I rode 462 miles across Iowa and all I got was this weird tan

Overhead shot of feet on carpet with tans that outline the Keen sandals i wore
The result of wearing Keen Newport sandals under the extremely strong sun for 7 consecutive days bike riding.

I’ve had some past technical issues with this blog which is why I haven’t posted since almost a year ago, but it seems appropriate to recommence now with a special post about a bike ride I took across the state of Iowa one month ago called RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is an acronym and registered trademark for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, and it’s largest bike-touring event in the world. It took place this year from July 19-25, starting at the Missouri River in Sioux City, IA and ending at the Mississippi River in Davenport, IA. The last time the ride started in Sioux City was in 1973, and there was much celebration of having them back in town after being gone so long. The ride itself spans 7 days, but riders can opt to participate as many days as they choose. I believe the ridership was somewhere around 10,000, but on certain days, it swelled up to about 20,000 with day/partial riders. Partial riders are people who chose to only ride one day, or less than the entire week’s tour.

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My intention of this entry is not to give a history lesson into what RAGBRAI is or how it functions—you can visit their site or go to Wikipedia to learn that. Instead, I want to try and convey a fraction of the excitement and emotions I, and many others felt, taking part in this unbelievable, unforgettable experience.

There is so much I want to write about this trip that I don’t even know where to start or finish. I’ll begin by saying that RAGBRAI was my first time in Iowa, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this—what better way to visit a state than riding your bike across it, stopping at quaint little towns along the way. How I actually got involved in it was completely by chance. I was telecommuting on a freelance project back in November 2014, working with a writer name George, and our only communication was by phone and email. During one of our conversations, he told me about RAGBRAI and how he had been wanting to do it for years. He was planning (or hoping) to do the 2015 ride in July—he and his friend, Michael, were going to sign up and he proposed the idea of me joining them. At the time, I had only started to begin riding my bike on a regular basis and the thought of riding across Iowa was a little too ambitious for me. And let me just state for the record—IOWA IS NOT FLAT. There are many, many rolling hills that may look like nothing when driving in a car, but on a bike, they can break even strong cyclists.

Fast forward to March 2015, I had then been riding my bike all throughout winter and was gaining confidence in my ability to persevere through the elements, especially wind, as difficult as it was at times. I started to feel and believe that I could actually do this ride in July if I kept up with training. So months after my freelance project had ended and I lost touch with George, I reached out to him to see if he and his friend Michael were still planning the trip. Turns out that they were, and I joined their team Abiding Dudes (yes, a homage to the Big Lebowski).

Team photo of Abiding Dudes the night before the ride. Saturday, July 18, 2015. Sioux City, IA
Team photo of Abiding Dudes the night before the ride. Saturday, July 18, 2015. Sioux City, IA
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White russian on the right sleeve and bowling ball on the left.

We officially commenced training in April, as that’s when RAGBRAI had recommended starting it—according to their suggested training guide. The goal was to train about 500 miles prior to the event to ensure you would make it through the entire tour. Fortunately (and unfortunately), I was not working full-time during the period leading up to the ride and was able to log over 1,100 hours of training. Even though every mile I trained was well worth it, in hindsight, for people that work full-time and have families, I’m not quite sure how they could fit in 100 hours of riding per week.

2015 RAGBRAI Training Plan chart
2015 RAGBRAI Training Plan

I knew this ride would be momentous in so many ways, and it did not disappoint. We went, what I like to call, the ‘purist’ route, camping out almost every night (instead of staying at hotels or people in the host towns). The reason I call it that is because I believe in order to fully experience RAGBRAI, you need to at least do the entire week riding 65+ miles a day, then carry a 50lb bag to a crowded camp site, find a spot to set up camp, take a shower in a gym locker room with strangers, find dinner in town, and then come back to your tent to sleep, only to start the day over again at 5am—all over the course of a week. My teammates and I did this 6 out of the 7 nights (one of the nights we stayed with a host family), and I couldn’t believe how far I had pushed myself outside of my comfort zone. I had never camped in my life, and the only practice I had of assembling a tent was in my small apartment a couple of weeks before the ride. But by the end of the trip, I could set up camp and break it down more efficiently than I thought I ever would. And taking a shower with strangers—after sweating for 8+ hours, getting dirt kicked up on you, using porta potties with no toilet paper—was more than welcome if it meant being clean.

