had to plan ahead.
The day Ernie Raines was struck by a semi in a rainstorm returning from a highway trip to Fairfield on his bike and died, that day, I almost said “to heck with it, I’m throwing in the towel on this idea”. After all, did I really want to risk life and limb just to realize this dream of mine? I didn’t know Ernie well, but what I did know of him, he wasn’t a quitter, and would probably have told me to get back on my bike and take up my cause, because that is what he would have done.
My 18 year old son, Luke, was going to drive my support vehicle, a Ford Econoline Van, and my 12 year old son, Ian, was going to be my navigator. Luke had only had his driver’s license a week when we headed north to Sioux City that July Saturday in 2001. I remember our first view of that emerging tent city. The atmosphere was electric, the energy and excitement in the air almost a tangible thing. We picked a grassy knoll to pitch our tent on, and strolled along the water front, visiting with other bikers and their families.
We could find no showers, but some creative individual had tapped into a fire hydrant with a long pipe to create a makeshift cold shower of sorts. Many campers were taking advantage of the opportunity, but I settled for a sponge bath with some cold water in a pan.
There was a carnival atmosphere about the campground as we settled down for the night. A team bus had speakers blaring out some loud rock and roll music. This clashed with a band across the street that was entertaining campers and bikers with enough energy to cross the four-lane to the outdoor stadium to listen. At 11:00 P.M. there was a spectacular fireworks display which we watched from our sleeping bags. As I laid on the grass watching it my excitement warred with my trepidation. I was fighting a full-blown panic attack. What was I doing up here, 5 hours from home, old enough to be a grandma, taking on my first RAGBRAI?
Finally the camp began to settle down for the night. It was too hot to sleep and I was too wired anyway. Besides, Luke had pitched the tent on a hill, and he had under-inflated the air mattress, and these two things combined with the heat did not lend to a restful night.
Sunday, July 22, 2001
The stirrings of my tent neighbors woke me up while the skies were still dark. As I stuck my head out the door of our dome tent I could see lightning on the distant horizon. It was hot and sticky already as I closed the door on the kaybo and scootched and scrunched myself into the stretchy lavender and navy biker’s top I had chosen to wear for the day. The fabric looks like the old hot polyester of yester-year, but it’s not. It is surprisingly cool to bike in, and dries quickly if it gets wet. I slathered the sunscreen on. The matching navy shorts were made of the same fabric, and made me look like a barrel, but they were the biker’s uniform so I put them on anyway.
I tried loosening up my muscles a little bit, but felt stiff and tight just the same. It took me 15 minutes to fill two water bottles with Gatorade and to fill my Camel Pack with water. I could not get the water tube on the camel pack to snap to my tank top so I finally just hooked it under my spaghetti strap, which seemed to hold it secure enough. For breakfast I ate a couple of cold biscuits, a fistful of vitamins and an extra-strength aspirin. Then I put a couple of snack bars in the pack that held my spare inner tube, bike tool, and air pump, and fastened it to the handlebar of my bike. Then I put some money in a zip-lock sandwich bag and put it in the pack as well. Next, I readjusted my helmet strap so it fit a little tighter, and finally I pulled on my bike gloves.
Luke stuck his head out of the tent long enough to wish me luck, and I told the butterflies in my stomach to be quiet as I coasted through the dark parking lot. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning accompanied my descent. The bike trail was easy to find. It was still dark, but all I had to do was follow the crowd out of the campground. A block from the campground two policemen waved us through an inner section and up a hill.
A fourth of the way up this hill, I was huffing and puffing, and totally humiliated when I had to pull over to the edge of the road and catch my breath. When my heartbeat was approaching normal, I started peddling again. The next time I pulled over, I had company. A tall elderly man with white hair and moustache was pulling over ahead of me. The next time I pulled over, a young woman had pulled over, the elderly gentleman and a man pulling a small child in a bike cart.
As I started up again, I realized the elderly gentleman was taking my picture as I huffed my way onto the ascent. I lost track of how many times I stopped, but the mountain seemed like it was 3 miles straight up, and I was wondering what I was doing here if I couldn’t conquer the first hill. I wondered if my heart would take it, and I wondered if this was a sample of what the day was going to be like.
