RAGBRAI tips Part Deux!

By | August 25, 2013

If you are coming from Seattle like me, getting to Iowa with your luggage, tent and bike will be a giant pain in the ass. But once you are there, it is absolutely worth the hassle of the trip. Not that it’s an easy ride. It’s not. The tips contained in this post are meant to help keep you sane during your crazy journey across the state of Iowa, from a first-timer perspective. If you’re going to do RAGBRAI, I would definitely check out info on other sites, especially htttp://ragbrai.com/.

My Luggage pile included everything I needed
for my RAGBRAI expo booth!

Luggage…  So you are there!  Let the fun begin!  Day one, you will be dropping off your bags.  Be aware that your bag will be subject to a weight limit. In 2013 it was 50 lbs.  Keep in mind when packing- a tent, sleeping bag, air mattress, clothes, etc. add up fast.
Weigh your bag in advance so you’re not in the unenviable position of sorting through your crap and deciding what to leave. Luckily, I could take the rejects to the hotel where I was storing my luggage. Yep, I forgot to throw my bag on my bathroom scale before I left. I was sure it was only 49.99 lbs!

Wear your sunscreen so you
don’t look like this guy!

Sunscreen…  Before any long ride, most of us prioritize needs. Before RAGBRAI, I would have said priority number one would be chamois creme.  Chamois creme is very important, don’t get me wrong, but wow, I didn’t realize that the Iowa sun is an angry, spiteful, vengeful sun. With my olive complexion, riding in the Seattle area where the sun is as mellow as the hippie pot smokers who live here, I rarely burn. I followed my usual sunscreen ritual- skip the legs (they never burn!) and a light layer on my face and arms.  Whoops. My nose peeled twice and blistered. Ouch. Next year? I will apply liberally and often, and perhaps invest in a pair of sun sleeves.  They look like arm warmers, but they keep you cool and keep the sun off of you. They also make them for your legs, which I burned for the first time ever on RAGBRAI.  Plus anything that helps you cope with the heat is a wonderful thing.  By the way… It is the Midwest in July.  It will be hot and humid. (Yeah, I’m a NW weather wimp.)

Mississippi Tire Dip.

The tire dip…  It’s customary to start the ride with a tire dip in the Missouri River. I was running late, so skipped it. As it turned out, why would I want to take a picture with my tire in the river when I could meet Lance Armstrong instead? Say what you will about doping, I will likely agree with you. But I gotta admit, it was still a thrill to meet him. My advice is to meet Lance Armstrong instead of doing the tire dip! Don’t like Lance, then meet some other celebrity. Lots of celebs ride RAGBRAI every year.

Storm grate…  Other than fellow cyclists the first thing that caught my eye was the storm grates. The storm grates in Seattle are sized for the local, soft, steady drizzle, so they aren’t that big- you have to watch out, but they are easy to avoid. The Midwest, however, being famous for thunderstorms has storm grates sized accordingly. Those things won’t only swallow a bike tire, they will swallow a full grown man in a row boat. So be careful!
A real live wrestling ring in Dallas Center, IO.  You have to
stop be entertained and have a laugh at such a
spectacle.

No Rush…  RAGBRAI has the whole road to itself for the most part. The only vehicles on the road are usually service vehicles for the ride. I’m not really sure what the locals do when they need to get somewhere when RAGBRAI is in town, but I spent a lot of time in the left lane passing people. It was fun!  However, I did have to remind myself  RAGBRAI isn’t a time trial. The towns are clogged with people, and they are a freak show! My advice- slow down, enjoy the scenery and chat with your fellow cyclists. In the RAGBRAI orientation, they will tell you that someone dies every year on RAGBRAI.  Don’t be that guy.  This is actually a tough, hot ride.  Take it easy, don’t push yourself past your limits and make it home to torture your family for many years to come with stories of the ride.

Pink band is the RAGBRAI official band.
The others represent places I stopped
for a beer.

