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On Saturday I finished The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI.

I'm not much of a cyclist to be honest, but I had heard so many good things about the event that I wanted to try it. So my long time friend and I signed up. In typical fashion for us we did little to no preparation (It's more of an adventure that way, right?)


We arrived in Council Bluffs on Saturday. The ride would start here the next morning. We got our first taste of the event while we were looking for parking. The roads were closed so we ended up driving around in circles for about an hour before we found the garage. The bikes had taken over!

We unloaded our gear and set off to find the first campground. It wasn't hard to find. We followed the flow of bikes and the tent city emerged. We camped next to a dad who was hauling his daughter in an enclosed bike trailer. She must of been about 3 years old. I was impressed.

We woke up in the steady sound of rainfall on the tent. The little girl was not happy. He prodded her to get in to the trailer so he could tear down the tent. She clearly didn't want to get wet.

We threw our luggage in the RAGBRAI truck. The truck would meet us at the end of the day so we could get our stuff. There was a constant stream of cyclists as far as I could see. We hesitantly merged in. We were off!

It rained the whole day. Some people opted to equip a trash bag or a poncho but the majority of riders took the full soaking. We were in the second group; by the end of the day all of our stuff was drenched.

I realized soon that the dad was among many who were going above and beyond the average single person bike. There were families on tandems bombing past everyone down hills, hand cyclists, elliptical, and a even an unicycle.

I was riding on an unusual bike as well. I rode it on a single speed fixed gear, or a fixie. The main difference is that the pedals are connected directly to the rear wheel.

One advantage of this type of bike is that you get more control over the rear tire. It's possible to slow the bike or skid it to a stop with only the pedals. Another is that they require less maintenance and in theory aren't as prone to mechanical problems.

People who asked me about it were impressed and gave me this look like I was little bit crazy. Going down the hills was the only tricky bit. Since there isn't a free wheel I had to take my feet out of my pedal straps and set them on the frame of the bike. This allowed me to take a break while my pedals spun around like an egg batter.


As the week went on I became more in tune with the culture. The ride has its own language and set of customs. We kept seeing people with VIRGIN sharpied on the back of their calf. Eventually I realized this meant it was their first time on the ride. But it was bizarre in certain contexts; there was one group who all dressed as babies and marked themselves as such. It was confusing to say the least.

There were also the words that people were shouting while riding. Certain events triggered a shout, and then the mass of bikes would echo it so riders further back could hear it as well.

RAGBRAI expression / meaning

"CAR UP":       A car is up the road driving opposite the flow of bikes.

"CAR DOWN":     A car is behind us driving with the flow of bikes.

"BIKE UP":      A bike is up the road riding the opposite direction.

"RUMBLES":      A rumble strip in the road. Avoid this to save your butt and hands.

"SLOWING":      We are slowing down.

"STOPPING":     We are stopping.

"TURNING":      We are turning (right or left).

"RIDER OFF":    Someone is stopping on the shoulder of the road.

"RIDER ON":     Someone is getting back on their bike and needs space to merge on.

"GOOD MORNING": A local is waving from their porch as the ride leaves their city.
		Let them know you enjoyed your stay.

"FREE BEER":    A food truck is luring in riders at 8am with free Budweisers.
		Often followed up by a "RIDER OFF"

The most difficult day was on Wednesday. It was about an 85 mile ride, which was the longest of the week. Disaster struck about half way in to the day. My bike got flat tire. We had the tools to fix it and someone even stopped by to help us out. The problem was that I couldn't tighten the nut to secure my wheel. My axle was stripped. I limped into the next town where I knew there would be a bike tent that could do repairs. The guy in the shop basically told me there was nothing he could do. I thought my ride was over. I prodded him a bit more and eventually he had an idea: he tightened the chain tensioner as much as he could with pliers and then threw some zip ties around it for added safety. He said I should be able to finish the day off.


Pedaling became a lot harder because the chain was so tight. It made all sorts of awful noises as I cranked at it. But I was moving. I arrived that night and started searching for a new axle. I realized soon that the problem was that no one rode bikes like mine so there wouldn't be any parts. I figured I'd just keep riding it and hope for the best.

As the week went on the chain stretched out more and pedalling got smoother. Eventually I almost forgot about it. I rode it like that for about 190 miles till the end in Keokuk on Saturday.


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