By Chris Blinzinger
Last year during our ride to Colorado, John and I talked about the idea of riding in/to a different part of the Country. For the past four years, John Monroe and I have toured the Intermountain West that included riding in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada. It’s no secret to those who ride long distances in the West that it is a mountainous desert. We wanted to try something a little more flat and less remote. It became increasingly clear that we wanted to try something different after nearly running out of water on Utah’s east desert [Editor's Note: See their chronicle: “Southwest Furnace on Two Wheels: A Bicycle Tour From Provo, Utah to Grand Junction, Colorado” in our April 2018 issue online].
John mentioned RAGBRAI. I had never heard of it. It is the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. It began with the Des Moines Register’s writer/copy editor John Karras and avid cyclist Don Kaul who wrote the “Over The Coffee” column for the same paper. The idea was to ride across Iowa and write about the adventure. They began recruiting riders over a period of six weeks. 300 ambitious cyclists started that first year in 1973 while only 114 finished the entire distance but, they picked up cyclists along the way resulting in 500 riders between Ames and Des Moines. Those who rode begged for more and RAGBRAI was born. It has been held annually since then with a limit now of 8500 full distance riders and “Day Riders” that have combined to a peak of 33,000 riders in 2013. The route changes every year with cities around the state bidding to be on the route. What remains the same is to ride from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. The daily mileages on this year’s ride ranged from 43 to over 100 miles.
We reached out to our W.O.B.L. Facebook group to test the interest level. We had nearly a dozen interested riders and held a planning meeting to talk details. Taffy had ridden it over a dozen times and was the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for questions we had about the process and ride. RAGBRAI is a ride; not a race. We had a hard deadline for registration. Interested riders send in their money and if they make the cut, are notified by email. If you don’t make the cut, a full refund is given. The hard date for registration came and then there were five of us. If we made it in lottery, we would make firm plans. Taffy would ride with us on the drive out but remain a part of her “Team Spirits” (TS) friends from Iowa. Jess Galaviz, Chuck Galaviz, John Monroe and I made up the W.O.B.L. contingency from Utah. We made it in. Woo Hoo. We were so excited. But now that we were in, we had some logistics to figure out. Transporting 5 riders and bikes can be tricky but we made it work.
We arrived in the starting town of Onawa to set up camp. Approaching the town, we saw an airplane flying around pulling a large ‘Welcome to RAGBRAI' banner. I hadn’t seen one of those since I was a kid. We were asked by TS to reserve a large footprint for our group. Randy, the bus driver and host for TS has converted an old school bus to an awesome SAG wagon complete with cooking, shower and balcony. It was called “Silver Beauty”. I assume that is because it was painted silver and was a beautiful site at the end of each day’s ride. Randy drove the bus and would meet at the lunch town each day and Janice, a non-riding member of TS would drive our van and meet us at the “End Town” each day.
Onawa is not right on the river so we road back to the Missouri to dip our tires (it is the tradition). There were hundreds of riders and many were waiting to dip their tires as we approached. While awaiting our turn, we chatted with a few other cyclists. Each bike on our team had a custom license plate with our name and state. One young man saw Utah on my plate and threw his hand up for a high five stating he was from Bountiful. That was cool to meet someone else from Utah. Next thing I know, he and his companions (a young man and woman) stripped down for a quick skinny dip in the river. They were quite ambitious getting into the water. I believe they underestimated the strength of the river’s current. It was fast moving and I wondered if they would make it out without drowning. They struggled against the current but eventually made it back. After dipping, John and I rode over the bridge to Decatur, Nebraska for a picture. Jess and Chuck headed back for the nearly 10 mile ride back to town. Now we were ready for the days to come. I had been a little concerned about the heat and humidity. I am originally from Indiana and remember the torture of putting up hay in those conditions. Fortunately we experienced mild weather throughout our weeklong ride. This is the first “supported” ride that John and I had undertaken. It felt a bit strange to not have nine liters of water and all our gear. We all still carried some essential items like patch kit, water, sun screen, snacks and phone.
There is no shortage of food to eat throughout the ride. Beginning at 7:00 in the morning, you can get breakfast, lunch or dinner, ice cream, pie, craft beer or a shot. Some stopped in every town for a hit. RAGBRAI is a fundraiser for the participating towns. Apparently a qualification is that they must be able to provide for thousands of cyclists. We liked the church food the best. Good food for a good price and a good cause. School sports teams, Scout troops, and professional vendors were also widely available. Lemonade stands were popular as well. Riding into each town was a treat. Residents stood along both sides of the road clapping and welcoming us to their town. It was great to see folks out on the lawn chairs and wheelchairs showing their Iowa hospitality. Live bands were not uncommon, water stations were essential, so was the pie. It was impossible to ride through the main street of each town. We had to get off and walk our bikes because of the bottleneck of cyclists. Main Street was usually lined on both sides with food and vendor tents. Pork Chops were 1½” thick, ice cream was home made on little gas powered engines and fresh made pie in every town.
