Ragbrai - The Mississippi River is Calling

A Doug's Life
[More corn. More sun. More bikes. Another day on the road of Ragbrai.]

… … … …

I was on the move, riding to Tama-Toledo, the overnight town.

As usual, there were many pass-through towns but one – Grinnell Iowa, happened to be where some of Jeffs relatives lived.

It was the last town before Tama-Toledo.

He had been waiting to hear back from Larry and Jean about us stopping by. Well, as Iowan’s do, of course they invited everyone over.

I asked Jeff: “So they’re ok with a bunch of stinking sweating thirsty hungry exhausted riders invading their place?”

“Yessiree” Jeff responded without hesitation. “They know Ragbrai. It's passed through Grinnell a few times. They always have riders over.”

Jeff had mentioned the Grinnell visit a few days ago and wanted to make sure I extended the go-ahead to the rest of our gang.

The response so far had been luke-warm. But now that the invite was official, it was game on for us. Except for Al, who was already at Tama-Toledo.

Grinnell was about 20 miles up the road. I hung back to let Russ and Conrad catch up. Jeff kept going and would meet us there.

Address in hand, we zigged when the official route through Grinnell zagged. Suddenly we were on a quiet street - the only cyclists.

I slowed down to absorb the quiet. It felt far from the craze. Long inhale. A very nice moment.

We turned up a driveway. The garage door was open, and we rolled our bikes straight in - next to Jeffs bike, getting out of the sprinkles that has started.

Jeff and Jean were there to greet us. Right away, Jean was so inviting. Larry would be home soon and oh, there’s some folding chairs in the garage, so please help yourself and oh yes, the fridge next to the laundry has lots of cold beer.

Well, in no time we were cracking yet another can of suds, while wrapped in bath towels waiting for our laundry to dry and the dinner bell all while getting to know our hosts.

We had such a nice break from our routine. Thank you, Jeff, Larry and Jean!

Later me, Russ and Conrad pried ourselves from the dinner table to catch the last light of the evening. We had the final 24 miles to go.

Jeff decided to spend the night in Grinnell, then get a ride to the Tama-Toledo in the morning.

It was a beautiful evening; it had cooled a bit and the light cast Iowa in a golden blanket as the never-ending corn streamed on by.

Few riders were spotted, there were some, but it was a quiet 24 miles. Tailing the crowd has its advantages.

A Doug's Life
[Around the dinner table in Grinnell Iowa.]

A Doug's Life
[A stop to enjoy the evening landscape during our post-dinner miles.]

A Doug's Life
[Conrad pushing through to our final stop of the night.]

A Doug's Life
[Low angle sun helps stretch Mi Sombra to Russ and Conrad.]

… … … …

The next morning was Friday morning, but at the time wasn’t too sure about that.

The day of the week isn't worth tracking compared to the incoming tasks of riding, the towns, the excitement and the never-ending quest to satisfy your latest food craving - all push such day-of-week and other calendar-y things aside.

Front and center, however, was a fact we all were facing: The days heat would be the hottest, most humid day of Ragbrai 2023.

I never knew the exact temperature until days later, but it was about 108~112 degrees adjusted for the humidity index.

By then, I wasn’t too interested in the exact number anyway since every day was hot and humid. And I seemed to be doing ok and frankly every day that I was feeling like my fever, sinus and throat issues were history, was another good day in the saddle.

Coralville was the destination town, another 80~90-mile day depending on your exact route.

The map said we’d pass through Chelsea, Bell Plaine, Marengo, Amana and Oxford along the way. After this is over, and you ask me if I've been to "where-ever", Iowa, I will probably say oh-yes, I've got stories!

Hot it was. Add to that, the terrain dished out these never-ending rolling hills – while not terribly steep or high compared to my mountain bike experience – they started to take their toll without delay.

