Tana enjoying some gelato

Whew! We did it! Okay, to be perfectly honest, I only did the last three days of RAGBRAI, so I can’t really brag, but for those of you who might be interested, here’s my impressions of this year’s ride.

Our first day, Thursday, from Tama to North Liberty, was the toughest for me. First, my chain picked up part of a tiny bungee cord, so I wasn’t able to change gears. Then, it rained — just a spit or or sprinkling at first, but enough that most folks got out their rain wear, and yes, some were sporting garbage bags! Finally, there seemed to be a lot more hills than I expected, or maybe it was just that the headwinds didn’t help. At any rate, we completed the 73 miles and were most grateful that we had real beds to sleep in that night.

Friday wasn’t too bad. I scored my first piece of homemade pie (apple pecan –yummy) at 9:49 a.m., but actually all the stops seemed to have gotten that memo and there was pie readily available all day long. I did notice that there has been a definite shift towards healthier foods since my last RAGBRAI. Mr. Porkchop was still there, but Tender Tom’s (grilled turkey) seemed more popular. Plus, there were lots of other options, such as vegetarian chili and fruit smoothies. The vendors also do a great job of promoting their products, many using the old Burma Shave poster technique. My favorite was” I scream — You scream — We all scream — for Gelato? — Italian Ice Cream Next Stop! I tried some blueberry pomegrante and it was delicious!

The last day, Saturday, was a breeze! We had beautiful weather and a tail wind to boot. We were easily an hour ahead of our expected schedule. Our nearby neighbors, Eldridge and LeClaire, were fully prepared and provided excellent reception parties for us. Eldridge even had a crew cleaning the porta-potty’s — that was a definite first! LeClaire organizers had festive balloon arches and real cheerleaders, plus, they also dramatically timed the entrances of the Air Force and Army Cycling Teams — it gave me goosebumps.

We had a great time! And now that you know that even little old lady librarians can do RAGBRAI, maybe you’ll consider joining us next time?

One of the things I love the most about RAGBRAI is that it shows the best of Iowa and Iowans. The people in the overnight towns are so friendly and helpful – they welcome the riders with open arms. People from all over the United States and even the world, get to see how genuine and generous Iowans really are. Townspeople open up their homes (for free!) to complete strangers, to people like me who are too lazy to camp.

The pass-through towns also go all out to welcome riders. Besides producing mountains of food to feed this onslaught of bikers (which must seem like a plague of helmeted locusts), many communities really get into the spirit. They have theme celebrations with free (or dirt cheap) entertainment, and many even sell T-shirts to commemorate the event. For instance, Tipton is literally “Rolling out the Red Carpet,” nearby Eldridge is sporting the theme “Happy Days in Eldridge,” and the final stop in LeClaire hopes their “Spokes and Ropes” theme will encourage visitors to come back for the Tug Fest in August.

The townspeople are also very tolerant. Try to imagine in a small town suddenly supporting a population 4 to 5 times its usual size. Don’t get me wrong – RAGBRAI is a great fundraiser and many towns lobby for several years to host it, but I have to believe that we bikers must leave a bit of a mess!

And finally, as anyone who’s ever ridden on RAGBRAI can attest, Iowa is NOT flat and boring! In fact, it is lush and green, with gently rolling hills which provide colorful, scenic vistas. It is, in short, beautiful!

For an affectionate look at our great state, check out the videorecording Iowa: an American Portrait, narrated by Tom Brokaw with historic and current images of Iowa.

Sometimes non-riders will ask, “How much weight did you lose on RAGBRAI?” They’re missing the whole point! Probably a more accurate question is “How much weight did you gain?” If nothing else, RAGBRAI is a food-fest. To really experience it, you have to sample it all. If you’re riding, or if you’re just looking for some vicarious enjoyment, here’s the top five RAGBRAI foods:

1) Corn on the cob. It’s put on a stick and dipped into a crock-pot of melted butter. This is Iowa – we grow corn. Those cornfields aren’t just for emergency potty breaks!

2) Grilled pork chops. These are at least an inch-thick and freshly prepared over huge grills made from livestock watering tanks. They can be served at any time of th day. I’ve eaten them as early as 8:30 in the morning – they actually make a pretty good breakfast!

