Tag Archives: cycling

The Casual Cyclist’s Guide to @RAGBRAI_IOWA Training Terms

Are you training for Ragbrai? I am! Taking time out from writing every day is something of a hardship for my publication schedule, but I’m doing it anyway. And hey, we all need a little more exercise in the spring. Or maybe that’s just me. Regardless, these are some important terms relating to cycling that you may not have heard before in this context.

Rain (n.): The thing that happens every time I get on my bike between September and July; What causes copious spots on my glasses, thus making cycling more exciting.

Gear Denial (n.): That moment when you could shift to a lower gear, but really just don’t wanna; laziness.

Iowa Flat (adj.): Any cycling route that’s 20-25% flat. Compare to Texas Flat (90-95%) or Cascadia Flat (0.5%).

Hill (n.): Any segment of road that requires you to shift to an easier gear; uphill.

Mountain (n.): Any segment of road that requires you to step off your bike and walk; A section of road for which your training goal is total domination and/or subjugation.

Downhill rest (n.): The precious few moments for breathing you hope will come after the hill.

Water bottle (n.): The thing you forgot to slip into the cage on your bike frame, thus necessitating you cut your ride short to avoid dehydration; the thing you dropped in the middle of the hill which turns said hill into a mountain.

Helmet (n.): The thing you damned well better turn around and go put on as soon as you notice you forgot it, dumbass.

Car (n.): Artillery round; The enemy.

Tired (adj.): How you feel when you could go five more miles, but you’d rather stop and check your email on your phone until you stop panting and/or sweating so much.

Exhausted (adj.): How you feel when five more miles will probably kill you, but you do it anyway because that’s how far you are from home; A sign you’re not ready for Ragbrai yet.

Happy cycling!


Today, I should be in Iowa. Instead, I’m in Puyallup, waiting for our house to clear after some work was done on our floors and getting ready to work Oregon Trail Days in Tenino this weekend. Monday, Jeffrey Cook and I leave for our leisurely drive to Indianapolis for GenCon.

But I should be in Iowa. I knew I would miss not doing Ragbrai this year, but I didn’t realize until this week that I would miss it this much. It feels like I’m letting my bicycle down. Since I knew I wasn’t going, I haven’t been riding. I’ve been working instead.

(See: Backyard Dragons, Ethereal Entanglements, Illusive Echoes, Merely This and Nothing More, and Unnatural Dragons, all released this year already. )

Corn isn’t the same without Iowa. Neither is bacon. I’m not saying bacon tastes like sawdust or anything, it’s just not the same as when it’s mixed into the chicken gyro for no reason other than Iowa, which you’re eating because you just biked 75 miles in 100 degree heat and brutal humidity after not really sleeping in 80 degree heat and even more brutal humidity plus a thunderstorm at midnight that almost destroyed your tent.

Muscle aches, saddle sores, grit, grime, sunburn, poor phone service, food poisoning, heat stroke, hypothermia, exhaustion, hail, thunderstorms, fatigue, store-made pie…these are only some of the myriad hardships we all willingly inflict on ourselves for one week. And I’m really quite upset to miss out on it this year.

Because I’ve made dozens of new friends, even if most of them were fleeting. I’ve had the best pie in the known universe. I’ve hit the groove on day 4 and reached the point where I could just ride and camp forever. I’ve laughed with strangers and gotten pictures of myself with people in bacon and cow suits. I’ve picked up souvenirs I could never get anywhere else. I’ve seen chocolate covered frozen cheesecake on a stick (didn’t get to eat it, but I saw it, which is a lot like seeing Bigfoot).

Most of all, it’s so damned uplifting to be surrounded by thousands of people united by one unimpeachably positive thing: a love of bicycling and/or bicycles.

The Adaptive Sports folks are awesome. So are the Air Force folks. The costumes make you smile even in the darkest, deepest pit of despair that comes at the bottom of the umpteenth hill to climb when it’s too hot and you’re too tired, and &^%* that hill, I want ice cream.

Stay cool, Ragbrai. I hope to see you next year.

