Sometimes things hurts so good.
That feeling you get in your legs when you are climbing a big hill, or that burn when sweat drips into your eyes. These experiences are not fun…but they are rewarding. The suffering, the sweat, the tears, the ache, its all worth it when you look back and see what you have accomplished. Last year I decided to go on a 500+ mile ride on a fixed gear ride in the corn strewn lands of Iowa, I had so much that I decided to do it again this year.
This year was going to be a little easier, the rout was less hilly, I had better equipment, I knew a bit about what I was getting myself into. I felt prepared. Last year the part that really did me in was the hills, not so much going up them, but going down them. So this year I geared up a bit with the idea that the bigger gearing would allow me to spin less down the hills (went from 46×16 to 48×16). I also planned on eating better food, so that my body wouldn’t rebel against me the way it did last year. (for the record you can’t live on corn and fried Twinkies for a week without repercussions). Sure, last year was hot…my shoes melted, my shorts melted, my hat melted, hell the roads melted. I thought to myself “even if its hot again this year, it can’t be worse than last year…” Right?
Flying into Iowa you get a good view of the territory, Iowa is basically one big grid, with REALLY big blocks. From the sky you could see the effect of the drought that has been ravaging the mid-west. Large patches of corn were yellow from lack of water, and some entire fields had been cut for silage and plowed. Last year the region had been destroyed by floods, this year drought, global warming seems to have only bad things in store for the farm belt.
As I transferred from large plane, to smaller plane, and eventually to bus I noticed that the number of people with helmets hanging off their bags grew and grew. The final plane to the start city was almost entirely Bostonians heading for RAGBRAI. New friends were made, and I even recognized some riders from town. Small world indeed.
This was RAGBRAI’s 40th year, and still to this day the entire thing seems to be run on a hand shake and a smile. I had emailed Lorane, she said to meet her at the airport to get on a bus, and damn if she wasn’t there with a clip board to take me to the start. I only had to say my name, boxes were checked and I was on my way. Every part of RAGBRAI seems to run this way, real people with good hearts and happy smiles. All week $10k carbon-fiber bikes are left leaning against walls, not a bike lock in sight. It might be the largest trust based economy of its kind.
Day 1: Sioux Center to Cherokee
After a lovely night of sleep in my tent. I awoke to a warm morning. It was 90 degrees before 9 am. A bad portent of what was to come. The heat only got worse as the day went on, around 10 the morning clouds burned off and it was like someone had turned on an oven. As soon as those clouds left that heat hit you like a truck, it was palpable.
It was hilly, but not so bad, and my new clipless pedals were much more effective at climbing, and my larger gearing was working on the downhill, but damn it was hot. The temperature just went up and up…and up. Soon it was over 100 degrees. Everyone had strong legs, and it was only 54 miles, but 54 miles in an oven is still 54 miles in an oven. Many times during the day I saw ambulances carting off people to get treated for heat exhaustion.
Day 2: Cherokee to Lake View
So it begins… While I slept Iowa had brewed up a nightmare and when I awoke it served it on a fine platter. It seemed like it never got cool, the only temperature available was hot, or hotter. More hills, more heat, and most demoralizing, the wind. Sweet Jesus the wind. 20+ mph head winds, all day…
People tried anything they could to escape the heat and the wind. Pace lines were common. If you got caught out by yourself you would quickly slow down to a snails pace, the ride taking on a punishing pace. The already wilting corn seemed to wilt just that much harder. The symphony of ambulances was louder on the second day, mostly because heat + wind were causing heat exhaustion in even very strong riders. I drank 2 water bottles every 6 miles and still was very dehydrated. The wind made it feel like the whole thing was uphill, and the heat just beat any fight you might have out of you. I was happy to roll into Lake View if only to stop moving.
