Rolling Reporter Alan Sivell wraps up 2015’s RAGBRAI with a few observations, confessions and a personal forecast for 2016.
RAGBRAI, as Let’s Move QC team member Liz Lareau pointed out, is different for everyone. It’s so big and spread out that you can’t claim very many universal experiences with the other 20,000 riders. The crowds, the people, the weather, and the foods available: everything changes as the day goes along.
I left most mornings by 6 and tried to get done by 2-3. Others didn’t get going until 9 or later and didn’t get in until 6 or after.
Some folks stop only for pie, others stop only for beer. Others stop for both. Still others stop for everything and some stop for nothing.
I tried to stop for healthier fare (I want my knees to last a long, long time, so I try to eat light) – peanut better on wheat bread, fruit and water. I did indulge in some pie though.
Some riders carry all their gear on their bikes. Others opt to travel with a bare bones service like the Register, which carts your gear and tent. Others opt for bike clubs that offer more amenities. Some riders have friends who drive well-equipped RVs. Some write to friends and relatives in the overnight towns to book their rooms.
There are also outfitters that haul your gear and have your tent set up when you arrive in camp. (This is what I did. Pork Belly Ventures was incredibly helpful as I needed to charge my computer and camera and phone every night. They also provided secure transportation for my tech gear.)
One guy I met, a coach from an eastern Oregon middle school, wrote to fellow coaches in the host towns to score his accommodations. He was successful on 5 of the 7 nights!
When it looked like I needed help
In fairness, I had never ridden with 20,000 people before, let alone when trying to take pics and write stories. It’s dicey business getting on and off the flow of bikes.
So, leaving Parkersburg, I secured my left foot in its toe clip, pushed off and swung my right leg over the bike. I couldn’t feel my right toe clip. So I looked down. Big mistake. When I looked up, a telephone pole was rushing right at me.
I flung my arms around the pole and squeezed it as my bike rolled on a few feet ahead. It wobbled to the ground. I slid down the pole. Passing RAGBRAI-ers gasped.
“Are you all right?” several shouted. I was. “I’m OK! I’m OK.” The good thing with RAGBRAI is that the crowd – and your embarrassment – passes quickly.
The 2nd time it looked like I needed help
It was great to see the 180 or so members of the Air Force bike team on the ride. No matter where you were in the ride, you couldn’t help but pick their black jerseys out of the crowd. And they were often on the side of the road, helping anyone with bike repairs.
That being said, one of them sent me to the ground … although not on purpose. As we were entering a town one morning and slowing, a group of them stopped on my left just as I was turning left.
To try to avoid them, I turned my wheel past a 90-degree angle. And that led to a slow motion fall to the ground.
The three servicemen’s eyes bugged out when they realized what had happened. They were off their bikes in an instant, apologizing, picking me up, dusting me off and triple checking that I was all right. I was, and they rode off.
The 3rd time it looked like I needed help
But my chain had come off. So I turned my bike over to make the simple repair and suddenly 4-5 guys in their late 30s were on top of me, every one of them 6’ 2’’ and about 225 lbs.
“Are you OK, sir? Everything all right? Can we help you?”
I assured them I was fine and as they turned and jumped on their bikes, I noticed by their jerseys they were Sterling, IL doctors. Darn. I could have talked knee surgery with them.
The 4th time …
A bike getting a flat tire sounds like a balloon popping. One day, when pulling off the ride for water, I had to avoid a vendor’s sign on the shoulder. I missed the sign, but ran over his attention-seeking balloons.
Pop! Pop! Everyone biking by thought they knew what that sound meant and let out a collective, “Oh, no!” Again, I had to reassure the passing multitudes. “It’s OK! I’m OK! It’s just balloons.”
RAGBRAI may seem like a lot of work, but it is a perfect “vacation” in some ways. Because your brain is so focused on the task at hand – riding 75 miles to the next stop – you don’t think about work for a single minute.
When you do stop, all you can focus on is finding a shower, eating food and getting rested for the next day … only to do it all over again. I didn’t even think (much) about home.
I became so focused on my “mission” that I gave fleeting thought to staying in a porta-potty when a severe storm-warning siren went off. I couldn’t breathe, but at least I was dry.
A way to meet people
Since there are lots of lines at RAGBRAI, there is a chance to talk to people, in front or back of you. Invariably, you can find a connection.
There was the Western Illinois prof whose friend knows my wife.
And the University of Hartford grad who frequented a popular bar in my hometown.
And the couple who lives in Grand Rapids today but graduated from Bettendorf High School in 1975.
And the University of Iowa recruiter who had consulted, a few years back, at St. Ambrose.
Small town joys
The welcomes we got from the small towns we rode through were joyous. Almost always a welcoming committee greeted riders at the edge of town – cheerleaders or the chamber of commerce. The economic impact of 15,000 incoming hungry and thirsty riders to a town such as Hudson (pop. 2,282) can’t be denied.
We passed though 50 towns or so and it’s hard to pick any above another, but Ackley stood out for me with their great decorations of old bikes and fences on many street corners. And the town’s yards were impeccably well groomed (even on the back streets not on the route – I rode them to check).
Final thoughts for 2015
Being on the bike for so many hours gives you a lot of time to think. And I thought wouldn’t it be great if a form of RAGBRAI continued throughout the bike riding seasons?
The state or counties could connect some of these forgotten towns with bike paths along the shoulders of these out of the way roads.
Abandoned buildings could be turned into guest accommodations for bikers. They don’t have to be overly fancy. Bars and restaurants could get a few more customers on a slightly more regular basis, rather than waiting for another 10-12 years for RAGBRAI to come through again. I’ve been told some places in Iowa have such paths. Email me about them. I’ll share with everyone!
Another shout-out to QCBC
I had trained enough, thanks in part to The Quad City Bike Club’s RAGBRAI for Rookies event earlier this year. It was a very helpful starting point. The newsletters from the QCBC also were very helpful in providing training tips and expectations. And I went on a training ride where members were very helpful answering questions.
Forecast for 2016
Now that RAGBRAI is over and my knees were the only part of my body that DIDN’T get sore (thank you, Dr. Joe Martin!), the question keeps coming up: Am I going to do it again?
My answer? NO!!!! I’m not going to do RAGBRAI ever again.
But if I do…