While riding, the wind you create makes the heat bearable. But that nice windy byproduct of gliding forward comes to a grinding halt once you’re "geared low and going slow" midway up one of these hills.

Suddenly the full brunt of the heat, humidity, and that damn hill all come together in a triple threat of pain.

Rivers of sweat and occasionally some body shivers became a regular thing on those last assaults to the crest.

I began pulling off to the side at the tops, looking for a 10-minute shady reprieve. There were many of us at each little summit. No one speaks while we regain our strength. Our faces are red, our energy in question while we contemplate the next hill and the remaining miles of the day.

At one hilltop - that also hosted a large grove of trees - was a dirt track – a driveway actually – meeting the road from the right.

Cyclists were all gathered there. Some made the right-hand turn.

Instinctively I followed to find a shaded farmhouse under the tree canopy and Mary – the farm wife – lining up the riders in a line, then spraying her misting garden hose back and forth as if she were repainting her barn.

We’d turn around get another dose on our backsides, then help ourselves to a free energy bar as we readied to descend to the base of the next hill to start the process. Again.

Iowan kindness strikes. Again!

A Doug's Life
[Farm wife Mary and her hosing station.]

So it was a long day and I got to Coralville late. Of course, my body was craving food and when I spied a local grocery store, I pulled in.

Minutes later I emerged with sub sandwiches, chips, a tub of potato salad, pasta salad and beer.

The campground was just up the way so I carted my provisions while trying to connect with Alan who – of course – had arrived much earlier.

We met on an upper football field of another school and instead of setting up camp, I spread out the food on the 15 yard line. Alan and I inhaled dinner.

Al wanted more beer so off he went back to the same store. Just before he left, we noticed the sky had turned very dark very quickly.

The wind shifted then picked up to a healthy breeze. “If it starts to rain, can you batten down my tent?” Of course.

I was just getting done with my tent fly when an air raid siren started wailing. Then another. And another.

Everyone, everywhere started checking their phones for information. I was thinking perhaps a tornado was forming.

Just then a Ragbrai official in a golf cart with a megaphone started warning everyone to take cover in the school immediately. A super cell was moving in with lightning, rain, hail and 70+ mph winds.

A Doug's Life
[My tent and the dark clouds moving in fast to the sound of the local sirens blaring.]

Great. I was looking forward to getting over to the shower trucks since I needed one so badly.

Instead, I finished staking down my tent, loading my stuff into the vestibule, double checking the guy lines to make sure it had a chance against the impending storm.

The wind was really starting at this point. I then moved over to Al’s tent to get all his stuff inside, fully zipped and battened down.

Off I went, on bike, riding across the bumpy athletic fields, to the access walkway that led to the parking lots then into the schools' double doors.

I left my bike among all the others then settled into a hallway full of other disheveled riders and campers.

I tried to get comfortable on the floor and perhaps doze off if possible.

My phone chirped and a text came in about the storm. The area would be under storm warning until 10:30 pm. The current time was 7 pm.

Another text came in later, Russ and Alan were in the gym. I made my way through clogged hallways and eventually we all established a spot near a window.

A Doug's Life
[The gym.]

Conrad and Jeff were missing-in-action, but eventually Conrad texted Russ to say he was in some different school at gym that was nearly empty.

Russ hadn’t eaten and was starving. I hadn’t showered and was stinking. Alan had done both, and with his grocery booty under his arm was comfortably sipping beer while monitoring his weather app.

At one point there was commotion over by the window. Those watching apparently had a firsthand view of the wind at full throttle blowing tents, lawn chairs –all that stuff – down wind then probably down town.

I was fairly sure our tents would be ok. Ragbrai has many biking and camping novices each year - and it shows - especially at the campgrounds.

We cringed at the haphazard tent setups each night and for this situation it proved to be a big problem for a lot of people.

At about 10:30 pm the all-clear was given to head back out. The school would be left open if anyone wanted to sleep inside.

