I’m going to go out on a limb, if a very short one, and suggest that there’s not a cycling event on the planet whose participants exhibit more humor in the approach to the ride than at RAGBRAI. Certainly not everyone at RAGBRAI has a sense of humor, but funny is a fundamental part of the RAGBRAI DNA. RAGBRAI is funny the way poker is serious, which is to say, maybe a little too much.
Think of all the different kinds of humor you can: a quick survey of the inside of my skull comes up with juvenile, black, bathroom, dry, sophomoric, obvious and sex. At RAGBRAI there’s someone or several someones somewhere working that angle. And nowhere is humor in better evidence than with the team buses. When I was here in ’97 all the teams were made up of old friends, folks who had been doing the event for some years and the bus just seemed to be a good way to simplify things and keep the party together.
These days, members of many teams I talked to told me that they had met at RAGBRAI and decided to purchase a bus together—their friendships didn’t extend pre-RAGBRAI, but were instead based in it.
Not only did I see buses of all manner of persuasion, kinda like insects in the Amazon rain forest, but the investment in said buses varied just as wildly. I saw a couple with their hoods up belching smoke with the insistence of an angry father. I also saw some that must have been owned by a bunch of single/divorced guys because there’s no way anyone with a wife/family could have ferreted away enough money to make them so nice.
To be sure, these are no million-dollar motor coaches with A/C and showers. I didn’t see a single one that lost the basic plot of keeping the party rolling. The closest any of them came to creature comforts was a bit of ingenuity to just how the beer was kept cold. Ahem.
Some did make an effort to take good care of the bikes, though.
I never found any of the members of Team Blonde, so I can’t report if they were actual blondes, people who just have blonde moments, or other folks, maybe even gentlemen, who prefer blondes. This much is known for sure, though:
What remains unclear is whether they live or love to party.
Maybe blonde is just a destination.
There were any number of teams that were sponsored by microbreweries, Miller Light (some riders had a real hoot each time they saw Miller Light riders drinking Budweiser), Papa John’s pizza and more. Attitudes on the commercial sponsorship of teams ranged from completely digging an underwritten vacation to disliking the mercenary and commercial nature of the venture. Riders I talked to seemed to like the idea of a microbrew-sponsored team while disliking a team sponsored by a pizza chain. Each to their own, I guess.
There were a lot of buses that didn’t strike much of a visual presence beyond whatever signage they featured. This bus was one of my faves.
This one, because it reminded me of my old checkerboard Vans’ slip-ons, was close to my heart.
When I did RAGBRAI in ’97, easily one of my favorite characters I met was this guy, Randy, a real-live rocket scientist who was wearing a road kill necklace. The road kill in question was a turtle of some indeterminate, but former, variety. He and his teammates adorned themselves with only what they found; these weren’t sanitized or taxidermied. Alas, it can be easier to find a team’s bus than the team’s members.
There’s a huge swath of the cycling public, most of the roughly 10 million people who call themselves cyclists, who will never enter a race. They will never enter a century or gran fondo. They aren’t doing group rides. They don’t own bikes that are worth even $2000. RAGBRAI is the pied piper that pulls them from the woodwork and somehow makes seven straight days of riding seem like something fun. The odds against this are as high as no one watching the Olympics.
It’s a place where cycling doesn’t take itself too seriously, where fun comes first, maybe even at the expense of sobriety, but because bikes are involved almost no one gets too drunk and if there are fights, we haven’t heard about them, which makes RAGBRAI a good deal safer and friendlier an event to take your family to. Which is to say, next time I’m there, I’ll have my family in tow.
I’m still wondering: Why hasn’t anyone else been able to bottle this?
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.
I once wrote that there is no one great truth to the city of Los Angeles. By that I meant that you can’t hold up any idea, any location, any product, any star, any “thing” as exemplifying the fundamental nature of one of the world’s least-understood cities. My point: That LA’s great truth is that it hasn’t one. LA is a city in which anything can be found. From great art, music and theater (both live and filmed) to incredible dining and nightlife, Los Angeles can go toe-to-toe with the rest of the world’s great cities. LA is also the poster child for many of the world’s ills. Drug abuse, murder, white collar crime, traffic, pollution, ostentatious greed, narcissism and disconnected living, LA has it all, and by the bushel. But what most folks don’t understand is that LA nestles pockets of absolute normality, places where families carry on quiet lives issuing young adults into the world, places that could be mistaken for the Midwest.
In trying to explain RAGBRAI to one of the Transitions staffers who was new to the event, I had to use my characterization of LA to convey what I believe RAGBRAI to be. It is the world’s most plastic, malleable, self-reflecting ride. If you’re looking for seven days of big, hard rides, you can do it that way. If you want to drink a beer in as many different towns in Iowa as possible, that’s available. If you want to show your kids the state from the saddle of a bike, show them that there’s a way to see the world other than through the windows of an SUV, this ride is perfect. If you want to get away from it all and just have a bunch of lazy days with bits of riding a bike, this is the ideal spot for it.
RAGBRAI is what you make of it.
It’s true that you see lots of corn and beans. It’s true that you see most of the same vendors day after day and that if by Wednesday if you haven’t had a pork chop or smoothie, it’s not for lack of opportunity—you must not want one. It’s also true that in each town you’ll see something you haven’t seen in any other town. Despite so predictable a format, each day is as different from the last as your mother is from your father.
