RAGBRAI LI Registration is Now Open. I’ll Pass.

RAGBRAI L is probably my last. I had a few good moments but mostly it was a journey of survival: Heat, Hills, Headwinds and more cyclists than I have ever seen in my life.

People familiar with my participation in two RAGBRAI, including this year’s 50th anniversary event, ask if I’m going to do another one. I’m not. Here’s why.

  1. It’s expensive. The registration fee – $225 – is only the tip of the iceberg. I have to get my bike, my luggage and myself to the start town. Airfare, plus one extra baggage fee. I bought a hard shell case for transporting my bike – $500. Must travel the day before which necessitates one night’s hotel charge. Then a charter to get my stuff from town to town. Meals and drinks, and any incidentals (had to replace my crankset).
  2. I’m still working fulltime, so I have to use Paid Time Off (PTO in corporate lingo). Counting the travel day, that’s six days of PTO which pretty much depletes my PTO reserves.
  3. It’s hard. RAGBRAI L was 500 miles of hills, heat, and headwinds. Some days distance was as high as 90 miles, with no rest days after. It was a test of my motivation to get up each morning after a fitful sleep in my tent to get back on my bike and ride over more hills. True, there’s a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day, but also a sense of dread that you’re going to repeat the act tomorrow.
  4. It’s crowded. RAGBRAI L might be an exception since so many riders decided to participate. At my charter’s campsite the charging stations were overwhelmed, making it nearly impossible to refuel devices. Lines for the kybo’s were incredibly long. Lines for food in the pass-through towns were incredibly long.

Still, there’s a magical appeal to RAGBRAI. There’s no other event like it in the world. Iowa is beautiful and the citizens are wonderful. It’s a big deal to say you’ve done one, or many. But I’ll pass this time and save up my PTO for actual time off.

RAGBRAI L: Epilogue

Omaha to Los Angeles, 1,500 miles, 32,000 feet of climb. 🙂

I’m writing this two months since RAGBRAI L. I’ve had plenty of time to mull over the event and gather my thoughts. I’ve probably done my last RAGBRAI.

Was RAGBRAI L fun? It was. For me, it’s all about Iowa and its people. The locals that come out and cheer the riders on. Offering cold water, spraying cold water. Passing through small towns you’ve never been to, and probably won’t again. Miles and miles of corn, a pretty spectacular site. The riders that come in every shape, size and skill level. Road bikes, touring bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, tandem bikes. Unicycles. The Air Force team.

Yes, I have fond memories of RAGBRAI L. Tempered with memories of crowds, long lines, heat, hills, and headwinds. RAGBRAI L was radically different from RAGBRAI XLVIII that I rode in 2021. Longer overall route, averaging over 70 miles per day. If you were riding across the U.S. and you had a day where you rode 90 miles, the next day would probably be a recovery day.

There are no recovery days at RAGBRAI. Every day you must have the mindset that you’re going to get up and ride to the next overnight town. You can take your time getting there, but get there you must. No choice.

Your expectation should be that the ride won’t be a piece of cake. That you may have bike issues, like I did. I certainly hadn’t counted on damaging my crankset, but that’s what happened, and I was lucky to get it replaced and continue the ride.

I still haven’t mastered the logistics of getting to and from RAGBRAI. The nonstop flight from LAX to OMA was good, but choosing a second charter to get from Omaha to Sioux City was a mistake. I wasted an entire Saturday doing so. Next time (if there is a next time), I would rent a car at the airport, drive and then park at the ride start town. Get a weekly rate. Assemble my bike and leave the travel case in the trunk. Utilize one charter to get my stuff from town to town, and then a ride back at the end. Car waiting for me.

Whether or not I’ll actually do another RAGBRAI is uncertain. But you never know…

RAGBRAI L, Day Seven, July 29, 2023

Coralville to Davenport, 66 miles, 1,604 feet of climb

Coralville is just outside of Iowa City, so right at the start riders are treated to another bike through a football stadium, this time the University of Iowa’s Kinnick stadium. After lapping the concourse, the route progresses through part of the campus, and I observe that University of Iowa campus has a classic Ivy League look and feel. The route heads down the main drag off campus. Since there was no coffee offered at the charter campsite, I’m now scanning both sides of the street for a coffee vendor. I find one, but the barista is only offering cold brew. Not my jam. I head on.

