Friday, August 3, 2012

Bike America Days 39-46: RAGBRAI

Sunday, July 22- Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sunday: 55.63 miles; 1,583 feet of climb; Sioux Center to Cherokee
Monday: 68.53 miles; 2,062 feet of climb; Cherokee to Lakeview
Tuesday: 86.5 miles; 1,724 feet of climb; Lakeview to Webster City
Wednesday: 79.73; 2,018 feet of climb; Webster City to Marshalltown
Thursday: 94.01 miles; 3,576 feet of climb; Marshalltown to Cedar Rapids
Friday: 42 miles; 2,272 feet of climb; Cedar Rapids to Anamosa
Saturday: 69.5 miles; 2,890 feet of climb; Anamosa to Clinton

Overall distance for the week: 495.90 miles

I will admit that it's a shame to cram the whole week of Ragbrai into one blog post and I will warn you that this is going to be lengthy, especially in the way of pictures. But, if I don't summarize, I know I'll never catch up. So I'm going to do my best to paint an accurate picture of the crazy ride and how it felt to fit it into our trip overall. If you are wondering what Ragbrai is all about, you can read this post that I wrote in 2007 when I was embarking on my first full Ragbrai and when I had just started this blog. This year's ride turned out to be very different but special in it's own way.

My parents and I were joined by Josh and our friends Nathaniel and Ben, the three of whom drove out from DC to participate. My dad, Nathaniel and I rode the whole way, Ben rode all but one day, and my mom and Josh took turns biking and moving the car, each riding half of every day.


Some people who ride Ragbrai are there for the parties alone. They may ride some but their focus is on the concerts, the food, ad the beer gardens. For us, this time, it was all about the biking. The first few miles of riding were strange. We rolled out of Sioux Center, Iowa surrounded by thousands of other cyclists and my dad and I, so used to riding solo, felt claustrophobic. One of the most frustrating things, early on, was to keep track of everyone. We lost Nathaniel in the first few miles but found him again soon after. We lost my dad too and didn't see him for the rest of the day.

Soon, though, I was loving the crowds. Ragbrai really is full of the most friendly people who love to tell and hear stories all the way across the state. Sometimes I was anti-social and didn't feel like engaging in conversation with strangers but most of the time, it was awesome. My mom had purchased bike license plates for her, Josh, my dad and I which is a sign to others that you're open to talk. It is fun to have perfect strangers come up beside you and say "Hi Carrie!" We also made many friends from DC thanks to the plates. A girl who rode cross-country in 2002 and whose boyfriend lives across the street from Josh and I. A man who commutes from Boling Air Force base to the Pentagon and is the director of the Air Force's Ragbrai team. A girl from Arlington whose entire family has been riding across Iowa since she was a kid.

Josh and I also met many gator fans thanks to their Florida license plates and our bike jerseys. A guy from Josh's hometown who now lives in New York City. A man who lives only blocks from my best friend Nicole's parents in Seminole Heights, Tampa. It makes Ragbrai feel like a community and it makes the world feel small.

It wasn't only the crowds of people that made Ragbrai feel worlds apart from the rest of Bike America. On previous Ragbrais, I've always felt that my mind was getting the perfect vacation from the stresses of everyday life. I'm not saying that wasn't true in this case but I did find that my mind had far less time to wander than it has for the rest of the summer. It was still wonderfully relaxing and refreshing but there were infinitely more distractions, conversations, and social interactions than there were in prior weeks of biking.

A large number of these social interactions happened in each day's stopover towns. Locals selling fresh baked pies, churches offering "holy water" to fill bottles, and residents playing live music on their lawns are only a few of the people making these towns as alive and inviting as you can imagine. By the end of the week, one of my favorite things to do was lay in the grass after a meal looking up at the trees. It didn't hurt when locals laid blankets on their front yard for you to sleep on.

Even between the towns, people on farms and in other rural homes sat in their front yards offering free water, selling watermelon slices or gatorade, and hosing long slip and slides down their hilly lawns. We stopped often for the free water and gatorade but we never stopped for the slip 'n slides. It was different to ride this with three boys who were focused more on the biking. At times, I missed my loyal, party animal friend Joyce, who rode Ragbrai with Ben and I in 2010. She would be the first to join me on a slip 'n slide in our bike shorts or to drink a beer with breakfast. But I recognize that it's easy to take the riding lightly and want to throw in more of the fun stuff when you've ridden for weeks and weeks and know you can finish Ragbrai. These guys who were crossing the state on two wheels for the first time were concerned about de-hydration and tiring themselves out. And with all the 100 plus degree days we had, they were smart to do so and a good influence.

I could write for days about all that I saw, heard and did during the days "on my bike". Like the outfits, the decorated bikes, the solar-powered boom boxes people pulled behind them, the tradition of peeing in cornfields, etc. I have a lot of pictures that convey some of those details so instead of inserting them into the text, I'll let them tell some of the story. You can read the caption on each to understand what it's all about.

