RAGBRAI: Survival

I’m going to tell you that I’m not really suited to RAGBRAI, but when I say that I mean something very specific. I don’t mean that I don’t like Iowa, or that I dislike being on the road with every conceivable make and variety of bicycle out there, or that I dislike stopping in every town I pass through or even that I object to an event where the closest thing you can find to sports nutrition is Gatorade. No, I mean something entirely different. What I mean is that I’m not acclimated to triple-digit temps and nearly triple-digit humidity.

If I can use a boxing metaphor, the weather is Mike Tyson and I’m getting my ass whipped. Last time I was here it was hot, but not so hot that I wasn’t willing to sit on a curb and eat watermelon with a few riders and see how far we could spit the seeds. It wasn’t so hot that I was unwilling to climb up to the upper deck of some team’s bus and shake my money spender to the Spice Girls. (Lord knows, I don’t make any money with it.) We’re talking the difference between 90 and 104.

In each of the last three days I’ve consumed more than 150 oz. of fluid during the course of my ride. By the end of the day I’ve been well north of 200 oz. Most of it has been Gatorade at $2 or $3 for a 20 oz. bottle. Not all of them are as cold as would be helpful.

Having said that, I need to clarify that this isn’t a complaint, but a lament. I’m simply not seeing or doing as much as I’d like. While I’ve met a few readers and some other really nice folks, but I’m not hanging out the way I’d like. Two showers a day is the absolute minimum necessary to keep me from smelling like a meat locker with no power.

Marshalltown surprised me with some of its incredibly stately homes. And after a visit to Zillow’s web site, I was shocked by how little some of these places cost. Move to Iowa anyone?

I have a lot of eyewear with lenses of many different shades and colors. I’ve got some pretty good stuff, some really good stuff and a couple of pairs that are amazing. The Transitions lenses in the Oakley Racing Jackets I’ve been wearing have helped to moderate my other discomforts. I’ve had to deal with chafing, slightly rashy areas because of so much sweat and a near-constant feeling of cottonmouth. It’s been nice to have one thing that I can count on for comfort.

Normally I find myself wearing really dark shades in hot summer weather because of how bright the sun is.  Then I go inside and have to take them off and when I head back outside, the bright sun scorches my retinas and renders me snow blind until I put my glasses back on.

Look, I know they want me to like their product; they want everyone to like their product, which is why they’ve been renting pairs of Oakleys with Transitions lenses at their booth in the expo. And it’s been interesting to see the Transitions staffers take questions from riders. From diplomatically answering why certain lenses were delaminating to talking about why certain glasses perform better in certain situations, not to mention the many technical details specific to the Transitions lenses. Honestly, I hadn’t given any thought to how fast the transition from light to dark or dark to light might happen or should happen; all I know is that the shift has been timed so that I don’t ever notice it. I’ll do a full review of these soon enough, but I’m grateful that these glasses have covered my needs no matter the hour of the day. That is an uncommon degree of adaptability.

Burma Shave-style signs are really popular with RAGBRAI. They are a terrific way to advertise to cyclists in motion, and every now and then they are funny enough to give you a chuckle.

Back to the ride: I have this nagging suspicion there is more story out there, more going on than I’m capturing, but every now and then there are these moments. Riding into Marshalltown, just before reaching the center of town—and after passing some spectacular, stately old homes—I saw a series of signs made from pink cardboard bakery boxes.

Most signs I see are of the “we got food” variety. These were a bit different. They had some style and what they sold was more than just food. I decided to drop by the place they were advertising.

At first glance, the Morning Glory Bakery looks like your typical bakery. Donuts, pies, cakes, cupcakes, cheesecakes, fruit pizzas, lemon bars, brownies and of course cinnamon rolls—not to mention cookies the size of a salad plate. Then you begin to notice just how many varieties there are—they had cinnamon rolls covered in icings of buttercream, caramel and chocolate and so many different cookies that choosing one was a bit like a sugary lottery.

