Heat was on for Iowa’s RAGBRAI
August 11, 2012
IOWA – When you go to Iowa for a bike ride in July you can usually count on two things: enduring hot temperatures and drinking lots of beer.
To my amazement, a trip to my native state for the annual bicycle ride from border to border produced higher temperatures and humidity than I expected and, in a related development, less beer drinking than anticipated.
I think I’m turning into a wussy in middle age. I only ventured into the beer garden one of the three days I was on the ride. To explain the significance of that requires a bit of background.
The Registers’ Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, better known as RAGBRAI, is a hoot. Sure, you can hook onto pace lines with serious cyclists cranking at a high speed, but you can also lollygag and strike up a conversation with a new friend. It’s a low-key adventure and a cool sense of camaraderie pervades. Iowa was one of the first states to host a state-line-to-state-line ride. Two reporters for the Des Moines Register got the event rolling 40 years ago.
Now, thousands of riders flock to the event each year – risking scorching heat, nasty thunderstorms, hail and the unfortunate need to use porta potties for days on end. You never know what you’re going to get.
The ride has become so popular that teams in official jerseys show up in converted school buses painted with wild colors and cool designs.
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Tales of debauchery are legendary, though near as I can tell that was before Baby Boomers got old. Sinful behavior these days involves overindulging on the variety of goodies at the numerous food stands crammed into every nook and cranny of all the small towns along the route. There was blueberry pie al a mode, pork chops on a stick and chocolate covered bananas. My favorite post-ride treat were the shaved ribeye steak sandwiches served by the cattlemen’s association in every county.
The ride travels west to east, usually on a winding route that takes you through some quaint towns that showcase Iowa friendliness at its best. Getting an accurate read on the number of riders is impossible. The Des Moines Register, official sponsor of the event, cited more than 10,000 riders in its coverage. But those are the registered riders. There are thousands of others who join for anywhere from one day to the entire seven-day journey who aren’t “official.”
The point being, there’s a lot of folks. And some are free spirits. In an unsanctioned act of helpfulness, some riders pass out maps that show every bar in every town along the route.
I traveled from Colorado with one buddy to this year’s starting point in Sioux Center. There we met two of my brothers-in-law and a nephew on my wife’s side of the family at a park on the edge of town where we made camp. We then sought out 18 of my blood relatives and a handful of their friends who were making the journey accompanied by three RVs. Several of my cousins were riding with special intent: It was supposed to be an extended family outing at the suggestion of my first cousin, David Miles, a former Air Force pilot who died in a plane crash in June 2011. His daughters, some of his grandkids and his sister carried on with plans to ride in his honor.
I intended to behave on that first day and do everything right for a bike ride in extreme heat and humidity. That meant staying hydrated and getting plenty of sleep.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that something I’ve dubbed “first night syndrome” usually occurs with gathering tribes on an adventure trip. Sure enough, I drank too much beer, which I blame on my brothers-in-law.
In addition, Iowa is in the middle of a drought rated as “extreme” in most of the state. I’m not a profuse sweater, but the humidity was so high that the simple act of putting up a tent drenched my T-shirt. The sun bore down. The locusts buzzed from the trees. Everything but weeds turned brown in lawns.
I was a little blurry-eyed when we got up the morning of the first ride. Hundreds of cyclists streamed by as my small group of five fumbled around to tear down our camp. We were in no particular hurry, though the mercury had already climbed well into the 70s by 7:30 a.m.
For each of the three days I was on the ride, the temperature soared to 100 degrees, and humidity was off the charts. Nevertheless, it was bearable as long as you kept moving. A handful of stops were mandatory to restock on water and to eat. There were unexpected choke points along the way. So many cyclists converged in the host towns – where booths of food vendors, mechanics and civic boosters were set up – that you couldn’t just ride through. You had to dismount to negotiate the crowds. It was a mass of cyclists walking their bikes on sizzling asphalt.
After riding 40 miles of the 54-mile first-day route, one brother-in-law and I decided to visit the beer garden. At 11 a.m. all the seating was taken, but the tent was far from full. Over the next hour and a half, we chatted with several new acquaintances while the crowd swelled.
The sun was directly overhead by 12:30 p.m. when we departed. It felt like we were riding through a burning countryside, without the flames. The heat was intense and overbearing. Cyclists took every opportunity they could to refill water bottles from hoses or by purchasing bottled water. But even a short time on the road warmed the water to a temperature that was unpleasant to drink. I’d take a swig to wet my mouth, not for its cooling effect.
The temperature read 100 degrees when we dribbled into the next overnight host town of Cherokee. Our group splintered each day, in part because some people left earlier than others and because of different riding abilities. But our sag drivers always found perfect spots to park the RVs in the host towns, where we would regroup.
After riding that first day, my group made a half-hearted attempt at partying but the heat was on everyone’s mind. Nobody wanted to pay the piper on the next day’s 65-mile ride, so we settled in early and hit the road an hour earlier the next day, well rested and hydrated.
I was determined to blaze as quickly as possible to the next host town of Lake View. I stopped only for a brief break at the Mr. Pork Chop stand, a pink-painted school bus with a huge grill outside. I pulled into Lake View at 11 a.m. after 41⁄2 hours on the road, but before the worst heat of the day arrived. I had learned my lesson from the day before and got off the road early. I rewarded myself with a few cold beers in my cousin’s luxury RV.
The success of day two disintegrated into torture on day three. Again, we got an early start and my riding companion, Simon, and I blazed through 40 miles of an 81-mile route in just two hours. Our momentum went flat with one of my tires. We fixed the flat in the blazing sun on the side of a corn field, then had to change it again in the next town after I got some rim tape that provides a protective barrier between the wheel and tube.
By that time, our strength was sapped, especially since we had been battling a 20-some mile per hour headwind the entire day. We rode with a couple of other riders in our group, taking turns taking the lead in a pace line to break the wind. No beer gardens for us on that day of riding in hell. The craziest we got was slurping flavored ice in a plastic tube.
We ended day three at the home of a brother-in-law who was on the ride. The RVs were able to park in his lawn. Us tent campers were able to sleep in the air conditioned basement. We were well fed by our hosts, and the showers were priceless. And, of course, that night we managed to drink a little beer.
That was it for my RAGBRAI adventure this year. I abandoned the tour, by design, after day three. I had limited time to visit family and friends in the northeast corner of the state, far from the ride’s path.
I wasn’t complaining about bowing out early. I was so glad to be back to Colorado the following Sunday that I celebrated with a 17-mile, 2,900 vertical foot climb up a pass – with morning temperatures that never topped 65 degrees.
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