Were I in your shoes, dear reader, I would be cynically asking “how does this bloke see fit to prattle on about ‘what RAGBRAI is’ when he’s never been?”.  My answer would be that this is exactly the reason for the writeup.   You see, with a little luck, 6 months from now I’ll never again be able to say I’m a RAGBRAI virgin.  In my experience, endeavors like this affect you on many levels, and are often very much what you expected and yet nothing like what you expected, all at once.  Being the overly-analytical person I am, I’m quite sure I will have a lot to say about my take on RAGBRAI following the event; so, I thought I’d take a moment to put out there, for posterity and my own later reference as much as anything, some of the lenses through which I currently view RAGBRAI.  It’ll be interesting to see in what ways it’s similar and in what ways dissimilar.

RAGBRAI is an adventure.  The fact of riding 400-500 miles across an entire state in a 7 day span, on a route that never repeats a prior route in the ride’s 40-year history, overnighting in a different town each day and rolling through something on the order of 40-60 towns during the week, camping under the stars with more than 10,000 of your closest friends, definitely deserves the label “adventure”. 

RAGBRAI is social.  Again – 10,000-plus people.  Friendships are formed that cross state lines, folks that have met up online finally meet in person, fellow hometown riders are found via RAGBRAI that weren’t found when you were back home, etc.  Most people who have done RAGBRAI a few or more times say that the social aspect is one of the biggest draws for them. It’s typical to settle, without a specific effort to do so, into a group of riders that rides about the same pace as you and sets out about the same time as you, such that you share big stretches of the journey together.  A different approach some folks take is to make a point to leave at different times each day and vary break timing, so as to deliberately seek out different groups to ride with.

RAGBRAI is a pilgrimage.  If I close my eyes and imagine I’m someone who HAS done a few RAGBRAIs and looks forward to returning each year, this is how I think I’d characterize it.  Wikipedia defines pilgrimage as “a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.”  There’s unarguably, inherently, something of spiritual significance to training oneself to be in the shape to ride RAGBRAI and then going and doing it.  One learns a lot about oneself, one’s limitations (and hopefully ability to transcend them), about others, etc.  The way I view/imagine it, RAGBRAI is almost a sort of reverse pilgrimage in a way – where the destination is the start of RAGBRAI itself and then much of the journey is undertaken.

RAGBRAI is a challenge.  This will (as, I guess, will all the other characteristics here) vary by person.  Some very strong riders will find an event like RAGBRAI, where you ride “only” around 60-70 miles per day for a week, as not very difficult.  In a group of 10,000+ people there will be some who either underprepared, underestimated, joined for fun, or otherwise and find the ride extremely difficult.  And there will be plenty of people occupying the hazy middle of this continuum.  For MOST riders, I infer from what I’ve picked up, RAGBRAI is at a minimum not a piece of cake and is challenging.  For me personally, while I expect to be in good shape in July (and arguably could do RAGBRAI if it were a few weeks away), I anticipate a challenge, even given that this year’s route is in the top 10 easiest there has been.

RAGBRAI is visually amazing.  This is possibly the aspect that I’m looking forward to the most.  I’ve ridden with friends or small groups, and I’ve seen relatively small “pelotons” of riders out and about – but we are talking a couple dozen riders, tops.  With many thousands of riders RAGBRAI dwarfs that.  The videos one can find on YouTube remind me of nothing so much as a migration, for example of butterflies or birds.  I think about it in this way – with the pack stretched like pearls on a string into multiple “pelotons” based upon riding speed and strength, hour of departure, amount of time spent in through-towns or breaks – there are likely to be maybe as many as 20 different main “pelotons”; but each of these groups would contain HUNDREDS of riders, men and women of all descriptions riding all manner of bikes, rolling across the Iowa countryside like an enthusiastic little hungry army.  The videos & pictures I’ve seen are incredible and I have a feeling this is a situation where seeing it with one’s own eyes is pretty incomparable.

RAGBRAI is a vacation.  People go to RAGBRAI for all sorts of reasons – some of them listed above.  But one thing the vast majority have in common is that they are there on a vacation from work or at a minimum, from “real life”.  One thing Mr. V and I enjoyed about our Katy Trail journey is that your only “job” for the entire day was to cover the 50-70 miles that you’d mapped out on your itinerary.  How and when you got there was up to you.  You could bang out 60 miles before lunch; you could start pedaling at 10 AM and take your time; you could stop only twice but spend 2-3 hours at each place.  Your “job” for the day – simple although not exactly “easy” – was to get from A to B.  RAGBRAI, being a touring event, is the same.  You get to escape your workaday life, your normal stresses and joys, your normal challenges and achievements, to participate in this crazy rolling pilgrimage by bicycle from one border of Iowa to the other.

As if it weren’t obvious by now – I can’t wait.

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Registered today for my first organized group cycling event – the KCMBC-organized Spring Classic

The ride (which is non-competitive, i.e. not a race) has 26, 46, and 70 mile routes.  I opted for the 26, which will be plenty challenging for me.  I’ve done over 26 miles only a couple times to date, and those were in good conditions and favorable terrain.  This would be a big accomplishment for me.  I am nervous but excited to participate in this thing.