Party…  RAGBRAI is a party. A big party! Every town, every day of RAGBRAI has bars, beer gardens and other booze related activities.  I saw people drinking beer at 7:00 in the morning.  WTF?! I love beer.  I LOVE BEER! However, I was not interested in riding with a hangover.  I am also not convinced that beer and cycling mix, other than the obligatory end-of-ride beer. I had one beer midday in Van Meter and my legs were like lead all the way to Des Moines. I couldn’t figure out how everyone else was managing to drink during the day….maybe it’s the fizzy yellow beer that seems so common in the Midwest? The craft brewing industry seems to be just taking off in Iowa, so you may not be able to find a charming micro in every Iowa town, but I did find a couple.  Peace Tree Brewing and Confluence Brewing are doing great work bringing real microbrews to the Iowan fizzy yellow beer wasteland!   I also have to mention the great music and awesome food-  I saw Everclear, Filter, Sponge and Live!  So relax, have a beer, listen to some tunes and eat some damn pie and a pulled pork sandwich!

Getting lost…  Getting lost on RAGBRAI seemed to be a daily experience.  When you are on the ride with 10,000 other people, it is pretty easy to know where you are going.  All you have to do is stay with the flock!  However once you get into the final town, things begin to get interesting.  Every team has its own meeting place and sign directing you which way to go.  Dan Henry is nowhere to be seen.  It was day three or four before I realized that the RAGBRAI signs were orange and black this year.  Typically the campground is at a community center, school or fair grounds at the edge of town.  It may be tempting to stop in for a quick beer or bite to eat before settting up camp, but finding your way to the camp site will be easier if you follow the route there first.  Plus there are free shuttles to the downtown party, so you don’t have to worry about stumbling around in the dark if you get carried away.  If all else fails and you are lost, look for an information booth.  Most towns have them and they will provide you with maps and friendly directions.
ATM…  ATM usually fix everything. However, we have 10,000 new residents in town looking to spend money. I went to get some money from one in Fairfield. I could not find an ATM without a long line or that had any money. This is why it is such a big deal for a town to be on the RAGBRAI route.  You have a captive audience for one day come into town, empty out all of your ATM’s and spead the money around like manure making everything grow.  As a rider it is nice to help a local economy.

Cost…   You expect to spend close to $1000 for a week-long supported ride.  RAGBRAI was only $150.  That $150 will get your bag transported from town to town and covers SAG support.  For food you are on your own.  That is a big part of the fun.  RAGBRAI attracts a huge number of food vendors selling all sorts of interesting creations.  Some of these vendors are local schools, fire departments, churches and charities raising money for their cause.  It feels nice to be helping the local economy and the people appreciate the riders.  I have never been involved in a ride that was so much a part of the communities which it passes though.  Want a safe option, the local HyVee market will likely have a tasty breakfast buffet for around $10.  I did this in three different towns 🙂  Keep in mind that you will have to budget for this daily expense and cash is king!  $40 is sufficient provided that you do not have too many beers or start buying RAGBRAI merchandise.  I also also rode with a couple packages of Heed and Perpeteum, energy bars, shots and NUUN.  I drop NUUN tablets like candy.  They are the only thing I have found that works on my leg cramps.

Water…  As I said it is nice to help out local economies and charities.  However there are times on RAGBRAI when you get tired of everyone holding out a hand for money. It is hot and humid.  One should not have to pay through the nose for life giving water.  On day 1 I spent $6 for 3 bottles of water.  No way in hell!  Take the time to look around.  You will find free water.  If I am in a jam, paying a buck for water at a roadside stand is fine.

The Ride Back…  I flew into and out of Omaha.  Regardless of your method of transportation, you will start your ride on the Missouri river and end on the mighty Mississippi.  You will need a ride at some point.  I arranged the most expensive bus ride ever with Pork Belly Ventures.  Pork Belly Ventures provides ride support for RAGBRAI.  They do everything from providing a tent and setting it up every day to bus rides.  However, because I did not use any of their other services, my bus ride back to Omaha cost me $144.  Even worse, they hung my bike from the roof of a semi trailer.  I had wrapped frame with pipe insulation, but they managed to wreck my brand new bar tape 🙁   It was a pleasant ride and our bus driver was a real nice guy, but I would consider other options for almost $150.  I wish I could provide better advice.  Maybe next year 🙂

There you have it…  My limited wisdom regarding the ins and outs of RAGBRAI.  It was an experience unlike any other ride I have done.  I hope that you consider trying it yourself!  I hope I can go again next year!

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