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After years of sloth, I am now a mama who runs and practices yoga. I write about exercise; parenting a grownup child as well as two little kids; and whatever is annoying me at the moment.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Riding a bike in Iowa: Ragbrai 2018 report

Earlier this year, one of us -- either my 25-year-old son Tory or I, not sure -- came up with an idea: Let's ride RAGBRAI this year.

RAGBRAI stands for "Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa". The Register is the Des Moine Register, a paper I tried unsuccessfully to get hired on at many years ago as a young small-town newspaper reporter in Newton, Iowa, and later in Des Moines at a small business weekly. (Years later, I made it to the Chicago Sun-Times as a reporter, so it all worked out fine in my book.)

That aside, the Register puts on this bike ride every year over seven days across the state. Back in the early 1990s, when I was that reporter, I was married with a small boy, Tory. I had thought about riding RAGBRAI but it didn't work out. And then I moved away, remarried, had more kids and became a runner. I went years hardly ever touching a bike.

The opportunity to finally do RAGBRAI was too tempting. Tory's dad and I agreed that he'd take the first four days in Iowa with our son, and I'd ride with him the last three days. Tory's extended family would drive an RV across the state and crew him and whichever parent was with him. Perfect. 

RAGBRAI's web site recommends biking 1,000 miles to train. I didn't do nearly that much, but I'd already been doing spin classes regularly, post-hip arthoscopy surgery in 2017. I also abundantly use our city's bike share Divvy nearly daily, so I squeezed in as many 20-25-mile rides as time would allow as the July RAGBRAI dates approached. Meh, I figured. I'd just go slow and do my best. 

I drove to Newton, Iowa with a rental car and a borrowed bike rack, that, unfortunately, didn't fit the rental car. I managed to keep the bike on the car by using bungy ropes to attached the bike rack to the car and the bike to the bike rack.

I sweated it the entire 300-plus mile drive to Newton, one of the towns the ride would stop through. It seemed appropriate to start the ride there, considering I had started my previous career in that town as a very green reporter and where my oldest son was born.

When I arrived at Tory's great-aunt Helen's house, he and his dad were already there. They were exhausted and hobbling a little as they walked, telling of heat and hills. 


A good dinner later by Helen and her sister, Gerry (Tory's awesome grandmother), and we were soon in bed. I woke up around 2 a.m., fretting about riding and how I hadn't yet lined up enough babysitters for the following week to pick up the kids at camp. Ugh.

The next morning, Tory and I got our bikes and stuff together. I ate a banana and we were off to Reasnor, a tiny town 10 miles away. It was hilly, but oh my, it was cool and the sun was rising and it was amazing. A breakfast bowl from "Farm Kids", one of the many pop-up food places we'd see again over the route, and we were happy and full. 

I was feeling spunky at that point, and gabbing Tory's ear off as we continued east toward Lynnville and Sully. Suddenly my chain popped off and I couldn't pedal.

This is one of the things that holds me back from biking more on my own. I know jack shit about fixing a bike. I've never even changed a tire. Deep confession.

So naturally, I panic. Tory's like, "calm down" and starts messing with the bike. Some thing that holds the chain in place is bent. He tries to fix it, but I still can't pedal. 

Maybe 15 minutes into this, one of the members of the Air Force Cycling team -- which Tory told me rides RAGBRAI to assist troubled cyclists -- pulls over and begins to help us. He's a tall, young guy and super nice. He warns me he might break the derailer-whatever-it-is if he bends it back into place, but we have no choice.

It works! He tells us his name is Greg and he's stationed at Scott Air Force Base, which is near St. Louis. I tell him my dad's retired Air Force in Omaha, and thank him for his bike help. Tory and I continue on a mile to Lynnville where -- thank you!! -- there is a bike shop popup where someone is able to fix my bike enough to finish RAGBRAI. 

That is a great thing about RAGBRAI -- in addition to food and drinks and funs stuff in every town, there are bike repair people to help you. What a relief!

The rest of the trip was rolling hills and stopping in little towns. I ate an amazing Iowa pork chop out of a napkin on the side of the road. We stopped for ice cream. When we got to Sigourney that evening, we wound up in a weird, ginormous costume warehouse (!?), lured by the promise of free beer. We got to the RV park and took a very cold shower in  4H barn-like place for $5, but it was good to wash off the grime. Total mileage: 75, more than 3,000 feet of elevation climbed. I felt tired, but elated.

Day two was another 50-plus miles to my favorite Iowa town, Iowa City -- home to the University of Iowa and my diehard football fan husband's team. It was less hilly, with a stop in Amish country's Kalona, with delicious roadside goodies (homemade pies are a weakness of mine). Kalona is home to a great brewery, Kalona Brewing, so naturally we stopped for a beer. The taproom was packed full of bikers, everyone in a great mood. In Iowa City, we went to dinner at Pullman, one of my new favorite Iowa City restaurants, and walked around on what was a beautiful summer night. I missed my family but it was pretty great.

Day three was 74 miles from Iowa City to Davenport, one of the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River. We trekked through West Liberty (super cute, quaint town) and I grabbed a pancake breakfast at the fire department in Atalissa to the east. We then rode through Moscow (blink and you missed it), Wilton, Wildcat Den State Park and then Montpelier, where Tory took a small roadside nap to allow me to catch up with him. This part of Iowa was a pretty break from the cornfields and soybean fields we'd been riding through, with more trees and some rolling hills.

We then went through Blue Grass, a tiny town with a gigantic drive-in movie theater, before finishing our ride to Davenport. The day had a Mayberry-like quality for sure -- like time had frozen at some point in eastern Iowa. 

I'd never been to Davenport. The riverfront was nice (I love riverfronts in general), and it was great to cross the finish line looking out at the Mississippi river (Big River! we always yell to the kids as we cross between Iowa and Illinois. I plan to yell that to them when they're teenagers, too). A quick burger with Tory, his grandparents and great-uncle, and we were on the road home to Chicago.

I absolutely loved RAGBRAI and biking. I'm so thrilled that I was in shape enough to do the ride and enjoy it. I'm wondering if I'm starting to like biking more than running. I can't wait to do another long organized ride.

Thank you to Helen in Newton for dinner and letting us stay at her house for the night; Curt for driving his RV all week and being all around awesome, to Tory's grandparents Mark and Gerry; who had always been so kind and wonderful since I first met them 30 years ago; Chris, Tory's dad, for doing the first four days with our son; Brett, my husband, for sparing me for a few days to do this awesome trip with Tory; and to my dad, who (mostly) patiently taught me how to ride a bike as a kid, and never fails to remind me how I used to crash into metal garbage cans.

And thank you to Tory -- a 50-year-old mom and 25-year-old guy don't have a lot of common interests, so I'm glad that you were willing to do this with your parents. It's fun having adult kids!

Tory and I in Keota, Iowa

Our comfy home

I think this is West Liberty

Atalissa, Iowa

Atalissa Fire Department making pancakes for cyclists

Drive-in in Blue Grass. Tory just signed the wall.

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