I really had to push myself on the last day. My butt is sore, I’m tired, I’m hot. I’m really not interested in the pass-through towns. I just want to finish. But when I reach Muscatine, I slow my roll and spend some time checking out this Mississippi River town. Turns out Muscatine is nicknamed “The Pearl of the Mississippi”. At one time Muscatine was a major manufacturer of pearl buttons, earning the title “Pearl Button Capital of the World”.

Buffalo will serve as the last pass-through town on the route. I don’t even bother to stop. There are 9 more miles to Davenport.

Once I reach Davenport I follow the signs to the area where the tire dip will take place. But once I reach it, I hear from other riders that they waited over an hour to dip their tires. Despite the lure of this tradition, I can’t afford an hour. I need to get to my charter site, get my stuff and then somehow get to my second charter site for the ride back to Omaha.

I find the signs pointing to the charter site and wouldn’t you know it, more hills to climb! Demoralizing when you think you’ve made it and you still have more miles and more hills before you get there.

When I do make it to the charter site, I have come up with a plan. The second charter site is near a casino about four miles away. I see the charter staff resting under trees in the shade. I announced that I had $50 if one of them would take me, my bike and my duffle to the casino. Right away I get a volunteer. We load my bike and stuff into the back of a pickup truck and off we go.

The staffer I’m riding with is a really nice young man. We chat about Iowa, working for the charter, his education, and RAGBRAI. We find the casino parking lot, unload my stuff and part ways after I put a $50 bill in his hand.

I locate my bike travel case and begin disassembling my bike. I get everything back in the case, close it up and hand off to charter staff for carriage to Omaha. The charter has an air-conditioned bus for the ride back across Iowa to Omaha. I met two other riders from California and we compare bike travel stories.

The bus leaves and we pull into a Casey’s parking lot where a different driver will board. Stopping at Casey’s gives me the opportunity to buy some beer and more Hawkeye vodka for the ride. There’s also electrical outlets on the bus so I’m finally able to charge my phone after it had died a day ago.

About four hours later we arrive at the hotel and wait for the truck carrying the bikes to arrive. This time I’m not going to rely on the second charter to get me to my hotel in downtown Omaha. I call an Uber XL and it arrives within minutes. The driver, Ada, has a fairly large SUV, so we have no problem loading my gear and bike into the back. Ada fills me in on all sorts of Omaha stuff as we head to my hotel. She’s super knowledgeable and really knows the area. I really appreciate it when shared ride drivers actually know where they’re going, rather than over-relying on GPS.

Back at my hotel, I take everything out of my duffle so I can rearrange clothes and camping equipment. Some of my clothing is still damp, so I drape them over the backs of chairs and stools to dry. I take a luxurious shower in a real bathroom, without waiting in line, for the first time this week.

I have all of Sunday morning and part of the afternoon before I head to the airport and eventually back to Los Angeles.

All my devices are now charged, so I call my wife before heading to bed. I feel relieved. I finished RAGBRAI L. It was hard. But I finished. I still recommend RAGBRAI if you haven’t done it. There is no other cycling event like it in the world.

RAGBRAI L, Day Six, July 28, 2023

Tama-Toledo to Coralville, 80 miles, 3,276 feet of climb

After a decent night’s sleep (thank you Foghat), I followed my usual morning routine, getting a coffee and banana before heading out. Once again, many riders lit out in the dark to avoid the heat, as today was expected to be one of the hottest so far.

Unlike the day before, there was no thin cloud cover so the unimpeded sun beat down mercilessly. I managed to get off before 7:00 am, my usual time, with the first pass-through town, Chelsea, 18 miles ahead.

The RAGBRAI pass-though towns provide relief, sustenance, and entertainment. But along the way between pass-through towns are dozens of pop-ups operated by locals. I had learned to rely heavily on these rest stops, where there was one or two about every 5 or so miles. Today these pop-ups would be the difference between finishing or failing.

Water. I’m going through 24 oz. water bottles faster than I can keep them filled. The temperature is nearing 100 degrees. As I pass through towns, locals hand ice cold bottles of water to riders. About every 5 miles or so I spot shade and locals serving cold drinks and pull over. I’m buying three bottles of water – two for drinking and one to pour over my head. At one popup the locals let me soak my bandana in a spare ice chest before putting it back around my neck for cooling.

