Pedaling Every Inch Of RAGBRAI

Written by Boston Biker on Aug 09

RAGBRAI 2011 On A Fixed Gear

About a year ago I got this crazy notion, “I should ride my bike across Iowa with my long lost relatives!”, and then in a fit of even greater madness I decided “I should do it on a fixed gear!” Hence my plans to do RAGBRAI on a fixed gear were born.

The longest I had ever gone before on a fixed gear was 168 miles in one day, as this was going to be a multi day ride, I figured it would be no sweat. Plus Iowa is flat right…right?

The next time anyone you meet tells you that Iowa is flat you have my permission to very politely punch them right in the face. Iowa is WICKED HILLY! This years route was the 14th hilliest in RAGBRAI history, and had 23,000 some feet of climb…more than the Ride The Rockies has this year (its the same 300 feet you climb over and over and over again, but whatever).

Before I had a chance for any of this to sink in I had purchased my tickets, and shipped my bike off to Iowa, what follows it a day by day recap of the event followed by some general thoughts.

Click below for the entire thing, its a bit long.

You can also see the day by day updates I did here.

The Arrival:

I flew into Omaha, and took a bus to the start line. As I flew in I could see the bloated Missouri river. The tops of barns and homes stared back at me from an alien landscape. It looked like some mad engineer had built an entire community in the middle of a tree filled lake. Roads would plunge into the water, and the tops of telephone poles would be the only way you could follow their progress.

Even with all the flooding, things went really smoothly, there was a guy at the airport with a sign, that guy directed me to a girl, who put me on a bus that took me to the camp site, where I walked over and met my relatives. We had not seen each other since 1997, so there was a lot of catching up to do, tents to set up, and bad weather to survive.

Once it was clear that the rain and hail wasn’t going to kill us it was off to the first of many RAGBRAI parties. Every night ends in a town with a giant party. You see some awesome people at these things.

I slept well that night knowing tomorrow would be the start of a grand adventure.

Day 1: Glenwood To Atlantic

Hills…lots of em, look at that little graph over on the left, them is hills, big ones, lots of big ones. But I didn’t care, I was rocking 46X16 gearing on my aluminum IRO, my legs were strong, and I pursued a strategy that always seems to work when doing hills on a fixed gear. Bomb down, mash up. Just attack each one and you will be fine. My uncle rode next to me and occasionally informed me that we were hitting 35-40 miles per hour on the down hills, it was a spin class all day long.

I began to notice that RAGBRAI was a fun ride, very few people were “racing.” The atmosphere was relaxed and the scenery beautiful (I grew up in the Midwest, so to me this is pretty awesome.)

At each little town you would meet some interesting characters, and they also had lots and lots of food for sale! This is pretty much the same as every other day, so I will cover it here, but just assume for the rest of the ride that every 20 miles or so I would stop and fill up on the finest in corn/pancakes/pie/smoothies/etc available in Iowa. My food strategy switched on day 3 but more on that later.

The day went by pretty quickly, the temps were in the mid 90’s and the humidity was pretty high. In fact the coolest it got all week was the high 70’s, and that was for a couple hours in the morning. The heat was just starting to make the hills “less fun” when boom we showed up in Atlantic. I followed the signs to our camp ground, took a shower (five bucks) and headed out to the nights party.

Day 2: Atlantic to Carroll

You get up really early at RAGBRAI. Mostly because around dawn you start to hear thousands of people starting to unzip their tents. It sort of sounds like a hive of angry hornets buzzing around your head at 5am. But the promise of getting a couple of hours on the bike in not-100 degree heat gets you up and on your bike. A quick trip to the “Kybo” (which is Iowa for porta-john/toilet, I have been informed by a good source that kybo stands for Keep Your Bowels Open…oh Iowa) followed by the packing of the tents and we were off.