Right out of the gate, my bike began to creak. The sound was rhythmic and creaked at every pedal stroke. We started out with a Kevin from TS. He stuck with us for 15 miles and couldn’t take the racket any longer and moved on. I must admit, it was annoying. This noise plagued me throughout the ride. It was embarrassing at times. I stopped at 3 repair tents on the first day to fix the creak. They each advised that it was a different problem. Their efforts did not fix the creak. I considered replacing my entire drivetrain, wheels, and pedals. John and I rode together and would meet Taffy, Chuck and Jess at the end of the day. Iowa is not flat but what we like to call “Rollers”. I didn’t find the hills bad, considering John and I had been climbing mountains out West.
I was amazed at the different bikes and cyclists. I saw every shape and size of bike and rider. The footprint that thousands of bikers require for camping is significant. Camps are separated by who you travel with. We were riding with a Supplies and Gear (SAG) vehicle so we camped with all the SAG. Others loaded their gear on semitrailer each morning and search for it in the pile at days end. Some paid for professional SAG who transported their gear and did camp set-up and take-down each day. They were also in another area. That became a challenge to find where our SAG was parked. Randy had the prayer flags on the bus to easily identify it in a field of buses. It helped. The end of each day included relaxing in the shade, setting up tents, and finding dinner. Showers were not a daily activity for all of us.
On day 3 we set up camp at the local Fair Grounds. Town was only a few blocks away so after tents were up and wandered over. It rained hard while we were in the library “charging up.” We didn’t think much about it and wanted to wait out the storm. We met a young 20 year old kid named Carston who was talking himself in to the century ride later in the week. He was anxious about it but really wanted to do it. When we got back to camp, John and I realized that we failed to button up our tents and rain was able to get in. It took some doing but it eventually dried out. When we put our tents away each morning, they were soaking wet from dew. The first order of business when arriving each evening was to pull out the tent to dry out before setting up.
John’s birthday was on day 4 of the ride. He had me write on his left calf “It’s my Birthday”. That generated some “Happy Birthday and discussion points throughout the day. He met a Native American named Patrick from Iowa’s Meskwaki tribe. John has long dark hair that is braided on each side of his head. When Patrick rode up along he asked John which tribe he was from. John isn’t from a tribe but has Shoshone tribal ties; I guess he passed as a tribal member that day. He ran into Patrick a few days later at the Expo. Later in the day we were climbing a long hill; from the bottom, we could see a string of cyclists up on the left lined up for a turn on a homemade slip and slide. A farmer had laid out a large piece of plastic on a grassy hill that terminated in a freshly dug dirt pool at the end. The water for the slide was coming from a tractor parked with a large weed-type sprayer to lubricate the slide. We guess that any pesticides were nonexistent; at least we told ourselves that. John said that was the best day so far. Additionally there was a pond with a zip line strung across it. The other end of the cable was connected to a tractor that was pulling tension.
That night I found myself at a brick and mortar bike shop to attempt to find the origin of the creaking. I wasn’t alone. There were several of us commiserating with each other about our needed repairs. We were in the basement of the bike shop so bike had to be carried down a narrow stairway. While sitting there an Air Force rider sat down next to me. The Air Force had a large presence on the ride. Teams of Air Force soldiers were riding throughout the route each day. They stopped for anyone off their bike to render assistance. It was awesome to see their efforts to help anyone and everyone that needed it. Additionally, they were managing traffic during downed-rider incidents and rendering aid until emergency responder arrived. This soldier and I chatted. The previous night’s storm caught him unaware as well and his sleeping bag was sopping wet. He explained that he couldn’t sleep in it and walked to a neighborhood and began knocking on doors asking for a clothes dryer. He went on to describe the challenge of finding help for a 6’2” black guy knocking on doors in rural Iowa in the dark. An elderly woman answered and reluctantly let him in. He said that he could tell she was uncomfortable but wanted to help. They began a conversation and he learned that her husband was an Air Force Pilot and they sat on the porch and talked for 45 minutes. She hugged him when he left and thanked him for coming by. I reminded him that in this life, some are placed in our path for our benefit, while we are placed in the path of others for their benefit. I think both occurred in the story he described.
The next day’s ride ended at Iowa State University in Ames and we ran into Carston after we rode through the stadium. He was still talking about the century for the next day and was nervous. He wasn’t sure he would do it and neither were we for that matter, but we wished each other well and went our separate ways. I was amazed that we saw him again because of thousands of riders, it was hard to recognize people.
The century day required repeating about 18 miles of the route to incorporate the extra miles loop. It ended up being well over 100 miles. We had picked up laminated day maps at the Expo on the first day that showed the route and mileages. We eventually determined that the mileage on the map was from town to town and not necessarily from camp to camp. The result was that some days were 10 miles farther than the mileage indicated on the map. I saw Emily from TS during the repeated 18 mile stretch. John met up with Jess and Chuck after his loop and they rode in to camp together. We received a cool patch for doing the extra miles. At the halfway point, one of the original organizers was present for photo ops with cyclists. We wondered if Carston attempted it and if he made it. About 6 miles before then end of the days ride, I saw a cyclist go down on a downhill stretch. The Air Force was already there and calling out to cyclists to move over and slow down. There seemed to be more “cyclist down” incidents and ambulance rolling lights and sirens the last few days of the ride.
