Tuesday, August 23, 2011

RAGBRAI, An Iowa Tradition!

Blog post #500 is finally here!  And it is appropriate that milestone covers RAGBRAI, which has occupied a week of my life every July since 1993!  For the uninitiated, RAGBRAI stands for the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, a leisurely ride generally from the Missouri to Mississippi Rivers.  On Bicycles.  Over 7 days and about 500 miles.  With 15,000 others.

This year's event (always the last full week of July) was the 39th edition, so for those of you that don't do math in your head, it started in 1973.  While I grew up in Iowa, my summers were full of employment or summer school, so it wasn't until I moved away to Arizona until I made the time to come back, do the ride, and visit family before or after  that last week in July.  I've biked it plenty of times, 9 or 10, I'm a little fuzzy there, but lately my physical ailments have limited me to some of the fun on the overnight towns and drive support for the team - Toddville International, formerly Team Toad.  This year the route took us from Glenwood to Davenport, meandering 454 miles.

Day 0:  Saturday 23 July found us headed west on Interstate 80 for the Nebraska border.  After the bikes were loaded the night before, we met at leader Carl's house about 9am.  A decade and a half ago, the team had an old school bus, but after it's passing, Carl somehow ended up with a luxurious (by most standards) 12 or 18 passenger diesel bus, but unfortunately without working air conditioning.  The heat was a major opponent this year.  It was in the 90s most days and quite humid.  I can take the heat, but not so much the humidity, but with the windows down, as long as we were moving, the bus was tolerable.  This year, we had no mechanical issues (compared to last year's adventure!), though following a trucker's advice, we skirted an overturned truck and associated traffic backup and headed south off the interstate just west of Des Moines.

We got into Glenwood late afternoon and found our camping spot on the grounds of the Glenwood Resource Center (formerly the Glenwood State Hospital-School).  Storms threatened (severe storm sirens sounded briefly), but we got our tents set up and hiked the mile into town for food and entertainment before retiring as dark approached.

Day 1 - Glenwood to Atlantic: A hilly 64 mile ride initiates the riders.  Easy for the support driver - mostly I hang out some, waiting a bit to head too far down the road in case any riders have issues that need me or the bus.  I usually hang out and find breakfast nearby, do some shopping to restock the cooler and collect snacks for the riders.  We didn't cook like last year, so no shopping for food ingredients to stock the menu. 

I got to Atlantic right about noon and found our overnight spot - a lovely couple acre field, nicely mowed with a huge maple shade tree.  It was a beautiful spot - reminding me of the movie like - "Is this heaven?  No, it's Iowa!"  While the color photo is nice, the IR image (I've got a camera filtered for IR landscapes) gives it in an other-worldly appearance.  We were about a half mile from town, and other than going through it to get to this paradise, there was no need to - our hosts fed us with grilled burgers, home-made potato salad, beans, chocolate cake and watermelon.  It doesn't get much better!  Later, as some wandered to their tents, I sat with our hosts listening to the live bands a mile away.  Dark shapes crawled out of the gaps around the window shutters - our hostess was freaked out and moved away from the walls - tree frogs!  I thought they were cute!

Day 2 - Atlantic to Perry:  An uneventful day.  No pictures!  The highlight was that our buddies Rusty and Di from Lincoln, Nebraska finally caught up to us and would be spending a couple days riding.  Always nice to see them - they arrived by car late in the day and after setting up camp and showering in our host's house, we headed out for some dinner at a local eatery as the rest of the team straggled in.  We hung out in the yard as it got dark, I enjoyed the cicadas singing, and we all pretty much turned in as it got dark.

Day 3 - Perry to Boone:  A 70 mile day, with one exception!  During one day of the ride, they add a loop, which if riders complete, totals 100 miles.  These "centuries" are a source of pride for completing.  I've done them before, in fact, back about 12 years or so ago, when Iowa was celebrating it's 150 birthday, RAGBRAI had a loop that totalled 150 miles.  That makes for a LONG day!  Anyway, from our group this year, only Sue Ellen completed the Karras Loop (named for one of the ride's originators), so she gets the Studly Bike Rider Award for the year!

I felt I needed to get to Boone relatively early.  We usually avoid public camping sites - the group spots with thousands of campers are crowded, noisy, lack facilities and are generally unpleasant, and today we were to stay at a little league ball park.  The map implied several teams were sharing the facilities, so I wanted to stake out some space, if needed. 

Interestingly, today's support route (different from the biking route) took me within a mile or two of the observatory where I worked for nearly 2 years after I graduated.  At Fick Observatory of Iowa State University, I measured radial velocities (speeds towards or away from our line-of-sight) on a grant-funded project with the 24" telescope there.  After leaving there 30-some years ago, the place has changed.  Once open prairie, now an overgrown forest, and I had to walk down the lane to see the facility.  Last I heard it was still used for teaching, likely less for research these days.

