I’m a little late posting the information from the final day’s ride from Manchester to Dubuque but we packed up, showered and had lunch at Barb’s sister’s home in Dubuque and drove toward North Carolina, stopping late at night at a small town just north of Louisville, KY, and I was too tired to post, so here goes:
The final day’s ride was in our minds the entire trip because of the promise of the toughest hill on the trip: Potter’s Hill. It is a one mile long, up to 19 degree (so they said) climb that promised to challenge even the most fit, youthful rider. So when I awoke on Saturday to overcast skies and cool temperatures I was pleased. Potter’s Hill was one of the last obstacles we would encounter, occurring within a few miles of the outskirts of Dubuque and heat and overpowering sunshine weren’t going to help.
My occasional riding partners Doug and Ron had left the group the night before to return to Cedar Rapids for a family reunion, so I would be on my own for most of the ride. I left after packing up at about 7 am, a little later than normal, and rode east toward the first way point on the map, Earlville, Iowa.
I have been to Earlville many times as a young man. It was the nearest town, I think, to our favorite summer place, Lake Delhi, which now lay bereft of its water following the dam failure of a week ago. I didn’t plan to stop but once on this ride and Earlville wasn’t the place so I rode on with my battery powered taillight flashing. I rode slowly enjoying the foggy landscape with its rolling hills so typical of eastern Iowa. I also thought constantly of conserving energy because Potter’s Hill was looming.
Dyersville was roughly halfway to Dubuque and that was my planned stop. My neice, Kim, works at a restaurant there and I hoped to have breakfast there. We rode into town passed a large processing plant that smelled like yeast. A short jog beneath the railroad tracks put us on the outskirts of Dyersville where we crossed a small stream that a week earlier had obviously been a very large stream and had flooded the area.
Up a hill and into downtown Dyersville where there was a small sign saying “Country Junction, breakfast, 2 miles ahead”. That was Kim’s place but I realized it was going to take me more than a mile off the route and leaving the route wasn’t something I would do on this final day.
I rode slowly through the downtown finally dismounting and walking to where the route turned to the right. I parked my bike on the hillside and walked back into town. I got a coffee and Danish at a coffee shop. I loaded it with four shots of espresso for the climb ahead and went back to my bike. On the way there were two guys dressed in White Sox uniforms from the period depicted in the film “Field of Dreams” that was shot here in Dyersville. It is the most famous attraction in Dyersville, although I might think that the beautiful Basilica there would provide serious competition. Anyway, with cornstalks as the background, I had my picture taken with them.
Then back to the hillside where I sat down to enjoy my coffee and rest for the climb ahead. People watching is great at RAGBRAI and as I thought there listening to an eclectic music selection playing from loudspeakers across the street, I thought about this wonderful event and all the interesting people I have met and seen. Imagine bicycles and riders walking by that hillside four and more across beginning probably at 6 AM and continuing non stop until sometime in the afternoon. That is what you see if you are an observer sitting on the hillside of one of the pass-through towns when RAGBRAI comes through. It is one of the amazing things about the event; the sheer volume of riders that participate – some 10 to 15,000 of them on any given day. They are riding every kind of one, two, three and more wheeled bicycles (“bi” doesn’t seem right to describe them). From unicycles to old fashioned with one very large wheel and one very small one behind, to single speed old fashioned Schwinn’s of my youth, to six passenger “tandems” and recumbents of every configuration imagineable, to an elyptical bicycle, they stream by you. Parents with children in trailers, families traveling on tandems modified so the children can reach the pedals and participate, ride by each pedaling and pulling their weight as they cross this verdant and beautiful state.
I have to say I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it and as the music changed to the first mvmt of the Haydn Trumpet I got up and pedaled off with one final shot of the twin spires of the Basilica framed by an alleyway at the top of the Dyersville hill. There was no going back, Potter’s Hill lay ahead and I hoped I had the strength and ability to make the climb.
Riding out of town we passed the site of the Field of Dreams where riders were relaxing, playing ball, and enjoying the scene. I kept pedaling and met up with Tim and Ann for the first time on the ride. From Utah with Iowa roots, Tim and I had enjoyed many conversations in the mornings and evenings but hadn’t ridden together. For several miles we rode and it was obvious to me that Ann had the climbing ability to give her a chance at the hill. The terrain became a little more severe, there were over 2400 feet of climb during the short 47 miles of ride with almost all of it in the final miles.
We turned left onto a curving road, the first that I recall on the entire route. We rode a ridge road up and down hills with small climbs of 100 feet here and there just tempting us for the difficult time ahead.
