Thoughts on my first RAGBRAI
RAGBRAI 49 is now in the books, and as I begin to think about joining RAGBRAI 50, I’m reminiscing about riding in RAGBRAI 48. July 2021, I checked a box on my bucket list by participating in the Register’s Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). It was my first RAGBRAI, so I did as much research as possible, I made some mistakes and I did a lot of things right. Here are the things I did right, and some that I did wrong. Plus, first-timer observations.
Things I did right:
- Booked with a charter. Had I not been monitoring a Facebook RAGBRAI Newbies group feed I would not have heard about the Out-of-Staters Charter (About Us (oosbicycleclub.com), run by Tim and Lynne Haeffner and staffed by family. OOS moved my stuff from overnight town to overnight town and even set up my tent. So when I arrived at the end of a long daily ride, my tent was ready and my luggage was right there. And many of the friends I made were when I socialized in the beer garden (drinking beer, of course, I’d earned it).
- Involved some of my close friends. A couple of my college buddies wanted to witness what RAGBRAI was all about, so they offered to drive me up from Kansas City to the start town, Le Mars, IA. This enabled me to tire dip in the Missouri River in Sioux City, and at the end, in the Mississippi River. Le Mars was inland, so not everyone was able to take advantage of this as I did. Plus we got to spend the afternoon in Le Mars checking out the Expo, and drinking lots of cold beer to ward off the 90+ degree heat. The next day they saw me off for Day 1, giving me the confidence to finish the first-day 84-mile route.
- Bike Flights (bikeflights.com). I bought a Bike Flights box and shipped my bike to a KC bike shop (Bike Shop — Electric Bikes — Kansas City Overland Park, KS — ERIK’S (eriksbikeshop.com) where it was assembled. Bike Flights offered step-by-step packing videos on YouTube and then arranged to have my bike picked up from my house. I stashed my bike and the Bike Flights box in the back of my friend’s SUV for the trip to Le Mars.
- I was a solo rider, so I tried to take in as much of the RAGBRAI experience as possible. I stopped in every pass-through town to replenish my water bottles and get some grub. Whenever possible I chatted up the locals and thanked them for their support. But mostly I tried to enjoy small-town America and the wonderful people that live for this event.
- I took my time. 60–70–80 miles in 90+ degree heat takes a toll. The first day my face felt super hot, and I thought for a minute that I was getting badly sunburned. Turns out it was just that hot, and riding a bike in that kind of heat can do that. But there were plenty of rest stops along the way, plenty of pickle juice pop-ups manned by the locals, and always a welcoming local with a grassy front lawn and plenty of shade. Also, I went easy on beers during the ride, fearing dehydration, but never passed up on a few craft coldies at the end of the ride.
- I talked with other riders while pedaling, especially if I saw someone struggling. Gave them encouragement and asked where they were from. Many riders pedal at the Party Pace (The Path Less Pedaled), like me, and it offers the opportunity to chat someone up and make a human connection. I especially enjoyed trash-talking with riders wearing Iowa State jerseys. I’m a diehard K-State fan, and ISU is a top rival.
- Hydration. I was well-prepared. I have twin water bottle holders mounted on my handlebars and a water bottle cage on my down tube. I kept all three replenished and refilled at every pass-through town. And I avoided buying bottled water so as not to create plastic waste. (More about this later in Observations).
- Power Blocks. The OOS charter provided a charging station, but I also brought power blocks as backup. I found a site Backroads Battery (Backroads Battery — Batteries, Bike, Battery Charger), and took advantage of their “rent-to-own” program for RAGBRAI. I picked up the power block in Le Mars at the expo. I charged my devices at night and then swapped for a fresh block on the ride the next day. Backroads Battery was always located in the same place as Mr. Pork Chop, so it was easy to find.
- Dude Wipes (DUDE Wipes — DUDE Products). Biodegradable wipes for your bottom. Want to be clean down there before pulling on your chamois? Yeah.
- Gave a loud shoutout to the law enforcement officers who managed the route traffic and made intersections safe for cyclists. Not one of them struck me as feeling like this job was a drudgery. They gave us thumbs up, returned our thank-You, and a few even blared classic rock tunes from their squad cars to motivate the riders. Without the support of law enforcement, you can’t have this kind of event.
- Stealth laundry. I didn’t pack cycling and off-cycling outfits for every single day, so I washed my cycling clothes in the shower. It was always hot enough to drape my wet clothes over my tent and they dried almost instantly.
