A Morning on RAGBRAI…

Cyclists riding past a prairie preserve in Linn County, Iowa.

Is it really August already? Nearly through the second week, no less? I have to admit, despite the “where has the time gone” theme of these past few months I won’t shed many tears in watching this season pass. In addition to the record breaking heat and devastating drought that has brought excessive panting to these dog days, I feel as if assorted commitments have had me on my heels from the word go. Between work, school, working with the community garden, my personal garden, the usual mowing and other chores, the farmers market on Saturdays, preparations on Fridays and countless other obligations, it’s been a busy spell.  I haven’t had time to go anywhere or do too much to speak of. In fact, the farthest I’ve traveled from home this summer was a quick day trip out to Des Moines. For me, that’s very, very rare. Come to think of it, I haven’t even left Iowa in 2012, which is disturbing. Nothing against the great Hawkeye state, but roaming around the country has been a big part of who I am. If someone would have told me in recent years that I might make it this deep into the calendar without crossing one of those big rivers to the east or west, I’d have asked that they check my pulse. It’s been longer than I can remember since I rode an entire trip around the sun completely enveloped in Iowa’s embrace. Spoiler alert: it won’t happen in 2012 either. I’ll get my share of travels in before all is said and done, but this summer has been a time to just put my head down and push through.

Unfortunately, situational acceptance hasn’t made my immobility any easier to bear. I knew coming in that it would be a hectic summer and hoped I could make amends by reacquainting myself with local parks and recreational opportunities, but even finding time for that has proven a pipe dream. So when RAGBRAI rolled around a couple of weeks ago it seemed more of the same as my thoughts went from “maybe I can ride a couple days,” to “maybe I could ride a full day,” to “you know, I’ve got so much to do I should just let this go…” But something inside of me wouldn’t allow that. With mounting frustrations at work and final exams at school, I needed to blow off some steam. The grind was killing my spirit, and it was time to take a stand. In somewhat of a last minute compromise, I decided to allow myself a few hours to join the ride.

(For anyone unfamiliar with RAGBRAI, here is a post written back in January, when my wife and I were considering riding the whole thing this year, which explains it a little more… LINK)

RAGBRAI- The Des Moines “Registers Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa”- 2012.

While this wouldn’t be my first time on RAGBRAI, it would (as much as I hate to admit) be the first time on my road bike since its tire touched the Mississippi in 2010. In fact, it wasn’t until after work on Thursday that I pulled it from the dusty corner where I had left it in my dad’s machine shed, replaced a tube, wiped off the cobwebs and oiled the chain for our Friday morning ride. While neither my bike nor my body were in condition of years past, I have enough saddle time beneath my waist band to feel confident enough to just get on and go. The plan, having only a couple hours to play, was to get up early and drive to Ely, where I could park my vehicle and access a bike trail that leads straight to the heart of Cedar Rapids. I’d connect with the RAGBRAI route at Czech Village and follow the spoke spinning herd fifteen miles or so to Mt. Vernon. I’d then pedal a couple miles off route to Lisbon, allowing my wife to easily pick me up and drive me back to the car.

After a week of triple digit heat, it was a relief to see Friday’s predicted highs set to stay in the 80’s. I got up at sunrise and drove forty five minutes by back roads to the small town of Ely, parked at a trailhead and began a pleasant cruise toward Cedar Rapids. My route was on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, a segment of the American Discovery Trail which offers an alternative to the fly-over travel preference often associated with our state. Resurrected and enhanced following the floods of 2008, the asphalt covered pathway epitomizes what an urban trail should be. It courses along allowing foot and bicycle travelers safe passage away from traffic, and a chance to slow down and experience overlooked sights and enjoy a quieter side of the city. The only issue I had with this first leg of my ride was in anticipation that it would be around five miles by trail from Ely to downtown CR. It ended up being a little over eight, but on a morning like this it was hard to complain.

RAGBRAI volunteers greet riders in the Cedar Rapids neighborhood of Czech Village.

I’ve written about RAGBRAI before, but each attempt has felt ineffective. It’s one of those things that trying to explain, especially in the brief context of a blog post, is really futile. It’s kind of like trying to explain thru-hiking, or marathon running, or baseball. You can touch on the basics, but that gives the reader only a slight taste at best. RAGBRAI is so much more than a bike ride. It’s a culture, an experience, a world all its own. It’s something that grows on you with miles earned, and through perspective you come to understand. With this, I didn’t even blink as the quiet trail I was on gave way to an absolute mob scene engulfing the historic streets of Czech Village in Cedar Rapids. Music played, people cheered, local radio and television stations were on air with live broadcasts and shoulder to shoulder cyclists crossing the 16th Avenue bridge made it too hazardous to ride, you had to walk your bike across. I saw people with assorted stuffed animals strapped to their helmets, riders wearing tutus, and many caught in the bow legged strut that comes from a combination of cycling shoes across pavement and several hard days on the road. I couldn’t help but smile as I merged with the masses and rolled my bicycle over top the Cedar River.  It felt good to be back.

Almost instinctually, I quickly fell in tune with all of the little idiosyncrasies of the ride. There is certain etiquette, unspoken rules that come with riding in close quarters with so many people. Holding a line and shouting out your intent to slow or stop aren’t part of most everyday rides, but here they are crucial. It was so cool to hear again the calls of “Bike off!” or “Bike on!” as cyclists declared their plan to pull on or off the road; to hear the echoing cry of “Rumbles!” alerting others to upcoming rumble strips or to chuckle at the alternate chime of “Numb balls!” by some wise alec in the back.