Waking up at dawn every day and riding so many miles may sound daunting but it was the only thing you had to do everyday. That’s it. There was no commuting on crowded trains, no checking email (especially since service was very limited), no texting, no deadlines or meetings, just riding your bike through beautiful scenery, stopping to eat and drink whenever you needed and wanted, and enjoying the entire experience.

It’s impossible to pinpoint one favorite moment during this trip. From the towns we passed through, the delicious food we ate, to the endless corn fields and thousands of people and towns we encountered, I couldn’t have imagined all of it, nor will I ever forget it.

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As the annual RAGBRAI tradition goes, riders dip their back tire in the Missouri River to signify the beginning of the ride and departure from western Iowa.
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For riders who do the entire 7 days and have earned bragging rights, they get to dip their front tire in the Mississippi, signifying the end of the ride and arrival to eastern Iowa.
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RAGBRAI swag: Bike license plate, luggage tag, patch memento, route map
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RAGBRAI swag: Rider’s bracelet (completely worn after the ride), list of each city/town we rode through, bike bracelet, participant guide.
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015. Notice the nearly 4,000 feet of climb!
The route map for our first day: Sunday, July 19, 2015
The route map for our last day: Saturday, July 25, 2015

I took the below video at the top of a hill because I wanted to capture the scenic landscape and the riders going downhill. I wanted to remember that moment and how I felt experiencing this. Watching the video, it might seem as though no one is having a good time. There aren’t many people smiling, and it appears they’re just trying to get from point A to B. That may be true for some (maybe those who have done it before), but I guarantee you there were many of us, including me, who were filled with so much excitement that we were actually doing this. The months of training and planning were finally coming to fruition and it was surreal. Yes, the rides were tough at times, many times, but to know that when you woke up all you had to do was ride your bike, eat food, rest, and have a good time, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so hard.

Some of the people, food, landmarks and towns we came across.

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The University of Iowa rents out a land from a local Iowan to give riders a place to relax along the route.

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Ft. Dodge was the second host city where we stayed on Monday, July 20th.
Ft. Dodge was the second host city, where we stayed on Monday, July 20th.
Steamboat Rock was the first town we hit after leaving the campgrounds in Eldora on Day 4 - Wednesday, July 22nd.
Steamboat Rock was the first town we hit after leaving the campgrounds in Eldora on Day 4 – Wednesday, July 22nd.
You'd think growing up in NYC, large, towering structures wouldn't intimidate me, but these grain towers sure did.
You’d think growing up in NYC, large, towering structures wouldn’t intimidate me, but these grain towers sure did.
Can you image City Hall and the New York Public Library sharing one roof?
Can you image City Hall and the New York Public Library sharing one roof?
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Every town we went to welcomed the riders with open arms and celebrated RAGBRAI in their own creative way.

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A lot of people were stopping to photograph these Minion haystacks. The funny thing was that these were 1 of about 5 that I saw on the ride.
A lot of people were stopping to photograph these Minion haystacks. The funny thing was that these were 1 of about 5 that I saw on the ride.
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Google set up charging stations at meet towns where people, including myself and my teammates, would trustingly leave our phones to charge while we found food and relaxed. They were always there when we returned, though I was constantly worried they wouldn’t be! (Meet towns are towns located half way through each day’s route. They have the official bike vendors/sponsors and most food offerings/porta potties, celebratory events, etc.)
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The Mayor of Lisbon, IA, Beryl O’Connor came out on the rainy day to greet us and other riders to town.
This poor guy was pooped. I found him in the high school in Coralville (we mostly camped on high school grounds in the various towns and used their showers).
This poor guy was pooped. I found him in the high school in Coralville (we mostly camped on high school grounds in the various towns and used their facilities, including outlets).
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Ironically, the big celebration was not the last day of the ride in Davenport. Instead, it was the last night of the ride, Friday, July 24th in Coralville, IA. Coralville has been a repeat host for RAGBRAI.
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After a long 7 days, we finally celebrated with our own white russians.