RAGBRAI, DAY 1 — Within my first five minutes of RAGBRAI I saw a kilted bagpiper serenade bicyclists as they sped out of Sioux City; was passed by a rider covered head to toe in a green and red cosplay-style Grinch/elf Christmas getup; and stood in line for a breakfast burrito from the Knights of Columbus, raising money for their homeless shelter.
I felt a warm glow at the core of my being to be back among the only rolling rural freakshow of its kind, where quirks and goodwill reign supreme.
Or maybe that glow was the scorching hot sausage burrito as it hit the pit of my stomach. Either way, it was good to be back on RAGBRAI. I wasn’t getting pelted with rain, and my overnight host in Sioux City had a backyard pool. That passes for the lap of luxury on this ride.
Last year’s trek boasted two days that ranked among the top 10 easiest in RAGBRAI history.
So it was only just that Director T.J. Juskiewicsz punish us with an opening 80-mile blast with nearly 4,000 feet of climb — the steepest day of the week by far.
One change I’ve noticed in the last five years of the ride: The pavement seems more pristine — as in no dead possums, raccoons or other road kill along the way. Before the ride, a member of (what else) Team Road Kill complained that she and her friends have gotten worried that there are too few stiff critters left on rural highways for them to festoon with their ritual Mardi Gras beads. If this is the result of zealous cleanup in advance of the bicyclists, could the crews please skip a few in the name of macabre RAGBRAI frivolity?
• Tom Blooming from Atlanta pulled up alongside me at the free water station on the edge of Kingsley. I noticed he was on roller blades, not a bike.
Turns out that Blooming, 44, is among an entire team of Google employees on blades. This is his first RAGBRAI; his coworkers finally goaded him into joining them.
Not that he was too daunted; he routinely embarks on epic blade rides of 100 miles or more in the South.
Blooming is an electrical engineer for Google who helps build data centers. He designed part of the data center in Council Bluffs.
“Where am I going to see this?” he asked of my pedaling prose.
I couldn’t resist. I told him, “Just Google it.”
He gave a hearty laugh as he rolled away and down the hill. I haven’t checked to see if my columns have mysteriously disappeared from search results.
• I encountered a couple members of this year’s No Pie Refused team — National Public Radio journalists who temporarily trade headline news for headwinds. Early warning: My RAGBRAI colleague Michael Morain and I have challenged No Pie Refused to a pie-eating contest at high noon Friday in Mt. Vernon. No utensils, no mercy. As I pedaled alongside NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, she observed that while they do like pie, they prefer to keep it down. Good point, but Morain and I aren’t backing off. (The NPR folks at first misheard me and thought his name was pronounced “meringue.” They worried that he had pie in his DNA.)
• The Backpocket Brewing tents were full Sunday morning, catering to the church of craft brew.
But an interlude several minutes down the road reminded me of what probably is RAGBRAI’s drug of choice for riders of a certain age.
“You want some more Advil?” one graying rider said to his buddy as they stood at a farm stop, parked between the trail mix buffet and giant hay bale sculptures painted to look like Minions.
• The thermometer on the side of city hall in Washta, the day’s midpoint town, read a toasty 92 degrees. The boast printed below the thermometer declaring this town to be the “coldest spot in Iowa” lost some of its impact. (As you might have heard, Washta recorded a temperature of -47 in 1912. That sounds almost attractive on RAGBRAI.)
The water, restrooms and wifi of the library-elementary school in Washta were understandable magnets for bicyclists. Library staff made sure to harvest the names and hometowns of nearly everybody. Among the riders from Seaford, Del., and Knoxville, Tenn., some joker signed in as “Dick Clark” from “American Bandstand.”
• Among my first-day RAGBRAI reunions was a roadside encounter with photographer Steve Pope. He’s a former Register colleague who shoots for RAGBRAI. He pops up at just about every event in Iowa.
Pope mentioned his $20 water recommendation for any would-be RAGBRAI spectators: Buy $20 worth of bottled water at a discount store, toss it in a cooler, pick a spot 10 miles outside of an overnight town, and put up a sign offering free water. For your $20 you’ll see about $50 million worth of bicycles, get caught up in intriguing conversations, and might make a friend or two that will last a lifetime.
I have to agree with Pope that that’s a savvy bargain. But then I’m spending my week among people from around the globe who spend hundreds of dollars to punish themselves to a sweaty pulp and call it vacation. My value judgement might be warped.
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