Sunday, July 28, 2013

In Which Four Or Five Heads Are Better Than One

The mighty awesome Team Joe at the end of RAGBRAI 2013. Brandon Kent, Cate Sheller, Brigid Rocca, Eldon Rocca and your correspondent.

My son-in-law could have borrowed my sweatshirt—I would have been warm enough in my sleeping bag. As it was, he got very cold in his thin sleeping bag liner and airy summer tent that night in Fairfield. I was fine.

Then again, while he mostly rode and camped alone, I was with a group. And again, as in last year, my RAGBRAI 2013 experience reinforces the idea of a group experience being the better way to go.

Not that groups are always better. The first year I did RAGBRAI, the young men from Seattle who I was with would sleep until almost 8, whereas I awoke at 5. I would hit the road by 6. They would always finish before me anyway, being young and strong on nimble road bikes, whereas I am old—still strong, but in biking terms “old” is almost synonymous with “slow”—and ride Francis.

My bike, Francis, is very reliable: a solid, sturdy bike that is ideal for commuting. Maybe Francis is not quite as ideal for RAGBRAI, although, on the other hand, Francis is of a style that promotes both front baskets and back racks, which are handy to have on a long bike trek.

Anyway, since I was on my own during the day during that first RAGBRAI, I could move at my own pace and always make my own decisions. But since I was with a group, there was a support vehicle and friends to pal around with each night.

This year, things were a bit different. We were trading drivers at the meet towns each day, so meeting was more important. And our style of riding was different—we tended to ride in mini packs. Again, this is not bad—there were many advantages—but group dynamics, the need to discuss decisions and come to agreement, slows things down.

On the other hand, being with other riders during the day means both many bad shared jokes and mutual support. One of our riders, not me, became ill one day, and it was good that someone (me) could stay with that rider until the SAG wagon came. I stopped twice to help strangers along the way, and once had my sister with me—she provided me with a glove that kept me from getting all greasy. I got all greasy the other time. I did better with my sister there.

Overall, I would say 2013 ranks second in my RAGBRAI experiences. The first year was number one, the second year was number three. I enjoyed the second year, but doing it alone proved not as good as doing it in a group. And the biggest reason 2013 doesn’t rank number one has zero to do with the company I kept, which was excellent in both 2011 and 2013, but more with the fact that almost any good experience is just better when it is most novel.

Will I do RAGBRAI again? With siblings? I can’t speak for them, but I suspect so. I am 100 percent sure that I will do at least parts of RAGBRAI again, and, while I’m not prepared at this point to commit to the full week in 2014, on the other hand, when winter rolls around and the Des Moines Register announces the route for the year—well, 2013 was such a positive experience that I’m sure RAGBRAI fever will be high.

We—my sisters, brother-in-law and I—talked of many things, including possible blog posts. I may yet write the one we discussed about advice for vendors, host towns and RAGBRAI itself—including, RAGBRAI, marking the darn route for support vehicles much more effectively. Another possible blog post, that I sadly suspect will not be done because I did not take notes, was RAGBRAI quotes.

One I recall is “Eldon gives the best Hickeys.” A hickey is a naughty mark on the skin. A Hickey is a rubber device that replaces shoelaces, and my bike shoes now have Hickeys courtesy of Eldon.

Maybe next year I will remember to have a notebook handy so I can recall all of the cool quotes from the journey. There, see, I haven’t even committed to doing RAGBRAI again, but I’m already writing “next year.”

Some final thoughts on RAGBRAI 2013:

What went well:
Picture perfect final day--Des Moines River at Bonaparte.

