A(nother) new experience on RAGBRAI

Brian (left) and Michelle and all the others on RAGBRAI.

For those of you who have done multiple RAGBRAIs, I wonder if the memories all blend together after a while? Or you do remember a significant aspect of each year?  

I’ve just finished my third, and while sometimes the days roll together, I certainly have major thoughts of each year. The first year was my “virgin” year. The second year was when I accomplished a century ride.  

And the third year was the one where I rode it as a dad.  

Having Keira meant a lot of life adjustments for me and my wife Megan, of course. And I was prepared to alter my cycling and RAGBRAI goals as well. Keira would be too young to take along on RAGBRAI this year, and if the route was too far from Monticello, where we live, I was ready to take it off this year.  

My little Keira

But the cycling gods smiled down on me and brought the expected northern route down toward Waterloo, Manchester and Dubuque–all within manageable driving distance when you’ve got a baby in the car!  

So even though I had to go from four days last year to two this year, I was appreciative of the opportunity and ready to enjoy the experience as much as I could. (VeloDuo partner Michelle also wrote about this year’s RAGBRAI from her point of view; read about it here.) 


I joined up with my Whiskey Riders teammates and our friends in Waterloo, and the first big challenge was trying to find their RV. We were told to look for a yellow school bus by Dillard’s department store near the mall. I figured that would be easy enough, but it turned out that there were yellow school buses scattered throughout the parking lot there. (Apparently such buses have become a hot accessory for many RAGBRAI teams.) Still circling the parking area, I phoned Michelle, and asked if she could see the “Gold’s Gym” sign we were underneath, which she did. But she couldn’t explain which we way should go from there, so she rode out to come greet us.  

I pulled my bike Gunnar off the trunk rack of our car, kissed Megan and Keira goodbye and put on my backpack. It was a short ride over to where the RV and our tents were, and I settled in. Our friends Darrell and Vicki had rented an RV, and they were kind enough to bring our gear in their vehicle; we would just camp out in tents near the RV.  

The tent campers were me, Michelle, Michon and Brian (Team Whiskey Riders–we have jerseys this year, thanks to Michelle!); RV inhabitants were Sheralyn, Dana, Vicki, Darrell and Darrell’s parents. (They don’t have a team name, although Darrell told us we should have gotten in touch with him about the jerseys we were getting. Since Michelle was the ringleader on this project, she can take the blame.)  

After hanging out for a bit we tried taking the shuttle toward the main campground, but the buses heading there were all full and going right by us, so we instead got on an outbound bus that was still empty. For several stops, we finally were the ones already on the full bus that had to bypass others waiting for a ride!  

As we got into the main campground area, I looked for HuHot, where my friend Dave was working. But no one on the HuHot staff knew where Dave went — though they presumed it was the beer garden. Oh well. The food was still good and the Beatles’  music by the Fab Four was fun too. We window-shopped the merchandise  tents and called it a night, taking the shuttle back to the RV campground. Our alarms were set for 5 a.m.  

I don’t know how the others slept, but with not having any RAGBRAI miles in my legs yet, I was too full of excitement and energy to sleep easily. It took at least a couple of hours before I could fall asleep, as flashing lights from a police car directing traffic off in the distance bounced off the tent wall. My tent also happened to be splashed by the parking lot lights because it was between RVs, not behind them. (Brian, Michelle and Michon were luckier, sleeping in the shadows of a neighboring RV.)  

Lack of sleep led to a conversation with my backpack.

Thankfully, I had earplugs, which did help me fall asleep. A few hours later, though, I was awake. It was 2:40 a.m. and I was wide awake; at least I got about 3 hours of sleep in. After lying around and unsuccessfully trying to fall back asleep, I took a walk around the parking lot and used a portajohn, since there wasn’t a line. I saw one other person wandering around; it was 3:30. I got back in the tent and tried to fall asleep again, and this time it worked.  

Next thing I knew, my phone’s alarm was going off. Finally, time to get ready to ride, especially with my new jersey, which I deliberately hadn’t worn for a ride yet until now!  The team wore theirs a couple days ago (before I joined them) but now it was my turn !  

After changing and packing up my gear, I was able to successfully pack Michelle’s tent and got ready to roll out, as everyone else was doing this morning.  

