RAGBRAI: Day 1

I’m in Cherokee, Iowa, or somewhere thereabouts, riding RAGBRAI, which for those of you who don’t follow the cross-state rides is the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. RAGBRAI is the grand daddy of all the cross-state rides, both the first and the biggest of all of them. This is the 40th anniversary of RAGBRAI, which, it’s worth noting is a longer uninterrupted run than enjoyed by most bike races in North America. I participated in RAGBRAI in 1997 on its 25th anniversary. My piece for Bicycle Guide was alternately praised for capturing the vital essence of the event and lambasted for irresponsibly promoting the evils of alcohol (beer cans or alcohol appeared in more than half of my photos) and missed the point of the event entirely.

I’m here at the invitation of Transitions, the people behind the eyewear lenses that change tint depending on the available light. I’m sure they have some more polished description, but this one’s mine and you get the point. Oakley offers Transitions lenses in an ever-increasing number of models. Full disclosure: Transitions agreed to cover my expenses and give me a pair of Oakley Racing Jackets with Transitions lenses to wear; in return I’d write about my experience at RAGBRAI. As I’ve been trying to get back to this crazy event for 15 years, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. They’ve not asked me to say anything I don’t believe, nor am I having to whore myself out swearing on my grandmother’s grave that Transitions are the greatest thing since toilet paper. (I’m not sure what’s the best thing since toilet paper, but sunglasses are a bit down the list.)

I’ve written about how Los Angeles is a city with no one, singular, essential truth. It’s a place where you can find the best of what the United States has to offer—and the worst of what the U.S. has to offer. Just depends on where you look. RAGBRAI is a bit like that as well. At today’s first town we passed through, Orange City, we encountered a generations-old community of Dutch settlers. There were a great many quaint artifacts of their Dutch heritage that made for cute/amusing/memorable photos (as evidenced above) but the best moments came when we encountered people in the native outfits and singing songs handed down from their ancestors.

Now July in Iowa is a sort of summer worst-case scenario. It’s hotter than a Victoria’s Secret catalog and more humid than fog. The day started off well-enough, which is to say that temps may only have been in the 80s by late morning. Of course, things couldn’t stay that way, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

By the way, this calliope above made the most delightful racket, something that approximated music just well enough to transport me to Europe and the fairs that I’ve visited on occasion. It’s older than the entire city of Los Angeles. There’s a big Dutch festival that happens in town each May. I’m currently having fantasies about visiting it; I should probably save that sort of energy for dreams that are a bit more exciting, like winning the Tour de France, but this is, at least, something I could actually do.

One of the challenges of RAGBRAI is figuring out what and when to eat. It wouldn’t be hard to gain weight while riding the 500 or so miles across the state. All that would be required would be to stop at every little roadside food stand and get something to eat and drink. In fact, it’s kind of unlikely you could stop at them all, consume something and still cover all the mileage each day, so plentiful are they.

I’m willing to bet my bike I won’t see anything cuter than this girl this week. I only hope I find another town as charming as Orange City while on RAGBRAI.

I could have spent the morning listening to these folks sing. They were as entertained doing the singing as we were listening to them. Honestly, I envied them their connection to their roots.

RAGBRAI isn’t like any other cycling event you’ve ever been to. Think of a style of bike you’ve seen. It’s here. Old Schwinn Varsities? Check. Dime-store mountain bikes? Check. Cervelo TT bikes? Check. Recumbents? Check. Tandem recumbents? Check. Tandem recumbent trikes? Check. But of all the non-singles out there, this family team on this triple was easily my favorite. A family of four, captained by mom. Yeah.

It’s worth noting that cycling clothing or what passes for cycling clothing is a matter of broad interpretation.

And what passes for acceptable transport on this ride is as well.

Recovery is something that should be seized upon whenever possible. This is a seven-day ride.

One of my favorite aspects of RAGBRAI is that when you pull into town, you never really know what you’re going to encounter, but the scads of parked bikes are an indicator that a lot of people have already found what there is to find.

Rob is the local Oakley rep. He also produces ‘cross races in the fall. When he rides down the road, people yell at him as if he’s George freakin’ Hincapie. He’s as close as you need to a rock star on this ride—hang out with him and the party comes to you. Delightful, friendly and funny, if I don’t ride with this guy more, I’ll be missing out on some good fun.

Abby is a recent NorCal transplant and former pro mountain biker. She’s also a friend of Rob’s and drilled the last eight or so miles into town with her husband Bill (the guy below) alongside. The tires on Bill’s Hakkalugi were pumped up to all of 60 psi. How he could do 28 mph after multiple beers was a feat that left me in awe (and sucking his wheel).

I’m not really sure what’s going to happen next, which is probably the best way to go about RAGBRAI.

9 comments

  1. Big Mikey

    Padraig,

    Love it. This has to be an amazing experience, from all I’ve read. Not sure how it managed to coalesce in Iowa of all places………then again, maybe it had to happen in Iowa.

    Enjoy, and thanks for the updates. Very entertaining, and a great reminder that there’s a side of cycling most of us racer types don’t experience much.

  2. Anna D

    Ooooh! Now you’re making me miss RAGBRAI! I did it last year and I wasn’t able to find a ride out this year from DC. I’m quite sad to miss it, even tho last year I suffered horribly… I guess that says something about the appeal and experience of the event!

  3. Souleur

    its on my list for next year, fully looking forward to it.

    your absolutely right, the heat is killer, and you can’t dress for it. Its been like this for the past 2 months here, and is really hard to get the miles. Sounds silly, but its harder now than in winter.

  4. Crystal

    Since we’re from Orange City, I googled Ragbrai and Orange City to look at pictures and happened to come across your blog. I am the mother of that cute little girl you photographed. We enjoyed having you come through our town! My daughter loved putting on her Dutch costume for Ragbrai and loved all the attention. We hope you have a great ride the rest of the week and enjoy our great state!


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for your comments. It amazes me that I can have so much fun in such hot and humid circumstances.

      Crystal: I really enjoyed talking with you and your family, brief though my visit was. Your daughter didn’t need that outfit to be cute, but she really made it shine. That’s easily my favorite picture I’ve shot at RAGBRAI. Cheers to you and the rest of the residents of Orange City for our Dutch Detour. It was such a terrific experience.

  5. Dave L

    YOu are capturing the essence of RAGBRAI! I rode and worked as a mechanic for one of the original shops, BIKE WORLD! The 6 or 7 I rode were all memorable! Like the year I rode the whole route with playing cards in my spokes. Go ask the guys at BIKE WORLD about that. Have a blast!

  6. Earl

    I rode behind Bill while he was pulling a trailer with his 2 year old and he was passing people on the hills- and i could still barely keep up. Wish I was there!

  7. grayson

    It’s hard to fathom RAGBRAI if you haven’t done it before, even if you have done the SF/LA AIDS ride like I had. Theres no moral to it other than to go with the flow and be with your friends who are doing their thing. It’s not a race, but there are pace lines. Theres pie, theres pizza, theres beer, but theres also GU and Clif Bars. There are drop bars and TT bars, and country western bars. I did it in 09 with my now wife, whos an Iowa native and ragbrai alumni. I’m glad I did, but I don’t know if I’m mature/immature to do it again, yet. I keep saying if I did, it would have to be fixed gear.

  8. Rory Masini

    Hey Dave L, let’s get the families together and do this thing like the old times! My biggest problem will be choosing if I go vintage on one of the old bikes, racer on one of the Cannondale’s, or if I should get the old tandem out! Boy, do I miss Iowa!

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