Wednesday, September 7


Two years ago, while I was working with polar explorers Ann Bancroft and Liv Arnesen, I rode across Iowa on RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. If I can, I'll figure out how to add the photos later. This was my report:

Friday, July 18, 2003 Back On The Road

Hi. I'm Stan Oleson (I'm the one on the right). I work at yourexpedition. Last October my friend Harry and I each turned 50. That's us celebrating at our "100th" birthday. Next week we'll be joining thousands of others on RAGBRAI 31 - the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

My last bike trip across Iowa was 25 years ago (in this photo I'm on the left and have hair). My son Peter rode on RAGBRAI last year, and as I turned 50 it seemed appropriate to give a long bike ride another try. This year's ride is 450 miles (720 km) across southern Iowa. RAGBRAI is different from the Tour de France. It's not a race, it's a ride.

There are lots of reasons why I wanted to ride again. But a big one involves a tumor that was discovered on my spine five years ago. The tumor was treated with radiation, and with the help of a great team of doctors and lots of support from friends and family, I'm fine. But before it was radiated away, the tumor had tightened on my spinal cord. The effect was that I had to relearn how to walk and then how to run. The great thing is, you never forget how to ride a bike! It will be special to attempt something a little more physically challenging than long walks and canoe trips.

Unlike Ann and Liv's crossing of Antarctica, I'll be meeting lots of riders and people who live along the way. As I go, I'll be sending along some observations and images to share the experience.

Saturday, July 19, 2003 Logistics

When I thought about this bike trip my thoughts were of riding through the green Iowa countryside, corn rustling gently in the (tail) wind. It's no different with any journey. When I think of the Bancroft Arnesen Expedition the images are of Ann and Liv sailing or skiing. They aren't of flights, or resupplies, or - in our case - of all the effort necessary to make it possible for 10,000 bikers to pass through towns of 5,358 like Glenwood, Iowa - where we are camped tonight.
As for us, we drove on Friday with four bikes and lots of gear to Fort Madison, the END of our route (our sons are in baseball and soccer tournaments. So they will join us via a more direct route tomorrow night) . Today we took a bus across the state, arriving in a town filled with tents and people. It seems like most of the residents of Glenwood are helping to make our stay pleasant.

Here's a photo of the 20 yard line of the Glenwood football field. It's not easy to make an end run around that line.
So far we've ridden about 10 blocks. But I'm worn out by the bus ride. The dining options are excellent - a root beer float and a rib eye steak sandwich hit the spot. The rugged hardship for me? A lack of yuppie coffee and pale ale.

Tomorrow the logistics will be relatively simple. As for the riding, we'll see.

Sunday, July 20, 2003 Glenwood to Shenandoah - 56 Miles

The key word for today is hot! The morning started as foggy and nice. The visibility was shortened enough that it was impossible to tell whether the hill you were climbing stretched on for 100 yards or for half a mile.

At first the hills were the big challenge. But once the mist burned off and the temperature hit 95, the heat became the obstacle. My legs were fine all day, but my brain was woozy. I knew I was hot when a water tower I thought I saw in the distance turned out to be a white styrofoam bike helmet on a person just over the top of a rise. After lots of water and rest, everything was fine. The women dressed as bees I saw really were women dressed as bees.

The day ended with an incredible lightning show, with little hitting the ground, but fingers of lightning covering the hot northern sky. That should mean cooler temperatures on Monday.

Monday, July 21, 2003 Day 2 Shenandoah to Bedford - 63 Miles

What a difference twenty degrees makes! It goes without saying that the day my son Peter arrives for the ride the weather turns perfect. It was fun to ride together just a bit. I noticed from watching the Tour de France that the perfect size for a cyclist seems to be 6'1" and about 150 pounds. That's Peter's size. I'm a little taller and a LOT heavier. I was riding with Peter late in the day in my highest gear and it was my impression that we were really cruising along. Then Peter said, "Well I'm going to head into town" and increased his speed by about 5 miles per hour and took off. I saw him next at camp. Early in the day we did stop to take a photo at the Team Homunculus "mini-van."

So I cruise along more slowly. The group did wait for me in each town (and they were rested by the time I arrived). It's amazing to see the way that the people of a little town turn out to host the RAGBRAI riders. Early yesterday about 16 miles into our ride we pulled into a nice little town. 10,000 bikes don't ride through town every day, so the local groups who host a food stand are often doing it for the first time. There were two lines at this particular food area, with exactly the same menu posted at the end of each line. The featured items were "biscuits and gravy" and "homemade cinnamon rolls" according to the woman on the road (whose grating voice Peter had been listening to for 10 minutes by the time I arrived, much to his teenage disgust). We got in one line and decided to just have a cinnamon roll and juice. When we reached the head of the line we were told that this was the biscuit and gravy line, the other line was the cinnamon roll line. Undaunted, we moved to the other line and in 5 minutes we had our rolls. However, when we asked for juice we were informed that juice was only available in the biscuit line. Who knew? Like I said, we're all amateurs at this. It's all in good fun. And while the ride wasn't painless, as my rear "keester" will attest, it was really fun and quite pleasant.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003 Osceola to Oskaloosa - 76 miles

Today was as pretty as an Iowa summer day can be. Between 70 and 80 degrees with puffy clouds and a wind that, while not a tail wind, wasn't a head wind either. I had to drive our support vehicle yesterday, so I was relatively rested and fresh, though I was still the slowest rider in our group by far. But I felt great all day as I cruised along. We went through the part of Iowa just south of where I was raised. For some reason - whether it was closeness to my roots or some other, the rhythms of the day were good for me. After riding for a while you come to understand just how much power your legs are producing, and you shift into the gear that requires that amount of power almost without thinking. It is amazing how that rhythm makes hills less of an obstacle. They are just a part of the ride where you traveling more slowly - not the "bad" part.

