Ragbrai ran from Sunday, July 20, to Saturday, July 26. This year, I was able to find wifi once, in a park with no benches on a day too warm and sticky to be sitting outside typing for long. I’d been hoping to blog it day by day, but said lack of wifi made that impossible. Instead, here’s an omnibus of the week.
This year’s themes: The Campsite Is A Lie, Let’s Make a Deal, The Little Engine That Could (But Shouldn’t Have), and, of course, Pie!
As with last year, I went with Pork Belly Ventures, a charter service that provides campsite selection, meals, baggage transport, showers, laundry service, and a few other assorted perks. I drove to the end town, Guttenburg, and took a shuttle to the start town, Rock Valley, on Friday afternoon. We were told to expect the shuttle to take 6 hours. It left at 2pm. Somewhere around 8pm, when it was quite clear we had yet to get anywhere near the town, I began cracking jokes: “The campsite is a lie!”, “Apparently, we’re actually going to Godot Valley.”, [someone else] “Are we getting close, at least?” [Me] “No. We’re never going to get there. We’ll just keep driving to infinity and beyond.”. We got in well after dark, and had to check in, collect baggage, and pitch tents before getting some sleep no earlier than about 11pm, when the camp finally quieted down.
The next day, I met the two people who pitched their tent next to mine. Over the course of the week, they became new friends, which is generally the best part about Ragbrai: meeting random people and finding out they’re your kind of weird. I checked out the town with them, and also had to go off on my own to pick up ten or fifteen things I managed to forget. Minor details, like a cable to charge my phone and sunscreen. Over the course of the day, the rest of the thousand-plus people using Pork Belly (PBV) arrived in clumps, filling out the campsite.
Day 1 was a medium-long day, reported to be 67 miles. The weather favored us generally, except for some crosswinds in the middle parts. What made this day notable, aside from the onset of saddle sores around mile 45 that would be with me all week, was how we were ‘almost there’ for 8 miles. We arrived in town (yay!) and just had to keep going and going and going to find the campsite (which was obviously a lie), thoughtfully placed almost as far away as possible while still being in Okoboji’s town limits.
Day 2: a short day of only 40 miles. Not an easy day. Crosswinds and headwinds plagued the ride the entire distance, regardless of what time you got going. It felt like twice the distance, in many ways. As a value-added bonus, my knee elected to inform me that it wasn’t happy. I stopped to give it a break, looked down at it and said, “I’ll make you a deal. Get me to Emmetsburg and I’ll take tomorrow off.” To sweeten the deal, I had a pickle (salt is good for muscle strain, which may have been the real problem and not my stupid knee issues). It got me to Emmetsburg.
As promised to my knee, I took Day 3 – the long day, at 82 miles with an option to do 100 if you’re nuts – off. PBV offers a sag shuttle, no questions asked, for a small extra fee. They cart you and your bike to the next town, no riding required. Some folks do it every day just to come along with a friend or loved one more keen on biking than them. People who rode that day made it clear this was a good day to rest, as the weather chose to be hot and sticky. This was the only day I had no pie, though, because there was none to be had in the end town. I was a sad squirrel without pie. Also, we camped next to a swamp with a mosquito generator in it, and I must have acquired at least 20 bites (I am mildly allergic to mosquito bites, so they swell up and take a long time to heal). If I’d had a sword, I would have gone skeeter slaying in that pond for the xp.
By far, Day 4 was the best day of the whole week. It was short at 38 miles, with no wind and lots of things to look at besides corn and soybeans. I had the single best pie of my ragbrai this year on that day (cherry), and also the worst (apple). You gotta watch out for those church ladies. Sometimes, they just get premade pies from the grocery store, cut them up, and repackage them. Then they charge $2 a slice. That may be fine for an average pie experience, but it doesn’t cut the cinnamon on ragbrai.
Day 5, a 63 mile day, also went well for me. The weather remained pleasant and delightful, the pie was fine, and I had lemonade with my new friends. The hills were completely doable. My posterior didn’t care for the length of the ride, and my neck tensed up quite a bit, but overall, not much to complain about. Pickles and chocolate milk are awesome. Smoothies, not so much. One of my tent poles broke, but I had a replacement part, so not really a big deal.
