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.) 

WATERLOO TO MANCHESTER  

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. 

MANCHESTER TO DUBUQUE 

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….

-DAVE

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More prepared for RAGBRAI this time, and beyond

It was a hot day at Tour de Brew, and everyone wanted to be in the shade at the break points.

RAGBRAI begins in less than a week, and, for me, in exactly one week. I’m ready.

Unfortunately, I only get to ride the last two days of it this year. But I’m thankful that I get a chance to at all because it’s passing close by my home in Monticello, where I my lovely daughter Keira just turned 5 months old.

Keira, at 5 months old (already!)

It would have been too difficult logistically for me to ride any more of RAGBRAI or if it was too far away. My wife Megan is already driving me to Waterloo the night RAGBRAI stops there, and will pick me up from Dubuque when it’s over, all with Keira in tow.

And both days have less than 70 miles of riding, which was not the case last year, when I did the century and then 75 miles the day after that, along with two other days of riding. Last year hurt, and I was not all that prepared for that kind of suffering.

The main means of gauging my fitness is the Tour de Brew ride in Amana, which I did last year and this year. It’s two weeks before RAGBRAI, and last year I was in quite a bit of pain trying to finish the ride. This year went much more smoothly, thus I’m not as worried about RAGBRAI.

Probably the biggest thing I can attribute to this is that I’ve taken up running during my breaks at work. I was inspired by our sports editor, JR Ogden, who also runs during work. A few years ago, JR wrote about taking up “walging,” a combination of walking and jogging. Today he runs to and around nearby Cedar Lake from work , a 3.5-mile jaunt. He doesn’t seem to be gone very long so I assume he covers that distance with much more speed than a jogging pace!

And since I haven’t been able to get out much because I’ve had to stay home to take care of Keira while Megan works in the mornings, I just started running while at work as well. (I work mostly nights, so Megan stays home with Keira when I work. It’s been a very successful child care setup.) I also now keep one of my bikes at work so I can fit in a short ride. It’s all paid off — I definitely feel like I’m in better shape this year than last.

RAGBRAI’s not the real reason I’ve been trying to get in shape either. Now that I’m a dad (a realization that still wows me) I feel like I ought to set a good example for Keira, and also just be able to keep up with that cute little bundle of energy. I’m really excited for her to be old enough so that I can take her out in the bike trailer/jogger that we’ve bought, and I just want to spend lots of time outside with her running around and playing.

From left: Michelle, Katie and Linda. One of my favorite things about group rides is the cameraderie!

So once RAGBRAI’s over, I don’t plan on letting myself go. There will be other short-term fitness goals as well, including preparing for the upcoming cyclocross season, doing 5K races (and maybe 10K races someday), and even trying to do a triathlon.

But like I said, these are all short-term reasons for getting fit. The long-term reason just celebrated her 5-month birthday!

Getting better at that cyclocross thing

Rounding one of the Jingle Cross course's many corners. (Photo by Michelle Wiese)

Boy, does fear make for a good motivator!

After suffering through last year’s JingleCross Rock, where I came in second-last (to a guy who ran while carrying his broken bike) I made it a point to do more training for this year’s race. And it was a success.

I came in 43rd out of 53 racers this year (although I only recall seeing two riders behind me) but more important than that, I felt I could handle the strain of racing better than last year. Where you place is really out of your control; kudos to everyone who raced that weekend, regardless of how you did. It’s really just by chance the people decided to enter the race I was in; I could have come in dead last if the people who finished behind me competed on another day. (Maybe some people dropped out that I didn’t know about. Or, because of the lap-counting system, they may have finished “behind” me but actually did one more lap than I did!)

None of that really matters, though. My race was about doing as well as I could, and that was it.

I raced on Sunday, the final day. While doing my warmup lap around the course, I was dreading what the conditions would be like going up Mount Krumpet, which I was sure we would have to do since the beginners’ races went up it the previous two days. I fell twice trying to ride one of the “easier” hilly areas! But as it turned out, Sunday’s beginners’ race didn’t go up it.