Tomorrow I may view hills as the "enemy." But not today. So it was a pleasant day. As I was eating my daily "Tender Toms" turkey leg 70 or so miles into the day, a woman who I didn't know walked by and said, "You should have a photo of this. You look like a happy man." And she was right. So I gave her my camera to take a shot of Peter and me.

In a any group of 10,000, people form smaller groups. Here they are called teams. Teams tend to name themselves. One of my favorite teams is named in honor of a fact of Iowa highway life - roadkill. Team Roadkill honors the fallen roadside birds and mammals by placing Mardi Gras beads and a Team Roadkill patch by the fallen bird or mammal (who have lost a battle with a car - not a cyclist). It's a nice touch, as far as I'm concerned (even if it is a bit "tongue in cheek").

There are certain rules of etiquette which are observed when large groups of cyclists occupy a road together. When passing a person, one usually passes on the left and says "On your left." Today I saw an amazing thing, two cyclists got into a fight. Since one of the persons was from Team Fast Hands - the hearing impaired riding team - the fight was conducted in sign language and gestures. A woman passed a Team Fast Hands rider on the right. He informed her of his aggravation with a gesture. She responded that he shouldn't be veering all over the road (from where I rode 30 yards behind, she was right). He gestured that she should have passed on the left. She responded that she would have if he hadn't been veering all over the road. Fortunately, it ended there. An exception to the normally extremely cooperative behavior of RAGBRAI riders, but a fun one to observe.

All in all a great day.

Thursday, July 24, 2003 Oskaloosa to Bloomfield - 67 miles

I Couldn't Find Paris

When I looked at the route for today, I was excited. Among lots of other towns, today we were going through Paris. The Tour de France has nothing on RAGBRAI. The problem was, though the map clearly shows Paris, Iowa, I couldn't find it! There was a tiny town named Bunch with a sign encouraging speeding motorists to slow down about where Paris is supposed to be according to the map. But what town or municipality would change its name from Paris to Bunch? It makes no sense. So if an Iowan says, "We'll always have Paris" to someone, as far as I can tell, he or she is wrong.

As for me, a tougher day. No real physical problems other than tired muscles. A series of very long hills in the middle of the day sort of wore me out. But we've made it to our campground (which, as luck would have it, is on the very far side of Bloomfield). It's not a huge distance from one side of town to the other - unless you have already biked 67 miles. Then the extra miles, ending with a long hill, seem to be quite an imposition. Of course it's not. We have a beautiful site and tomorrow's route is that much shorter. The 3000 people of Bloomfield were great hosts, and after an hour or two the aches of the day were forgotten.

Friday, July 25, 2003 Bloomfield to Fort Madison - 67 miles

Although RAGBRAI is scheduled to run from Sunday through Saturday, we needed to begin traveling early Saturday. So yesterday we traveled with the RAGBRAI riders for the first 33 miles, riding into and out of the Des Moines River valley several times. The trips in were beautiful, cruising down long hills at speeds of around 40 miles per hour. And the towns of Maquokota and Bonaparte are really pretty. Of course, one thing a bicyclist learns quickly is that a long downhill into a river valley is often followed by a long uphill stretch out of the valley. Yesterday was no exception to that rule.

But a pork tenderloin sandwich in Keosauqua and a piece of rhubarb pie a la mode in Bonaparte made the climbs out of each town easy. It's lovely country.

In order to retrieve our car and complete our trip across the state, Peter and I turned east and rode the 33 miles to Fort Madison as a twosome. It's quite a different sensation to travel by bicycle in a group of two rather than a group of 10,000. Cars and trucks which defer to 10,000 are much less solicitous of two lonely cyclists. Still we made it safely to Fort Madison.

It was great to complete our crossing of Iowa. I was really struck by the diversity of the cyclists on the ride. There were bicycles of all kinds. Racing bikes, mountain bikes, recumbents, tandems, tandem recumbents, three person bikes and even double tandems. There were a similarly wide range of body types and ages. There were serious cyclists who could talk for hours about cadence without tiring of the subject (did you know that power efficiency peaks at 90 revolutions per minute and falls off dramatically above and below that number? I didn't. And I'm not sure I really wanted such a long exposition on the subject). There are people who ride for the challenge, for the food, for the parties, for a wide variety of reasons. Like any large group, the circumstances vary. But for most, if not all, it was a great experience. New friendships were formed while slowly climbing a hill side by side. There is a bit of group insanity which makes such an experience hard to explain but easy to enjoy - especially in retrospect, when the pain in the "rear keester" has faded and the circulation has returned to hands that have been on handlebars for too many hours in a day.