Pass-through towns are spaced conveniently, about 7 miles or so apart, providing some relief. Locals line the route and spray passing riders with cold water from garden hoses and super soakers. In Oxford, the local fire department has turned on a huge sprayer, so I dismount and subject myself to a blast of cold water. Little things like this make it possible to keep going.

I reach Coralville and my campsite, and my Garmin displays 84 miles. I quickly head to the showers and then to the beer tent. I was hoping to charge up my phone or one of my power banks, and finally I spot an open outlet at the charging station. But soon after, charter staff announce that a major storm is heading toward us. They dismantle the charging station and take down all the canopies.

I learn that we can shelter across the street from the campsite in a local middle school gymnasium. I go back to my tent, load my luggage inside and lay my bike on its side, then scurry over to the middle school along with other riders. On the way, I see tents being picked up by the wind and sent sailing through the air. I cross my fingers that my tent will survive the storm.

I got there safely then realized I could have brought my power bank and charging cord with me. My phone is nearly dead. I snap a photo of the storm clouds and send it via text to my wife back in California. There isn’t enough juice for a phone call.

The storm eventually passes through and I head back to my tent, and discover my tent survived the wind and rain and all my stuff is dry, except for my bike. I get out my bike cover and arrange it so that if the light rain continues, it will have some protection.

As I try to fall asleep, I wonder about the next day’s ride and if the weather will have any negative impact. I fished the RAGBRAI L ride pamphlet out of my backpack and discover that the last day’s ride to Davenport will be 66 miles! Mentally I was thinking the last day would be a short ride. 66 miles is certainly less than 80, but will be closer to 70 by the time I reach the charter site. Oh well.

RAGBRAI L, Day Five, July 27, 2023

Des Moines to Tama-Toledo, 82 miles, 3,652 feet of climb 🙁

The sun peeked over the downtown Des Moines skyline as I followed the crowd out of town. The first pass-through town, Altoona, was a mere 14 miles away. My plan for this day was to breeze through the pass-through towns because of the heat and hills. I wouldn’t have the luxury of hanging around, soaking up the atmosphere. I had serious riding to do.

Interestingly, there was a thin cloud cover that mitigated some of the heat this day, but a hot sun wasn’t my biggest concern. Throughout the week my butt had gotten sorer and sorer. Perspiration and chafing were the culprits. Not much I could do to lessen the pain. I had applied chamois butter before taking off, but that protection was long gone.

I stopped in one of the pass-through towns, Newton, and sought out a drugstore and hopefully, Vaseline, one of my substitutes for chamois butter. Found a drugstore which was thankfully being air-conditioned on full blast, and the wonderful employee fulfilled my request for Vaseline.

Armed with a supply of petroleum jelly, I hopped into one of the porta-potties and applied liberal amounts of the stuff to my sore bottom. Rather than get right back on my bike, I grabbed some food and found a bench on the sidewalk in some shade. Right about then, a woman approached me and offered to let me into her air-conditioned dance studio, which I gladly accepted. There were other cyclists also taking advantage of her hospitality. Iowans are just nice people, and the cool air was a great respite from the heat.

Eventually I had to get going again. I rolled through Kellogg and Grinnell, which left 24 miles to Tama-Toledo. If you’ve ever done any long-distance cycling, you know that the last miles before your destination can be the longest. Such was the case. I finally rolled into Tama and then Toledo around 7:00 pm. The route was supposed to be closed by now, but since there were still hundreds of rides still on the route, traffic control remained in place.

When I finally reached my charter campsite, my Garmin displayed 90 miles, the most miles I had ever ridden on a bike. I was so tired I barely made it to the beer tent, but of course, I did. I ate some snack food and headed to my tent for the night. All week I had not gone to any of the concerts that were part of RAGBRAI L. This was because getting shuttles to the venue was a pain, so I opted out. Tonight though, the music venue was the next field over. The featured band, Foghat (from an era I can relate to), serenaded me to sleep.

RAGBRAI L, Day Four, July 26, 2023

Ames to Des Moine, 50 miles, 1.216 feet of climb

Ames to Des Moines was an easy ride comparatively, featured some nice scenery and a roll through downtown.

