Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.
When I wrote my post a week ago, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew I'd be biking a lot of miles. I knew I'd be sleeping in a tent. I knew others were doing the same thing.
But I really had no idea.
I've put off writing my recap post for two reasons: 1) tent life gave me a head cold so I've been on cold meds since Saturday night but more importantly, 2) I had no idea how I could capture the experience. I still don't. But I'm going to try and I'm going to share pictures and I'm really going to encourage people to give it a shot.
I was a nervous wreck beforehand. Completely convinced I wasn't in good enough shape. But really, it's an event based on the experience. If you're active in any way, you can handle it. It's fun! It's crazy! It's social! And I really want to do it again 🙂
Back to the beginning.
We left Ankeny around 7:30pm on Wednesday evening once Adam got back from a work event. Earlier than I expected but still had us arriving in Charles City after dark and right before "quiet hours" at 10pm. Adam and I grabbed our bags out of the truck and put up our tent as silently as possible the dark before he drove the truck a mile down the road for it to sit until we picked it up on Sunday. We made it!
The next morning started early. Neither of us slept well because our tent was on a slight hill and we were sliding down our sleeping bags all night! Also, the old men who snored through our tent-making the night before were 4:50am cyclists… I had multiple alarms to wake me up! But I was excited to get started!
The first day we had 4 stop-over towns before reaching Cresco, our night destination. By the first stop I knew I would be able to get through the three days! I was keeping pace with some legitimate (looking) cyclists and while I may not be close to the fastest person there, I also wasn't the slowest!
Each town had its own theme and the whole community was out volunteering in matching tshirts. It was really incredible to see some of these small communities feeding and entertaining thousands of sweaty cyclists! Pictures don't do it justice, these towns were overrun by bikes and people. Slow walking traffic through the middle of main streets. It was like a fair with the number of vendors! Tons of food options, smoothies, beer tents, bike doctors, cycling vendors. Everything you can imagine and much more! Like pie. I can't forget the pie. It was everywhere. Almost as prevalent as the beer!
I didn't have a favorite spot but loved all the towns the first day (and every day!). They really all demonstrated their unique character and personality. The "Iowa Nice" motto was in full force! I was so impressed.
In addition to the planned stop-over towns, there were vendors periodically along the route setting up beer tents or ice cream stands. Families living on farms set up soda, water, and lemonade stands and made signs along the route. Families just pulled up chairs by the road and watched or cheered. If the cyclists weren't entertaining enough (so many costumes and coordinated teams!) there was always something to look at on the side of the road.
After stopping in every little town to enjoy the culture and stretch our legs, we made it to Cresco. 55 miles done. Mid-afternoon. Plenty of time to check in, put up our tent, have a drink, take a shower, and head back downtown for dinner and entertainment! And that's just what we did!
We used Pork Belly Ventures for our RAGBRAI "hassle-free" experience. They have tent space reserved, carry our bags each day, have bathrooms, hot showers, food, charging station, water station, coffee station, bike station… every station you could need! And free beer! I was a fan. They were super easy to communicate with and provided a shuttle option back to Des Moines at the end, including our bikes. Easy. After a day of biking, you don't want hard. This was a winner!
In Cresco Adam and I found a tent spot under some trees in the shade. We made friends with our neighbors and picked up some tips from them (it was their third RAGBRAI). I realized one big perk of RAGBRAI when heading to the shower trailers, there are half as many girls as guys or fewer! The line for the women's showers was so much shorter. That NEVER happens! Small victories 🙂
After getting clean, we ventured downtown using the shuttle. Our Pork Belly campsite was only about a mile from downtown but we were starving and the bus was an easy option. Downtown Cresco was mobbed! So packed with food trucks and vendors. Lines at the downtown restaurants had 2 hour wait times. So we waited in line at the Greek food truck (only option with good vegetarian choices!). The line moved sooooo slowly so Adam got us cookie dough from the neighboring food truck to eat while we waited! *adulting*
After eating we went to the beer garden/entertainment stage and hung out listening to live music for a few hours. I still can't get over how many people were taking over these small towns! Cresco had a great venue set up and we enjoyed people watching and singing along to the cover songs. We headed back to the campground around 10:30pm and quickly fell asleep! Apparently biking 55 miles makes for a good night's sleep!