The nice thing about that mountain was that the descent was just as long on the other side. With my heart in my throat I tore down the steep slope as fast as my bike would go, hoping I didn’t hit a crack or a bump in the road that would dump me off into a perilous downhill slide on the rough asphalt.
In Leeds, I looked up a gas station and restroom. Bless the clerk who let me use it. I was to learn that most public restrooms were closed to Ragbraiers. Our choices were a kaybo (a portable outhouse) or a field of corn.
I saw the elderly gentleman who had taken my picture stopping alongside of the highway several times that morning taking a break. I never saw him again after mid-morning. Two days later I learned that a 78-year-old man, a Ragbrai veteran of several years, had died of a heart attack. I had to wonder if it was the man who had stopped so often on that first hill out of Sioux City, who like me, had found the hill too tough to handle.
After that first hill the landscape leveled off quite a bit for awhile except for Mockingbird Hill. What can I say about this hill? It wasn’t a hill. It was a vertical mountain, one that seemed to climb straight up. I’d never seen a hard surface with such a steep incline in my life before that morning, and I’ve never seen one since either. We had probably biked 10 miles to reach this point, and I had been into covering miles, and hadn’t taken advantage of the first couple of farmhouses that offered a place to rest and eat so I was already winded when I saw it. If there had been anywhere to turn around and head back, I might have done just that, but there wasn’t. There was only one way to go, and that was up that dag-blasted mountain side.
I tried to ride up the first fourth of it, and then I said to heck with it, and got off and started walking. Plenty of people made fun of me as they passed me by. Already it wasn’t the first hill I had walked up, and it wasn’t going to be the last. In 560 miles, I walked up plenty of them, but this was my dream and I wasn’t going to let a hill discourage me at that stage of the game.
By the time I reached the top of Mockingbird Hill, I figured I deserved a well-earned rest. Where I stopped there was a tent in a cornfield where a high school dance team was raising money for nationals. They served pancakes and sausages that I was too tired to eat, but the orange juice and coffee were wonderful and so were the chair and the shade.
After that first stop I stopped more often, at least once an hour. Every farmyard was a block party of sorts. A row of kaybos would set out by the barn. Sometimes a sprinkler would be hooked up near the house for hot bikers to cool off under. Often benches and lawn chairs sat on the lawn for weary bikers to rest in for a few minutes, and always there was the outstanding food Iowa’s good cooks are famous for.
About 9:00 A.M. it started raining, a light sprinkle really, that simply cooled us off, and would have been a welcome relief from the sticky heat if it hadn’t been for the occasional thunder and lightning that rumbled and sparked around us. It felt like we were biking across the top of the world as the rolling fields of Iowa stretched out on all sides around us as far as the eye could see. It was an unnerving place to be until the lightning stopped.
I biked alongside of a gal from California for awhile. It was her sixth or seventh Ragbrai, but she admitted she hadn’t trained enough and she was wiped out already. It was 12:00 noon when we reached Kingsley. Somebody met her there and she loaded up her bike and got in a red van.
Bless the town folks of Kingsley. They had a huge water truck spraying fresh water out in spouting fountains from a long tube, and I took my helmet off and soaked my face and hair, refilled my water bottle, and went over to grab the last piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie on the concessions table set up in the park. A fellow female biker and I chatted for awhile about how we would be glad to see a sag wagon come by and where was one when you needed one. Finally she took off down the road, and I crashed on the green lawn of the Town Square for a brief nap.
Hoping I was refreshed from my nap, I sat off down the road again. My legs felt like rubber, and I could barely move. At the edge of Kingsley, I started off on the route, went a few blocks towards Washta and then turned back. If I was going to get help from my support vehicle I felt like I had to stop at Kingsley so Luke could find me, but my cell phone wouldn’t work.
We were in this roaming area, and the cell phones were next to worthless. I started back to Kingsley, hesitated, undecided, and then turned back towards Washta, which was on the route to Storm Lake again. When the rain started, I returned once more to Kingsley in tears. By then a group of people who had gathered to watch the bikers pass by had noticed my erratic behavior. A man came out of the garage where he had taken shelter from the rain and asked me if he could help me. Poor Tom, I just sobbed in his arms. “I don’t think I can make it, the darn cell phone won’t work, I haven’t seen a sag wagon for 3 hours,” I cried.