This section of the route was supposed to be the day there would be 50,000 or more riders. Originally the organizers were hoping to break the Guiness World Record for the number of riders in a single day event. But the Guiness part didn’t come through, and honestly, I didn’t think it was that crowded on the ride.

After rolling through downtown and over the bridge spanning the Des Moines River, I once again strained to spot signage for my campsite. After a relatively easy ride, I still had to pedal a ways to locate my charter campsite, and once I arrived around midday, none of the tents were setup, nor had luggage been unloaded. This was due to the fact that it didn’t take riders long to reach their destinations before staff could get everything ready for their arrival.

Without luggage, I couldn’t shower, so I hung around with other riders under the main tent and sipped beer in the sweltering heat. I even dozed off for a while. Finally, luggage arrived, and my tent was set up. The showers were about a quarter mile from the campsite, so I grabbed clothes and shower stuff and walked there.

Back under the main canopy, I chatted with other riders. The scuttlebutt was that hundreds, or maybe even thousands of riders were bailing after Des Moines. Main reason was that the next two days would be some of the hottest, hilliest, and longest rides.

The distance on Day Five was listed at 82 miles, and I was already factoring in the extra miles I would pedal getting to my campsite. Listening to other riders, many were planning on leaving at zero dark thirty to avoid the later day sweltering heat. That didn’t appeal to me. I don’t like intense heat either but leaving the campsite in the dark without any traffic control just seemed silly to me.

Sure enough, in the middle of the night I was awakened by cyclists passing by my tent with their headlights blazing. I had set an alarm for 5:00 am, so I was ready to ride as the sun was just coming up. It was already hot, even in the early morning. It was going to be a long day.

RAGBRAI L, Day Three, July 25, 2023

Carroll to Ames, 83 miles, 1,479 feet of climb

I was looking forward to this part of the route which would feature a ride through the Iowa State football facility, Jack Trice Stadium.

It was starting to heat up on Day Three, and I was feeling the distance on my butt. There were plenty of pass-through towns, spaced about 10 miles apart, which made it more tolerable..

The ride through Jack Trice Stadium was a highlight. Riders headed up the concourse to the north end zone. I’m a Kansas State Wildcats fan, and we’re Big 12 rivals with Iowa State. It was cool to see the Cyclones stadium up close. Maybe someday I’ll attend a game there.

Heading out of the stadium I made another directional mistake by following the crowd. A staffer was waving everyone to the left, and so I did. My campsite this night was actually the Ames Fitness Center, for which I gladly paid an extra fee. But by following the crowd I headed in the wrong direction. Feeling like I’d made a mistake, I stopped where volunteers were directing traffic and asked for directions to the Ames Fitness Center, and was told it was the other direction. A long ways in the other direction.

So I called the charter owner and asked him how to find the location, telling him I had gone in the wrong direction leaving the stadium. He told me I needed to pedal in the direction of the stadium and look for charter signs. My Garmin is showing me that I’ve already ridden 85 miles as I wearily head back the other way.

Past the stadium I spot signage, which was encouraging, but still no fitness center. More signage, so I’m not lost, and I didn’t feel like I’d passed the facility. Finally the signage points to my left and there’s the Ames Fitness Center. I locate charter staff to find out where my luggage is stored, and they help me locate it.

I head upstairs with my duffle and backpack to set up in the weight room, which is pretty large, but space was at a premium. I find a spot between two lat pulldown machines, and set up my sleeping quarters. Included in the fee was a laundry service, indoor showers and a massage.

After a fantastic shower, I got my 30-minute massage and then headed to the bar for a beer or two. Food trucks were set up outside, along with bike parking for those who had paid for the indoor sleeping arrangement. I ordered a BBQ brisket sandwich and sat down in one of the camp chairs to relax. I had pedaled 87 miles in all.

Sleeping in the weight room was like a slumber party. No privacy, but I actually slept pretty well. Everyone started stirring early the next morning for the ride to Des Moines. I packed up my stuff, found coffee downstairs, and handed my luggage off to the charter staff. Ames to Des Moines would be the shortest ride, 50 miles, so I didn’t feel rushed to get on the route. But now the weather was heating up, a harbinger of things to come.