Tunes on wheels.

The one thing that I overlooked and really should have known better was the amount of hills along the outskirts of southeast Cedar Rapids. This was of course due both to climbing away from the river and my lack of physical preparation, but I hadn’t expected those first few miles on route to leave me breathing so hard. Like many such issues, RAGBRAI has its own unique way of dealing with terrain and motivating slackers through the rough patches. Just when you’ve slowed to near standstill and fret over reaching a crest that is nowhere in sight, something will happen to help push you along. It might be someone coming up from behind pumping out a good tune on a converted bike trailer boom box. Other times it’s a pretty girl you see drifting through the crowd. But more often than not it’s the sight of a haggard looking overweight elderly woman who effortlessly races past, taunting you in your moment of weakness, which affords that little dose of pride that carries you to the top. In nearly fifteen hundred miles on RAGBRAI I haven’t walked my bike once. Out of shape or not I wasn’t about to start with all of this going down.

Leaving Cedar Rapids and rolling eastward through the open country side I enjoyed more familiar sights and traditions of Iowa’s famous bicycle tour. Vast cornfields split by a line of cyclists stretching out to two horizons; farm kids in lawn chairs waving homemade signs to cheer those passing by;  even Mardi Gras beads placed over a raccoon carcass, the manner in which a group known as Team Road Kill pays tribute to their fallen brethren. I was so caught up in the ride that I nearly forgot one of my primary goals for the day. In trying to expand my photographic horizons I want to start making more of a conscious effort to go beyond my work with landscapes and nature and build some photojournalism skills. Pulling off the road every few miles to set up shots and click away provided both great fun and excellent practice.

Bike jam in Mt. Vernon, Iowa.

By the time I reached Mt. Vernon, I really just wanted to keep going. The ride was just what the doctor ordered and I would have loved to have been able to continue to Anamosa and later Clinton, finishing out the last two days. It wasn’t to be this year, though. I had a market to prepare for and other work to be done, so after hanging out and shooting a bit of the Mt. Vernon scene I rushed on to Lisbon where I had arranged to meet Cris.

In the shade near a gas station along Highway 30, I squinted in the mid-morning sun and waited for my wife’s car to appear. I’d ridden twenty five miles in total, not bad for my first tour in two years, and walked bow legged with the click clack of cycling shoes across the pavement. I was on a natural high, eager for Cris to pick me up; to tell her the stories from my morning excursion and proclaim that we should plan on doing the whole thing again next year.

Across the parking lot an old full sized conversion van gurgled to a halt, and the man behind its wheel began to shout at me from an open window. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, so I stepped toward him. This seemed to cause some degree of turmoil as the van moved several yards toward the exit, then again inched to a stop. I heard the word RAGBRAI, and waved in acknowledgement. The man grew visibly angry and raised his voice to a level I could suddenly decipher.

“Ban RAGBRAI!” “Get it out of Iowa!”                                                                             

He had to be kidding. I turned and walked back to my bike, or Devil-cycle as my new buddy would have it called, which infuriated him all the more. For the next three minutes the man barraged me with obscenities from the sanctity of his smoking cheriot. His premise, as best I could gather, had something to do with traffic difficulties caused by the ride. There is a small, but vocal contingent within the state that feels bicycles are children’s toys which have no place on our roads. It’s not just an Iowa thing. While riding I’ve been yelled at in Maryland, spit at in West Virginia, and had a knife flashed at me in Illinois. These people view bike travel as a hindrance to their sixty mile an hour internally combusted lifestyles and take it upon themselves to try and bully cyclists out of their way. When something like RAGBRAI comes along, they really get up in arms.

Something to be proud of.

I can’t say that I understand individuals of such mindset, but I would surmise that there are also things that these people are incapable of grasping, starting with the notion that the world is bigger than themselves. RAGBRAI, in one week every summer, contributes seventeen million dollars to the state economy. It brings thousands of tourist dollars to small towns that would otherwise never see a dime. Furthermore, it gives us something to be proud of. In a state that carries an inaccurate reputation of being little more than a barren agricultural wasteland, it means a lot to have people eager to come from all over the world to spend their vacations here. It’s an honor to have folks that have never visited before come and be taken aback by the beauty of this land and kindness of (most of) the people. To have them see that we do in fact have something to offer, something special going on. In tangibles and not, it’s probably safe to say that RAGBRAI did more for Iowa in the three minutes that this guy sat insulting me than he had contributed his entire life.

But sorry pal, to inconvenience your commute…

Those unpleasantries aside, it was fun to get back out on my bike. And although it was much abbreviated, it was great to experience RAGBRAI again. As far as my photos, I didn’t get anything real spectacular but caught a few decent images. Enough to hang my hat on considering the work covered the span of only a couple hours (and 25 miles.) You can see more of them on my facebook page, and like earlier posts those who comment will be entered for a chance to win prizes in my next drawing.

Click here to view that album.

More than anything, the morning made me want to do a week long photo essay that documents the entire ride. With this in mind, I can’t imagine it being too many years before I attempt the full route again.

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