On our way out of Waterloo, we went beneath two huge American flags that were stretched over cranes. What a wonderful sendoff! As we continued on, we could see gray clouds in the distance, and soon saw flashes of lightning. I counted each time I saw one, just to see how far away the stormy stuff might be, but those first few times there wasn’t any thunder to be heard, thankfully.  

Waterloo gave us a patriotic sendoff Friday morning.

That started changing, though, as soon we heard low rumbles of thunder that became more powerful as the storm neared. And we also started feeling the rain — a first for me on RAGBRAI. (I’ve ridden in the rain plenty before, though; getting drenched was a regular part of my life as a bike commuter in Seattle for five years.)  

Initially it just seemed to spit at us, but then it turned into steady showers that went away quickly or maybe we pedaled away from them. But the RAGBRAI route was filled with left and right turns that brought us back into the storm. It certainly had us criss-crossing Highway 218 and Interstate 380 several times! Thankfully they were all via overpass and we never had to wait at any intersections. In fact, on those exits for the highways, there were police helping direct traffic. They definitely were a welcome and useful presence.  

Unfortunately, the rain started really making its presence known. We heard plenty of thunder as we waited for pork chops from Mr. Pork Chop (it was so worth the allergic reaction I got because of my pork allergy) and then I took the moment to call Megan and say good morning. It was only about 8:30 a.m. and we’d been on the road nearly 2 hours already!  

One of my last photos, of the scene at Mr. Pork Chop, before the rains came and the camera went away.

I’m glad I called her then, because after that the skies opened up. No phone, no camera for quite a while as I had them packed away in my zip-lock plastic bags. As they stayed dry, I got soaked.  

Soon it was ridiculous how sopping wet we were. The rain was so steady and heavy, you just let it pour down on you and keep on pedaling (as Michelle captured). My biggest problem was that the rainwater was getting into my eyes and irritating them, and I blinked hard and often to squeeze the water out.  

For the most part I stayed warm, but it was when we stopped at towns and waited to regroup that the chills set in. We saw others standing in barns, garages and anything with an overhang so they could dry up, but it was useless for the most part. After getting going again, we soon arrived in Winthrop, where a bonfire along the side of the road had been started. It offered brief warmth as we rode by, and we finally decided to go into Winthrop’s downtown area and to a bar to wait out the rain, which we heard would be ending by noon.  

Michelle and Michon as we waited out the rain in Winthrop.

Turns out the bar was one that Michelle had visited a few RAGBRAIs back, so it was a homecoming of sorts for her. And we warmed up with whiskey shots, of course. After that, time to settle in with some beer and wait out the storm. Soon more riders came in and the bar was nearly packed. On TV was the Weather Channel, so we all could watch the radar, which was showing the rain moving away. And we started seeing glimpses of sunlight outside!  

Finally it was time to head back out. I still felt cold because my jersey hadn’t fully dried out yet, so I tried to use the kitchen garbage bag that I packed in my seat bag. I saw other people riding with garbage bags, so why not me? The answer was, they were wearing full-size garbage bags. I could barely fit into mine, and after trying to rip holes for my arms and head, that bag pretty much became a piece of trash itself. Michelle enjoyed documenting my struggle. So I instead crumpled it and stuck it in the front of my jersey to block the wind, similar to what racers do with newspapers when they descend down mountains.  (I own a wind-proof cycling vest that can pack down small enough into my seatbag; it would have been perfect for this day. Sadly, I forgot to even pack it for my trip.)  

But neither the vest nor the trash bag in my jersey were on my mind at the start of that last leg of the day, from Winthrop to Manchester. Instead, it was my pounding head, from drinking while in Winthrop. (This tends to happen to me, yet I guess I still want my beer.) But I rode on, and I and the rest of the riders faced a tough road ahead.  

The wind was blowing in our faces and the ride seemed like a steady uphill. One positive was that I quickly warmed up enough to get rid of the trash bag layer. A while later I downed an energy gel and energy bar, which I think helped soak up any booze left in my system while also fueling me for the finish.  