Things I didn’t do right, or could’ve done better:
- I should have taken more time in each pass-through town. I rushed too much. I got caught up in the mass movement of cyclists. There simply is no hurry, but I somehow felt hurried, and I shouldn’t have. A second RAGBRAI would cure me of this.
- I registered for the lottery and then signed up for a charter after the fact. I had them in reverse order. I only needed to sign up for my charter first and then note that on my official registration. So I went into the lottery and didn’t need to. Rookie mistake.
- I used Pork Belly Ventures (Pork Belly Ventures LLC — Ragbrai Charter Service 2022 (pkbelly.com) for shipping my bike back to and from LA. I could’ve worked out the same arrangement with OOS. I just didn’t know that at the time. In the end, I had to carry my bags and walk my bike to the Pork Belly Ventures site, from the OOS site, which was several blocks away in hot and humid conditions. Then I had to find my bike box ($150 Bike Flights) and my shipping box for my luggage. Pain in the arse. Lesson learned.
- I didn’t shoot enough photos or videos. I had the equipment but again, I felt rushed to get to the overnight town. I missed a lot of photo ops and narratives. Again, way too much hurrying.
- I rode straight to my charter’s campsite, avoiding the overnight town. At almost every overnight town there’s a spaghetti feed, usually sponsored by a church, for around $10-$15 bucks. I missed out on those, and the chance to support these organizations. And by skipping the overnight town, I didn’t get to witness firsthand the effort the townspeople had gone to welcome riders. I gave into that feeling that I had to get to the campsite. Won’t happen next time.
RAGBRAI is a one-of-a-kind cycling event, not to be passed up. Whether you do it once or multiple times, there’s nothing like it. I had RAGBRAI on my cycling bucket list for years, so it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to finish the whole distance.
That said, RAGBRAI can be an expensive proposition for an out-of-stater. I spent close to $1,000 bucks before I even got to Le Mars. I had to buy a bike shipping box from Bike Flights, and then pay Bike Flights to ship my bike to a shop in Overland Park KS. I paid the bike shop a little over $100 to assemble my bike. Paid Pork Belly to return ship my bike and luggage. Registration fee and charter fee. Airfare and lodging. A lot of this expense can be attributed to my first-year inexperience. Next time, I’ll do better.
I observed every kind of human-powered vehicle imaginable. Steel bikes, carbon fiber bikes, full-suspension mountain bikes, tandems, recumbents, unicycles, and an elliptical setup. I saw Batman and Robin riding bikes and fighting crime. Parents and their kids. Many riders showed the spirit of RAGBRAI by wearing colorful headgear and outlandish outfits. Made me smile and give a shout-out.
Veterans know that RAGBRAI is not a race, but that doesn’t stop some groups from running pace lines. I get it. Because traffic is virtually non-existent on the routes, it presents an opportunity for pelotons to run pacing lines in the left lane. But what’s the point? Getting to the overnight town faster? Why? Plus, whenever a car appeared ahead, those pelotons had to merge right with the rest of the riders. Struck me as unnecessary and fun-killing.
Yes, bike safety and decorum are necessary. However, several times I was startled when a rider came up on my left and then shouted, at a volume close to a Space-X rocket liftoff, “on your left!”. Made me almost swerve right into other riders. Come on people, no need to scream out the fact you’re on my left.
At every pass-through town and at pop-ups along the way there is bottled water for sale. To me, this creates an unfathomable ocean of discarded plastic water bottles that could easily overwhelm our recycling infrastructure.
You don’t need to belong to a group to ride RAGBRAI. I did it solo, and I’m sure many others did as well. I made friends along the way — friends that I’m still in touch with.
Agribusiness is alive and well in Iowa. We’re talking about a galaxy of corn. Planted by GPS, perfect rows and the stalks are of equal height. Farmers feed America and the world. Iowa is leading the way.
I gained a renewed appreciation of small-town America. I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, and riding RAGBRAI helped me reconnect with my roots. Interstate highways, while enabling travelers to cover great distances speedily in their cars, bypassed small communities, bankrupting family businesses and scattering populations. On a bike, you get to experience what it was like before interstate highways. As I rode through these small towns I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the residents. People sitting out front on their lawns applauding our efforts. Kids spraying us with cold water as we passed by. Whole communities working their butts off to support this effort. If you’re thinking of doing RAGBRAI because it’s a long-distance bike ride, forget it. It’s about the solid citizens of Iowa.
Take your time and enjoy the ride.