The temps didn’t stay “low” for long, it quickly climbed up into the triple digits. I kept two water bottles, one to water down my legs and back and another to drink from. I would refill them at every town, and often between at road side stops friendly Iowa natives had set up. Often the residents would set up a sprinkler in the street so if you wanted you could get a good soaking on your way past their house.

Some of the towns we would go to would only have a couple dozen residents, and it seemed like all of them were out to greet us, often shouting “where you from!?” I got a lot of surprised looks when I screamed back “BOSTON!”

At the midway town I stopped and watched a group of singing nuns do numbers from some broadway show…no joke, this ride is crazy.

I also saw these guys, who did the entire ride in full wool jersys…when they would go down the hills they would take their legs off and just let the big wheel go nuts, its was absolutely terrifying to watch.

That night we slept in a church field…and ate at a church dinner. I am not very comfortable around very religious people, mostly because I worry about people who have imaginary friends that late in life, but this place gave me the extra creeps. They also wanted to charge people 5 dollars to sleep on the floor in the church…because that’s what Jesus would have done to people suffering in the 100 degree heat. I will never again wonder why there are some folk who just really like Michele Bachmann in Iowa…its just an entirely different mindset for some folks out here.

The first two days were mad hilly, and really really hot. I was starting to develop a pretty awesome farmers tan even though I was putting gallons of sunscreen on (the tan would later move over into the “epic” category so much so you could see the tan line in near darkness). My legs felt good, but after the second nights party I fell asleep like a stone into a well.

Day 3: Carroll to Boone

Iowa knows how to say good morning!

That angry ball would soon shoot the temps up to 102, so in honor of the triple digit temps, we did a triple digit ride. You will notice on the map that there is an option “loop” to turn a 70 mile day into a 100 mile day, and we were all about it.

Nothing says loving like two hot hilly days, followed by an insanely hot century. It was much flatter today, but still pretty hilly, and oh yea see that little red dip near the end of the day? Thats not a misprint, that’s Twister hill.

Usually when a hill has a name you know you are in for a treat. Twister hill was, pardon my French, a fucking animal. A HUGE down hill which really tested my spinning ability. At 46X16 I spin out around 52 mph, and I was approaching that limit on the way down. I resisted the impulse to slow down at all because I wanted to get as much momentum to get up the other side as possible.

While still panting from spin class on the way down I was forced to stand up and start mashing up the other side. Oh yea its also 100 degrees outside, and I had just done most of a century, on a fixed gear…just saying.

As I made my way up the other side I knew I was in trouble, I was being forced to paper boy back and forth just to make upward progress. I had made a person promise to myself that I WOULD NOT WALK no matter what Iowa threw at me I was going to stay on my bike and mash it out. That promise was looking more and more like it was about to get broken as I quickly ran out of go juice, and had a lot of hill left. Just when I thought for sure I was about to die in a heap on the side of this hill I see my salvation coming up the side of the road.

Two portly gentlemen in a white pick up truck were driving up the hill in the gravel filled shoulder. They were going slow, but I was almost going backwards and they quickly got away. This was my one and only chance, I dug deep and found the last iota of remaining hill climb in me and accelerated after them. Reaching out I just barely grabbed the back of their truck and almost immediately felt the surge of power as I started to go up Up UP! Twister hill.

People started to cheer, and curse me. Some were happy I have found a way up, and others were clearly very upset they had not thought of it first. The two gentlemen in the truck noticed I was there, gave me a nod of their trucker caps and continued to climb the hill at a very reasonable and safe speed.

The problem was they kept moving farther and farther over into the gravel pit of a shoulder. As my arm extended farther and farther out it quickly became clear that at some point I wouldn’t be able to ride this ride for long, so with about 100 feet of hill left I let go and mashed up that last little bit. Only to realize that this was one of those hills where you think you are at the top only to have it pause for a bit and then rocket up some more.

That hill just kept going though and damn if I didn’t catch back up with that truck and stole one more little burst of speed off them before using them like a Madison throw to propel me up the last stretch.