My wife and mom-in-law cheer me on. (Photo by Michelle Wiese)

I had mixed emotions about that. There was some relief that I wouldn’t have to go up (or down) that muddy mess, but also some sadness because a big part of my training — physically and mentally — had centered on conquering Mount Krumpet. So it was a letdown of sorts.

But the race was still plenty tough though. And the other thing besides the training that was going to get me through it was my support section: my wife Megan, her mom Mary, and fellow Whiskey Riders Michon, Emily and my VeloDuo blogging partner in crime, Michelle!

It was really motivating and heartwarming hearing them all cheer for me as I made my way around the course. When you’re in the racing mode, all you think about is keeping those pedals turning, watching what’s ahead of you and trying to maintain as much of an effort as you can without blowing up. And when you hear the cheers, it really does inspire you to go that little bit harder.

The most nerve-racking part of the race was the start. I used to be really anxious and nervous just waiting for the actual start of the race, to the point where I’d gag and dry-heave. I think when you go through these things enough, though, you can kind of keep your emotions in check because you know what to expect. And the fear wasn’t as bad as it had been in the past; I felt like the training I had done prepared me to deal with the suffering that was to come.

When the race started, we all took off and I can remember seeing almost everyone else going faster than me, and people who started behind me going around me. I fought off the urge to fight to stay with them because I knew I’d overdo it and blow a gasket. So I tried to ride at my fastest yet most comfortable pace possible, and not worry about the people going past me. Through probably the first 3 minutes I could tell I was going harder than I would have liked, though, and I knew I couldn’t keep that up the whole race. I also remember trying to ride through the first patch of mud but having to put my feet down because the person in front of me had to stop too; I suspect there was a traffic jam here. And after that was the first set of barriers, followed by a steep run-up.

Pushing my way up the runup, with Emily, Michon and Michelle behind me probably yelling for me to hurry the hell up! (Photo by Megan Lee)

It was here that I finally settled down and prepared for the next half hour or so of sustained effort. After pushing my bike through the run-up, I had trouble riding along the muddy hillside and had to run (jog really) while pushing my bike. It was a chance to catch my breath before remounting and going down a small hill to the rest of the course. (On the second lap I tried to ride through this area again, to no avail. I fell here, just like I did twice during warmups. But it didn’t hurt; hey, it’s mud!)

With many ziz-zags and turns on the course, I had opportunities to look back and could see that a few people were still behind me, some of them catching up to and passing me, and a couple drifting further back. It actually was a relief of sorts knowing I wasn’t dead last, but it also made me feel like a rabbit or carrot for them to chase. And I didn’t like being in that position.

A new fear had been created to motivate me.

I looked down at my bike computer and did some computing. At the pace I was riding, I would have to do three laps. It was a familiar thought process; I went through this same situation on practice rides. So now I knew what to expect, and I dug in and rode on.

Heading to the finish line! But then out for another lap. (Photo by Michelle Wiese)

This was where it got fun. I was breathing hard but used to the effort, I was wearing the right amount of layers so that I wasn’t overheating (like last year), and I was delighted to see and hear cheers of my name along the course. Michelle, Emily and Michon were running around the course finding places to cheer me on! So that was a fun surprise.

And I knew that as I got back toward the start/finish line, Megan and Mary would be there to keep the cheering up. (Megan is seven months pregnant, so no running around for her right now!)

So it went for about 37 minutes as I did my laps around the course. One other accomplishment: I completed a full lap before I myself started getting lapped by the race leaders! I don’t think that happened last year. And the nice thing was that as I heard people coming up on me, they still said (or panted) “on your left” or “passing” and I moved off to the side to let them through and gasped “go ahead.” Still heard “thanks” from them too! And in tight twisty areas where I knew people were coming up behind me, I made sure to give them plenty of room to get by. The camaraderie between racers is great, no matter the difference in skill levels — another reason I love being a part of all this.

Finally, I was on the home stretch and my bike computer went past 35 minutes. I saw the race official motioning that I was done racing, and I saw my crew waiting for me at the finish line.