We stopped at a friend of Jess’ that night for dinner and laundry. It was nice to have clean clothes. That night was a crazy one though. John woke me up yelling at me to wake up. There was high wind and a tornado warning and we were being evacuated from the campground to a nearby shelter. The shelter was a community pool house. There were cyclists running through the winds and rain toward the shelter. I had been awake out of a dead sleep for about 90 seconds when running for the shelter. We were packed in there like sardines and were required to stand because there was no room to sit down. We spent about 45 minutes in the shelter when they let us go back to bed. Some people hadn’t staked their tents down and several of the hundreds of tents were blown over and away. Jess and Chuck didn’t go to the shelter but instead went and sat in the van.
I went to another brick and mortar bike shop. I was there for an hour and a half. The tech advised that my spokes needed to be oiled because they were dirty and when cleaning the rim he spotted micro cracks in the rim. I poo-pooed his opinion that my spokes needed to be oiled and that the creaking could be that. He cleaned it up and sent me on my way. I wasn’t very satisfied until the next day. Hardly any creaking. I paid more attention and realized that he was right. I rode virtually creak free for the remainder of the ride. John even took a picture of me walking past a repair tent without stopping. I would have to look for new wheels when I got home though. I also wrote a glowing review for that bike shop for their help and patience with me after I arrived back home.
The last day of riding was nice. John admitted that he wasn’t ready for it to end. We stopped at a Mennonite Church and received quite a history lesson from one of the parishioners. They had good watermelon. The watermelon stops were always a treat. A huge piece for a couple $$. This church had a lot going on. Plenty of food options and a history lesson. Just a bit farther down the road was the Pine creek Grist Mill in Wildcat Den State Park. It was a worthy stop and very interesting. A three-story mill alongside Pine Creek with a bit of a salacious history. The owner had tied himself to one of the support posts during impending river flooding. A bit of drama behind that story. You can read up on it online. As we made the final turn onto the freeway toward the end of our ride I saw a cyclist sitting at roadside with bike turned upside down (the sign for the RAGBRAI SAG that a ride was requested). It was Carston. John and I turned around to talk to him. The burning questions was; had he done the century? He was excited to see us and proud of himself that he had done it. He did experience a mechanical problem that prematurely ended his ride but it didn’t matter to him, he had completed the century and 7/8 of the RAGBRAI. I felt bad for him but he was on cloud 9 and did not care near as much about the finish as the century.
We were less than a mile from the finish when we noticed a small group of cyclists dipping in the Mississippi River a bit prematurely. These were seasoned RABGRI-ers who knew what the official dipping place was like. We all dipped there and rode to the end on a bike path parallel to the river. When we approached the end, we were happy to miss the thousands that were lined up to dip. They would allow several hundred in at a time for the photo op then several hundred more.
We met the Silver Beauty for the final time before heading home. There was a bit of melancholy though. We had made new friends and put another adventure in the book. A new kind of adventure for John and I.
Getting there and back: From Utah we drove most of the way on Friday, stayed in a motel and arrived at the “Start Town” on Saturday afternoon for Sunday’s start. Again on the return, we put in about 4 hours of driving after Saturday’s ride and drove all day to arrive back to Salt Lake late Sunday afternoon.
Ride details and options: There were a number of self-supported riders, so that is an option. One of the challenges if you don’t have a driver for your vehicle is the transport back across the state to your vehicle. Every registered participant can use the RAGBRAI trailer to transport their gear every day. Some cyclists find camping spots or Air BNB along the way but it is the exception, not the rule. There are charter companies that will do everything for you including getting you and your gear back and forth across the state, but it is expensive. The hills are nothing like Utah, if you are used to riding in the West, the rollers shouldn’t bother you much. There are sparsely positioned free water and snack stops along the route but not enough to sustain you. We all carried a pannier or bag for our daily needs. The food is not cheap but it is filling. You can figure $25-$30 daily for food, or you can cook for yourself if you have the means. We did some of both, even enjoying HuHot Mongolian Grill a couple times during the week. We were fortunate with cooler than normal temps. The ride is held in the middle of July and temps the week before our arrival were 15 degrees hotter with higher humidity.
The diversity in bikes was incredible. Hand bikes, tandems, Elliptigos, several Penny Farthing bikes, unicycles, tricycles, carbon, steel and aluminum bikes. Flat bars, aero bars and drop bars. I even saw a man in full matching kit dismounting a Roadmaster. The ride is for everyone. I saw people easily 50-60 pounds overweight pedaling along with everyone else with mutual admiration and respect for all. Even me with the creaky bike. We would do it again and talked about applying again in 5 years for the 50th anniversary. Looks like Teton’s and Yellowstone may be our next adventure. Check out https://ragbrai.com for pictures and info for past and future rides. Thanks to my team mates (Jess, John and Chuck), that helped put this story together.
Chris Blinzinger is an avid cyclist, commuter and tourer. He is a member of the Provo Bike Committee and advocate for active transportation. He tours with friends and family and hopes to ride back to his home state of Indiana in the near future.