Some music, some beer, and some biking

BY CHRIS CLARK | JULY 20, 2009 7:15 AM

RED OAK, Iowa — It took six hours in a 1985 Chevrolet school bus, traveling at four miles per gallon, to get to the start of the 37th RAGBRAI.

I arrived on the afternoon of July 18 with Cedar Falls-based Team Deere-Heart, and the two dozen of us set up camp in an overgrown field filled with 300 tents. The rest of the 10,000 participants were spread out in surrounding grassy areas.

They were excited about starting the 442-mile journey. And they were hungry.

Music blasted from surrounding campsites, overpowered by a large stage near Ribfest, which blanketed the area with the smell of barbecue sauce. The rest of the first night seemed coordinated: Beers would follow, then sharing memories from previous rides, then sleep.

While sitting around with two or three other teammates, Morris Hurd, a member of Team Deere-Heart who is riding his 17th RAGBRAI, asked Lisa Brodersen, the group’s cofounder, if a cold bottle of Gatorade would prevent him from getting cramps.

“Saggy Thursday” was the first time Brodersen ever drank Gatorade — and she still quaffs the sports drink on rides. She recounted the day in 1995 when the weather was so hot, many people drove to the next town — termed “sagging.”

“It was like a blow dryer was blowing in your face the whole time,” she said, making sure I knew she was one of the few who completed the ride without shameful “sagging.”

After six members of Team Deere-Heart settled down, food still digesting, they introduced me to one tradition marking the “official” start of the journey — dipping our rear tires in the Missouri River.

We rode about four miles to a newly built pedestrian bridge, crowded with cyclists and walkers enjoying the sunset’s reflection off the water.

Hurd made sure to be in bed before 10 p.m., anticipating waking up at 5 a.m. While he slept, ‘90s alternative Rock group Bare Naked Ladies finished its set on the main stage of Ribfest.

A bike tire popped outside of my tent around 7 a.m. Most of Team Deere-Heart was taking down tents and packing belongings into the bus.

Thousands of bikers in every color of jersey filled the starting line. Armed with spare tubes, small tools, water bottles, and some musical entertainment, riders discussed the day’s route.

Sunday’s ride was 52.6 miles to Red Oak with 3,684 feet of climb.

“I have to say it was pretty hard,” said UI senior Betsy Christensen, who thinks this week is more like a vacation for her even with a little training.

I arrived in Red Oak at about 9:30 a.m. after about an hour on the bus with our driver, Mohr. We stopped at a gas station just inside of town to fill up the 70-gallon water tank on top of the bus.

After driving around what seemed to be the entire town of Red Oak, Mohr and I found camp on a baseball field near four buses, around 10 other vehicles, and 50 tents. Some camped at the nearby high school and others camped in some of the residents’ yards.

I heard other riders had run into trouble. When Deere-Heart rider Shelly Arnston arrived at camp, she reported a bike crash around three miles from Red Oak.

She saw the head-on collision between two male riders, which caused a small pile-up. One man reportedly suffered a head injury, cracking his helmet on the pavement. A doctor, an EMT, and two registered nurses — Arnston was one of them — arrived within two minutes, she said.

All four medics were riders. Arnston said another rider called 911, and at least three people were transported to a hospital.

Riders with Team Deere-Heart started arriving at camp around 12:30 p.m. Half reached for water and juice, while the other half cracked open beer cans. When the rest of the team arrived, many took showers behind tarps wrapped around four metal poles.

Music, good food, and a few more beers will keep campers busy until they get up today for a longer, more difficult ride.

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