I looked to my left, I was overwhelmed with the view. There was a valley way below us with a winding road at its base and another road marginally visible rising up the other side. That must be it.
All I could think of was the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For Thy rod and Thy staff are with me.”
Here we go.
Down a screamer of a hill we wound into the basin into a small town at the base of the climb. A quick stop to adjust the tension on my shoes and out of town. They had paved the road recently so it was glass smooth coming through the town. We turned right and the handpainted sign said “Potter’s Hill, 19 degrees”. I didn’t really need that. I knew from reading about the hill that it had a false finish with a left turn and that when I got there I’d have another 1/3 of a mile to go to the top.
I looked up. There was no chance to get momentum. Most of the riders I could see had dismounted and were walking filling the right lane of the two lane road. I downshifted and began my climb.
I wear a heart rate monitor when I ride and I have a rule for my own safety that I will not ride more than a moment or two when my heart rate gets above 170 bpm. At my age it really isn’t safe. Up the hill I climbed and sweat was pouring off my forehead, arms, legs and anywhere else where sweat can leave your body.
I wore through the caffeine energy, through the energy bars I’d gobbled, through the Gatorade in my bottles, and through whatever reserves I had and I still wasn’t to the turn. I was more than halfway up the mountain though and passed David on his recumbent. I don’t know how recumbent riders can possibly make this hill. They fly down hills at great speed and then slowly make their way up the next one, wobbling their way skyward. I was too much for my friend and he and his daughter, who were riding together, put their feet on the pavement and began walking like most of those climbing.
A glance at my computer and I could see I was close to my heart rate limit. I wasn’t going to make it. It was time to stand on the pegs and really push but there was the 170 on the monitor and I had to get off, just short of the left turn that would have put the top in site and might have let me find enough energy to ride to the top.
Oh well, I’ll live to ride another day and another hill if I follow the rules. Off I went and walked the rest of the way.
Most of us walked and cheered those who could still pedal on their way with words of encouragement. We felt so good for them and really so bad for our inability to do the ride ourselves.
As I got closer to the top, the hill flattened slightly so I could remount and ride over the crest to the cheers of those watching at the top (no for me but for those who rode all the way). Someone on a loudspeaker was shouting, “This is Potter’s Hill. My father name is Potter. It is named for him. You can have your picture taken with him”.
Andy later said he called back that he didn’t want to do that and had something else in mind and the lady with the loudspeaker put the speaker down and said to him, “then you can hit him in the shins if you want”. That would have satisfied me right then and if she’d said it to me I might have.
The ride wasn’t over though and we rode down a couple more screamers (I reached a top speed of 43.5 mph and could have gotten more but thought better of it and braked slightly to slow. A downhill like that almost always means a similar climbs are coming and they did. All the way into Dubuque. The name must mean “the city of hills”.
We came to Clarke College next to Dubuque Senior High School where I had competed as a high school wrestler more than 50 years ago. A beautiful limestone rock building on a hilltop looked like a high school should look, I think. Not a modern, functional boxlike building but a solid structure where learning could be accomplished surrounded by architectural beauty.
Our instructions were to meet and wait til noon and then ride together down into the city and to the river to dip our front tire in the Mississippi to complete the ride that started with our rear tire dip in the Missouri 7 days previous.
We shared stories of success and failure. Ann did the hill; Tim didn’t. I wasn’t surprised that Ann was successful. Others had similar stories of success but all were satisfied, I think. A couple rode it after being forced to stop briefly by riders in front suddenly stopping in front. When you are riding hard up a hill at less than 3mph and someone stops in front of you, you will stop too or hit them. To my mind, restarting from that point would be the most difficult thing imaginable, but they were able to do that and get to the top successfully.
We rode into downtown Dubuque. It was a wonderful feeling to see the Coe College group riding together with our team jerseys on going down to the Mississippi where we walked to the water, posed for pictures and then went to a grassy hillside for a final team shot and began to disband, going our separate ways.
Barbara and her sister Jody were there. We walked back downtown to our truck, loaded the bike in and went to the Budget truck to collect the camping gear, say our farewells, and head to Jody’s.
This was a week of good fun. I’ve made new friends, reconnected with the college of my youth and ridden across the state that I call my homestate.
It was wonderful. It wasn’t the longest or the toughest RAGBRAI ever, but I think as my second one, it was the best. Isn’t that the way it is, though. The most recent experience is almost always the best. I’ll remember it always and hold it dearest til the next one.