When we got into Manchester and the RV, we set up our tents and hung our clothes to dry on a nearby chain-link fence. After some well-deserved relaxing, we set out on our bikes to go into town and look for some dinner. And when you’re a hungry cyclist, the word “buffet” is always promising, especially when it’s connected to “Pizza Ranch”! They were offering an all-day buffet that day for RAGBRAI, so we went for it. The placed was crammed and we were fortunate enough to get seats, but it was hot in there! The staff did a very admirable job of replenishing food, though they had to resort to paper plates, cups and utensils. But hey, they were prepared!  

Relaxing and preparing to set up camp after arriving in Manchester

After passing through downtown Manchester and all its RAGBRAI-related activities, we returned to the RV site and were relaxing when a couple guys stopped by and said they were from Trek. Then one of them pointed to Darrell’s bike and said “I designed that one!” Turns out more than a dozen Trek staffers were doing RAGBRAI and doing a mix of marketing and mingling with whoever they met. It was fun talking bikes with them, and of course we got some shwag!  

After that, Michelle tried to teach me, Brian and Michon how to play euchre. I didn’t catch on, but it was fun to try and I could see enjoying the game more if I played it more.  

Then it was time for bed. I crawled into my tent and despite feeling somewhat awake, must have fallen asleep quickly. I woke up briefly around 1 a.m., and the next thing I knew my phone alarm was going off again at 5. 


After changing and packing up my gear a bit, I headed out to the portajohn, thinking there wouldn’t be too many people there that early. Boy, was I wrong. About a dozen people were ahead of me, but the line moved quickly.  

Once our stuff was packed up and on the RV (all of Brian’s stuff stayed on his 520, of course), it was time to head out of Manchester and east toward Dyersville. As tough as the arrival to Manchester was the day before, departing seemed so easy. Maybe it was because we all just had a good night’s sleep, or maybe it actually was downhill out of town. Regardless, we quickly arrived at Earlville, where we enjoyed biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Then it was on to Dyersville, where we’d be meeting up with our friend Peter, who had spent the last few months in Kentucky as an army drill sergeant but had four days off and came back home so he could ride RAGBRAI.  

It was great seeing him. We enjoyed Bloody Marys together at a local bar before continuing on, and it was in Dyersville that I took one of my favorite pictures of RAGBRAI, of the downtown area with the gorgeous St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.  

Only a week earlier, floods of water had hit Dyersville.

Heading east from Dyersville was a blast, as the true beauty (and hilliness) of Eastern Iowa began to make itself known to all us riders. The roads we were on started to curve to fit the contours of the land, and with no rain in sight, I took out my camera to capture some pics and video of this part of the ride:  

The scenery the beautiful as we headed toward Graf, but it was hard to admire the views because we were rapidly descending.

But I had to put the camera away once the road really started to get steep. The first (literal) sign of this was a posted sign that said “DO NOT DRAFT.” There was a second message there, something about maintaining a safe distance between riders while descending, but I was going so fast that I couldn’t quite remember the words verbatim. (A picture of that sign would have been great to have, but then it would have meant coming to a stop from 30-plus mph when you’re sharing the road with other riders going similar speeds. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, I also would have had to go back up the hill, likely surprising riders screaming down the other direction!)  

But the sign drove the point home, when a few seconds later, the road got even steeper. It’s not often that you’re already flying downhill when you see a hump in the road that blocks your view of what lies beyond. That hump also meant the road got even steeper. So it was time to grip the brake levers a bit tighter while not locking them, which would have caused a disastrous crash. (Brian, of the fully loaded tourer, said his rear brake did lock up momentarily, sending him into a panic.)  

Soon the descent came to an end and we were in Graf, a small town at the bottom of the hills — and the last stop before Potter Hill Road. We all took the opportunity to fuel up for the climb, and I downed another energy gel packet to go with the ones I’d been taking in earlier in the day. We weren’t sure what to expect; Michon said she overheard that there was a bottleneck and that everyone had to get off their bikes and walk up because of it!  

The ride to the start of Potter Hill seemed almost like a death march; everyone knew what was coming and was trying to psyche themselves up for some hurting. To our right, we could see the long, slow parade of riders near the top of the hill.  

Then we turned right.  

Potter Hill Road.

Potter Hill started out steadily uphill and straight, and this was where most people were still able to pedal. But then the road curved to the right and got steeper. I switched down to my lowest gear and tried to settle into a steady pedaling rhythm. A woman riding a bike with a crate in back of it with a large speaker was blaring pulsing music, which served as good inspiration. But then she got off her bike and started walking! And so I slowly rode away from her, the fading music being replaced by clomp-clomp of bicycle-shoe cleats worn by the walkers on my right, and the heavy breathing of riders who could still power their bicycles up the hill faster than me on my left. 

