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The Purgatory of the Loess

I wanted to use the nickname for the Paris-Roubaix race for the title of this thread but I did not want to offend anyone or run afoul of the forum nannyware (if there is any) by using the word one famous, if fictional, Iowa resident spelled “H, E, double hockeysticks”. So I went with purgatory. Besides, this year’s gravel loop was a short term punishment, not an eternal one.

I like gravel riding. I’ve done all four of the gravel loops on RAGBRAI and I did last year’s twice to make that day a century since I had to drive the team vehicle on Karras loop day. I even entertained the notion of doing this year’s loop three times for the same reason. But that was before I met it!

Technically speaking I believe there was the odd gravel-like pebble embedded in this years loop surface here and there. There might have even been the occasional cluster of stones where the members were almost touching each other. But mostly this year’s loop was sand or, as I suspect, ground up loess. It started out reasonably tame even so. The unusual number of folks riding the first “sector” (to continue the P-R reference) backwards would have been my first clue as to what was to come, had I the presence of mind to consider what it meant. But I didn’t.

When I got to Moorhead I saw a familiar face under the RAGBRAI sun canopy. Familiar in the sense that I’ve seen this face in photos and videos countless times. But I had never actually seen TJ in the flesh before. So I walked up to him started to razz him about the “gravel” loop this year. He was having none of that and in fact he warned me that the worst was yet to come: the hills. I wasn’t too worried because I had done gravel loop hills before and I thought he was just exaggerating. So I left it at that and thanked him for all of his hard work and his team’s hard work to make RAGBRAI happen every year. He in turn thanked me for my service. I’m not military or a first responder or anything like that but I was serving as a Ride Right Ambassador that day and was wearing the jersey.

Something to eat, plenty to drink, and back to the gravel. At this point my memory gets fuzzy. The sandy, rutted road surface continued to sap your strength on even the flat sections. But the second “sector” was indeed quite hilly. If the first sector could be likened to a category 1 or 2 climb due to the effort required to power through it, the second sector was HC! The weather this year was quite pleasant compared to what late July temperatures can be. Even so I believe Sunday was the hottest day of the ride this year and the heat started to kick in just about the time I headed into sector 2. I vividly remember two climbs not far out of town that took nearly everything I had to conquer. After that the details become a blur. I continued to climb the occasional easier hills but I know I had to walk five, was it, or ten, perhaps, or even more of the remaining hills after losing steam halfway up.

Riding this year’s loop put you between a rock and a hard place and another hard place on the downhills. I mean you just wanted to let the bike run and even pedal like mad on the downhills so that you could convert some of that hard earned gravitational potential energy into kinetic energy that would get you partway up the next hill as you normally do out on the paved roads. But even just letting the bike run had you on the edge of crashing because steering through that surface was difficult and the ruts left by all the previous sinners had your front wheel constantly hunting from side to side. You kinda had to let the bike find its own way, as nerve-wracking as that was. The other option, riding the brakes to keep your speed in check, seemed dangerous too. You were afraid to ride the brakes too hard lest your front or rear wheels or both slip out from under you on the loose surface. I honestly was never as happy to see the end of the gravel loop as I was this year. In previous years I was all “please sir, may I have some more?”. This year I just collapsed in a heap on the blessed asphalt and groaned “no mas, no mas!”

Did I mention that I was riding on 38mm tires? Mercy me, there were much younger and fitter riders rolling by me on 23’s. But not many….

The ordeal was not quite over when I got to the pavement again. By now I was bonked. Not as hard a bonk as I have ever been but if I had seen any sign of the SAG wagon I would have blocked the road and waived that sucker down! Instead I limped into Soldier resolved to get some refreshment and wait for the SAG team to show up. I got some water, a large Beekmans, and sat in a shaded seating area to listen to “Circle of Fifths'” last few numbers. When they started to break down their gear I got up and felt meh. But that was actually a vast improvement. So I convinced myself I could get back in the saddle and make Ute. I was running on fumes again when I rolled in but more food, more drink, more rest and as I was leaving town I was feeling more better. I felt almost normal by Charter Oak and I felt fine at Denison. Eventually your digestion system processes enough food to make you functional again. None of this prevented me from staging a photo of me laying on the ground with my tongue hanging out to one side for Facebook of course!

Those of you who found the previous gravel loops too little of a challenge were presumably at least a little more satisfied by this year’s version. It clearly defeated me. Next year I am coming loaded for bear however: a new bike with 2.5 inch tires!! Maybe I’ll even be able to keep up with the young guys and gals on 23’s….

14 Replies

hnschipper, August 9, 2018 at 12:09 pm

Looking through the RAGBRAI photo gallery from day 1, you were not the only one walking up hills on the gravel loop.


David, August 9, 2018 at 12:12 pm

Great story :)

This year had the best (or most memorable) gravel loop. I had narrow road tires but fortunately, there were only a few ruts. Finished the gravel loop around 9:30 AM and temperature was only 68F when we finished the loop.

