Posted by: trevormeers | August 2, 2011

Day Four: Ride of the Century

Daily dispatches from a week-long bicycle trek across Iowa.*

Tuesday brought a day when the pie and the Vikings gave way to a new mood on the ride–the day I got to put the hammer down.

Mile 1 – On the edge of Carroll before dawn, I ride past a Baptist church handing out morning snacks to riders. I hear someone shout, “Thanks, pastor!” as they ride away, and I consider stopping to name-drop the Baptist deacon I know from Carroll, but the road beckons.

Mile 5 – Just outside of town, we find the tour’s first long stretches of straight road. I push the chain over to the big ring, find the higher gears on the back derailleur and start cranking. I slip into a stream of cruising riders, and it all feels faster than even the big downhills of the last two days. With little sound but hissing tires, I dream of life in a peloton.

Mile 10– In Lidderdale, I stop for breakfast, one of RAGBRAI’s legendary Farm Boy Burritos. I sit on the curb with the burrito and coffee and face an unfortunate fact of two days of riding: Chafing has arrived. Fortunately, so have a few tubes of Chamois Butt’r.

A good pace line looks like this.

Mile 19 – On the road to Churdan, the Go For It Trev on one of my shoulders and Sensible Trev on the other argue about the rest of the day. Soon, I’ll reach the turn-off to the Karras Loop, an optional circuit that turns the regular 71-mile day into a century ride of 100 miles. Yesterday, I set a personal distance record of 65 miles. Sensible Trev sees that as clear evidence that I have no business attempting 100 three days into a long tour and with a heat index cruising for triple digits. Go For It Trev says challenges are what define us, and that if I settle for the minimum distance, I’ll just wind up sitting in a hot campground in Boone that much earlier. Advantage, Go For It Trev. I shift down and roll toward Churdan.

Mile 32 – Prepping for the century attempt, I slather on another layer of sunscreen and fuel up on a wrap of guacamole, lettuce and more bacon than any century rider should realistically consume.

Mile 42 – In Paton, fictional hometown of Private Ryan (saved by Tom Hanks) and real hometown of astronaut Loren Shriver, I take a citizen up on his offer of dousing my head with his garden hose and ride on.

Mile 46 – A guy in the pack shouts “Go big or go home!”, and several of us peel off to the right on the road to Dana, where Karras Loop patches are waiting.

Mile 51 – Go For It Trev is still chatty on my shoulder, so I go against better judgment and fall into a pace line, which consists of multiple riders forming into a long line with one rider’s wheel 6 inches behind another’s, drafting off each other like NASCAR drivers. Official RAGBRAI policy prohibits pace lines as a risky maneuver among riders who don’t know each other. A guy from Florida quits bending my ear about the problems with women after they turn 50 and tucks in behind a group from Cincinnati. I fix my eye on his back tire, fall into line and race along the straightaway. I’ve just discovered a new side of RAGBRAI, the thrilling, put-your-nerve-to-the-test side you don’t hear about in all the pie stories. It’s a side I like.

A pace line gone wrong looks like this (and yes, those are pros crumpled on the pavement).

Mile 55 – In the longest half-second of the week, I suddenly see the guy from Florida and his bike fold up like a shotgunned goose. His bike is instantly perpendicular to mine, and I hear nothing, even though another rider later says, “That crashing of carbon on asphalt is a bad sound.” I see Florida Guy’s helmet on the pavement in front of me, and I realize that I’m about to be the casualty that validates official RAGBRAI policy’s prudish ways. But my front tire glances off the guy’s white helmet, and the pace line rolls on. We look back. Someone shouts, “He’s up! Keep riding!” And we’re gone. Now there’s a another side to RAGBRAI: The it-just-might-kill-you side.

Mile 60 – In the hint of a town known as Dana, I claim my Karras patch from a RAGBRAI official under an awning. This is the first stop that feels more like the races I’ve known. There’s no running water, just people filling bottles from jugs. Clif Bar is onhand, giving away energy bars and gels. Under a nearby shade tree, I hear someone say, “I saw somebody’s tire bounce off that guy’s helmet.”

The reward for my first century ride, courtesy of Mr. Pork Chop.

Mile 80 – Having completed the Karras Loop, I’m back in the mainstream of riders. I reward myself with a grilled lunch from Mr. Pork Chop and a slice of rhubarb from Kelly’s Berry Best Pies. I get the first cell signal of the week and call home. One kid’s had a fever and a bleeding tooth. Parents on both my wife’s side and mine are chattering about how I really need to knock this kind of adventure off. I click into the pedals and roll through Paton for the second time, noting a sign on a Harley shop that says, “Real bikers meet here Thursday.”

Mile 85 – Somehow in a crowd of 10,000 riders, I come alongside Florida Guy and ask how he’s doing. “Just a scrape on the arm,” he says. “But my head bounced off the pavement twice. This helmet owes me nothing more in its life.” He says if I see the Cincinnati club again, I should pass on a message: “Like Mark Twain, reports of my demise were greatly exaggerated.”

Mile 90 – The wind is surprisingly loud at 35 miles per hour when you’re racing down into the Des Moines River Valley and thinking, “Don’t twist the wheel. Don’t twist the wheel.” Across the river bridge waits the geographic karma that comes due after every radical descent: The worst hill of the entire week. By the top, my legs are no more than quivering tubes of lactic acid, but I’m still pedaling when I reach the girl selling ice water at the top.

Mile 95 – Outside Boone, I pass a YMCA camp that our church youth group has rented in years past. It’s the first familiar landmark of the week.

Mile 100– Arriving in the sun-baked ballfield that is tonight’s campsite, I lay down my bike and go to the junior high school to spend my daily 40 minutes trying to look nonchalant while standing in line with 25 other guys waiting for a shower.

The piece of embroidered fabric for which I just about gave my life.

Mile 100 – After a barbecue dinner at a table shared with a guy named Neal and his parents, I find a bench under a streetlight in a tiny church courtyard in Boone and sit down to read a book about presidential assassins. Two 50-something women in “Hey, Culligan Man!” T-shirts ride up double on a scooter, get off with a GPS in their hands and start rooting around in the church flowerbed. After a couple of minutes, one triumphantly pulls a small geocache from the flowerbed, then they hop onto their scooter and ride off. I set down my book and get back to wondering whether I really do need to knock this kind of thing off.

* For the Iowans among you thinking, “Hey, wasn’t RAGBRAI last week?” Yes, but when a small city rolls across a rural state, cellular web access gets dicey. So while the posts were written the day of the events, they’re going up exactly one week later.


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