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Sunday, August 06, 2017


Let the Wild Rumpus Begin: Orange City

My first RAGBRAI, two years ago, was the best vacation I’d ever taken. So good, in fact, that I was already planning to do it again before it was over.

For the uninitiated, RAGBRAI fills roughly the same role in the bicycle world of Sturgis or Burning Man. Well, that makes it sound rowdier than it is. It's more like a love child of Critical Mass and the state fair, except with over 10,000 riders and it lasts a week and crosses the entire state of Iowa. Oh, and you might spy Lance Armstrong eating a Mr. Porkchop or find out you're riding next to NPR's Scott Horsley.

We started out from Orange City, in the very Northwest corner of the state. The route varies year to year, and tradition includes dipping your bike tires in the Missouri River at the beginning and then in the Mississippi at the finish. Orange City isn’t anywhere near the Missouri River, though. That far north, the Missouri River is halfway across South Dakota on its way to Montana. There was a tributary of the Missouri that goes by Orange City, but I have my wheel dip photos from two years ago and anyway, it didn’t feel the same to me.

Two years ago, on my first RAGBRAI, it would have frustrated me that the route didn't technically go border to border, river to river. The ritual of the tire dip seemed important to me. I didn't hear anyone complaining about this detail, so maybe I'm just a dork.

Where to stash my car for the week? Last time, I winged it. Found a public parking garage in Sioux City, one of those multi-level affairs in their downtown. According to the signage, it was just free parking, I'm sure to encourage shopping and dining in an otherwise hard-to-park area. When I returned at the end of the week, my windshield bore a demand for money since I'd stored my car over 24 hours there. The signage, as I recall, said nothing of a time limit or a charge after a certain number of hours, and I was really tired at the time, so it pissed me off no end. So this time I contacted Orange City in advance and was told, yes, there was long term parking available for $50. Which I think is $15 more than Sioux City wanted from me two years ago, but I felt marginally better about it knowing in advance what I was getting into. On the one hand, this event coming through is already an economic windfall for a town, but I can understand the attempt to maximize what is likely a one-time opportunity.

I dropped my bags at Pork Belly Ventures camp, drove to my expensive weeklong parking spot and rode back to camp. Where I learned my first critical error in planning. I'd bought a new duffel bag, the one I used last time was so split open in so many places it really wouldn't work for chucking in a pile of bags on a truck. So I went to Mickey's Surplus a few weeks ago and bought a new duffel. A big duffel. Not the biggest they had, I came close but realized I'd only fill it and then have to lug it around. As it is, I had my sleeping bag, a very lightweight bag, and then a duffel that felt like a body bag. In it was my tent, camp pad, seven pairs of cycling shorts, seven Hawaiian shirts, a long sleeve t-shirt in case, loose shorts for camp/sleeping, toiletries, CPAP, 100 foot extension cord, running shoes (I wear sandals in summer, but in the event of unseasonably cold weather, closed toes are good), etc.

I'd have been so much better off with two little bags instead of one big one. When I got to camp in Spencer, I found my bag and inquired where the charging trailers were. The answer was, basically, over the horizon. We were camped on a golf course, and the charging trailers had been parked up in a parking lot where there wasn't a good place to pitch a tent. Mick, from Pork Belly, was sensitive enough to pick up that I was distressed at this news. I'm like, I sleep with a CPAP, and I think he remembered me and my extension cord from a couple of years ago. I've since bought a battery for the device, but I forgot the all important cable that lets the battery run the machine so I was still tethered to a 110v outlet every night. He's like, that golf cart garage, I bet we can run your extension cord out of that. I said, that golf cart that's a good quarter mile away? I don't think I can carry my duffel that far, for real. So he gave me a Gator ride up to the spot he figured would work, and after some conversation with a golf course employee I was set up. They didn't want people running extension cords out of the building but as soon as I said CPAP, the guy was like, well that's different.

If I'd remembered the cord that lets my CPAP battery power the machine, I probably could have charged it by day in the charging trailer and pitched my tent wherever, and that would have been nice. For that matter, the battery might provide me enough CPAP coverage to just ride with Pink Floyd, the team I bus back across the state with. Next time.