Josh, Me, Nathaniel, Ben. At our Sioux Center campsite on Sunday morning about to set
out for our first miles of the ride.

Josh, Ben, Nathaniel after breakfast on our first morning.

Ben leaving and Josh entering the "men's bathroom" beside the road.

Some of the 20,000 people out on the road.

My hairy fiance in his gator jersey. During the week, Ben told us gator fans are cocky. Well, you'd be cocky too if your school won two football and two basketball national championships in the four years you were there. Is that cocky enough for you? GO GATORS! ;)

A fellow gator. It was fun to see others showing the same college spirit. Friday was college jersey day and Josh took photos of many, many riders wearing their various colors.

One great thing about entering the midwest are the water towers in each town. When you're on the road and you see a water tower up in the sky, you know the next town is close. Especially on Ragbrai, the towns are a good way to break up the miles and it is definitely different from Montana and Wyoming where we could ride 112 miles and see only one store and zero gas stations.

Rarely was there a town without bike shops and supplies.

Some of us like to take our helmets off for an hour of eating lunch and napping on the grass. Others are dorky enough to leave it on and clipped at all times.

One of the teams in their matching jerseys.

Ladies of "The Rowdy Beaver" team.
Mr. Pork Chop: One of the oldest and most famous lunch vendors on Ragbrai. Too bad pork chops were never my thing.

Some riders getting ready to slip and slide in their spandex.

Mom and dad eating lunch in LeHigh, IA.

Ben and Nathaniel talking to a Cornell College employee on the school grounds in Mount Vernon, IA. Nathaniel, a graduate of Cornell University was interested in the history of this school. I was interested in the town which was my favorite daytime town the whole week.

Water tower and cyclists in Mount Vernon, IA.

Bike shop and Ben's right leg in New Bohemia of Cedar Rapids, IA.

Fire station turned art gallery in New Bohemia, Cedar Rapids, IA.

Pretty house in Mount Vernon, IA.

Nathaniel with the Cornell sign. Not his alma mater.

I had to photograph this jersey which I knew my mom would love.

Partiers in Mount Vernon

The famous Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon. Featured on Oprah and visited by other celebrities. Named for its location along Lincoln Highway.

Dragonfly statue made of old bike parts.

Nearing the top of one of Iowa's many rolling hills.

A ribbon of a highway lined with bicyclists.

Another beautiful highway.

Jesus holding a bike.

An old gas station turned city hall in Oxford Junction, IA

Many farms means many tractors.

Iowa's endless expanse of farmland.

A plane flying overhead.

Kind of matching on college jersey day. Check out our matching Washington, DC license plates behind our bikes.

Bikers bikers EVERYWHERE!


Often times, we slept while Josh walked around being a photographer.

Looking up at a big blue sky.
Ben's favorite blanket. Ever. That's what he said.


Like I said, we weren't the wildest Ragbrai children off our bikes but we still managed to drink a few beers and have some fun. Our most frequent non-biking activities were swimming in local pools, playing cards, drinking beers and talking to strangers.

One of the most memorable things on Ragbrai 2010 was Ben's fascination with the abundance of water slides in the midwest. They were everywhere and he declared that "Midwesterners love their waterslides!" But we never got the chance to try any out for ourselves. This year, we swam in three very crowded, very fun pools. We went down water slides, off high dives, and played pool basketball. I think I am one of the few people who followed the rules and actually showered before entering the pools so I can only imagine how full of sweat, sunscreen and bike grease all that water was but part of the fun of Ragbrai is learning to be rustic and dirty and not to let that stuff gross you out.

We also played many card games and I am proud to announce that I was in the winning half of the group in all but one round out of at least 50. There were many sweaty cocktail hours in our grassy "living rooms" across the state. We saw a jet ski performance, went out for ice cream, ate in restaurants, and drank in beer gardens but we never stayed out through a whole concert, never shotgunned a beer, and skipped trips into town for more chill evenings several nights.

During an epic rain storm on Wednesday night we got stuck downtown in Marshalltown, IA. My parents had stayed back at camp while the boys and I rode into town for dinner at a Chinese restaurant. After dinner, Ben and Nathaniel headed back during a lapse in the storm while Josh and I sat on the front step of the restaurant waiting for him to finish a phone call. We ended up sitting on that step for nearly two hours, watching the storm unfold in town. Many characters came in and out and we chatted with the young Chinese girl who was enamored by the storm. Eventually, we rode home in the rain and went to sleep with puddles of water in our tent. After that, we retired my four year old, $40 target tent, and squeezed into the smaller, much more durable REI tent that I'd been sleeping in by myself all summer.

I wasn't as good with photos of evening activities but here are the ones I do have.

Ben trying to figure out how to dig himself out from the bottom.