RAGBRAI L, Day Two, July 24, 2023

Storm Lake to Carroll, 62 miles, 1,818 feet of climb

Having weathered Day One, I anticipated a relatively uneventful Day Two. Route featured fewer hills and less miles, and the heat wasn’t yet oppressive. Once again, though, I was done in by signage trying to find my charter campsite.

After pedaling over 60 miles, I found myself at an intersection wondering if I still had a ways to go to my charter campsite or had I passed it? There were a handful of others at this same intersection, so I called out to see if anyone was using the same charter. Turns out, another rider responded, and said he was trying to find the campsite as well. He was on the phone with one of the charter owners, got directions and told me that we had passed the signs a few blocks back. So I followed him to the turn and we made it to the campsite. Now I had to find my tent.

I had opted in on tent and baggage service with my charter, which meant I didn’t have to schlepp anything from the trucks. But I still had to find my tent, and needed to find one of the staff to point me in the right direction. That resolved, I had one more item to take care of.

As I previously wrote, I had to get the second charter to bring my bike in its travel case to charter one’s campsite on Saturday. The driver of the van who brought it to me took off before I could have him take the case back to the other campsite. So now I was stuck with my bike case, and the head of my charter did not want to truck it from town to town. His reasoning, which totally made sense, is that if the charter carried everyone’s bike boxes and cases they’d have no room left for luggage and campsite equipment.

I needed to get my case to the other charter. And, of course, I had no cell service in Carroll, so I couldn’t contact the owner of the other charter. I prevailed on one of the staff for his cell phone, made contact and arrangements to bring the case to him. Luckily, staff needed to make an ice run to Casey’s (local version of 7-Eleven), which was right by the other charter’s campsite. We made the handoff and headed to Casey’s.

While at Casey’s I purchased a sandwich and some more Hawkeye Vodka. Standing in the checkout line, I struck up a conversation with another rider. We shared observations on the first two days of RAGBRAI L, and both agreed that it was hot and hilly. He was from Sioux City, and said he was considering bailing out, anticipating even harder rides and hotter days ahead. I wished him luck, paid for my stuff, and joined the staff back to the campsite.

RAGBRAI L, Day One, July 23, 2023

Sioux City to Storm Lake, and a mechanical breakdown. 80 total miles, 3,500 feet of climb

Got off to an inauspicious start Sunday in Sioux City. First, the charter ran out of coffee. I can’t remember any time I didn’t have a cup of coffee before a ride. Not having morning coffee tears a hole in the fabric of my universe. First opportunity for a cup of Joe will be Kingsley Iowa, 29 miles away.

After topping off my tires with air, I turn on my Garmin and loaded the Day One route and followed the crowd out of the campsite. I glanced at the navigation on my Garmin and kept getting notifications that I was off route. Then I was prompted to make U-turn after U-turn. After awhile I simply disregarded the navigation. It’s hard to get lost when you’re riding with thousands of other cyclists.

I had listened to the Just Go Bike podcast the week before heading to Iowa and knew that the Day One route to Storm Lake would be hilly. Having set that as the expectation, I wasn’t surprised by the climbs. I had trained in my local area specifically for hills, but mine are steeper and shorter. In Iowa, less steep but much longer. However, I couldn’t train for the heat or the wind, which was gusting out of the southeast on this mostly eastbound route.

Anticipating my first coffee of the day in Kingsley, I was greeted by long lines at every vendor popup, setting another precedent – a day without coffee. Can’t remember the last time that happened. I replenished my water and headed on to the next pass-through town, Washta.

I had pledged for my second RAGBRAI that I would spend more time in the pass-through towns, and for the most part, I did. Washta had good live music going, a quartet of old guys playing favorites, including one of mine, “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. I got a bite to eat and headed on to Quimby.

Just outside of Quimby I noticed my right pedal was wobbling. I glanced down and could see that it was starting to unthread. I pulled to the side of the road, got out my multi-tool and retightened. A few more miles and I had to repeat the process. Then again. On the fourth attempt to fix this problem, a group of Air Force riders pulled over to assist.

The United States Air Force has a bike club that rides every RAGBRAI and acts as trail angels, assisting cyclists with flat tires and other assorted mechanical issues. I even observed one Air Force rider administering an IV to a heat-exhausted rider. My thoughts every time I passed riders on the roadside getting assistance from the Air Force team how cool that was. Now I’m on the side of the road, wondering if they can help me.