Sweet home Ala-@Ragbrai_Iowa

I’m not doing Ragbrai this year. Now that the weather is finally perfect here in the PNW for cycling, it’s really hitting me hard. I’m going to miss everything about it, including the frantic need to train. Because of my demanding publishing schedule this spring, it’s for the best I’m not going anyway, because I just don’t have time to ride my bike for 2-5 hours on any given day. I will continue to not have time for that until next December.

I’m feeling another Top Ten list coming on. It’s like a recurring rash.

Top Ten Things I’ll Miss About Ragbrai This Year

  1. Disassembling my bike and wedging it into its box.
  2. So much corn. Everywhere and in everything, prepared every way imaginable.
  3. So much bacon. Everywhere and in everything, prepared every way imaginable.
  4. Pitching my tent in 50mph winds.
  5. Riding my bike against the wind. In sleet. In July.
  6. Riding my bike in 105 degree heat. Plus humidity. The next day.
  7. The pure joy of discovering a genuine toilet during a week where kybos (porta-potties) are the norm.
  8. Holding my tent up through a midnight thunderstorm, complete with a tornado warning.
  9. The random coincidence of chatting with someone I have an unexpected connection to after meeting by virtue of riding at the same pace for a minute or so.
  10. Packing up my bike, saying goodbye, and getting that first good night’s sleep after the madness.

Hopefully, I’ll see you in 2017, Ragbrai. Until then, I may mysteriously pop up in Iowa around that time on my way to points farther east as I tour the midwest, doing conventions. Here’s also hoping I can still lose some of my hibernation weight despite not cycling much this spring.

#Ragbrai Roundup 2015

Ragbrai ended on Saturday, 7/25, in Davenport. This year, I had a mixed bag experience. Although I completed the whole ride (unlike last year), it wore me down more than I expected. It’s like I got older in between or something.

Day -1: Sioux City
I arrived in Davenport on Friday to leave my car behind and take a shuttle to Sioux City. I made friends with three dirty old men: Bob, Fred, and Bill (I am not making these names up). We pulled into the Pork Belly Ventures campsite at about 9pm, in the waning hours of sunshine. The wind gusted and howled, and my tent desperately wanted to be anywhere but the spot I chose for it. With help, I got the effing thing staked down and put up in the damp heat. We could see a storm coming, but had hopes it would swing north. Alas. Around midnight, the tornado sirens went off, then the storm crashed over us. There’s nothing more fun than watching your tent dance and wriggle, waiting to see if the poles survive. (They did.)

Day 0: Sioux City
In case it ever matters to you for some reason, MetroPCS does not offer service in Sioux City. I had the whole day to do as I pleased, though, so I rode my bike around town, hunting for free wifi. At a cafe recommended by a gentleman entering the library (which had a very weak signal from the outside), I discovered I had fifteen emails, six voicemail messages, a handful of text messages, and partridge in a pear tree. Aside from being hot and humid (again), the day went well. I mostly chilled in the shade, watching the madness of people arriving unfold.

Day 1: Storm Lake
The first day is generally not too bad. You’re fresh, trained up, and excited. This day suuuuuucked. The longest in terms of mileage and worst in terms of feet of climb, the first day drained my soul out. I think it’s still lying on the side of the road between cornfields someplace. Or maybe that was a soybean field. Hill after hill after hill and hill, and on and on and on and on… The intervals between most of the towns were long, too. I left at about 6am and got in at about 3pm. Eight hours to ride 75 miles isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. I should have been able to do it in 7. Value added bonus–my knee braces gave me a heat rash, complete with blisters!

I attempted to capture the vast enormity of the PBV camp and utterly failed. It's a huge, sprawling thing.

I attempted to capture the vast enormity of the PBV camp and utterly failed. It’s a huge, sprawling thing.

Day 2: Fort Dodge
Ugh, my butt hurt. A lot. And my foot. My thighs thought I was joking when I got up on my bike again around 6am. I TRAINED, DAMMIT. I expected this day to be rough, but it was awful. Although most of the ride was gloriously flat, long intervals between towns again made it harsher than it needed to be. The weather cooperated, being cool in the morning and not heating up until after I got in from this 69 mile day at about 2pm. Why is the sun so intense in Iowa? It’s not like that in WA.