The next morning I was a little more relaxed about timing, after feeling comfortable with our abilities and how the day went on Thursday. Friday included another 4 stop-over towns before getting to Waukon, our last stop. But these stops weren't so evenly spaced, we had a solid 20 mile start before hitting the first town, Decorah. Needless to say, once we got there we decided to take our time! A Bloody Mary, couple beers, and 2.5 hours later, we started the rest of our day! Friday definitely had more of a range of communities.
Decorah is a larger town which included almost two different stops. The next three were much smaller. Postville was the most unique of all the towns we visited. They have a large Somalian population, Orthodox Jew population, and growing Hispanic population. Lots of variety in the food options there! We didn't stay long in any of the towns. Just long enough to get a taste of their culture before moving on and we made it to Waukon around 5:45, in time for dinner at 6pm! At 62.6 miles, this was our longest day. We set up our tent right on the edge of "tent city" within earshot of the stage and eyeshot of the food and charging station (also close-ish to restrooms… good for night visits in the dark!).
Now… we treated Waukon differently. Pork Belly Ventures had a great campsite location but it was at the bottom of a hill and maybe two miles from the town center. Since we got in late and had food options available at the camp, we decided to stay put! Our neighbors from the night before shared some wine with me, Adam had packed vodka and found lemonade, and we sat in the shade from our tent listening to music and enjoyed the night!
Finally we made it to Saturday! The last day of our trip and the day giving me the most anxiety! I both had hills and time stressing me out. The northeast part of Iowa is gorgeous but it's gorgeous because of its hills. And we had to catch a bus out of Lansing to Des Moines by 2:30. Preferably getting to Lansing with enough time to shower…
Also, we had to start at the bottom of a giant hill, remember?
I do just fine going up hills, but I can't let myself fly down hills… I hate feeling out of control…. character flaw. So Adam and I decided to not stress over sticking together and instead plan to meet up in each stopover town.
Saturday started off awesome! Lots of rolling hills made for an entertaining and fun ride. Nothing too challenging. The first stop was one of my favorites of the trip, Waterville. We only had about 45 miles the last day and the stops were all 15 miles apart. Perfect! In Waterville we stopped at the top of a hill (with 10,000 of our closest friends), waited in a massive breakfast line, ate amazing pancakes, and took pictures of the breathtaking views! All by 9am. 1/3 done.
The bigger hills started after Waterville. There were two big ones before Harper's Ferry, our second to last stop and where we met up with the Mississippi River. While the hills to Harper's Ferry were tough, it was their length that made them difficult. Two hills that seemed to climb forever around corners and turns until you thought your legs were always going to burn. But, they weren't impossible. And I was feeling confident.
Harper's Ferry was the closest I got to not finding Adam. I was panicking because we were supposed to dip our tires together! But after searching for nearly 30 minutes, I managed to locate him among the masses and we made our way to the river (after he filled my low tires with air!).
The tradition is to dip you rear bike tire in the Missouri River when you start RAGBRAI and then dip your front tire in the Mississippi River when you finish! However we were warned that the end town was going to be super congested so riders were encouraged to dip earlier, which is what we decided to do!
After filling our water bottles and taking our tourist pictures, we hit the road for the final 15 miles and 2 big hills.
And they were doozies.
While it's still my favorite area of the country, the first hill of the last 15 miles was brutal. There was a lot of congestion as people hit the hill and slowed down. Weaving increased. Gear shifts caused changes in pace. It was challenging and frustrating. So about halfway up I decided that it was more important for me to not be miserable and I pulled to the side and walked up the rest of the hill with about 1/3 of the other riders! I'm disappointed that I didn't make it up but my happiness level vastly improved! The last hill was not as bad and I was able to make it through without stopping (also, it was shorter! Win!).
Pulling into Lansing was surreal. I can't imagine how the people who did the whole week felt! The streets were packed with people and bike and buses and food trucks and vendors. It was chaos! Adam finished not too far ahead of me so we linked up quickly and figured out leaving procedures. After checking into our bus and grabbing our bags, we took a final shower; bought 6 waters, 2 gatorades, and 1 pickle; and climbed into the air conditioned bus about 20 minutes early. 4.5 hours later, we were back in Des Moines! (We picked up Adam's truck from Charles City the next day.)
Whew! Such a fun experience! We both had so much fun and spent part of our bus ride home talking about next year! Unforgettable.
- What's an experience you'll never forget?
- Would you bike across a state for a week?