After getting to Boone, it turns out, the teams sharing the facilities were small, and there weren't any issues.  And yes, we did camp out adjacent to the ball diamonds - no showers, but there was a hose with a nozzle, and for food we had a concession stand that was open for the couple little league state tourney games that night!  The food was a great value and quite good, and the hose - well, in the continuing heat and humidity, it felt great!  BTW, the cone flower shown here was in a small flower garden near the entrance to the baseball fields.
Day 4 - Boone to Altoona:  A short 56 miles today, but it was hot and miserable.  I got in by noon to our hosts, who seemed to have connections with everyone on the team.  They refused to think about us sleeping outside, so we all got spots in the air conditioning on sofas or beds.  I got a spot next to the dining room table, but with an air mattress, it was heavenly!  After all got in and showered, we took the bus down the street to the HyVee, who set up an assembly line buffet for nearly any kind of food you could want.  The pics here show the girls of Team Toad, the temp tattoos that Dean, Maggie and Emily got that day, Amy waiting for the start, and for the first time in recent memory, the entire group started together!  Most are waiting for Carl, who pulls up the rear as they set off.

Day 5 - Altoona to Grinnell - The bad news, is that Rusty and Di leave us after riding 2 days to head back towards Nebraska.  The good news is that my sister-in-law Karen is joining us later in the day in Grinnell, this year bringing niece and nephew Breanna and Brennan.  They  are too photogenic for words - hard to take a bad picture of them!  I hit Grinnell right at about noon, and check in with our hosts, who are the parents of Karen's boss.  Of course, we're on our best behavior, and after setting up camp, don't mind lingering in their basement waiting for the shower - enjoying the AC! 

I was eager to get to Grinnell - home of Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school.  I particularly like college bookstores, and found one downtown.  It had quite a variety of books, but only a small science section, but I found and bought 2 books, one on the history of the Moonwatch Program of visually tracking man-made satellites in the early space age, and another on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was ironically recommended to me a few days later as an excellent review by an engineer a few days after my return!  The bookstore was just one or two doors down from one of Grinnell's prides - the Merchant's Bank designed by Victorian architect Louis Sullivan.  It was open for tours and from the stonework and winged lions guarding the entrance, to the stained glass and mosaics inside, it was very striking!

With a more spacious downtown than most overnight towns offer, nearly all the activities were here, from the "biker's row" where you can get everything from bike repairs and parts to souvenir t-shirts.  And with thousands of folks milling about there was food, drink, live bands on a stage, and other entertainment, including a juggling troupe that had our attention for a while.  As usual, once it got dark, we gravitated back to our camp and I got to give an impromptu star show under the relatively dark clear skies, just as a laser show started, easily visible from our host's place over a mile from downtown!

Day 6 - Grinnell to Coralville: A long day at 75 miles (plus another 6 or 8 miles to our host's place), the ride and heat was taking it's toll.  A few of the riders had me drop them off down the road to shorten the days riding.  After shopping for snacks and filling the cooler, I headed to Coralville and lunched at Coral Ridge Mall, enjoying some Chinese while watching kids ice skating on the rink there.  Cool in more ways than one!  I hung out at the mall for a while, spending more time at the Barnes and Noble there (getting a book on HDR imaging).  I was to meet up with Sue Ellen, who was finishing her ride that day, and deliver her to meet up with her sister near North Liberty.  I then went out and enjoyed the AC at our host's house, the home of Dean and Maggie who were riding with us this week!  Her sister had the house open for us, and it was great watching the trash TV that was on, if only for the air conditioning! 

After a great spread of lasagna and garlic toast, Dean again took us out on the Coralville Reservoir on their boat they had us on a couple years back.  While the water level was considerably lower than before (shortly after the big floods in '08) it was still great to be out on the water, and it was a great sunset and twilight!

Day 7 - Coralville to Davenport:  A beautiful day - moderate temperatures, and less humid.  The last day of the ride, everyone seems in a hurry for it to be over - time to get back to their normal lives.  This year, Davenport was not only hosting RAGBRAI's conclusion, but also the very popular Bix 7, a road race in downtown that also attracts tens of thousands.  Fortunately, with the running race's early start, much of that crowd was clearing out by the time the bulk of the riders came in. 

My brother Jim's pool and spa company was just past the ending a mile or so, and I parked there, letting the team know via cell where I was (how did we ever get along without cell phones!?).  So after getting a tour of his establishment, mostly I hung out on the Mississippi levee watching the bikes come in.  I took a few shots with the IR camera - the black skies showing up dark, even shooting into the sun, with the trees and grass along the river showing up as white.  Always an interesting way to shoot, especially if you have clear or mostly clear skies.

About 2pm sister-in-law Karen and the kids showed up, since their car was waiting for them at Jim's business.  Always photogenic, the kids looked like they were glad they could climb off their saddles!  Eventually the rest of the team came in and we loaded up the bus in record time.  With me serving as designated driver, the riders attempted to empty the remnants of the beer in the cooler, though they fell short of that mark.  About 90 minutes later we pulled into Carl's yard north of Cedar Rapids, sorted out the mildewy towels, bags of laundry, tents, sleeping bags, loaded up our cars and headed our separate ways for another year. 

It is difficult to write about an experience like RAGBRAI right after the event, especially with miserable temps and humidity.  With time the pain fades but the good memories of friends and fun remain and remind us to return next year.  Perhaps we'll try training harder, get in more miles before the ride, but the important part is to take part, enjoy the journey, and reconnect with the family that has been a part of my life for the better part of 20 years.  Only 47 weeks to go!

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