3) Fresh, cold watermelon. Okay, we do eat some things that are healthy. This is a real treat on a hot afternoon. It is kind of messy, but fellow bikers don’t mind when you spit your seeds.

4) Beer. Kegs are readily available and a cold one really does taste good at the end of the day’s ride. Yes, there’s a party atmosphere, and some do overdo, but most riders want to make it to their destination first!

5) Pie. My favorite! I learned on my first RAGBRAI that if you didn’t hit the first town before 10am, the homemade pies would all be gone. Trust me, when you’re cycling this long, you deserve some extra carbs and nothing tastes better than a slice of freshly made apple pie. Or cherry, or peach, or….

Mmmm, sounds like the perfect picnic. If you’d like other ideas for good old-fashioned Iowa farm food, try these country cookbooks available at the Davenport library:

Prairie Home Cooking by Judith Fertig

Up a Country Lane Cookbook by Evelyn Birkby

Favorite Recipes from Iowa’s Bed and Breakfasts by Ann Crowley

1) Garbage Bags. Forget your rain poncho? Grab a garbage bag (bigger is better), tear 3 holes in it – a big one for your head and two smaller ones on the sides for your arms – and you’re good to go! No, they don’t work very well if it’s windy, but it does keep you a little bit dryer. Don’t laugh – I actually worn this item, and was grateful to the guy who was handing them out!

2) Little lycra shorts. Everyone wears them, so who cares what you look liek? They actually are more comforatable. Plus, they come with secret padding and they air dry very quickly.

3) Helmet mirrors. Some people just can’t get used to them, but these little magnetic attachments can be a real life saver. Inexperienced riders tend to turn their whole bike (and possibly into oncoming traffic) when they move their head to look back. There are just too many bicycles (10,000 plus) on the road, so the only safe direction is straight ahead. Mirrors really help, even when you have no makeup to check…

For other tips on bicycles and gear, check out these titles:

The Ultimate Ride: Get Fit, Get Fast and Start Winning by Chris Carmichael

Bicycling by Peter Oliver

From personal experience, the three H’s (Hard Parts) of RAGBRAI are:

1. Hills. This year’s route is the 11th hilliest out of all the RAGBRAI’s since 1973. Most hills really are doable – you just need to remember to use all your gears, especially that granny gear. Plus, there’s extra motivation when most everyone else is also huffing and puffing (although for some reason, there’s also some who seem to zoom by me!) Mainly, I just don’t want to be humiliated by having to stop and walk up a hill! The good part is that, in most cases, what goes up must come down. The speed and the cool breeze that the downhill ride brings make it all worth the effort. Wheeeeeee!

2. Heat. Okay – it’s July in Iowa. It’s going to be hot – just plan on it. If you can go fast enough, you can create your own air conditioner. Also, if you get up early, it usually stays on the cool side until 8am or so.

3. Headwinds. In my opinion, these are the worst. There’s not much you can do, but just keep plugging along. It does seem to help to gear down a bit, and of course, pray that either the course or the wind changes directions – soon!

If you’re looking for bike routes – with hills or without – try these:

Biking Iowa: 50 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides by Bob Morgan

Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides by David Johnsen

Once again it’s time for the Des Moines Register’s RAGBRAI, held this week July 20-26th. Notice that the acronym stands for RIDE not RACE, thereby allowing old-lady librarians like me to participate. Fortunately, everyone is welcome and we can all go at our own pace.

RAGBRAI started in 1973, so this year will be the 36th year. Bikers will start on Sunday by dipping the back tire of their bike in the Missouri River at Missouri Valley, Iowa. Overnight stops this year are Harlan, Jefferson, Ames, Tama/Toledo, North Liberty and Tipton. The final destination is nearby LeClaire on Saturday, July 26 where the bicyclists finish by dipping their front tires in the Mississippi River. With the Bix 7 Road Race going on the same day in Davenport as well as the Bix Jazz Festival, there’ll be lots of visitors to enjoy our Quad City hospitality!

To read more about RAGBRAI check out River to River, Year after Year: RAGBRAI Through the Lens of Register Photographers and RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong by John Karas.