On July 22, 2018, 20,000+ cyclists will once again make the 450+ mile, week-long journey across Iowa known as RAGBRAI. The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), is an annual seven-day bicycle ride sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper. Starting in 1973, RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest, and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world. It is held in the last week of July and has an average length of 468 total miles, with the average daily distance between host communities of 67 miles.
In July 2014, my friend Barb asked me if I would be interested in riding RAGBRAI 2015 with her cycling team. At first, I thought she was nuts. I had never been considered an athlete and had undergone back surgery in July 2013. My first reaction was that I could never physically do it. But then, I stopped myself… I had to ask, “But why can’t I?”
I didn’t own a bike, so I began riding 47-pound Nice Ride bike share cruisers around town to see if I could physically handle the training that would be required the following summer. When I was finally able to ride 20 miles on one of those tanks in October 2014, I decided that yes, I was going to do it.
Winter was coming, and I didn’t want to buy a bike until I really knew what I wanted. Another friend pulled a shitty hot pink hybrid bike that you might buy at a box store out of a trash pile and gave it to me. So naturally, I named her Trixy and placed her on an expensive cycle trainer for the winter months. And all that winter, I rode that heap and watched movies, terrified of RAGBRAI.
In February 2015, Barb told me with deep regret and apologies that her team had dissolved and that she was not going to be able to ride RAGBRAI after all. I was faced with a decision: don’t go after all the training I had already done or go alone. I refused to give up. I decided to go alone. In April 2015, I bought my bike Alexis, a steel Jamis Aurora touring bike and the rest is history.
In the end, I rode 490 miles in 7 days through summer heat and humidity, between the Iowa corn fields, small towns, and beer tents. I normally write a daily journal but writing during RAGBRAI proved impossible due to the level of exhaustion that I experienced. However, I did keep notes during my training. What follows is an excerpt of those journals by date and a count of the mileage I put on my bike Alexis. Enjoy!
RAGBRAI 2015 training journal
April 23… I need to purchase a bike. What shop should I go to? What about a bike? What kind of bike? What brand? What am I doing?
April 28 (Alexis 6.5 miles)… I bought my bike and have named her ‘Alexis’. I feel stupid on my bike. I was scared on the test ride- does that mean the bike doesn’t fit right? I am worried about leaning over all the time. My lower back is shit. And it is true that if I start having muscle spasms, I need to grip the brakes anyway I can, preferably not bent over. I have emotional scars from the back injury and fear participating in such an insane event after back surgery…
May 1 (Alexis 35 miles)… Steady as she goes. I will attempt the longest ride of my life tomorrow- 35 miles. It scares me a little, not knowing where I am going, not knowing if I will make it. It’s so long- 3 hours, maybe 4. Will I be OK? I am getting my miles in. I cycled on Trixy in my living room for up to an hour on the trainer. It was basically just sitting. Tomorrow I can take breaks. No speed contest. Slow but sure.
May 13 (Alexis 226 miles)… I am in a relationship with my bike, Alexis. She has been a real change for me and I can feel the quality of my life improving- losing weight, getting exercise. I have been told that I “glow”- endorphins. The body responding to intense exercise. Friday, I will ride to the St Paul campus. I will need to bring the straps for my saddle bags. I hope my bike will be safe locked up all day. I am afraid of 4th of July weekend- 30 miles, 65 miles, 50 miles- three days in a row. That is insane. I am worried about being so exhausted I make bad choices while riding. I don’t understand my bike yet. It’s rattling and that is bothering me.
May 27 (Alexis 414 miles)… Summer is coming. RAGBRAI is coming. I am preparing as best I can. I remain unconvinced that it will be enough, but it will put me in better condition than I am in today. It is a lot of time, money, and effort but frankly, what else am I doing?
June 1 (Alexis 517 miles)… I am 7 weeks away from RAGBRAI. I am afraid at times. It’s not real yet. I am trying to get myself together. I am worried about money and I have spent the bulk of my budget on equipment and cycling clothes. There isn’t a lot left to buy and I can ‘make due’. Is an army bag the way to go? I want water proof with shoulder straps. Water proof pillow case = giant Ziploc. I need to pack well and ride safely.
June 2 (Alexis 532 miles)… Heat exhaustion.
June 10 (Alexis 650 miles)… Neck injury. My neck is acting up.
June 15 (Alexis 650 miles)… My back-end is in trouble. What happened? Bike seat. My neck is better but not healed. I have benched myself in order to heal. Even if my neck is OK, if my rump isn’t I can’t ride. I need to use more cycling butter on my butt. Am I going to survive this? I am concerned about my health and my ability to complete RAGBRAI.