I am still not sure if that truck actually existed, I saw so few cars the whole time I was in Iowa, that for all I know I could have hallucinated the whole thing, what with the heat and the hill and all, but real or not, thank you bubbas in that truck, you saved me on Twister hill and I will be forever grateful.

I rode into town a sweaty hot mess. I decided I would take a shower in the bottle fill hose, and save myself 6 dollars (shower inflation), I also decided I would start getting my food from the grocery store, a couple days of eating nothing but corn and pie in 100 degree heat was having negative effects on my Kybo performance…if you know what I mean.

I didn’t stay too long at the party that night, just got back to the tent ate some grocery store food, and passed…the…fuck…out. Which is different than passing out, passing the fuck out is sorta like in wild kingdom where they use the helicopter to dart a wildebeest. You fall asleep like an object accelerating towards a brick wall going mach 3 or so.

Day 4: Boone to Altoona

I awoke at 5am feeling amazing. Seriously, I don’t think I have slept that soundly ever. It was like my body went into hibernation and spent all night rebuilding my leg muscles. I woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed and couldn’t wait to get back on my bike.

It was still really really hot, but it looked like it might rain a bit. Which I was all for, anything to cool those demon roads down. The roads were very smooth for the most part (at least by Boston standards) but they would get so hot that when the wind would blow over them it felt like someone was chasing you around with a hair dryer.

Some of the towns on today’s route had like 40 residents…and honestly I just missed them altogether, I never saw Luther. I managed to miss an entire town, on my bike, that’s how small some of these places were.

It did end up raining for a bit, but only long enough to cool me down, then the heat came back and it was back to the sauna. And as you see by the chart they threw some hills in at the end, just for fun.

All in all it was a short day, the best part of the day was I got to document how you feed thousands of riders pancakes, just take a gander.

You know when you have found the pancake man because you see a line like this. This is how they make enough pancakes for all those people.

That’s 100 pancakes in about 30 seconds. They did this all day.

I accidentally deleted the next video, but this will give you an idea of what happened next…its from a previous RAGBRAI, but it was very much like this (only we had a much better catch rate, these people must not have been very hungry)

All in all it was a good day, perfect for recovering from the previous days brutal heat, distance, and hills. I am begging to suspect that its some sort of rule that towns have to be at the top or the bottom of some huge hill…

Day 5: Altoona to Grinnell

Another “easy” day. Or so I thought. Even though this was one of the shorter days, it had the most perfect rolling hills. They just never ended. As soon as you went up, you went down. On a geared bike this would have been awesome, on a fixed gear it meant that I was basically spinning like mad the entire day, half the time uphill. It was a “cooler” day, only in the high 80’s. So that was a bit of good luck.

This guy knew how to deal with the heat, find a tree, and sleep under it. This happened a lot, you would see big groups of cyclists strategically arranged in a perfect circle under the shade of a tree, or in a perfect square in the shade of a building. The cyclists would expand to the limits of the shade.

I ended the day pretty worn out, the most tired I had been to this point. What was supposed to be the second “recovery half century” as we had been calling them, turned out to be a vicious 50 miles of rolling death hills. I didn’t even go to the party at the end of the day, instead I went to bed at like 8:45 and slept like a zombie until 5am the next morning.

Day 6: Grinnell to Coralville

“Its all down hill from here” Was the catch phrase of the day, that and “No…sleep…TILL BROOKLYN!” Did you know Iowa had a Brooklyn, I didn’t. It was a very nice town actually, but nothing like the east coast Brooklyn, but that didn’t keep us from signing Beasty Boy’s songs all morning.

The sun was hiding behind some clouds for most of the day, it still got mad hot, but the humidity took a break so we made good time through the beautiful towns and gentle (down) hills of this part of Iowa.

Even this far into the ride you still constantly saw amazing things. Like this jersey for instance. It was a good day, the gentle downhill made it easy to get a good pace going in my legs and the 75 miles melted away rapidly.