I couldn’t not smile.

I made my way off the race course and was greeted with cheers and high-fives from everyone — what a great feeling! This was what made all the effort and training worth it. I wasn’t collapsed and exhausted at the end of the race and I could look back fondly at it all.

The rest of the day I enjoyed wandering around and watching the other races, especially as riders fought their way up Mount Krumpet. I’m still a little disappointed I didn’t get to go up there, having done the beginner’s race.

Maybe, just maybe, I might skip the beginner’s race next year to ensure I get to tackle Mount Krumpet. And based on how things went this year, I think I know what I have to do to get ready for it.

–DAVE

I'm done! And I still had energy to pick up my bike! (Photo by Michelle Wiese)

Preparing for Jinglecross

My tire tracks from a rainy ride out at the Jones County fairgrounds, where I've been training for my upcoming cyclocross race.

Well, it’s official: I’ve signed up to race at JingleCross. My race starts at 9:15 a.m. Sunday.

It had taken awhile for me to decide whether to ride this year or not. With a job that often requires me to be gone for 12 hours a day, and preparing for impending fatherhood (our little girl’s due at the end of February), I just wasn’t sure if I’d be able to put the time in to train for it.

After struggling through RAGBRAI (yes, it was fun, but I definitely did not prepare for it like I should have; you’ll notice Michelle did the post and not me, because I was too wiped out) I knew that if I wanted to ride a ‘cross race I really needed to be ready so it wouldn’t just be 35 minutes of sheer pain and exhaustion–there at least had to be some fun in there somehow. At the very least, I wanted to make sure I’d put up a fight–not toward anyone else, but the course itself.

I’m pretty much already resigned to coming in toward the back end of the beginner’s race, if not finishing last. I just wanted to make sure it was worth the effort.

After a few weeks of decent training, however, I feel ready to give it another try. Thankfully, because I live near the Jones County Fairgrounds I’ve been able to create a ‘cross course of my own to practice on. It’s got pretty much everything you need to have a challenging course: steep run-ups, dirt (and when it’s rainy, mud), grass, some areas where you can at least pretend you’re hopping over barriers, and a maze of trees and lightposts to practice tight turns and weaving.

I’ll be racing Sunday’s Jinglecross race, and here’s a link to that day’s race map. Now, here’s a map I created of what I’ve been doing, more or less, at the fairgrounds:

I have no idea if you can understand any of that, or if it’s all chicken scratch to you, but it’s the route I’ve created that offers the biggest challenge. I even recently started riding it the other direction, which offered its own set of challenges and a whole new workout. And I’ve since added a few more hilly areas by creating a hybrid figure-8 course. 

While trying to find new obstacles during a recent ride, I discovered a little sand pit in the best–or worst–way possible. My front tire went right into the deep sand, and I did an ‘endo! Basically, front tire stopped moving, I and the rest of the bike continued forward and over the tire until we were about vertical, and then toppled over to one side! It happened so fast that I was just glad to get my hands and arms out in front of me, otherwise I would have landed head-first. Thankfully, falling in deep sand doesn’t hurt, but it definitely startled me! I did get pissed though, and upon re-mounting turned around, got some momentum and powered through that sand pit. It’s now part of my route.

I’ve also enjoyed trying out some different clothing and layering options to see what works best. Last year, although it was cold, I decided to wear my winter riding jacket during the race, and got way too hot. So this time I think I’ve figured out what works, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens and being much more comfortable, at least in terms of clothing!

Finally, I’m just excited to be part of a great weekend that is Jinglecross, and having friends and family there to cheer me on. Michelle won’t be racing this year, as her work schedule is similar to mine, plus she doesn’t live close to anything that offers good cyclocross training like I do. But she’ll be out there cheering me on, as will my wife Megan. And this year I’m excited that my mom-in-law, Mary, will be out there too!

I hope you can come out to watch too, whether it’s for me or any of the other racers. Or just come out and watch the mayhem that is cyclocross. It’s a great time whether you’re a spectator. If you’re a racer, it’ll still be a great time even though some suffering will be involved. But if you’ve done your homework and trained, it won’t be as bad.