At least with the hills there isn’t much headwind :)

Edit: wrong time zone


Tiffany Giehls, August 9, 2018 at 6:31 pm

What is the old saying if you are going thru Hell keep on going!!!It was the worst ride I’ve ever done and probably ever will do!!When I’m 90 yrs old and talk about Ragbrai I can tell the tale of the 2018 Gravel Loop where I was in purgatory!!!Lol!!


Joe Stalvey, August 9, 2018 at 8:19 pm

I did the gravel on 25mm road tires. I probably walked at least a mile. I gather that it was a looser surface than ride veterans-this was my first-had expected. I was glad I did it and would do it again. It was a chance to see a geologically interesting area from my favorite perch. I ride a fair amount on unpaved roads while doing club rides in upstate New York and Vermont, so perhaps am more used to tricky surfaces. But I do not think the loop was dangerous or all that difficult. I hope the ride organizers do not take all the negative responses as a cue to avoid interesting but marginally more difficult roads.


jwsknk, August 10, 2018 at 7:54 am

I wonder what it was like on the pre-ride. Did the time of year or weather conditions change the road surface, of did some county road engineer? In the past there was almost always a gravel section (or 2) during the week. Sometimes you could tell the gravel had been bladed off or fresh put down. That didn’t always improve things.


KenH, August 10, 2018 at 10:10 am

I was aiming to be whimsical rather than negative. I am NOT calling for easier gravel loops! Maybe they should warn us when they will be as tough as this one however…. If I make it to 90 I will make sure that my great nieces and nephews are sick of hearing the story about this one!!

Compared to previous gravel loops, the standard that all the RAGBRAI gravel loop veterans use, this one was quite tough. In the grand scheme of things cycling related, perhaps not that tough, each is welcome to their own opinion on that. In the podcast of the pre-ride there were comments about one rider not liking gravel. So perhaps the road conditions were similar during the pre-ride although I think the comment was also made that it would probably be better during RAGBRAI itself. In retrospect then the challenge of this year’s loop should not have been a complete surprise for those few of us who listened to the podcast. I am pretty sure that the heavily rutted conditions we later riders faced were NOT present during the pre-ride since they apparently were not present when at least one of the voices on this thread did the loop.

Just from looking at it and from having the trouble I had steering through it it was obvious that the challenge of doing this year’s loop increased as the day wore on. But it is ok to have challenges during RAGBRAI. This is not the Dirty Kanza, it is not supposed to be a test of mettle for elite riders, but some challenges are ok. Those hills the last day of last year were certainly a challenge for many of us.


KenH, August 10, 2018 at 10:14 am

In addition, like last year’s loop this one was quite lovely in places. There were also a few road cuts at the tops of hills that let you see exactly what the Loess hills are made of. Like everything else at RAGBRAI even the difficult things have their rewards if you look for them.


dalebob, August 10, 2018 at 12:18 pm

Ken, I believe there was someone who rode the whole route on the shoulder. I’m guessing it was not you.


KenH, August 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm

I wish I could say I was that smart but, alas, no. It was not obvious to me that the shoulder held any promise of being easier.


Cory Rood, August 12, 2018 at 8:02 am

This is one of the best things about riding gravel, you could have rode that route a week earlier and had a completely different ride!


Barry Schnoor, August 16, 2018 at 7:17 am

Great write-up, KenH.

I rode this on 32s, and found it to be challenging. I resolved to not do this again. But I probably will. I didn’t fall, but my tires washed left and right the whole time. I envisioned riding the rest of the week with road rash reminders of the gravel hills around Moorhead. It was harrowing.

My gravel loop story involves cannabis. While walking an uphill with some guy from Cali, I made note of all the ditch weed around us. I grew up in Monona County, but had forgotten how much of it grows wild out there. It was never my thing.

But I mentioned it to the California dude. Next thing I know he’s fallen back behind me. I looked back and he’s breaking off a big branch of the stuff. He shoves it in his saddle bag.

“For later,” he said with a smile.

Ride your own ride, man. It’s still not my thing…


jwsknk, August 16, 2018 at 10:39 am

what? he wanted a headache later. Most of the ditch weed is leftover from WWII when it was grown for rope, fabric etc. related but not the same as grown now in places like Colorado.


KenH, August 16, 2018 at 12:31 pm

I didn’t notice the ditch weed. Way back in ’73 I did notice (because someone else pointed it out to me) a more refined variety growing in one the ornamental plant pots in the UWM student union. Campus security noticed it too a day or two later and the student newspaper had a field day with the whole affair. It wasn’t and isn’t my thing either but it was amusing. The student union did turn me on to another vice however, and one I still have. It was there that I first had a dish of mint chocolate chip ice cream….


Larry Klaaren, August 16, 2018 at 1:53 pm

We had some of that wild hemp on our farm on an isolated patch of ground we did not til. The county saw it with an airplane. They made us mow it, let it dry, windrow it, and then burn it. They also required us to stand on guard downwind so that we would not start a wild fire. I could not make that up.


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