Not an Endurance Event

I made a comment at some point about riding for endurance, and someone said, 'RAGBRAI is not an endurance event.'

Which seemed counterintuitive to me. We're riding across a state in a week. A light day is fifty miles, a heavy one (not this year but two years ago) might be over 80. And then you do it again the next day, the next day, etc. Seems to me that takes some endurance. But there are frequent breaks for pie, beer, ice cream, one pound pork chops, 7:00 a.m. cocktails, taking pictures of the whole five ring circus. So it's not the same sort of discipline as running marathons. Unless you're this family: Mom and Dad on a tandem with a child seat, then a double kid trailer with not two but four kids. A family of seven, just two providing actual locomotion while attending to the un-ending needs of five pre-K kiddos. That's an endurance sport if ever I saw one.

You never know what sort of bicycle type conveyances you'll find on this ride. I saw unicycles, penny-farthings, three-seat tandems, tandem tadpole trikes, beach cruisers, granny trikes, roller blades, a guy in a wheel chair with a skateboard in his lap (so he could ride the skateboard down hills by balancing the wheelchair on the skateboard), hand powered trikes, Batmobiles...

When I saw Batman eating a banana, I was surprised. I thought it was strictly Lobster thermidor for Batman. 'That's Lego Batman,' said Tadpole Trike Batman.

That's not to mention a group riding a banana across the state, or this fellow who has a lot of the power of E.

Trumpet Chick

I noticed Alicia Rau on my first RAGBRAI two years ago. She was camped near me the first night in Pork Belly camp and she's hard to miss between being gorgeous, charismatic, and riding with a pocket trumpet under her saddle. Oh, and her custom printed kit with 'Nice Brass' on the butt. I was afraid she was skipping this year when I didn't see or hear her (she plays reveille and taps in camp typically, along with something else to rally the troops) the first day. I guess she had a wedding in the family and came a day late.


And of course there's Roj. When I rode my first Bike MS and sagged on the second day, the SAG truck driver said, 'You should see this 18 year old kid out here doing this on a BMX bike.' I was like, I've known that 18 year old kid for like 25 years. I thought I was under-prepared for RAGBRAI this year, not enough training miles, about half what I did two years ago. Roger told me, 'This is my fifth ride this year. My first was Sunday.'

I guess that's fortitude. Sore muscles and cramps where what I worried about coming into this, and those weren't issues. But saddle sores, yikes. The last couple days of this year, I found myself standing up a lot. A lot. Because it was such torment to let my ass touch the saddle.


So I think it was Charles City where I got to Pork Belly camp and once again found my charging stations nowhere I could camp by. Mick tried to hook me up at a shelter house in the park we were in but it was dead. I saw a house across from the park advertising $5 showers, and while I had the shower part figured out I thought, well... So I inquired about hooking up my extension chord for my CPAP and was told, help yourself, there's an outlet on the front porch, pitch your tent anywhere you like.

Which is part of what makes RAGBRAI so hard to explain to the uninitiated. Here's a big rolling pain in the ass comes into town and the default reaction is 'make yourself at home.' My host that night turned out to be a former minor league pitcher and we had a great baseball chat. His nephew, later on, found a toad and tried to adopt it and Uncle Jared had a great time helping his nephew try in vain to feed a beetle to the toad.


Of course there's Beekman's ice cream, they set up every day with century old 1 cylinder motors powering old fashioned 'homemade' ice cream. I love Beekman's, it's worth the wait, but I found this trip their ice cream is icier and more brain-freeze producing than the Amish ice cream. The latter only comes in vanilla, but not only doesn't come off as icy, it leaves your lips feeling almost oily.

The fried pies the Amish sell are everything a Hostess fruit pie pretends to be but isn't. They also sell slices of round, baked pies that have perfect light, flakey pastry crusts and real fruit in the middle. And then that ice cream, and they mean cream. I already gave up TV years ago, I guess I could give up a lot of other electronics if it means I get to eat more of that pie and ice cream. Though I learned, right before RAGBRAI, that I've developed type II diabetes, so maybe conversion to fully Amish for pie and ice cream would be problematic.