Soon all I could hear was my own heavy breathing as I focused on keeping my pedals turning and my bike upright; at times I had to weave a little bit to make the climb easier. Soon I was panting; I don’t know how loud it was, but it seemed to be the only way I could take in enough oxygen to keep the effort going. Hopefully I wasn’t the only one making all the noise!  

I remember glancing to the right and seeing the valley floor that was now far below. To the left were a couple people who set up chairs in the ditch next to the road so they had a front-row seat to watch the sufferfest.  

Then I started hearing people cheering on those of us who were still trying to ride to the top. The people who were walking to the top, others who were standing on the side of the road…their collective cheers became a din of encouragement that made the effort just a little easier. And as I got toward the top, the steepness eased a bit and my pedaling went from repeated stomping back to more of a circling motion. It was the home stretch!  

Brian and Michelle at the top of Potter Hill Road.

A man at the top of the hill said to keep going a little further instead of stopping there so that there would still be enough room for riders to get by. At this point, pedaling a level surface or even a little bit uphill seemed so easy. I saw Brian at the side of the road but had to keep going, as I was stuck in a moving wave of riders, and eventually found a place to stop, rest and wait for the others.  

Soon Michelle and Brian came by and I joined up with them until we found some much-needed shade where we could wait for Michon, who had to stop when the rider in front of her stopped and she had nowhere else to go. After some well-earned rest, it was time to keep moving. Megan was going to pick us up and so we had a schedule to follow. (We had been doing fine until the lengthy Bloody Mary stop in Dyersville, but it was worth it!)  

Potter Hill was the one everybody was talking about, but there were plenty other hills.

Whoever said Potter Hill Road was the only major climb of the day was lying. There were still plenty of hills as we continued toward Dubuque, and even more once we got into Dubuque.  

Soon the farmland gave way to outlying development, which gave way to industrial parks and neighborhoods. It was somewhere around here that we ran into the Livestrong team, and I got cut off from Brian, Michelle and Michon.  

The Livestrong team, which is connected to Lance Armstrong’s charity,  rides for a very noble cause. But there seemed to be a couple hundred of them riding in one swarm, and they took up a lot of the road. I got separated from the rest of my team, and assumed they were continuing on. I stopped to text Megan of our ETA to downtown Dubuque, and then tried to catch up to apparently no one.  

After several miles of riding on my own and wondering if I went just a bit faster I’d catch up to them, I gave up and pulled over. I was getting ready to text Michelle and ask where she was, when my phone rang — it was her, asking me of my whereabouts. And I already had a text from her, “Where r u?”  

Turns out I was way ahead of them, and they had stopped to let the Livestrong team go by and ended up taking a break. So I stopped where I was and waited about 10 minutes until they showed up. I didn’t think I’d be so relieved! Probably it was because we were pretty close to the end, and that’s when you want to arrive at the finish together as a team. So from this point on, we stuck together.  

After a few more rolling hills, we finally reached the big drop toward downtown and the waterfront. And this was another steep descent that had Brian worried, but he made it, as did the rest of us. (How heavy was his bike? I tried to lift it but couldn’t.)  

Now it was a glorious ride through downtown and around the clock tower toward the waterfront. I got my camera out again to capture the final videos and images of our adventure.  

Breaking the law in Dubuque.

The line to dip our tires was super-long, of course, so we rode to a nearby deck where we could pose with the water and bridge behind us. Then it was off to meet up with Megan for the drive back home.  

Michelle, Brian, me and Michon at the Mississippi!

It was bittersweet for me; my third RAGBRAI was a great time and it was sad to have it come to an end, but yet I was so was happy to see Megan and Keira again!  

Planning for next year’s RAGBRAI has already begun. By then Keira will be plenty old enough to ride in the bike trailer we’ve bought, and I plan on taking her along for the ride. And I know Megan misses me plenty when I’m gone; knowing Keira won’t be around either because she’s with me, well, that might be just enough incentive for Megan to join our team!  

Hey, Michelle, you gonna order some more jerseys? I think we’ll need a few more too….


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