Day 3: Lake View to Webster City
Hoooollllyyyy Shit. This day was without doubt the hardest day of riding I have ever done. I awoke at 6am to a blazing sun. It radiated waves of rage in big yellow heaps. The heat was pervasive, sinking into you and heating your core so that you felt hot all the way down. The heat would climb to 105+ degrees this day, the road surface was measured in some places at 140+ degrees. And that fucking wind. It pushed against you, tearing any motivation to move forward you might have had and replaced it with sorrow. Brutal, oppressive, demoralizing, humid suffering on two wheels.
And if that wasn’t enough today was the century loop day. I did it last year, and I was determined to do it again. People were talking about how this was the “hardest century route in RAGBRAI history.” A quick glance at the elevation map would show you that century route riders would face many big hills. What that map didn’t show you was that the scorching hot winds would be beating you down for 90 of those miles.
By 10am the temp was over 100 and it would climb higher as the day went on. I heard someone mention that over 4,000 riders decided to take the SAG bus instead of ride. I started the day sweating and would end it doing the same. Karras himself (the man who the century loop was named after) was sitting under a tent welcoming riders to the century loop town. He was a man of some years and I worried for his health in the heat. Many many people went to the hospital for heat exhaustion. I heard rumors that there were some deaths.
At the top of one hill, low on water I pulled over to buy some watermelon (they had run out of water, watermelon seemed the best available option). A younger woman pulled up behind me on her bike and let it fall below her as she stumbled towards the table. She seemed like she was about to cry, and looked very warm. I asked her if there was anyone she was riding with, she shook her head with her mouth scrunched up in the way people do when they are trying not to cry. I got her some watermelon and we talked for a bit (well I talked at her, she nodded, eyes shrink wrapped in tears). We talked about ice cream, and cold breezes and shade, about finding our power animals, and the pain cave. She drank and rested, the tears never came, the red flush faded a bit. She got her shit back together, thanked me, and with a smile I took off.
As I left I was nearly run down by an ambulance that was picking up the lady laying next to the truck at the watermelon stand. She had passed out while riding. The signs of people falling apart were all around me as I decided to push forward through an extra 20 miles of this hell-scape.
The turn for the loop is marked by blue arrows (they use red for everything else), and it felt momentous to be committing myself to such a task. It was a point of no return, and the dramatic thinning out of riders was clear immediately. You get so used to being surrounded by thousands of cyclists that it felt lonely to suddenly be surrounded by only a couple dozen.
There was no escaping the wind now. I was on my own. I put my head nearly on my handlebars and began to slowly plow through the hot wind. Words fail you. The brutality of it is pervasive. Meditative even. You keep pushing and after a while your mind empties out and all you can focus on it is pushing each pedal down. The miles seem to take on a life of their own, stretching out time and slowing existence down. Just…keep…moving.
Getting my century loop patch was done in a haze, I got it, took a picture of Karras, then back on my bike for more miles. I was worried that if I stopped they would have to bury me in the corn.
This was ironically the day I met the most cool people. Because it was so bad you had to team up with people to escape the crazy wind. I met 3 guys riding fixed gears out of Chicago (we had a mini fixed gear pace line for a while), 2 awesome bike kids from Columbus, who I would end up running into and riding with for the rest of the week, and innumerable other riders seeking solace behind any back broad enough to catch a draft from.
At one point I spent what felt like an eternity slowly grinding out miles, only to turn around and see that 14+ riders had been drafting me for who knows how long. They had seen me grinding out there alone in the wild corn, and had hitched a ride the best they could (I am not that big). I didn’t mind so much, any port in a storm. I would do my share of catching a ride that day as well.
Then there were the hills. Huge, long, daunting hills. With the addition of “real” cycling shoes this year the climbing was significantly easier. But nothing could prepare me for the down hills. Even my larger gearing was no help on one particularly steep and long down hill. You can’t coast on a fixed gear, so you basically have two options on the down hill, ride the brake (no fun), or take your feet off (dangerous). So mostly I would let go of the brake and spin to win. The problem is I can’t really move my feet much faster than say 55 mph, and at that speed only for a little bit. I nearly lost it on one large down hill that tested my ability to the limit, I was so close to spinning out that I am still not sure how I made it.