But dear God it has been hot this year. When I was here before it wasn’t this hot, save for part of just one afternoon. The heat has sapped some of my interest for exploring, for taking in the diverse and sometimes odd foods available. I began to wonder yesterday if I just lacked the interest, the curiosity. This morning, before meeting a few readers, I spent a bit of time riding through town just looking around. It was only 80 degrees.
The heat has had another unintended consequence: a beer must be near absolute zero for me to be interested in drinking it in this weather. Not everyone has suffered with this issue.
In my time riding alone I’ve looked back over the 15 years that have elapsed since I last did this event and the turns my life has taken. It’s made me think about what I want my riding life to be, that not only has my riding shaped me, I wish to shape my riding. And this last thought comes to me out of the realization that I am not the cyclist I was 10 years ago, that I can’t continue to be the cyclist I am now, that I will age and in aging I have a choice—whether to go with grace or by some less elegant method.
It’s strange to me that in the 15 years that have lapsed since I last participated in RAGBRAI one aspect of the ride hasn’t changed at all. Communication with the outside world is nearly impossible while on the ride. Back then the problem was finding a pay phone that wasn’t occupied—if it worked at all. Email? The concept was a joke. And today, communication with the outside world is still next to impossible. But now the problem is completely different. The issue in 2012 is that with 20,000 or so people (who’s really counting?) descending on towns that may only have 1000 year-round residents, the cellular networks—all of them—are completely overwhelmed. I’m not sure how many of them are like the teen who was in line ahead me at the market who kept leaving his mom voicemails that he couldn’t find his batman necklace (and who drank most of a $1.65 Coke while in line but only had $1 to his name), but there’s a chance that most of our attempts at communication with the outside world could be filed under nonessential, my Facebook posts included. That I’m posting this now is only possible because Transitions is able to get me out of town in the evenings.
Given how hard it can be to find your BFF for a ride (or a beer), RAGBRAI’s organizers still put out sandwich boards for people to use for messaging. It’s as quaint as it is ineffective. The only people I ever saw visit this one (aside from me) were folks leaving notes.
When I spied this cooler in one of today’s towns (honestly, I’m not sure which one because my sole focus today was on pedaling and keeping cool) I pulled over immediately. Why? Well, I could hardly contain my excitement. Yeah, okay, so why was I so excited? Well, it was one of the members of Team Bad Boy who gave me my introduction into the party side of RAGBRAI back in ’97. So memorable was his act of generosity that I opened my feature with it. He poured me about a half a tumbler of Bacardi 151 at 11:00 or so in the morning. Yeah, so it was like that.
Alas, I couldn’t find him or any of his mates. I’m sure they were in the beer garden, and while that sounded like a great idea in principle, this was one of those days that just flat-out didn’t work on principle. It took something more than that. Just what, I can’t be certain because I don’t think I cracked that particular nut.
I spied this sticker on Team Bad Boy’s assorted belongings. Funniest sticker I’ve seen so far.
This is Kelly of Kelly’s Berry Best Pies. When RAGBRAI isn’t going she bakes pies that are sold through area grocery stores and restaurants around her home in Minden. During RAGBRAI she makes hundreds of pies, loses sleep (four hours in the last three nights) and generally kicks ass with incredible pies, mostly of her own recipe. I was reminded to some degree of the movie Waitress.
There are, according to my math, more varieties of pie than there are days of RAGBRAI, which poses a serious challenge. With the heat the way it is, consuming even one slice of pie is like trying to get 30 miles-per-gallon out of my Subaru. I don’t see me getting a second slice down, not unless she opens a second location on the route. My slice of caramel-apple was as good as I’ve ever had, and I was only able to settle on that following a laborious consideration of both peach and raspberry-peach. I’ll do one of those tomorrow.
Mr. Pork Chop is the guy who took over when Pork Chop Man retired a few years back. His pink bus—
Ta da! is a pink beacon of ready porkness. The loudspeaker on the roof of the bus above the driver’s seat is rigged to a recording of Pork Chop Man calling out: Poooooork Chooooooop! If ever there was a you had to be there moment, this is one of them.
The toughest jobs at RAGBRAI have to be those that require someone to cook anything. The guys responsible for doing these pork chops said they will go through about 900 per day. Per day. And the heat coming off those grills was amazing. I didn’t think anything could be hotter than the sun in Iowa on a July day. It turns out, there are things hotter. I felt like I needed another coating of sunblock just standing by to snap a few images.
Of course, when you’re at RAGBRAI, it’s not enough just to make food. The food needs to be fun or funny or interesting or something beyond just food. Except for all those vendors who charge you $3 for a no-name 16-oz. energy drink. Somehow they get away with that. But if you want to be remembered, have your picture taken, engender the sort of loyalty that causes people to eat your food seven times in a week, well dear friend, you need schtick.
Schtick can’t be cookie cutter. It has to be like flair, something you come up with on your own like, for instance, this fire truck brick-oven pizza maker. Smelled amazing. ‘Nuff said.
This is how I know I’m getting old. I looked at this kid, who was riding along having a terrific time and I sized up the 20-inch wheels and the backpack that looked to weigh half of what he does and I nearly bonked on the spot. This kid, if there’s any justice in the world, is the future of our sport, the Tejay Van Garderen of the Roaring (20)20s.
There are times when the enormity of RAGBRAI will leap out at you, like a child from a closet. I never really know when it will happen, but a few times each day, I’ll crest a rise and the wide expanse of Iowa will square against the stunning number of riders, which number like ants streaming from a hill and all I can do is utter a Keanu Reeves-like, Whoa!
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.