Finally! At 10:45 pm I was crawling onto my sleeping pad and dropped out like a log despite my cozy tent flapping in the wind.

… … … …

Early morning on the final day of Ragbrai, a 66 mile day into Davenport along the Mississippi river – which is the border between Iowa and Illinois.

I packed up, headed out looking for a coffee and some morning eats. Alan was ahead of me by about 40 minutes – which I knew from this week of riding would turn into several hours by the end of the day.

At some point I ran into Jeff. Because of the storm, he was ushered into and slept in an art studio. He enjoyed the upstairs classroom; he had the entire thing to himself overnight.

Jeff faded back, while I caught up to Russ and Conrad.

We were lamenting the fact that this long, strange trip was quickly coming to an end, and that we’d all be splitting up after the traditional “tire-dip” along the Mississippi at the official end of the route.

Russ checked the time, then his notes. Turns out he, Conrad and Alan had to be at a bus pick-up zone by 3:30 pm.

[Note: It’s sort of a complicated explanation, but they had booked a bus to Chicago, to a hotel, then connecting to the train to Los Angeles the next morning. I decided to catch that same train another way.]

Suddenly they were concerned about making it to the bus in time – I could see my big idea of getting a group photo of us (Alan included) with bikes at the river was not going to happen.

So, now the mood of the final days ride had changed. Suddenly there were logistical concerns. The pace picked up and the moment of us riding along, reflecting about the week was gone. Poof!

At a gas station mini mart, crammed with riders, I realized this was probably the last opportunity to get a group photo – an unglamorous head shot with gas pumps and bike frames crowding the background.

A Doug's Life
[The last photo of the three amigos en-route to the Mississippi.]

They mounted up and took off, while I got in line for a sandwich – then happily followed the crowds along the final miles.

The river parallels the route for many miles before the official end. It didn’t look like what I was expecting.

I was down in St. Louis once back in the 1980’s, where the mighty Mississippi passes by the big arch. I remember the river being busy with barges, small freighters and other maritime traffic.

Here, it was mostly wide open with a few recreational power boats. Still, a big river is a big river. It reminded me of the St. Lawrence.

At last, I came upon a big crowd of riders all stuck trying to make a right turn. Ah, I could see – it was a jam up where everyone is crowding a boat ramp where the official dip takes place.

Just then I saw Russ ahead of me approaching the same intersection. Head down he was checking his navigation and made a left, slipping away from the crowd just as I was shouting to get his attention. Too late. Off he went, running late to catch his bus.

Well, that's the end, I thought. A scattershot of friends separated by the tides and currents left behind the Ragbrai swell. I kind of wanted to celebrate with someone. We were done!

I entered the jam-up. I could see the crowds down the ramp to the water. It was loud with music, cheering, high-fives, beer flowing. But I was in no mood to wait to get to the water's edge. I was hungry, as usual.

I pulled away to a grassy spot adjacent to the commotion. I heard my name. It was Jeff. Well surprise, surprise, we meet up again.

I appreciated that he was there for the very first day - when I was so sick - then was here again when I was looking for a high-five. A small but memorable Ragbrai gift.

“I wanted to catch all you guys and buy a round of beers before we all go our separate ways. I've been waiting for a while.”

Well, shit. That was the celebration I was looking for! It sounded so nice but wasn’t going to happen. We were fragmented and split apart at that point.

A Doug's Life
[Me and Jeff at the very end of Ragbrai 2023.]

Instead, we had a short conversation and double checked our contact information. Jeff mounted his bike and headed out to a car lot to rescue his vehicle then drive back to Ohio.

As for me, I actually had some more riding to do.

I looked down the river to a few bridges that connect to the Illinois side, that’s where I was headed next.

... ... ... ...

If you've made it this far, thanks so much for hanging in there to the very end.

If you have thoughts or comments to share, use the form below. The comment password is: life is good

Add comment

  Country flag

  • Comment
  • Preview