Sunday, July 29, 2007

Trying Out RAGBRAI

After three years back in Iowa, I finally rode a little of RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). I signed up for Friday, July 27, and I dreaded it all summer. It was a 64-mile day, going from Independence to Dyersville, and it might be hot, there might be large crowds of people, it might rain, or there could be almost any sort of unpleasantness, not to mention excessive sweating.

I set up a reasonable training schedule for myself but wound up not keeping it. I had to travel for work three times, and one of my colleagues had to be hospitalized, which forced me to work on two projects at the same time, cutting my riding time substantially. Also, I found out that spending more than three hours at a time on my bicycle tended to result in back pain. Finally I realized that Friday’s RAGBRAI included Manchester as a “meeting town,” only 42 miles into the ride. I arranged for my parents to pick me up in Manchester, which was more convenient for them than Dyersville anyway, and I stopped worrying about being in good enough physical condition for the ride.

The day turned out to be beautiful, not oppressively hot or humid at all. In addition, the hills were very moderate, and even when there was a headwind, my group was traveling at such a slow pace that the wind scarcely mattered. Finally, even when there was a big crowd of bicycles and we were all on top of one another, such as when a Team Skin pace line caught up to me, it wasn’t aggravating. It was fun.

To my surprise, I hardly seemed to notice the hills. I live near Iowa City, and if I want to ride more than about 3 miles toward town, I have to cross a ridge, which means going up and down some hills that are just progeny of dogs. There was nothing on RAGBRAI that remotely resembled those hills. Back on my home turf today, about 2/3 of the way down one of those puppies, I decided to let go of the brakes and see what would happen, and I hit 29 m.p.h.

Another great thing about RAGBRAI is that you never go more than a few miles without a place where you can stop and buy something to drink or eat. There are a number of local organizations that earn money by selling food during RAGBRAI, and also, vendors follow the route. Pastafarian has great-smelling grilled salmon, and they play reggae. This is the last year for Mr. Pork Chop, which apparently is an institution. Rumor has it that Lance Armstrong stopped there for a pork chop, and some lady asked if he would move out of the way so she could have her picture taken with Mr. Pork Chop.

The varied teams are a highlight; people choose a theme for their team, and it can really be just about anything. Team Spin, for instance, is a group that revolves around the color purple, and flipping people upside down and placing stickers on their behinds.

I rode with my old friend Linda, who was a member of the Lance Armstrong team, and I got to meet some of her teammates, who were very interesting folks. We didn’t ride with very many of them, though. There was a team photo, and then several shouts of “Who’s got Lance’s bike?” followed by an assembly in the parking lot. Linda and I got left behind on the first block out of the parking lot, when Linda dropped her camera case. We rode like crazy to catch up, but we couldn’t make it. I had my first near-asthma attack since the age of 22, and eventually I wound up way ahead of Linda and had to stop and wait for her in the first town. We settled on a group of four of us, and we stayed together until I peeled off in Manchester.

It only took me two hours to figure out that RAGBRAI was the best place in the state to hook up with somebody, and I’m annoyed that I lived here three years and nobody told me. I really should have set aside more vacation time for this. I already have all my vacation time booked up for next year, but I’ll at least ride on the final day.

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