June 24 (Alexis 785 miles)… Bicycle. Train for RAGBRAI. Do RAGBRAI. I am inspiring some people to get active. I am attracting others. I look thinner and I know why they are looking. I wish I could read & write more but cycling is where it’s at for me today.
June 25 (Alexis 785 miles)… St Paul campus, just after lunch- hot sun and worries about my sunburn getting worse. I cycle this campus. Indeed, I was here 18 hours ago, pushing my bike up the hill to the student center. I shop for bike shoes tonight.
(Later that evening…) I feel weird about going into a store and dropping money on a pair of bike shoes without shopping around. But frankly, how many brands are there? It’s a limited market. Now there is all this idea of ‘style’. The only style I have is one of function and what the clearance rack offers me. I hope my shoes and pedals will make my cycling experience better, that I will get more bang for my buck; that I won’t be so exhausted at the end of long rides. I will bring the bike in for the 90-day tune up next Wednesday. I will ask about my chain health and get my pedals installed.
June 30 (Alexis 882 miles)… I am riding my bike across the state of Iowa in 2.5 weeks. I have the determination. Am I physically able to accomplish the goal? Why did I think all this shit was a good idea? Why am I putting myself through it? I am going alone. I will talk to some people but at the end of the day, I will have no one to share this with. I will sit and eat my pork chop alone, surrounded by teams of family members and friends. I will observe them and enjoy them and be alone.
July 6 (Alexis 1,034 miles)… The next 12 days of preparation will be busy and stressful at work and at home. I prepped for RAGBRAI over the past few months and now at the end it’s not so bad. I still need to purchase a few things. Mostly, it’s mental strain that’s going to be what gets me on the ride. I am concerned that my physical exhaustion will overwhelm me, and I will not be as safe. The shoes. The shoes. Take your time and ride unclipped if you need to. I am afraid. I do not believe I will be able to finish this ride. I believe I have bitten off more than I can chew and now after all this time, after all this money, I can not back out of it. I feel very stressed.
July 7 (Alexis 1,056 miles)… I spent my ride into work fretting and distracted by my tiny rear-view mirror on my sunglasses.
July 10 (Alexis 1,091 miles)… Will I ever end up with enough ‘street cred’ to be known as an endurance cyclist? I’m on my lunch hour. They are repairing the cement on the plaza at work. The Nice Ride truck is pulling away with a trailer full of bikes to be relocated during the repairs. I had never noticed how many bike racks there were along the south-side of the building since I never use them. Alexis is safe in my cube.
July 12 (Alexis 1,181 miles)… Last training day. Life feels way too fast at the moment. I just completed the longest ride of my life- 76.5 miles. I rode to Stillwater, MN and back. Two years ago yesterday, I received back surgery to correct a severe disk herniation that threatened me with paralysis. This successful surgery completely removed all pain and allowed my left leg to begin functioning normally again. One year ago tomorrow, I started cycling for a single purpose: to see if I could complete RAGBRAI 2015, a 462 mile bike ride across Iowa. One week from today on July 19, after 12 months and 2200+ total miles of training, my ride begins. Let freedom ring.
July 18… RAGBRAI- It’s a 4.5 hour bus ride to Sioux City. I will have to walk a ½ mile to camp with my two bags and bike. I am on the bus with some “real” cyclists- “A” riders, the spandex people. I will be in my cycling skirts. For me, cycling is about sightseeing, not racing; touring, wine, cheese, leisure but not so much I do not ride long distances. The advice from our tour guide is, “If you are not having fun, lower your expectations…”
July 19… Day 1- 80 miles, Sioux City to Storm Lake. I am sitting in St Mary’s church in Storm Lake, Iowa. I completed day 1 – 80 miles of grueling, uphill, heat exhausted cycling. I dipped my back tire in the Missouri river and left Sioux City at 7am. I arrived at 7pm. 12-hours was a bit long but I was tired, unsure, and extremely hot. I’ve met a lot of different people. A lot of women have looked at me strangely; I am going to assume it’s about confidence and riding solo. An older man felt the need to tell me I have a great ass. I just finished a ridiculous amount of spaghetti.
July 20… Day 2- 70 miles, Storm Lake to Fort Dodge. Heat rash from hell.
July 21… Day 3- 73 miles, Fort Dodge to Eldora. Sammy Soil!
July 22… Day 4- 58 miles, Eldora to Cedar Falls
July 23… Day 5- 71 miles, Cedar Falls to Hiawatha
July 24… Day 6- 68 miles, Hiawatha to Coralville
July 25… Day 7- 70 miles, Coralville to Davenport.
Dipped my front tire in the Mississippi river.
RAGBRAI 2015 ~ 490 total miles in 7 days…
HOLY SHIT ALEXIS- WE DID IT!!!
-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018