Day 3: Eldora
Something was wrong with my seat adjustment, because my toe went numb, just like it did 2 years ago. As I type this a week later, my toe is still half numb (I can walk, and it’ll be fine. Probably.). Seventy-three miles of Iowa felt like a punishment instead of a joy, but I was awakened early by my neighbors and got on the road by 5:30am. Lovely sunrise (I think this was the day…the morning bits are kind of blurring together already). Fed up with my aching foot and the heat rash/blisters from my braces, I shifted my seat and decided not to wear the knee braces for the next day. What could possibly go wrong?

Bacon, me, and corn. It only needs a windmill to be more Iowa.

Day 4: Cedar Falls
The short day! Only 60 miles. Up and out by 6am, in by 12:30pm. Made decent time, stopped and smelled metaphorical flowers, had generally good day except that my posterior still felt it needed to express its general displeasure with my vacation choices. At least I got a good camping spot, and I got to see a friend who happens to live nearby and is one of the biggest reasons I keep going back to Ragbrai every year. My knees gave me not a single twinge, so I didn’t put the braces back on for the rest of the ride (and that turned out okay–I may have trained enough to not need them anymore).

Day 5: Hiawatha
Although today featured 70 miles of riding, the towns were all close together, making it a series of pleasant little jaunts. Just about when my patootie began to scream, another town happened, giving me the chance to walk a bit and sit a bit and not suffer much. On the road by 6am, in camp by about 2pm. I got to sleep inside an air conditioned trampoline place, which afforded the opportunity to have an effing nap. After a bunch of nights of crappy sleep in a row, the nap really helped. I got to see a bit of the Tour de France, as explained by someone who’s actually interested in competitive cycling. I also got to sleep at a reasonable hour and did not wake up until 5am, when someone else’s alarm went off.

Day 6: Coralville
Recharged by my great night of sleep, I slogged through the morning with digestive issues. The dinner in camp the night before had been a cut of steak with some vegetables and whatnot, and I suspect the steak to have been the purveyor of gastric malfeasance. Somewhere around 11am, I, er, had a…extended visit to a kybo, then I had a piece of the best pie in the universe (aside from my own, of course), and then I climbed the first of a series of monster hills. And then it began to rain. For the first time on the ride, I felt AWESOME. I climbed those motherf—ing hills with a jaunty (or perhaps mad) laugh. It rained all the way into town, and had to wait until the storm passed to get my luggage, which the PBV crew had thoughtfully protected under tarps. I ❤ PBV.

I forget where you were, Cow, but you were hawking really yummy malts.

I forget where you were, Cow, but you were hawking really yummy malts.

Day 7: Davenport
Nothing really stood out about this day, other than that the night of sleep before hadn’t been stellar. It was hotter ‘n heckbiscuits and twice as damp. To minimize clothing for the night, I wore my still-damp sports bra to sleep, and it didn’t dry overnight. That’s how hot and wet it was. The ride itself went along nicely, with a mix of long and short intervals, some flat straightaways that I jammed at 20mph, and a few steep hills at the end.

Overall, I’m not going to decide whether I do it again next year until the route announcement. This ride felt harsh, like my body already ticked off the Ragbrai box and wants to find something less rigorous to do for vacation. On the plus side, thanks to my Iowa friend, I have a rough outline for a new trilogy of books, and some additional ideas for what to do to Bobby whenever I get around to writing his next book.

Coming soon: a cover reveal for Al-Kabar, the next Ilauris book!

Vacation! #Ragbrai

This post was written before I left for my trip because I know from experience that not only will I give a number of [fill in your preferred vulgar noun]s less than zero about writing, deadlines, and grammar while on my annual best vacation ever, but internet access is notoriously unreliable during Ragbrai.

Jeff and I at the Hillsboro Farmer's Market on July 11.

Jeff and I at the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market on July 11. We had an average amount of fun with no stories to tell. I’m okay with that.