But they were advertising more than just their baked goods; for RAGBRAI, Morning Glory was to be open around the clock with movies streaming and free wi-fi. This was owner Laurie Wadle’s first RAGBRAI as a vendor and she admitted she really didn’t know what she was in for. I told Laurie (front and center in the photo) that some people had told me that RAGBRAI can equal the sales they generate the rest of the year.

She was planning to stream movies to make the place just a little more exciting and inviting; I suggested she might consider Breaking Away.

Towns lobby the Des Moines Regsiter to route RAGBRAI through their community. Just passing through town can be an incredible bonanza, but making a town the location of a stay can changes fortunes—literally—overnight. So there it is again: RAGBRAI is what you make of it. For someone needing to make some fast cash honestly, it’s a stunner of an opportunity. You may not sleep for a week, but you’ll make enough that you can nap through the entirety of August.

RAGBRAI is a side of cycling most of the industry neither knows about or understands. Even after riding it twice I can’t say I really understand it because it spans every angle of cycling known. Equipment is unimportant. Attitude is unimportant. Participation is all that matters. I know there are other cross-state rides out there, but I can’t help but wonder why none of the others have endeared themselves to a state the way this ride has. It’s not an event, it’s a phenomenon.

A little personal update: I’ve got more RAGBRAI content to post but currently I’m traveling in Hungary, on to my next assignment. Internet access from the Danube River with our ship’s satellite hookup is sketchy at best. I’m getting through email and comments as I’m able, but I’m not making great headway on either. You may not hear a lot from me for the next 10 days as we make our way to the Black Sea. Stay tuned.


  1. armybikerider

    ……”Equipment is unimportant. Attitude is unimportant. Participation is all that matters.”

    Isn’t that true, or shouldn’t that be true of every cycling event…or of cycling in general?

    1. Author

      Armybikerider: It’d be kinda nice if it was, but truly, equipment matters in racing and fast group rides. You simply couldn’t keep up on a Scwinn Varsity. RAGBRAI is nice because it gives you a bye. I’m having this strange fantasy of going back and riding a (well-restored) Varsity. And doing my best to kill it. Just to eff with minds.

      Rick: Glad to hear you’ve got an eye on RAGBRAI. Believe me, it’s amazing.

  2. Rick

    I have never had the desire to ride RAGBRAI. Frankly I am a bit elitist about this type of ride thinking it would only be interesting riding it straight through. Now….it looks kind of fun. A way less intense PBP or something. Thanks for the posts.

  3. armybikerider

    Padraig: I guess we need to define our terms and parameters. Obviously riding a Varsity and trying to compete in racing or riding a fast club ride would be a handicap, but that’s an extreme, just like a rider doesn’t “need” a Crumpton SL with Di2 to be a successful racer or group rider.

  4. Scott G.

    I have seen two Varsitys on club rides, the only real down
    side is no bottle mounts. Nothing like seeing a rider at full
    chat in pace line on a Varsity with dual seat post water bottle
    cages. If you can’t hack the 28mph avg group on your Varsity,
    move to the 22mph group. Riding a V is liking working the
    heavy bag in boxing.

  5. Chris

    FWIW, Marshalltown is home to Marshalltown trowels. In archaeological circles, going to Marshalltown without visiting the Marshalltown Company is the equivalent of going to Vicenza and not visiting Campagnolo.

    Iowa is just full of surprises.

  6. Diablo de Acero

    I think the success and fun of RAGBRAI is the fact that you pay a fee and you are automatic equal partaker in the festivities. A lot of across the state rides are for charity. Your level of treatment is usually tied to your level of fund raising. Guilt laid on by someone(organizer) who isn’t even riding the event really sucks all the fun right out.

  7. Souleur

    the heat this year has been record setting

    but there are at least 2 benefits with this heat: dogs don’t give a rip who passe’ through their valued territory, choosing to rest rather than give chase and the local drunks dry out in this heat nearly instantaneously

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