Tag Archives: cycling

Time To Start Getting That @RAGBRAI_IOWA Feeling #RAGBRAI

Ragbrai is my favorite thing to do by myself. It’s hard. It’s terrible. It’s wonderful. It’s insane.

I don’t change my biking look much from year to year.

See that smile? Look at that smile. That’s not my “Oh, I’m having my picture taken” smile. That’s my “This is the worst best thing ever!” smile.

This Saturday, January 27, while I’m in the Book Garden at the Tacoma Home & Garden Show, the fine folks running Ragbrai will announce the route. I’m excited!

…Except I can’t go this year.

*huge, dramatic sigh*

In addition to the struggle of job vs bike training, my mom needs me. Longtime readers know that my father passed away in November of 2016, a little over a year ago. He died one week shy of my parents’ 50th anniversary. My mom is now alone and has been struggling with that. So we’re going to take a trip together, and it’s going to be…a thing. It’ll be a thing.

Pop quiz! What’s the one time I can go on vacation?

If you guessed the last two weeks of July? DING, DING, DING, CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a winner!

And so, I’m not going in 2018. Odds are low I’ll return in 2019 or 2020, either, because the demands of my job keep getting bigger, not smaller. Being over 40 with knee (and wrist, and neck, and back) problems I’d prefer to keep minor, I may never return for another week in the corn.

But those five I had, man they were the worst best.

Goodbye, @Ragbrai_Iowa. Hello, @Gen_con

The Ragbrai chapter of my life has ended. Probably. We’ll see. I’d like to go back again someday, maybe when my publishing schedule is better arranged to slide in training. Here are some pictures in case you missed them on Twitter (I’m @AuthorLeeFrench).

First pie of Ragbrai, actually had at Shari’s in Moses Lake, WA.

My home away from home for the week of Ragbrai. This year, I splurged and got the tent rental from Pork Belly Ventures. Worth it.

A nice, welcoming touch in Orange City, IA.

I think I got snookered with store-bought pie this time.

The best pie of Ragbrai 2017. Blueberry with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

A town called Mallard where they make duck jokes. I’m so surprised. There was a rubber ducky race in town, and a lady holding a sign that said “Release the Quackin'”. The picture didn’t turn out. Alas.

Breakfast on Day 7. By then, it’s just like, to heck with yogurt, let’s skip to the pie. The banana made it healthy, of course.

Me at the end. Look how relieved I am to only have about one mile left to go. It’s like Ragbrai is hard work or something.

If I ever go back, I’m going to angle for a really difficult year, like the least flat ever, or the longest, or something.

Next up is a trip to Indianapolis, IN for Gencon. I like the show a lot, and this is Gencon’s 50th year. If you’re going, take a moment to wander the Author’s Avenue aisles. I’ll be the one in the hat with the dragon on top. Say hi and ask for a demo of Dwago.

The Casual Cyclist’s Guide to Last-Minute @RAGBRAI_IOWA Prep #cycling

This happened on the 12th. By day 1 of Ragbrai, I won’t have ridden my bike for 10 days. This is not a disaster, it’s just a recipe for needing Butt Butt’r and ibuprofen.

I have to travel a pretty long distance to reach Iowa, so I’m leaving tomorrow. My packing includes books and gear for MALCon in Denver, where I’ll be August 4-6. Your packing, on the other hand, should not stuff your car full to the brim. Unless you’re moving your own vehicle from town to town somehow, you’re limited to two duffels while on the ride.

Herein is a list of things I’ve found helpful while on Ragbrai, but are not obvious.

  1. A flashlight. You’ll want this in case you ever need to do anything at night. Which you will. I promise. It’s best to have one with a clip of some sort so you don’t have to turn it off in the dark inside a kybo.
  2. Clothespins or similar clips, possibly 2-4 small carabiners. I use these to hang wet cycling clothes after rinsing them out. You may also want a 6-10 foot length of rope. I don’t bother, as I can always drape everything over my tent. The clothespins hold things in case of a breeze or awkward placement needs.
  3. Walking shoes. Probably with regular socks. If your flipflops are super-comfy for walking around, more power to ya. I’ve never had a pair of sandals in which I was happy to walk more than a half mile or so, plus regular shoes means no sunburns on my feet. In most overnight towns, you’ll have to walk a fair distance to get to the expo, the entertainment and/or the food vendors. Even when you use the shuttles, you’ll still end up walking around quite a bit.
  4. Hand sanitizer. All kybos should have either a hand washing station or a hand sanitizer dispenser. Should.
  5. Emergency food substance. Maybe you, like me, have trouble forcing yourself to eat first thing in the morning. Maybe you’re a grazer. Maybe you just want to save a little money. Whatever you might come up with for a reason, it’s in your best interest to have a little something along with you. Anytime you feel yourself powering down between towns, stuff your EFS into your food hole, give it a few minutes to settle, and get back in the saddle. Protein-heavy bars work well for this.

Other than those things, don’t forget your sunscreen, toothbrush and toothpaste, and as much cycling gear as you feel comfortable bringing. I always get a new water bottle at the expo on Saturday for the week. Also, bring a sweater or light jacket, and expect to sleep in a sleeping bag, because it can get cold. You never know. I got mild hypothermia on Ragbrai once. Try not to do that.

I’ll be riding with Pork Belly Ventures, as I usually do, so I don’t have to worry about some toiletries and other things. You should consider how much of that kind of stuff you want to bring. If you aren’t riding with a charter, you’ll wind up showering in a wide variety of interesting locales. Be prepared for cold showers, not warm.

A few other tips:

  1. Keep a list handy with the names of the places you expect to camp every night. This way, if you feel lost, you can ask a local for directions.
  2. Bring cash for food. Gear dealers will generally accept credit cards, but food vendors don’t always, especially in the pass-through towns. Plan a budget and bring a little bit of a cushion if you can, in case you’re way off for how much you’re going to eat.
  3. Follow the basic riding rules and suggestions in the official Ragbrai booklet. Really. They’re designed to prevent problems like injury and heatstroke.
  4. Do not expect the SAG wagon to find you out on the road. This is my fifth time, and I’ve seen one on the route once. Once. They often fill up in the early towns and take the vehicle route to the overnight town. In the event you get hurt, your bike gets trashed, or you absolutely can’t go any further, try 911 on your phone. Flip your bike upside down if you can. People will stop to help you. I promise. If you *can* make it to the next town, do that and seek help there.
  5. The only reason you need two water bottles is if you want two different drinks in them. There will be opportunities in every single pass-through town to refill. Do not panic about water, just remember to drink it.
  6. For day 1-3, take the painkiller before you get on the bike. There’s no point to waiting until you feel pain. Trust that you will and prepare accordingly. By day 4, you should be okay to go without.

Internet and phone service are spotty and questionable all week long, especially since we won’t be going through any large towns this year, so plan to be disconnected the whole time. Don’t expect to hear much from me on Twitter or FB until it’s all over, because I don’t have either app on my phone (on purpose!).

Good luck, and see you on the road!

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!