It’s Ragbrai Day 2! Or, as I like to call it: The Day of Suckage. Day 1 is a bright, fun, happy, go-go-go sort of bicycling day. You hop on the bike and just keep going because the scenery is new and the whole thing is exciting a fresh and full of wonder and joy. Newbies draw black V’s on the backs of their calves (for “virgin”, of course) and everyone goes at a good speed. It’s all smiles and laughter.

And then we all sleep in a tent, and wake up stiff and sore, and hate the world. We get back onto our damned bikes anyway, because we paid for this, goddamnit, and it’s fun, goddamnit, and I want a piece of damned pie, goddamnit. Pop some painkillers and slather on the sunscreen and butt butt’r. Find something to laugh about or suffer my cranky wrath.

It gets better. On Day 3, I’ll feel mostly human again, and on Day 4, I’ll hit my stride and cruise through the rest of the week to glory. Or something horrible will happen, like I’ll blow my knee out or crash. You never know. Anything is possible. Optimism keeps you young, or so I’ve heard.

At the end of this week, I’ll pack up and head to Indianapolis for GenCon. If you’d like to stop by and say hi, I’ll be at table T in Author’s Avenue. That’s the puke green section of the Exhibit hall map. I’m on the right-hand side of that section, in the middle parts of the row capped by the memorably named Th3rd World Studios and Brain Lag. Hope to see you there!

The Casual Cyclist’s Guide to Packing for #Ragbrai

It’s almost time to head to Sioux City!

Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai!

Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai! Ragbrai!

The funny thing about this particular version of bicycle camping is that it’s not really “roughing it” in the strictest sense of the word. My charter in particular, Pork Belly Ventures, is well known for their motto of Live Like A Pig for good reason. They have an entire horse trailer full of cubbies for charging electronic devices, and this is only one of the many creature comforts they offer. If you’re going with a charter, make sure you read carefully over what they offer so you know what you can and can’t bring. They all have rules about baggage that you need to adhere to. For the brave souls going without a charter or group vehicle, you get to rely on Ragbrai to schlep your stuff and pick your campsites (they do a fine job, but it’s strictly no-frills).

Aside from the obvious camping and emergency gear, you’ll probably want a variety of minor things that are easy to forget or overlook.

1. Painkillers. Your butt’s gonna thank you. Maybe your back and shoulders too.

2. A chair of some kind. Otherwise, you’ll be sitting on the ground at your campsite.

3. Cash. While most places will take credit cards nowadays, there are still plenty of ordinary folks who set up stands on the side of the road that won’t. Do you really want to chance missing out on the best pie ever because you didn’t have any cash? No, you don’t. Bring at least $150 in small bills (20s or smaller). Don’t forget some kind of wallet or clip thing to hold the cash in your bike bag or jersey pocket.

4. Diversions. You’ll have some time on your hands when you want to relax and nothing is going on nearby. Whatever you’re into and can pack, bring it. A deck of cards is probably a safe bet. I take my kindle on the trip because I know I’ll be able to charge it. If your charter doesn’t offer charging stations and you want to bring something electronic besides a phone, consider getting a solar charger or something else along those lines. There are always places to charge a phone in the overnight towns (for a fee, of course), but not necessarily anything else.

5. Some kind of clipping things, like clothespins or bag clips. Cycling clothes are expensive, and so are sports bras. I don’t have seven days of cycling gear. Even if you do, it may be better for packing if you only take 2-3 days’ worth. At the end of the cycling day, rinse your gear out and pin it all to your tent, a tree, a chainlink fence, or whatever else is handy. A 6-10 foot length of clothesline or other rope may also be useful.

6. At least one flashlight. For when you have to pee in the dark. I usually get up before dawn and appreciate having one handy to pack up my tent and stuff.

7. Hand sanitizer. The kybos usually have this. Key word: usually. Get a small bottle and stuff it in your bike bag. Better to have it and not need it, as they say.

8. Sunscreen. Better slathered than crispy on Day 2.

9. Some kind of rain coat/poncho thing. It rains at least once every year. Umbrellas aren’t generally practical.

10. A small padlock. This may or may not be useful to you. I bring one every year for the cubbies in the charging trailer. You may want to lock your bags–they sit out wherever they’re unloaded until you get there and claim them. Some folks recommend bringing a bike lock, but I don’t bother and don’t suggest it unless your bike is worth more than about $2k. Even then, I would leave it in your luggage and only lock up overnight. In many places, you’ll just leave your bike on the side of the road with all the other bikes while you hit the kybo or get a snack.

