Ragbrai 2014

This Ragbrai was my sixth in a row.  Sometime after my fifth, I was seeking for a way to experience it differently than my previous five times.  It was early on that we decided to find a driver and experience Ragbrai without a charter service, but with a smaller group.  I didn’t regret this decision at all, and had my best Ragbrai yet.  

Our team was composed of Erin and I, our friend Jonathan Vieker, his sister Becca Vieker, Becca’s friend Rachel Gehringer-Wiar, and her father Dennis, who offered to drive.  Since three of us had never met Dennis before, he thought that meeting him through his Driver’s Delight blog would be a good idea.  He was correct.  I knew instantly that we would be having a good time. 
Jason, Jonathan, Becca, Rachel, and Erin at the back tire dip site.
Ragbrai is a fantastic event.  Every year, they find a new route from the west side of Iowa to the east side, with a new set of overnight towns and a new set of pass-through towns.  This change is what keeps Ragbrai strong.  It is, however, a very long event.  At 7 days, many people have difficulty finding a way getting this much time off.  And on top of that, why would they want to spend 7 days of their vacation biking across Iowa during the hottest part of the season?  If you shorten it to a more workable 4 or 5 day event, then you would limit the event to the elite, who can handle 85-110 mile days every day.  Well, why not just have a “tour” of Iowa instead of crossing it?  Then you somehow miss a stronger element of accomplishment.  
Even though the ride began on Sunday morning, July 20th, the adventure began for Jonathan, Erin and me on Friday evening.  We loaded up the car and headed to Ankeny, IA, where we would be departing on Saturday morning.  Our trip to Ankeny found detours to the Albia Brewing Company and Peace Tree Brewing Company.  My cousins Davey and Glenda took us in Friday night in Ankeny and shared beers with us.  They sent us on our way after filling us up with coffee and an awesome breakfast.  
The bus ride to Rock Valley was long and we had to detour around the town because of Ragbrai traffic.  We ended up camping in a hay field that was extremely buggy.  Bug spray was a necessity.  That evening, at the 9 o’clock hour, Jonathan started what may be a new Ragbrai tradition by playing Taps to an appreciative campground.  
Off we went from Rock Valley, making our way across Iowa.  Dennis, new to driving for Ragbrai, was very in tune with each of his teammate riders, and learned very quickly what was important in a good campsite.  He could usually find us the best shade, and in close proximity to bathrooms, showers, and an outlet for recharging all of our technical gadgets.  One of our favorite nights, he bent the rules and found us a little private cove with many trees between the middle and high schools in Mason City.  It was our own little oasis.  
Leaving Rock Valley at the beginning of Ragbrai