  • Eating at churches. Even the hapless one in Perry where the system broke down and the food was an hour late still fed us well, and the time in line worked in our favor because we avoided the worst of a thunderstorm. Methodists still make great pie, but Catholic pasta proved filling in two overnight towns.
  • Having a support vehicle. I owe many debts to both of my riding pal sisters—Brigid and Cate—and to Eldon, my brother-in-law. Among the greatest is to Brigid and Eldon for supplying the SUV. We didn’t have to worry about RAGBARI baggage limits (which meant a real pillow, hooray!) and had coolers so we could buy our own beer at $6 a six pack instead of $6 a drink
  • Taking turns driving. It meant I missed some cool things, such as the drive over the mile-long bridge on Red Rock Lake, but having a few driving shifts meant some half days off, which were good for my aging body. I suppose I technically did only 5 ½ days of RAGBRAI on a bike, but still. When one member of our team was faded for any reason, he or she could pick up an extra diving shift and get a break. CR Biker did not need any extra breaks this year—and having a few more team members so there are fewer driving shifts would be OK, too—but the whole trading driving thing turned out to be a great idea.
  • The weather. We had rain twice this year, but both times at night. Since my little tent continues to be the watertight shelter that could, night rains didn’t bother me much. Dry, warm, sunny days make the week overall very beautiful. If it had been one week earlier, we would have sweltered under high heat and astronomical humidity—but as it turned out, Mother Nature smiled this year, and the weather was gorgeous.
  • The shirts. My daughter's grand design for Team Joe was a hit. I wore "I am Joe" and "Joe I am" shirts on four days of the ride, and met lots of other Joes. Many riders made a sport of yelling "hi Joe," or, in the case of the Christmas team (yes, there was one), "Merry Christmas, Joe!" I felt like Lance Armstrong without the biking ability.
    Awesome shirt front,
    it said "Team Joe" above picture.

What did not go well:

  • Fairfield. The little town that is slightly cray cray. From the gate guard who turned us away from the main campground because I could not name our team’s official RAGBRAI name on the spot to the shortage of portable toilets (and total lack of water) in the main campground, the little town that is schizophrenic, divided between old-school Iowans and Vedic spirituality, seemed a bit, well, incompetent. Don’t get me wrong—overall the town was very friendly and most individuals we encountered were delightful, it’s just that the powers that be running this RAGBRAI stop managed to get many key details wrong.
  • Getting late starts. We did better at the end, and usually were on the road by close to 6:30 if not 7—but as I’ve written before, a good RAGBRAI ride starts promptly at 6. In the future, maybe we pack breakfy rather than seeking it in town. Coffee is important, but then again, it’s also readily available on the road.
  • Eating vendor food one night. Yeah, not so much. Stick with churches. Our search for food became late in Oskaloosa, and we didn’t find either Methodists or Catholics, but instead ate in the downtown vendor area. Never again. The food was OK, but it was not plentiful enough and the lines were huge. Churches feed you much better. You pay more, but sitting down to a hearty meal is totally worth it.

Anyway, RAGBRAI 2013 is now history. See more of my photos here.

The giant bike at the Fairfield  Middle School was cool.
Was it good? When it was good, it was very, very good. When it was bad, it frankly wasn’t all that bad. Even Fairfield was enjoyable. Overall, I would say it was great.

Some thank you notes: Thank you again, Brigid and Eldon, for supplying the support vehicle. Thank you Eldon for fixing my front derailleur. Thank you, Cate and Brigid, for your quirky sense of humor and knowledge of 1970s and 80s song lyrics. Eldon, thanks for putting up with three Shellers for a week. Thank you Cate for the many training rides and the cool guest blog post. Brandon, thanks for hanging out with the old folks for a few nights. Thank you Iowa and Des Moines Register for going along with this whole RAGBRAI idea. Amanda, the shirts were totally awesome, thanks a ton, and again thanks to Eldon for arranging the printing. Most of all, Audrey, a thousand thanks. You encouraged me to do RAGBRAI again, you left me off and picked me up despite the coordination problems that inevitably cropped up, and you reminded me often to go out and ride my bike to practice for RAGBRAI. I’m sure sometimes it just got me out of your hair, but still.

It’s good to be home. Of all the RAGBRAIs so far, I think I finished this one in the best physical shape—Audrey had the idea to take several pairs of gloves, which proved a very wise move since I had no hand rashes as I have in the past, and trading time cycling with driving time means my body is just not that beat up. The weather was beautiful today and it was tempting to pop the wheel back on Francis and head for a spin on the trails near my home.

My butt said “no.” OK, butt. But I’m sure I’ll be back in the saddle again soon, and probably again in future RAGBRAIs, too.

Final look at Team Joe. So long, RAGBRAI 2013.


  1. Replies
    1. We missed the fake mustache scene--did not get to downtown until an hour after it happened, so no mustaches.