A RAGBRAI Story – Part 2

(When we left the story at the end of Part I, the Mustangs were living it up at the beer tent in Homestead, Amanas: sweat-drenched but smiling, and just a little cocky about being “almost done” with the day’s ride)

And so the Mustangs mounted up and began what can arguably be called the most important part of the experience. Tricia and I decided to ride together, and this was the pivotal decision of the day for me. The ride from Homestead to Oxford, a 5.8 mile stretch, was a little hilly, but do-able. Tricia and I commented on the beautiful scenery. It must not have been too difficult a ride if we were still noticing something other than our burning quads and gasping lungs.

As we pulled into Oxford, the party was in full swing. It certainly appeared that many riders were already celebrating the completion of a successful ride. I was flagging, but surrounded by that happy, upbeat atmosphere, I felt reasonably confident I would finish. I not only wanted to finish the 75 miles, I also wanted to be able to say I rode every foot of it. I understood that there is no shame in walking up difficult hills, and that many riders do so. But I wanted to stay on my bike.

Within minutes of leaving Oxford for the last (17.7 mile) leg of the ride, I was questioning my determination. The ride from that point forward was one long, steep hill after another. After another. After another. As we approached the crest of another hill, I could hear the riders in front of me cursing, as they caught sight of yet another hill in front of them. Groaning and cursing. But I also heard a paraplegic rider pedaling with his arms, saying to another cyclist, “We’re gonna do it!”. An older gentleman, passing me by and saying, “That’s it, take your time!”. I heard Tricia, waiting for me at the top of the hill saying, “You’re doing great!”

Hill after bloody hill. I thought I was in hell. A rider passed me, carrying a passenger who was playing the guitar. An ADULT passenger, whose only contribution to the effort was music!  A guy in a cape rode by, as did a bride and groom whose helmets were embellished to look like a top hat and veil. Ok, maybe not hell exactly. More like rural Iowa on an acid trip.

Hill. After. Bloody. Hill. Partners and team members were practically pulling each other up the hills with their words of encouragement. One young girl apologized, “I’m sorry, I have no legs.” But her teammates wouldn’t hear of her stopping, and I saw her three hills later, still riding.  Solo riders were cared for, as well, though. One woman, stopped at the side of the road tinkering with her bike was asked multiple times, “Do you have what you need?”  Strangers looked on us with compassion, including a lovely family with hoses who sat at the crest of a particularly difficult hill. I begged them to spray me with the cool water. At several consecutive driveways, families were shouting, “You’re almost there! Only six miles to go!” I’ll never be able to thank any of them for helping me get through.

Riding up those hills, mostly I was just thinking, “Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling.” But it was impossible not to marvel at the people around me who were pushing through. Every shape, size, fitness level. Every age. Bike riding is adaptable to all kinds of ability levels, and people with more to overcome than weight and an inactive past were continuing on. Riders whose whole purpose was other-centered (raising money for HIV-AIDS, for a cure for Diabetes or Breast Cancer) were pushing themselves up and down those hills, too. It reminded me that the zeitgeist of RAGBRAI is part rolling folk festival and part pilgrimage. And in this reminder was the realization that I was participating in the kind of experience that, most of my life, I would only have watched from the sidelines. This wave of committed, possibly crazy, humanity helped to carry me forward when I began thinking I couldn’t keep going.

And then, unbelievably, we crested and in front of us was Melrose Avenue! I couldn’t believe it – Iowa City, about to turn the corner into Coralville, our destination. There was jubilance all around us. Waiting for the State Patrol to give us the right of way, another rider’s radio was blaring Vanilla Ice – and Tricia and I broke into spontaneous dancing astride our bikes. Someone in the crowd yelled, “You go girls!”. The State Patrol officer danced with us.

We turned into a lovely downhill run, the road lined with welcome signs from the colleges and universities with officially registered teams. And then, in the midst of celebration, the final test. One more long-ass hill. I almost cried. Other riders were giving up, dismounting in larger numbers than at any other point on the ride. If Tricia hadn’t been there, I might have been one of them. It took every last reserve to ride that hill. And it was slow going. But Tricia and I rode it together, and when I pulled ahead as we coasted down the other side, I waited for her to catch up. She called, “You don’t have to wait”, but I told her, “The hell I don’t! There’s no way I’m crossing the finish line without you.” How could I, when her encouragement and friendship had just pulled me through the last 17 miles?

The finish line was designed to look like the arched entrances to Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, with the road painted like a football field. Layne and Kristen, the most awesome and patient road crew ever, were waiting and watching. When they caught sight of us, they jumped up and yelled and cheered, Layne filming us coming in.

I’d like to say that I was overcome with joy, but the truth is, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, dehydrated, hungry and I hadn’t peed in nine hours. I was incapable of joy in that moment. We stopped, and waited for Layne to join us with directions for where we were meeting up with the team. When she arrived, she pointed up the hill in front of us and said, “Go up there to the second stop sign and turn right.” I looked in that direction, and to my shame, burst into tears of frustration. I said, “I cannot ride up another f-ing hill. In fact, I can’t get back on my bike.” Layne hugged me and said, “Its ok. We’ll walk together, and I’ll push your bike.”

I owe a debt of gratitude to a huge community who made my RAGBRAI experience a day I will never forget: The people of Iowa who opened their homes, hometowns, and hearts to the massive river of riders. The cyclists, themselves, who were compassionate comrades on the quest to achieve personal goals. My fellow Mustang riders (especially my girls: Sarah, Colette, Wendy, and Tricia) without whom I would surely have failed – whose love and support held me up throughout the long day. Layne (and her parents for the loan of their truck) and Kristen, the road crew who loved us enough to spend a day waiting, cheering, manoevering through traffic and congestion. They didn’t have the payoff of endorphin highs or self-congratulations at the end – just thankless jobs and a long, sweaty day. The Lange Family, who hosted a reception/party for all the Mustang riders in Coralville, welcoming stinky sweaty strangers into their lovely home.

Each person in a long list vital to the success of the whole. Vital to my success.

The community story is not a story I was expecting, because until I was there, it wouldn’t have seemed possible. There is a lot of hype and mythology surrounding RAGBRAI. Turns out, a lot of it is true. But the magic of it, in my opinion, comes down to love.

I know, some of you just groaned, reading that! Here she goes again, you’re thinking, reading too much into every little experience. I’ll accept that criticism. But I will also say that I am no Pollyanna – ask Tricia, who saw me at my absolute snarliest at the end, after successfully completing the day. Ask Layne, who saw me tensely coiled at 5:20 a.m. when I was worried about the derailers on our bikes being  smashed as we loaded the truck. No Pollyanna visible in those moments, I assure you.

However, throughout the ride, there were moments when I was able to be outside my own fear and self-doubt enough to really see the events and people around me. Those moments were emotional – and more true than the fears. At one point in the day, a rider towing a boom box passed Tricia and I, blasting Martina McBride’s “Love’s The Only House”, one of my all-time favorites. That day, I swear, love was a big enough house to shelter all 10,000 bicyclists.