Dennis and Jonathan talking at our Oasis in Mason City
My dad and his best buddy Lonnie were also on Ragbrai, using Lake Country Cyclists as their charter.  They are a great charter service, and dad was using them for the sixth time in a row.  After Erin and I went and visited with them after our fourth ride in Mason City, Dad came over to visit our camp for a while.  He was able to meet the team and observe our operation.  I was sad to hear that Dad and Lonnie had decided that this was going to be their last Ragbrai.  After seeing our operation and hearing our stories for the week, I bet dad could be convinced of another if he knew his driver would be a guy like Dennis. 
There were several pros of having a smaller group.  One of which is that it is easier to find shade for few than for many.  For a huge charter, it is difficult to find a campground where every tent can share some shade.  This isn’t the case when your group has four tents.  Another is the control over snacks and beverages.  We could have Dennis pick us up specific food and drink from grocery stores between camps.  On the century loop day, he met us in the meeting town of Bancroft.  Jonathan and I found some really good beer at a liquor store in Bancroft that we were able to purchase because we had a driver at a meeting town!  These things can’t happen with a charter.  
There were a few cons of a smaller group as well.  Showers were the pay-for kind only.  We didn’t have a camp shower available although that could be remedied in future years.  This cost me approximately $22 extra for the week then it normally would have by using camp showers.  Really, that isn’t that big a deal.  Another might be the larger social aspect that is missing.  I enjoyed the smaller group, as the bonds could grow tighter over the week.  I did miss, however, the larger social group.  With a larger group, you are more likely to run into someone within your group to ride with for a while if you happen to lose the one that you were with.  There is a less chance of that happening with a smaller group.  
In the wee early morning hours of the sixth day of Ragbrai (still dark) the thunderstorms hit Waverly.  Taking down a camp in rain is absolutely awful and is the worst part of Ragbrai if it has to happen.  Erin and I sat in our tent and got completely packed and ready to ride.  We found that the rain wasn’t going to stop for another few hours, but that didn’t stop Erin.  She took off for her ride in the rain.  I remained in the tent and researched some places that the rest of us could go.  Without breaking down our camp yet, we hopped into the truck and went to Duos Coffee and Ice Cream.  We drank coffee and played Battle of the Sexes with a few other riders until 10am.  The rain had finally let up.  We went back to dismantle camp and get riding.  Our official start time: 11am.  That was the latest I had ever started a Ragbrai ride.  
Being at the back of the ride meant larger portions and sometimes some deep discounts.  As service ending times neared, overstocked Gatorade started selling for $1 rather than $2.  Jonathan’s and my breakfast burritos were overstuffed with all of the fixings.  It was a new experience.  Somewhere along the route, I broke ahead of Jonathan and I rode in a few pace lines to make up some time lost.  About 10-12 miles from our last overnight town of Independence, I had a horrible wreck. 
I put the tag they left on Bicycle after wreck inside the crack of my helmet

After release photo with cracked helmet
 The center of the road had about a 1 inch crack that is a danger for cyclists.  I was aware of it, but must not have taken it at the angle I needed.  It swallowed my bike tires.  Instinctively, I pulled my bicycle up out of the cracks, but I was already at a tilt that I could not correct.  The next thing I remember was waking up on the pavement.  I never did get to talk with a rider that could describe in detail my fall on the pavement or the aftermath that ensued.  All that I got was someone telling me I had been unconscious for 2 minutes.  They asked me a few basic questions that I couldn’t answer right away, which let both them and me know that I had suffered a mild concussion.  Once the answers started coming to me, I wanted to sit up and get off the road since I was still lying in the middle of it.  They wouldn’t let me.  I wasn’t being stubborn.  I knew I was fine.  The ambulance took me away against my wishes to the hospital in Independence where I had an unnecessary MRI to tell me what I already knew: I suffered a minor concussion but was fine otherwise.
I learned something very valuable over the course of that evening and the next few days.  Some of the most difficult obstacles and challenges in life to overcome are those that nobody around you expects to overcome.  I think everyone pretty much assumed and even advised that I not ride the last day.  Erin had already made up her mind years before riding Ragbrai again that she wasn’t riding the last day.  I could just ride with her.  My own mind was even trying to talk myself out of the ride.  
At camp that evening, I found a person to fix a broken spoke on the back wheel and found a new helmet.  I wanted to take all the steps so that in the event I wanted to ride, I could.  On the morning of Day 7, I got up and got my bike clothes on.  It seemed automatic.  I knew if I didn’t ride I would regret it not only all day, but all year.  Day 7 was close to my best day of Ragbrai.  
Rachel, Erin, Jason, Jonathan, and Becca in Clear Lake

Jason, Jonathan, Becca, and Rachel dipping front tires in Mississippi.
Ragbrai is more of an adventure than a vacation.  Although it is both fun and a challenge, it is the struggle one goes through to finish that gives riders a sense of joy and accomplishment that lasts.  I learned that during Ragbrai 2012.  That year, I witnessed several of our team members stop riding during the miserable heat or after their stuff got soaked during a heavy wind and rainstorm.  I felt an overwhelming sense of pride having finished that ride.  That memory helped me put the bike gear on for the last day and finish Ragbrai XLII.

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