11. Some kind of tarp-like implement that can cover at least the chain half of your bike. It sometimes rains at night. If you get one big enough, your poncho can cover this duty.

12. A carabiner or two for random hooking/clipping needs. Consider getting them big enough to hang on your bike’s top rail, in case you need a way to carry something. Bungee cords or reusable twisty things are good alternatives if you already have them. Rubber bands are kind of a pain, but if that’s what you’ve got, a few can do the job.

13. At least one plastic or other waterproof bag. It may rain while your bags are waiting to be claimed by you. Should that happen, everything inside will get wet. For some of your stuff, that may not matter. It’s kinda sucky for socks and underwear, though. You may want a second, smaller one if you need to schlep wet cycling clothes that didn’t dry overnight (assuming you’re not going to wear them).

14. Yes, you really do need a sleeping bag or a blanket. I have used my sleeping bag at least one night out of every ride. I also bring a thin sheet for the tepid nights.

15. Sanity. I always pack this and somehow manage to lose it right away. If you can bring extra, you’ll probably be in better shape than if you only pack the usual amount.

16. Some kind of outdoor-feasible tape or twine. I always bring athletic tape as backup in case my knee braces get hosed, and it’s also good if, for example, I need to tape my poncho around my bike so it doesn’t fly away in a storm.

17. Some folks bring a roll of toilet paper. This isn’t practical–or, in my experience, necessary–to have on your bike, but it could be a lifesaver at campsites. A travel pack of kleenex is probably a good idea too.

18. If you’re camping on Friday night, either in Davenport or Sioux City, consider bringing a breakfast for Saturday. You’ll be covered on the ride, but Saturday is a weird, quasi-Ragbrai day. Most stuff won’t be up and running until lunchtime. Depending upon your campsite’s location, you may be stuck if you don’t bring a bagel or something to tide you over until you can forage for more.

19. Your sense of humor. Ragbrai is fun, dammit. Save your Serious Face for races. This is a rally. Wear a costume, crack jokes, be ridiculous, turn that frown upside-down. Sometimes, the ride will suck. So long as it doesn’t suck for everybody at the same time, we should all be good. A word of caution, though. It’s not cool to make the “extra large” joke about persons wearing the Ragbrai 40 jersey. Thanks, Asshole #572 on XLII. And, obviously, it’s best to keep your jokes not misogynist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise hateful or horrifically insulting. You can insult the corn, though. And the soybeans and cows. They don’t care.

The Casual Cyclist’s Pre-#Ragbrai Panic

As I type this, it amuses me once again that two of my favorite things to, writing and riding, have only two letters of difference. Despite that, these activities are mutually exclusive. I’ve tried writing while on a bike trainer, but it doesn’t work. Such exercise requires lower brain engagement than writing requires.

It’s the middle of June and I’m not ready for Ragbrai. My endurance remains as strong as ever, so I’m not worried about that part. This is the issue: I have about four weeks left to prepare my delicate hindquarters for the rigors of Iowa, and of that time, I will only actually have 18 days during which I’ll be able to get on my bike. This assumes I won’t get sick at any of my appearances prior to leaving for Iowa, and that the weather won’t be abysmally wretched on any given day when I could ride. It also assumes I’ll be able to spare the time from writing.

If you see this and think, "What a stellar place to sit for 8 hours a day!" I think you're nuts.

If you see this and think, “What a stellar place to sit for 8 hours a day!” I think you’re nuts.

In short, my heiny is gonna be mad at the end of July. Sure, I’ve been able to get out on my bike a few times a week for 10-15 mile rides. It could be worse. I have a 3-day, 90 mile ride adventure planned for the few days before I have to ship my bike to make sure it gets there in time (which is why I don’t have 5 weeks left). All is not lost. I can totally do Ragbrai, and I’m not worried.

Okay, I’m worried a little. A trifling smidge. Just a dollop of concern, really. Like an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of gra–er. Um. *cough*