Beat By the Heat

RAGBRAI Day Minus 2

I have a habit of biting off more than I can chew, at least more than I think I can chew.  If at least one time during an endeavor you say “what the hell was I thinking” it wasn’t worth it.  This attitude has served me well, but if you continually stand at the edge, sooner or later you’re bound to fall off.

My brother, Mark, and I rode the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) back in 1984, he was seventeen and I was eighteen.  When Mark called this past January and proposed that we ride RAGBRAI a second time, thirty-seven years later, I jumped at the chance to once again cross my home state with one of my favorite people.

Due to COVID I hadn’t seen my mother, who is ninety-two and lives in Des Moines, for eighteen months so I figured that I’d fly to Des Moines, visit mom and then ride the two hundred miles to the eastern Iowa border town of LeMars – the start of the 2021 RAGBRAI (the route changes year-to-year).  I figured that I could make the distance in two days.  Fortunately, my older brother, David, wanted to camp with me at the midway point of Blackhawk Lake – he would drive while I rode.

Some cush Iowa Gravel

The Racoon River Valley Trail (RRVT) begins in the Des Moines suburb of Waukee and continues north and west sixty miles to the town of Jefferson.  My plan was to ride from my borther’s house in Des Moines to Dallas Center where I’d pick up the Trail and follow it to Jefferson, from there it would be farm roads to Blackhawk Lake.  Fortunately I’d ridden the route to Dallas Center the day before with my nephew.  I say fortunately because this eighteen-mile portion required negotiating several detours and unanticipated dead ends.

The RRVT is a thing of beauty, it’s paved with concrete, not asphalt, and is as smooth as a velodrome.  Did I mention that it’s pool table flat.  I made good time up to the town of Jefferson where I stopped at a Casey’s General Store.  Back when I was a kid, my mom’s friend had this idea to put convenience stores in Iowa small towns, they called them Casey’s General Store; the idea was genius and now the small red stores dot the rural landscape.  The front of the convenience store was lined with heavily loaded bicycles; I figured that I’d come across a group sharing my plan to ride to LeMars.

RRVT as it passes through Perry Iowa

The sunburnt group looked haggard, and I asked if they also ridden from Des Moines.  A shirtless dude with wild hair said that they had come in last night.  I was a bit confused as it was already noon, well into the heat of the day.  A member of the crew offered me a cold can of Coors but I had to refuse, no way was I getting back on that bike after drinking a beer.

The crew was planning on riding up to Blackhawk Lake, same as myself, but when I told them that I planned to ride to LeMars the next day they all shook their heads with one guy saying “that’s crazy man.”

From Jefferson my route went due west into a wall of heat, humidity and head wind.  When I got to the Scranton Casey’s both the temperature and the relative humidity were in the upper nineties.  To make matters worse I was peddling on loose gravel straight into a stiff headwind.  I was having a tough time holding twelve miles per hour.

At mile ninety I was getting a bit concerned as I was having trouble eating – my mouth didn’t seem to have enough saliva to enable swallowing.  I ended up spitting out the energy bar.  I called my brother to see where he was, happily he told me that he’d just arrived at the campground.

Without hesitation I said “hey man you’re going to have to backtrack the route and meet up with me.”

At mile ninety-seven I spotted my brother’s white car coming down the gravel road.  I was only a few miles from my destination but there was no discussion of riding on.  I threw my bike in the trunk and we drove to the campground.

“I’ll just drive you to LeMars tomorrow” my brother said as we drove away.

Self portrait after a hard day

“Yeah man good idea” I replied.

In hindsight I realize that I underestimated the danger of the heat and humidity.  To make matters worse I was surrounded by corn fields; corn plants absorb water at night and release it during the day, greatly worsening the already super humid conditions.  There was no shortage of water on the route, and I drank as much as my stomach could take but despite this I ended up drinking nine liters – after stopping the ride – before I was able to urinate.  Perhaps a better plan would have been to take the trip in three days as I would have been able to knock of seventy miles before noon thereby avoiding the extreme afternoon heat.

I grateful that I had a bail out option, sometimes it’s important to know when to say when.