At this point I started to realize that Converse were simply not the right shoe choice for this ride. While my feet were fine the shoes were starting to fall apart, I had purchased a brand new pair to take on this ride, and they were falling apart rapidly. In fact everything was falling apart, all the elastic in my socks had seemingly melted, as had the elastic in my cycling hat (which was now way too big), my jersey looked like someone had dunked it in corn colored dye, and my cycling shorts were showing signs of getting loose. It would seem that when you combine a 100 degree day, with a million degree road surface, and mix in a 98.6 degree human, things like socks and shoes just cant keep up.

I wasn’t really bothered by any of this however, the things that mattered, my legs, my bike, and my mind were still in great shape. My legs felt great, it was almost like the first day all over again. Which is good for what happened next.

I only ever met one jerk on the entire ride. Seriously Iowans are some of the nicest people I have ever met (and I grew up in the Midwest), so I can only assume that the person I am about to tell you about is not an Iowan.

I was riding no-handed, leaning back and letting my shoulders rest from a couple long downhills. We were going up a very gradual but very long hill. I was gently turning the cranks over, letting my legs rest for the 1/4 mile up that was just about to start, when a visitor appeared beside me.

This gentleman appeared to be in his mid to late 20’s, fully kitted out in black, riding a black Guru, and wearing mirrored wrap around shades. He rides up next to me, and when I look over, he looks down at my beat up IRO, then he looks at my sweaty ass riding no handed, then back down at my shoes, then back at me, and I shit you not he says “Now all you need is speed.”

I don’t even know what that means, but I think to him it was some sort of gauntlet throwing, because he immediately started accelerating and “attacking” the hill we were starting up. All I could think in my head was “who the fuck does this little shit think he is, does he know where I am from! I am from Boston Mother Fucker! I will cut a bitch!”

Instead of saying any of that I placed both hands on the bars, and very calmly began turning the cranks over a little faster. Pumping more and more momentum into my fixed gear. Fixed gears are like that, you can work them up to speed by just slowly adding more and more RPM to the cranks. So when I passed him sitting down in the saddle, looking very calm, and not working hard at all, he had to look twice to see my give him the biggest shit eating grin I could muster.

He of course stood up on his bike and attacked the hill with renewed vigor. I had been mashing up these Iowa rollers all week, and my pace was timed perfectly so that once again I passed him calmly sitting on the saddle, smiling, just as he was totally bonking in a gear much too big. I put just a little pepper on it so he got to stare at my shapely buttocks for a couple seconds before I was gone, never to see him again. Honestly I have no idea what that was all about, but I am going to say that I won.

That night was a little bittersweet I knew tomorrow was the last day and I was sad, I had finally gotten used to the all day bike riding/corn eating fest and I was sad that it was coming to an end.

Last Day: Coralville to Davenport

The last day was a hot once again. Temps back up into the triple digits. It was hot, and it was humid. People were having trouble with the heat. It was clear a lot of people hadn’t been on a bike much before the long week of RAGBRAI. It had separated the wheat from the chaff.

The day started off with a bunch of little popcorn hills, up down up down up down. Good to get your legs warmed up. They were small enough that I didn’t suffer too much of a penalty for not being able to coast, and I was getting enough water that I felt good about the day. So good in fact that the day went by really fast. Before you knew it I was approaching the end.

You might notice however that the little red line dips rather suddenly at the very end of the ride. That hill was another amazing beast, this time all on the down and not so much on the up. As we approached the hill we began to climb, there are natural berm like formations around the Mississippi, and we were climbing one before heading down into the river valley.

As we climbed I noticed that the road seemed to be wet. No one was out with a hose, and it hadn’t rained though. I then began to see tiny rivulets of what looked like black water running down the hill, then I noticed my tires were sticking to the pavement, then I noticed that there were lots of little bike tire shaped ruts in the road. The roads were melting, literally melting. It was so hot, and the road was at just the right angle to the sun that the damn thing had started melting. It was like riding around on a big mat of soggy sticky wet newspaper.