Tuesday night in a backyard. Our messy living room.

Me and Joshua by the lake in Lakeview.

My mom drinking beer is a very rare sight.

Joshua photographing the water show over the lake.

More card playing.


The storm in Marshalltown.

Sitting on a front porch, watching the rain is one of my favorite things to do. Now that I live in an apartment, I never get the chance so, aside from the unpleasant brick on my sore butt, I really enjoyed our two hour date sitting in front of the Chinese Restaurant.


The food on Ragbrai is amazing and disgusting all at the same time. Lots and lots of meat which, at the end of the week in 2010, left me feeling bloated and disgusting. This year, though, I did a better job of incorporating fruits and veggies and felt good about everything I ate. Still, it was definitely a time to indulge!

The best breakfast, and one I ate 5 days out of 7, was from Breakfast Delights. They had an amazing egg and veggie hash, apple walnut french toast, and berry yogurt parfaits, of which you can choose two. I alternated my combinations each morning and was always more than satisfied.

Quiche, granola and cinnamon roll at a hip cafe in Cedar Rapids. 

Pork Bratwurst.

Half size veggie burrito plate. This was one of my two lunches for the day.

Hamburger, chips, and a drink for $5 is a steal on Ragbrai!

Tender Tom's turkey tenderloin sandwich was the best lunch of the trip.

This boy loves his meat. Here he is eating braised shortribs in Mount Vernon.

Nathaniel gnaws at a turkey leg from Tender Tom's.

Ben is most pleasant after he's had his morning coffee. Waiting in line at Breakfast Delights.
Had a subway sub two nights for dinner. Finished an entire footlong by myself for the first time ever.

Pulled pork sandwich with cheese curly fries. Lakeview, IA

Mushroom pizza in Cedar Rapids.

Fried goodness at the chinese restaurant.

Chicken Lo Mein was a wonderful carbo-load.
One of my many servings of ice cream for the week.
Beekman's homemade ice cream in action. Ate here twice and should have had more.
Root beer float from Beekman's. OMG MORE PLEASE!

Frozen snickers aplenty!

Vanilla and Black Rasberry Ice Cream from Blue Sky Creamery in Nemaha, IA.


Surprisingly, it felt less monumental for Ragbrai to be ending than it had pedaling into Iowa at the beginning. I think I'd gotten used to time flying by and had come to terms with the fact that the whole adventure would be over so soon. Still it was a little sad.

The week was fun, I don't think Ragbrai could possibly not be fun, but it wasn't as fun given everything that I had to compare it to all summer. I enjoyed the lack of cars and the opportunity to be more social for a week but it wasn't as life changing and meaningful as the family bonding, the engagement, the exploration and discovery of new states and landscape out west. Honestly, I think Ragbrai is more fun and meaningful when it is done on it's own. When it is an adventure in and of itself.

I was glad to have Josh in Iowa, seeing what the great ride across the state was all about, I was glad Ben had had a positive enough experience in 2010 to want to return and I was glad Nathaniel was adventurous and curious enough to try the ride himself. I had fun riding with them and riding fast but I was sorry not to have ridden more with my parents. I realized that I was wrong in trying to peer pressure more friends to join Ragbrai. It is the kind of thing that you have to want to do on your own. If you don't want to pee in cornfields all day, wait in line for all your food and make your butt and hands sore as hell, then it's not for you. And I'm happy that the right people chose to do this and nobody who didn't want to gave into my infamous peer pressure (ahem, Nicole).

Ragbrai didn't make this trip and the trip didn't make Ragbrai. It was simply another week, very different from all the others. While I was on it, I couldn't have imagined life any other way but now that it's over, I can't imagine riding with any more people than my mom and dad.

I remember finishing in 2010 and thinking that I could have kept riding forever. I was on a high and dreamed of just riding my bike all the way home. It's funny how things work out. This year I am in the process of riding my bike all the way home from Ragbrai. And that is pretty freaking awesome!

If you've made it through this lengthy post, I salute you. To end, here are photos of us dipping our front wheels in the Mississippi River.


  1. We'll do up another Ragbrai right(or good, long bike ride somewhere else)! It still sounds like you had a good time :)

  2. Haha, so Josh, Ben and I are boring RAGBRAI companions?

    Next time we'll do a charter group and instead of having to worry about our own tents and such, we'll just drink the provided beer and get extra rowdy to make up for this time.

  3. After finding out that you will be joining us for Ragbrai this year, I found myself on your blog, reading all about your marathon training, wedding planning, stewardship dinner, etc. and one of your suggested blogs was this one. I am so glad I read it!! I am also SO EXCITED that I get to do my first ever Ragbrai with you, you have no idea!!!!!!! You'll have to show me all the best food, card games, slip n slides, and beer gardens that Ragbrai has to offer :)

  4. it seems you guys have lots of fun. like this blog.
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