Inside your head at these moments you make devils bargains. You say things like “come on legs just a little faster” and you fervently hope that you can actually fulfill your end of the bargain. You go faster and faster until your legs look like a blur. You grit your teeth and swear and frothy spit is flying from your mouth and you are sure that at any moment your legs are going to give up and you will end up all over the ground. You try to keep your upper body loose so that your legs meet no resistance from your core muscles on their mad dash. And just as you are about give up, as you run out of air, as you see the edges of your vision go dark, you are heading up the other side of the river valley and your legs are slowing down. You’ve made it. The slow methodical climb, while much more physically brutal, is so much more psychologically comforting that you start to love it, and before you know it you have climbed all the hills.
The end of the day found me passed out in a heap in my tent, falling asleep so fast that I almost burned up on reentry.
Day 4: Webster City to Marshalltown
Another long hot day, but blissfully the winds had calmed a bit. I started the day by drinking two water bottles before I even got on my bike. I was sweating taking down my tent. It was 85 by 9am, and the heat would rise to the high 90′s. Luckily for everyone there were a plethora of towns to stop at, providing shade, water, and ice cream. My diet was much better this year, avoiding the worst fried food, and being much most selective about what I ate and when. My body was much happier with me. With a supplement of fruit, and bean burritos from the grocery store I was actually feeling pretty good.
You get a lot of strange reactions to doing RAGBRAI on a fixed gear. Lots of people want to know how many gear inches you have, or what your ratio is, or most commonly “Are you crazy!” But one man asked me “Is that a peloton bike!” In my head I quickly translated and said “yes this is a fixed gear.” He then said “Hey honey check this guy out he is on a peloton bike!” His wife then rode over and observed me, and made an excited face. We then reached a hill and as is my method (mash up, bomb down) I took off up the hill and the guy screamed “Tremendous leg strength! Tremendous!!” For the rest of the week that was a running joke in our group, any time anyone did anything they had “TREMENDOUS LEG STRENGTH, TREMENDOUS!”
That night the sky suddenly started to flash, and before we knew it we were surrounded by a boiling cauldron of lightning and thunder. It blew in so fast that we hardly had time to scramble into our tents before high winds threatened to pull them away from us. Some people said later that the winds were gusting up to 60mph. My tent was bending down to give me wet kisses as the storm raged outside. It was hectic and wild, and the sky was alive with the static of hundreds of lighting bolts. It was a good old fashion Midwest thunder boomer! Just like I remembered from childhood. The best part being that after the storm left the temperature dropped roughly 20 degrees. Sweet sweet relief.
Day 5: Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids
Bring out the hills! I remember this part of the state from last year. The endless rollers, the big ones, the little ones, HILLS! If anyone ever tells you that Iowa is flat, smack them right in the face. Be sure to do it quick so your hand connects with their face right as they are done making the “T” sound.
But who cares! It was cool! That damn wind had stopped! The hell of the corn washed away by an angry storm to reveal a beautiful lovely Iowa wonderland. It was a long day, almost another century, but everyone seemed full of energy and happy. Beers that had been forgone before because of the danger of dehydration were imbibed, ice cream was eaten, and much joy was had by all!
I ran into my Columbus friends again and we rode together. They were fast and it was a joy riding with people who love to ride bikes. There were light breezes and gentle sunshine, the joy of riding had returned. The day seemed to pass too quickly, almost as if we ran out of road before we had fully enjoyed our ride. I realized that RAGBRAI was coming to an end and I wasn’t ready to return to the real world yet. I would stay up very late this night trying to cram as much fun as possible into my week. Totally worth it.
Day 6: Cedar Rapids to Anamosa
The shortest day of the week, but ironically the one that I spent the most time out on the road. We all knew it was going to be an easy day. We got up late (6:45am), took our time at every stop, had the most fun possible, and enjoyed the fine fine weather. In was beautiful and we tried to take our time and enjoy it. The heat behaved, the wind behaved, it was glorious. I met up with a friend I had made last year on the ride, and got some good riding in.