I hope that’ll be the situation for me.

-DAVE

Inspired by the best of the best

U.S. cyclocross champion Katie Compton. She dominated the Planet Bike Cup cyclocross races in Madison this past weekend!
U.S. cyclocross champion Katie Compton. She dominated the Planet Bike Cup cyclocross races in Madison this past weekend!

Now that it’s fall, it’s time for the cyclocross season to kick into the big ring. But after a summer of training for and suffering through RAGBRAI (albeit with a big smile on my face) I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to get into cyclocross this year. Watch it? Yes. Do it? Not sure. If you’re training for it properly, you’re hurting. And I wasn’t in the mood to be hurting.

Plus, I had already bought a new pair of tires for RAGBRAI that were a royal pain to put on my wheels, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to go through that torture again! It also would have meant I needed to buy new cyclocross tires, as the ones I had really needed to be retired.

Enter the U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross’ Planet Bike Cup in Madison, Wis., this past weekend. It featured 3-time world cyclocross champion Erwin Vervecken, a slew of U.S. riders I’d only read about or seen on DVDs such as Jeremy Powers, Barry Wicks and Jonathan Page, and — here was the dealmaker for me — Katie Compton, U.S. cyclocross champ and bronze medalist in the World cyclocross championships!

If you’re a cyclocross fan, this is pretty much the best of the best. I’ve gotten to see some really good ‘cross racers before, such as Todd and Troy Wells, at JingleCross in Iowa City (gonna head back there this November, by the way!) and veteran racer Chris Horner, who’s done the Tour de France. They’re all incredible riders in their own right — Todd Wells is a former U.S. cyclocross champion — and to have them headline a race is awesome.

Katie Compton flies around the corner with the lead, which she held the entire race.
Katie Compton flies around the corner with the lead, which she held the entire race.

But the Planet Bike Cup featured a crop of all the top riders in the sport! And once I found out that they were coming to Madison, only a couple hours’ drive from where I live, well, no question where I’d be that day. (And thankfully, the stars lined up so that I had the day off, as did fellow Veloduoer(?) Michelle.) The racing happened all weekend, but we were able to go to Saturday’s races!

Needless to say, it was a great time. Michelle and I went with our friends Emily and Jim, and we wandered around the entire course getting views of the racing from the best vantage points. One very cool thing about cyclocross is that the course zigs and zags everywhere, so no matter where you are you’ll see lots of action going on.

The course started out a bit damp and muddy but dried out throughout the day — actually kind of disappointing, since the mudfests make for the best memories (see last year’s Sunday races at JingleCross, which we WEREN’T at, dammit) but still, with the course getting more ripped up with each passing racer, it still called for expert bike-handling skills.

Saturday's elite men's winner Jeremy Powers
Saturday's elite men's winner Jeremy Powers

And it’s amazing how fast these riders tear through the course. Most courses are between 1 and 2 miles long, and the announcer said Katie and the lead women were doing laps every 5 minute 55 seconds or so; the top men every 5:30. When I do my “lap” around the course I made up for myself at the Jones County Fair grounds, it’s at least 15 minutes a lap, and I know I have a much easier course!

Another really cool thing about cyclocross (and much of bike racing, except maybe for the premier races and tours) is that you can meet your favorite riders. I got to meet Katie and her husband, have her sign my hat and have my picture taken with her! That’s the equivalent of a football fan meeting his favorite superstar, except I didn’t have to win a contest, shell out big bucks or sneak through security.

Sunday's elite winner (and Saturday's second-place winner), 3-time World cyclocross champion Erwin Vervecken
Sunday's elite winner (and Saturday's second-place winner), 3-time World cyclocross champion Erwin Vervecken

And both Katie and her husband Mark were very cool, so down-to-earth. Katie asked if Michelle or I have raced ‘cross, and we said we’ve tried it (I think Michelle did more talking, I was too awestruck) but didn’t do very well. Katie just says it’s all about having fun out there, and that she doesn’t even own a road bike.