“I thought you looked like you were in trouble,” Tom replied. “Ooh, you’re all sweaty,” he said. . “Come on in out of the rain and have a beer. We’ll figure something out.” While Tom Ray introduced me to his wife, Marge, and to Martha and her husband, whose house I was taking shelter in, someone offered me a lawn chair. Tom popped the top on a beer and handed it to me, and Martha handed me a phone to call my son on.
I told Tom, “Tom, you may not realize it, but you just became a saint to me,” and he turned to the other 5 people gathered there.
“I told you she was in trouble,” he gloated, “and now I’m a saint.” Everybody laughed at his antics, including me, and with gracious Iowa hospitality, they all made me feel at home.
By the time my son Luke arrived, I had recovered from my tears and butterflies, had found my good humor again, and bid my rescuers a fond farewell. When we arrived in Storm Lake and I realized Luke had no idea how to find the campground again, it became a little frayed. We drove around for maybe 45 minutes to an hour before he finally figured out how to circle around and come into the campground from the backside. By then I didn’t even care that it was going to cost $2.00 for a shower, or that the grass was wet, or that the boys were fighting. There was a pizza vendor parked across from us, and that made supper easy, so I did some slow and easy bike riding up and down the campground to stretch my muscles, which were aching and tight.
Eventually, thanks to fellow bikers, I learned I needed different tires, and there were bike shops set up in tents at every RAGBRAI stop to get them changed. I bought a set of new tires for $70.00 and put them on a charge card. Once I had the right kind of tires, I could actually ride 50 or 60 miles a day. That rain on Sunday was the only rain we had all week. After that it was hot, humid and windy. The landscape also leveled off a lot.
It was an awesome experience, one I never regretted, and one I’ve repeated in subsequent years. I’ve never ridden a whole RAGBRAI again, but I’ve ridden one or two days of some and have recommended RAGBRAI to friends.
I’ll never forget those last few moments of RAGBRAI 2001 when I stood at the top of the hill in Muscatine, overlooking the Mississippi River. I opened the bike up, put it in 12th gear, and let it fly while I prayed there were no serious cracks in the road anywhere that were going to flip me off. After some momentary tears that I refused to surrender to, I was euphoric as the wind whipped through my hair and the sun broke through black and ominous clouds lining the horizon.
I thought about Ernie Raines’ white cross in the ditch back in Ottumwa, and about the man who had taken my picture on that first hill out of Sioux City last Sunday, the man who had a heart attack that day and died. I thought about my rescuer in Kingsley, Tom Ray, who invited me in off the highway that first day I was in trouble, and offered a stranger a shoulder to cry on, about the kind words of strangers last week who shouted to me as we climbed a steep hill, ‘you can do it, just a little bit further,’ about the ones who asked as they rode by, ‘are you okay,’ about the woman at the top of Mockingbird Hill, who said, ‘what difference does it make how you got here, you made it didn’t you?’ I remembered the man outside of Atlantic who offered me a drink of water from his water bottle when he thought I was out. I thought about the biker from Spokane, Washington, who had told me I had to be relentless, and the biathlon athlete, who had told me how to spin up a hill. And I thought about my family, my two sons, who had driven my support vehicle so I could ride my bike across the finish line.
My bangs were glued to my forehead with sunscreen and rank sweat, and I badly needed a shower or bath. I had biked anywhere from 5 to 55 miles a day for 27 of the last 28 days. It had been audacious of me to think I could train for three weeks and be ready for Ragbrai, but here I was anyway. My muscles burned, and I should have been ready to drop, but instead I was euphoric.
As the mighty Mississippi River spread out before me, I realized I was a tiny part of something so immense, that I was only beginning to comprehend a small portion of it. As I dipped my front tire in the muddy water and Luke snapped my picture, I raised my arms in a V for victory and celebrated the moment with the boisterous crowd around me.
This year’s RAGBRAI 2012 begins on in Sioux City, IA on Sunday, July 22, and ends in Clinton, IA on Saturday, July 28. It winds across 471.1 miles in of Iowa cornfields north of Interstate 80. From very humble beginnings, this bike ride has evolved into a major cycling evening that draws bikers from all over the world. The Iowa hospitality is spectacular, and the Iowa landscape is idyllic.