Daytime Drinking

Thanks to the diabetes, I'm having to watch my alcohol consumption lately. For that matter, my consumption of simple carbs like pie and ice cream. I started the ride out looking to eat diabetic friendly foods, but the options where limited and the temptations were great. And really, the diagnosis was a surprise right before the trip, and if I hadn't gotten the news, how would I have eaten and drank on the trip?

There was a breakfast vendor that had a 'free beer' sign by his stand. It was true, he was mainly selling breakfast burritos but there was also a cooler full of cold shitty beer, Bud Light mostly. The novelty of drinking a beer at seven in the morning is a great offset to a disappointing beer (and really, the things that make Bud Light disappointing are even worse with good beer from a diabetes standpoint).

Grotto/Rare Visions

The artist formerly known as Frau Lobster and I used to watch this show on KCPT, Rare Visions and Roadside Revelations. Imagine my surprise as I roll around a corner and go, I know that grotto!

If there's anything I'm as gay for as bicycles it's folk art.

Weird Vehicles

You never know, like I say, what sort of vehicles you'll find out here. But there are flip-flops that are 'bad for running' and 'worse for fighting.'

Cut out seat to protect my erection?

Iowa Isn't Boring

Probably no place is boring if you get to know it. I think the perception of the midwest as 'flyover country' is fueled at least partially by the methods of transportation most people use these days. In an airplane, you surely don't get local color, but even in a car on the interstate, it's easy to dismiss vast swaths as 'moo-moos and grass.' Or as 'passing the corn.' But on a bicycle, you really see and smell a place, and interacting with the people who live there, that makes a huge difference.

A farm-side lemonade stand I stopped at, a boy on a tandem with his dad said something about how he liked it there, he'd just as soon stay. The woman behind the card table said, 'You can stay, but you'll have to help with the milking, there's 180 dairy cows in that long building over there, another thirty dry cows in one you can't see from here. We got up at 3:00 this morning so we could have them taken care of before we sat out here socializing with you all.'

And speaking of dairy, I think it was earlier that day I saw a milk tanker coming up to an intersection with the route and honk his horn at a vendor set up at the corner. Like they were just being slow at the stop sign. I'm like, I'm sure there was a memo, I can totally see this tanker truck driver going, 'God as my witness, I thought this was next week.' I'm sure he eventually got that enormous truck out on the route, I'm sure he exited the route as soon as he could, and I'm absolutely certain he was late with his delivery.

Like I say, I know we're an economic boon for towns like Postville that is most famous for a huge immigration raid on a kosher meat packing plant a few years ago, but we're also a big pain in the ass. It's a lot of people needing food, drink shelter, safe passage, trash disposal, bathrooms, etc. The fact that these small towns lobby to become pass-through and overnight towns, and handle it with such grace and efficiency when that happens, this is America at its best as far as I'm concerned.

Communication Breakdown

The cell service was, well... The cell service maybe rivaled my saddle sores as challenges on this trip. When 10,000+ cell phones start pinging towers set up to serve communities of a few hundred people, yeah. The best I got most of the time was 3G, but more commonly I got 'no service.'

I was smart enough to start texting Dr. Greg with my team bus, Pink Floyd, early in the week. The messages didn't always go through, but when they did there was normally a delay. Meeting up with them was pretty important because otherwise I'm a state away from my car at the end of this thing with a body bag too heavy to plausibly strap on my rack and ride back with even if I had another week to get home.

Plus, without my ride on Floyd, where would I get my dildo pics? I learned I'd earned a nickname two years ago, the Big Unit. This on account of how much beer I drank going back across Iowa. What can I say? I was thirsty and I'd spent my days drinking a lot of electrolyte beverages, the bus isn't air conditioned, I wasn't planning to drive soon and there was, well, there was beer, lots of it.

Can't wait to do it again.

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