Day 6. DOOOOOOOOM. At 68 miles, this day seemed like it would be nothing more than a repeat of Day 5 with (hopefully) different scenery. No such luck. I woke up to the crack of thunder at 4:20am (I’d been getting up between 4 and 4:30 every day, so this wasn’t really a big deal timewise). A storm rumbled through, keeping me in my tent until 5:30, at which time I hopped up and got my rear in gear. All through the storm, I’d been getting dressed and ready to go, so all I had to do was use the kybo (what we call porta-potties on ragbrai), stow my tent, and be on my way.
As it turns out, there were two storms. The second hit me about an hour into my ride. Oh, and by the way, this day’s roads were awful – full of unavoidable bumps and cracks. So, there I was, riding my bike in a downpour. On the whole, that really wasn’t so bad. The temperature was a little low, down in the 50s, so it took a lot of energy to do it, but that just meant I needed to eat more. Right? Sure! I had a pulled pork sandwich for breakfast, after four bananas, a yogurt cup, a granola bar, electrolyte water…and probably something else I’ve already forgotten about.
In retrospect, I should have stopped in the first pass-through town and waited out the storm in a warm place. Naturally, I didn’t. The route turned down a road with a headwind, still in the rain and cold and with crappy road. The wind picked up to a bazillion miles per hour (I swear!), gusting so hard the rain felt like hail. It may have been hail at some point. A lot of people, myself included, stopped several times along this stretch of frozen hellscape, even walking part of the way. Some very nice people at a church graveyard let us go inside the chapel to warm up. I probably should have stayed there until the storm blew over. Once again, I didn’t.
On the way to the next town, Westgate, I decided I’d had enough of that day and asked the first officialish person I ran across where to sit and wait for the sag wagon. She pointed me to the first aid station and suggested I have some hot cocoa. After going inside and sitting down, everything gets a little hazy in my memory banks. I know I had some hot cocoa, and I know I had a blanket draped over me. At some point, someone shook me awake to ask if I was okay, which came a surprise to me, since I didn’t remember leaning over and putting my head down on the table.
So, it seems I passed out from exhaustion and perhaps a mild case of hypothermia. I let them fuss over me (honestly, I was too tired to resist) for a while. Eventually, I was kinda bored and my butt didn’t like the chair anymore. Aside from that, the storm had blown over and the weather had warmed up and gotten sunny. The sag wagon was supposed to pick up in front of the first aid station, so I went outside to wait for it with my bike.
I waited. And waited. And waited. Someone else waited with me. We asked the EMTs about it, and they knew nothing. We asked a Sheriff that passed by about it, and he said to wait in a different spot. We moved to the different spot. Then moved a little more for better visibility. It got sunny, I put on sunscreen, and I felt a lot better as I sat around for several hours. Finally, after about 5 hours of doing nothing, I got fed up, climbed on my bike, and took off (I learned later than the sag wagon showed up about half an hour after I left).
The rest of the ride went well until the last five miles or so, when I really started to feel it again. The campsite was, of course, a lie, because obviously it would be on my worst day. When I finally saw the PBV trailers after riding through the whole fricking town, I cried from sheer exhaustion and went straight to the gentleman who takes requests and bikes for those who wish to ride the shuttle the next day. I slept horribly that night, presumably from the utter ridiculousness of being too tired to rest.
I did not ride the final day. Those who did said it wasn’t too bad, just a bit rough towards the end. The weather was great. Once the bus reached Guttenburg, we had to wait for the truck with our bikes to show up, and I rolled out of town in my car around 11am or so.
Right now, I don’t feel like I had fun this year, and am not completely sure I’ll do it again next year. Come January, though, when they announce the route, I suspect I’m gonna be chomping at the bit to sign up again. Ragbrai is like that. No matter how awful any individual day is, if you have fun once, you’re hooked for life.