I went to bed thinking “wow that was a really good day”
Day the last: Cedar Rapids to Clinton
The last day of RAGBRAI is always kind of strange. There are less vendors, the party atmosphere is diminished, and in general people are just riding to the end to get onto busses, planes, trains, and heading home. My Columbus friends had to be on a bus by 2pm, so I told them I would pace line with them to help get them there on time. We started early and got a good head start, around 11am we got a little cocky “We are so far ahead! Lets take a break and get some ice cream!” Well a ten minute stop turned into an hour long one, and before you know it we had to go 40 miles in two hours…whoops.
Jumping on our bike we began pedaling. We quickly became a three person machine. Three strong riders who know what to do and love to do it. We kept the pace above 21 mph, rotating the front if they fell below that critical number. We were like a swiftly moving snake, elegantly moving around and through all obstacles. Many people tried to get on our tail, and all of them were thrown off. Each time it was my turn to pull at the front I tried to get my tiny frame as upright as possible to provide a good draft for the people behind me. They needed the rest as we were each giving our all on the pulls.
The goal was speed, and speed was achieved. We were flying! It actually felt like we were winged creatures. Going that fast for that long just makes you feel alive and free in a way few other things can. Only Iowa provides the 40 miles of straight line nothing that you need to really crank out some serious miles. Our average speed varied between 21 and 26 mph for the entire 40 miles. It was the perfect end to a 550+ mile week.
Clinton was a snarl of traffic, pedestrians, and cyclists. It was just like being home! I took the lead and carved us a line right to the bus station, we arrived sweaty with giant smiles on our faces. High fives were exchanged by all. It was just so much fun to be able to go fast and not have a single red light or stop sign for 40 miles! We got there with 10 minutes to spare, everyone got on their bus safe and sound. I will miss those kids.
Because I rushed the ending I had a while to wait for my teammates to catch up. I sat next to the Mississippi and watched the endless hoard of cyclists come and dip their front wheel into the mighty river. The custom being you start by dipping your back wheel in the Missouri, and then ride across to dip your front in the Mississippi.
The endless parade of cyclists dipping, and then often holding up their bikes for pictures gave me a bitter sweet enjoyment. The week was over. I was already dreading the idea of a week where I didn’t get to ride my bike every day all day. I began to plan great things, like brining a touring bike on RAGBRAI next year, and instead of stopping at the Mississippi, just keep riding all the way back to Boston…the corn plants ideas in your mind.
I was tired…really tired. We dipped our wheel, got in our cars, and drove to Indiana, or maybe Illinois, or the dark side of the moon…who knows. I was awake and asleep at the same time. We set up our camp, and while I remember there being conversation all I really recall is having the most wonderful shower, and then passing out.
Day 8 return home.
4am, time to get up and drive to Grand Rapids, fall asleep. 1pm, get on your plane, fall asleep. 2:35pm Cleveland, sit awake, but asleep 5 feet from the gate you are supposed to catch your flight home on. Awake sleep through the boarding, awake sleep through the calling of your name, awake sleep through your plane leaving without you. 2:40pm wake up from your awake sleep, realize you have missed your flight. 2:50pm Paulette you lovely woman thank you for getting me a way home, fall asleep. 4pm get on a plane to LaGuardia, fall asleep. 5:30pm arrive in LaGuardia, immerse yourself in the massive shit show that is New York. Run to your plane, straight up sprint to your plane. Exit security, enter security, get your bag examined because of your multi-tool, run some more. 5:50 pm get on a flight to Boston, see the most beautiful clouds you have ever witnessed, fly through them like an earth sized cathedral, fall asleep. 7:00pm arrive home, get on a bus, get on a train, get on another train, walk home, sit in bed realizing you can’t sleep and that you deeply miss Iowa already.
Tags: corn, heat, RAGBRAI, tears
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