Mark talked about how they get to travel and enjoy Europe. Much of their time is spent traveling the U.S. and Europe, racing against the world’s best cyclocrossers in preparation for the U.S. and world championships. I hope she wins them all, and I wished them both the best of luck for the rest of the season.

Bob Compton, Katie's husband, sporting the KFC shirt. What's it stand for? "Who always wins the race? Katie F*cking Comopton!"
Mark Legg-Compton, Katie's husband, sporting the KFC shirt. What's it stand for? "Who always wins the race? Katie F*cking Compton!"

Thoroughly inspired by the day, after we left the event we headed to Machinery Row Bicycles in Madison, one of the coolest bike shops you’ll ever find. And while Emily and Jim made some initial inquiries about buying ‘cross bikes of their own (do it, you two!) I got myself another pair of ‘cross tires. They weren’t the most expensive or lightest, but they had the knobby treads, and in fact were more treaded than my inital set. I’ll go slower on the roads, but I should have much better traction off the roads. Michelle, having worn her old ‘cross tires smooth, got another set as well.

Neither of us was sure if we wanted to put in the effort and suffering to train to race again for this year’s JingleCross. We came in last in our respective divisions last year (Michelle’s racer No. 911 and I’m racer No. 855; the guy I “beat” broke a chain and was running around the course carrying his bike just so he’d finish, so I don’t count that) and although it’s all about having fun, it is discouraging to come in last no matter how much effort you put into your training and racing. (Although the race fee goes to a great charity — the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital — the fee, combined with a one-day race license, adds up to quite a bit.)

But after this weekend, we’ve decided that we’ll just have fun riding cyclocross-style, and that there’s no need to make a decision about whether to enter a race until even the week or days leading up to JingleCross. And if we decide we’ll just show up to watch and cheer other riders on, that’s totally cool.

Emily and Michelle take a break. There's a good view of the race no matter where we were!
Emily and Michelle take a break. There's a good view of the race no matter where we were!

On Sunday night I switched my tires, took off the water bottle cage and frame pump, and admired the return of my lean, knobby-looking Gunnar Crosshairs. Monday morning, I took it out to the fairgrounds. It was cold, it was tough at times, but it was fun. And it was only for one lap, at a relatively easy pace. (I had to get back and get ready for work.) I’m sure that doing multiple laps there at higher exertion won’t be as fun as the first time around, but I hope I’ll find myself enjoying it a lot more than I expect.

And come November, I hope I find myself inspired enough to sign up to race.

-DAVE

Katie Compton flies over the hurdles. None of the elite racers even break stride or lose momentum going over these!
Katie Compton flies over the hurdles. None of the elite racers even break stride or lose momentum going over these!
One of the trickier parts of the course: turning around a slope where your momentum wants to take you downhill. WIth mud to boot! Lots of falls here.
One of the trickier parts of the course: turning around a slope where your momentum wants to take you downhill. WIth mud to boot! Lots of falls here.
Ever the alert photographer, Michelle takes a picture of me taking a picture of Katie.
Ever the alert photographer, Michelle takes a picture of me taking a picture of Katie.
Even after the race, Katie was nice enough to chat, sign a hat and take a picture with me!
Even after the race, Katie was nice enough to chat, sign a hat and take a picture with me!

Special VeloDuo-produced edition of the Gazette Monday!!

That’s right, Michelle and I are designing the print edition of The Gazette for Monday. We’re handling all the day’s live pages, which is pretty much all of the A and B sections.

Dave with his bike at work. On breaks we can get a quick ride in.
Dave with his bike at work. On breaks we can get a quick ride in.

I’d love to take a page from the Car Talk guys and say, “If you think our VeloDuo blog is lousy, then you should see what the paper will look like tomorrow,” but alas, we’re professionals when it comes to the paper, so we’re putting our best effort into giving you something good to read in the morning.

The reason we’re working Sunday night is so that we can take time off later this week to join RAGBRAI. We still got some training in today too, going for a spin around Cedar Rapids on our break. Totally worth it!

-DAVE