As we approached the final down hill, there were police officers and towns people warning us about the very steep downhill. And steep it was, it was like a roller coaster, when you stood at the top you couldn’t see the bottom because the hill curved away so sharply. I tried to control my speed by putting backwards pressure on the read wheel, and I rode the front brake, but after a while I just couldn’t halt my forward momentum and I just let go and RACED down this monster.

I hit 45 mph easy. My legs felt like they were going to fly off into space, and I could smell and feel bits of road that had melted and stuck to my tire fling up past my face. In a way having tar covered tires probably helped me stick to this crazy ski jump of a hill.

Rolling into davenport was a lot of fun, they send you down to the Mississippi to dip your front wheel in the river. The tradition is you dip your back wheel in the Missouri when you start, and your front in the Mississippi when you finish. But because of the flooding we only got to do our front wheel. When we arrived the river was swollen and angry from the 15+ inches of rain they had gotten the day before.

Giant dead trees were floating down the thing, and the boat dock we were supposed to have used to dip our wheels in was gone. We ended up leaning over a railing and dipping our bikes that way, the river had done us a favor and come right up to the edge for us.

I will leave you with this, an epic farmers tan. RAGBRAI was amazing, Iowan’s are so nice, and if you ever get the chance to ride in it I would highly recommend it. The average age of the riders is probably in the mid 40’s so its a bit of an older crowd, but not in a bad way. People are friendly and have a lot of great stories to share, lots of life experience, and there are a lot of young people but they are spread out. With 10-20 thousand riders on the road at any one time you can always find someone to talk to (or draft), so you are never lonely, and its a great place to meet friends.

If I were to do it again I would change a couple things. I would have tried to pack less stuff, you really don’t need much. I would have only gotten food from grocery stores, as a vegetarian eating nothing but friend food for the first couple days was a bad move. I would have tried couch surfing/free camping more, the service we used to carry our stuff around was good, but cost a lot of money. I would have stopped more in the towns, there is no point in getting done early, you should really take time to meet the people of Iowa.

Overall however I had an amazing time, and can’t wait till the next time I get to ply Iowa’s fine roads.

And for those of you who care about such things, by my calculations we rode a little over 510 miles, every single inch I did on a fixed gear. Its possible, in fact it was enjoyable, I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good challenge. While I was very happy to land at Logan, I will miss the country roads of Iowa.


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Posted in bostonbiker, fun, Uncategorized | 8 Comments »


8 Responses to “Pedaling Every Inch Of RAGBRAI”

  1. By Jthandle on Aug 9, 2011 | Reply

    Nice work on Twister. I am jealous of your ingenuity. I hit 65.9 mph on that downhill with my heavy, partially loaded, steel LHT. I still don’t believe it. Great write-up.

  2. By teeheehee on Aug 9, 2011 | Reply

    Cripes, man – what a great ride report. You got some great stories to share, and you shared them with verve.

    And the pic of the velocipede riders in wool jerseys – classic! I would be frightened for their lives to have sees them lifting their feet off the pedals for the downhills. Cojones.

  3. By Ira F. Cummings on Aug 9, 2011 | Reply

    Thanks for posting the wrap-up. During all the Tour coverage, I was thinking that RAGBRAI looks like much more fun. Just people feeling the stoke of riding bikes…no BS about doping or sponsors or whatever.

    I was also curious about what people did with their stuff, considering that I don’t think I saw a single picture of a bike with panniers. Must’ve been a nice luxury to somebody carry the gear.

  4. By jptwins on Aug 10, 2011 | Reply

    thanks so much for taking the time to write this all up. obviously it’ll be a good reminder for you later, but a nice little adventure for us sitting here in boston.

    i also reread your cape cod trip report, and i think i’ll try that this weekend (with gears, however).

    rock on!

  1. 4 Trackback(s)

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