No. They discovered, and I had deduced by now, that I had cross-threaded the pedals when I installed them the night before in Sioux City. Here were my options: ride by stroking on my left pedal only. Or Quimby was a mile and a half away and I could walk there. I tried unsuccessfully to pedal with my left foot only, and abandoned that idea after a few miles. I walked my bike the rest of the way, praying I could get a replacement crankset.

One of the first vendors in Quimby was a bike repair popup. I waited while the mechanic resolved another cyclist’s problem, and then I explained to him my situation. He popped into the trailer behind the popup and came back with a new crankset and bottom bracket. Fortunately there was no damage to the pedal threads, and in 30 minutes and $110 later, I’m back on my bike.

Certainly this could have been a major setback for me, especially considering it was only the first day of RAGBRAI L! Had Quimby been five miles away, I might have had to get a SAG ride. And I had no idea how to summon SAG. As I humbly walked my bike to Quimby, cursing myself for making the huge mistake of cross-threading my pedals, I couldn’t help but wonder how the rest of the week would go.

But I drew confidence from the mechanic who seemed non-plussed by my mechanical quandary. While he replaced my crankset, I bought a beer and walked around the town. My confidence began to return. I now had a 44-tooth large chainring versus the 48-tooth on my old crankset, and a much smaller middle chainring that would come in handy on Days 5 and 6.

Storm Lake was another 25 miles from Quimby, plus another two miles to my campsite on the north side of the lake. I had paid for tent and luggage service, and discovered that my tent was already set up right on the edge of the lake, with a gorgeous view. Before arriving at the campsite, I spotted a Casey’s on the left, and pulled in to buy something stronger than beer. Casey’s was selling mini’s of Iowa Hawkeye vodka, so I bought a handful and stuck them in my top bar bag. I sipped vodka and Sprite as I watched the sun go down over Storm Lake, recounting the day’s events.

  • Route map that I downloaded to my Garmin didn’t work, but it didn’t matter
  • When my bike broke down, I was within walking distance of the next town
  • The bike mechanic swapped out the damaged crankshaft like it was no big deal
  • The rest of the ride was uneventful

I was relieved but I really felt good. It was like I had dodged all the bullets on the first day, and nothing could stop me now.

RAGBRAI L, Saturday July 22, 2023

Sioux City Saturday, and the trouble begins…

After multiple phone calls Saturday morning, I finally was able to make arrangements for the second charter to fetch me from my hotel to get me to Sioux City. Finally around 3:30 pm a bus pulled up out front and I loaded my gear underneath. I should have just gotten an Uber to the other hotel – it would have been much easier (as I learned next Saturday on my return to Omaha). Regardless, I made it to the other location and after a couple of hours, boarded the bus for Sioux City. My bike was loaded on a U-Haul truck separate from the bus, causing me mild separation anxiety. My premonition was correct.

When the bus reached Sioux City, it dawned on me that we were headed to a completely different location than the one where my weeklong charter was located. After the charter clients disembarked, I was able to convince the driver to take me to my campground, and she happily did, which was a relief. We reached my charter campground soon after, and I grabbed my duffle and headed over to check in. Still one problem – I didn’t have my bike. It was on the U-Haul truck, which was headed to the OTHER campground. Multiple calls to my contact at the second charter, and finally a van arrived with my bike, but now it’s starting to get dark, and I still have to assemble my bike.

The whole second charter arrangement had pretty much wrecked my Saturday plans. I was going to assemble my bike and do a shakedown ride to the Expo, where I was to pick up my Team Duzer t-shirt. Ryan Van Duzer is one of my cycling heroes, and I was hoping to meet him in person. But the Expo would be closed before I could get there. So no expo, no t-shirt and no Duzer.

The van driver took off before I could get my bike out of its case, because I wanted him to return the case to the second charter where it would be delivered to the end city, Davenport Iowa. But I needed to get the bike assembled before it was too dark to see. I’m drenched with sweat and stressed to the max. In my haste, without realizing it, I cross-threaded the pedals reinstalling them. I would discover this on the ride to the first overnight town, Storm Lake.

After an uneventful Friday, Saturday was a mini-disaster and the ride hadn’t even started yet.