I have a terrible memory for the unpleasant. If I look back at my pictures a few months after a given trip, I will remember the beautiful scenery, the delicious food, and the joy of biking for endless miles through the misty morning fog. But gone are any hints of pain, fatigue, annoyance, or boredom that might deter me from embarking on a similar trip in the future. This reliable lapse is likely a rather convenient one for living a happy life, perpetually reflecting on past idylls, each wholly untinged by the faintest detracting whisper. But this carries the unfortunate downside that I will sometimes find myself repeating steps which will likely lead to outcomes that are objectively terrible.
And so it is with RAGBRAI. Already, I find myself strongly identifying with the Iowa cycling scene, shopping online for artwork, socks, and other mementos of the glorious institution of the ride and the surrounding culture. I wistfully recount the joys of discovering coolers of free Busch Lite on the side of the highway, and snacking on homemade ice cream whilst enjoying the free music wafting under the cool canopies of small town Iowa’s central squares. And it’s only a matter of time before I receive next year’s route announcement, and each subsequent year’s, and must reflect back on my fading memories in order to decide whether it makes sense to register once again.
Therefore I address this to you, Jeff of March 2024. You actually weren’t altogether thrilled to wake each morning at 4am, just so you could race to break camp and schlep all of your belongings to the end of the 5,000-person line for the luggage truck. You never had time to really stop and enjoy the cute little towns because of a very real fear of having to slog through the intense sunshine, 100-degree heat, and 100% humidity of mid-afternoon. Because of said heat, coupled with general exhaustion, you couldn’t properly explore the host towns, but had to hide out in the nearest fast food restaurant and subsist on iced coffees and Hardee’s charbroiled burgers for the seven hours remaining till sunset. And though famous rock bands were playing each night, you were mostly too busy dousing yourself in water and trying to get a few hours of sleep, before you would inevitably be awoken by the cruel sounds of tents unzipping all around you. At various times throughout the week, you insisted to yourself and to anyone within earshot that you would never do this again – unless you somehow managed to convince a friend or family member to follow you around with an air-conditioned RV.
Ok, Future Jeff, just thought you should know. Do with this information what you will.
Before signing up for my second RAGBRAI, I investigated other cross-state rides, but found that the registrations for these tended to be around $700 -- which was significantly more than the $218 it cost for Iowa. Some people manage to make up the difference with showers, food, etc. that would likely be included in the higher-cost rides. But I only spent $105 on food during the ride. And my other costs, consisting solely of beer ($46) and transportation to/from the event ($229), would almost certainly not be included in any registration fee.
So assuming you can bring lots of snacks, stop for every bit of free food, and take zero showers, a reasonable number for measuring against other rides would be something around $320.
I didn’t do much to prepare in the many months between registering and showing up to the Missouri River, but much mental energy was consumed by the logistics for getting to the start point and back from the end with bikes in tow.
Personally, I was a huge fan of the very romantic, zero carbon-footprint approach of taking a train to Omaha and back from Burlington. The schedules lined up perfectly, and the tickets were reasonable at about $100 each way (including a $20 bike supplement). The only issue was that this year’s ride didn’t start in Omaha or end in Burlington, so it would be necessary to ride a hundred extra miles to Sioux City on Saturday and an extra eighty from Davenport the following Sunday. In my mind, it seemed entirely reasonable to tack these extra two days onto the original seven, but neither Katie nor Suzanne expressed much enthusiasm for this plan.
And so the frontrunner became finding five people and driving in two cars to the start. While three set up camp and enjoyed a relaxing day in Sioux City, two among the group would proceed to drive six hours across the state, drop off one of the cars, and quickly return with the other. At the end of the ride, we would split the five bikes amongst various roof and trunk racks, and drive back. After a few friends bailed and left us with only three riders, I found myself questioning the viability of this plan. But then, one Wednesday, I went to a run that promised free food, and met an ultrarunner, Stephanie, who was planning on doing her first RAGBRAI with a friend who was flying in from New York. She initially seemed as if she might possibly be onboard with the plan, but would later book a shuttle, given that this option was notably less insane than driving back and forth across the state the day before the ride.
So after losing Stephanie, I began brainstorming once again, and on a lark, decided to check rental cars. Much to my surprise, it was less than a hundred bucks for a one-day, one-way rental from Davenport to Sioux City. And so all that remained was to find a way to stuff three bikes into a rental without the aid of a bike rack. And that was when I discovered the Bike Friday Family Tandem.
Katie was one of approximately four friends I had during my pandemic year in San Francisco. We went on several rides together, but rode at radically different speeds, and sometimes finished hours apart. It seemed clear that if I wanted to see her at any point during the week, we would need to take a tandem.
I already had one tandem, but it weighed about 200lbs and was several feet wider than an average car. On one of my frequent perusals of Facebook Marketplace, I discovered that someone was selling a Bike Friday tandem, which broke down into many pieces and supposedly fit into two checked bags. The owner had paid over $3000 for it in the hopes that she could get her daughter to ride, but had given up after fewer than ten trips. I decided I was willing to pay $500 for the novelty, even though this was more than double what I had paid for the priciest among my existing bike collection.
Katie disassembled the bike the night before we left, neglecting to take very diligent notes on how we might put it back together. I had many pressing obligations at that particular time and couldn’t be bothered to take part in this step. The instruction booklet, with 67 steps on reassembly, was rather blurry, and kept referencing cable breakers that had perhaps confounded the previous owner and been tossed in the trash. So when we arrived in Sioux City, we very quickly found ourselves forking over fifty bucks to the nearest repair booth to replace our rear shifter cable.
A general assumption amongst all new cyclists, most experienced cyclists, and the population at large, is that it’s extremely difficult to ride a tandem, and any pair found on one is deserving of the utmost pity. But if anyone were to actually stop and do the math, and consider the efficiency gains of incorporating twice the power into a single machine, they might quickly conclude that it was actually easier to ride such a bike. Indeed, we would encounter innumerable tandems and even a few triples that were moving at impressive speeds. This was not our experience, however. Riding the tandem, particularly on hills, proved to be far more difficult than any single-rider bike I’d ever ridden.
Another widely-held belief is that tandems kill relationships, and that you would need a degree of love and understanding for your partner that only a select few could ever attain. We never figured out whether this inherent tension was supposed to arise from disagreements over navigation, or a gnawing doubt as to the contributions of your partner. Katie and I had no particularly robust fondness for each other, but agreed early on that we would stop for every offer of free food or beer along the route, and we got along just fine.