FCS dome stirred some memories

Sun, Mar 14, 2021

Though I’m never succinct, I’ve largely avoided the long-form blog post. No really, I swear. But it’s 2021 and times change. Exactly why they change is often elusive or at least subtle, but not this week. Here’s the sequence of texts that led us to where we now find ourselves (somewhat edited for brevity; I assure you it will be the last occurrence of this practice):

Me: I’m starting my FCS journey with a replay of the Ill. St vs UNI game

Me: Bethany [and I] have been in UNI’s dome- we saw Blues Traveler play there that year we were biking across Iowa

Brett: I feel like you need to submit that last text to Spencer Hall for his podcast

Me: I’d hoped to find an Idaho home game, but didn’t see any. I really want to see the kibbe [sic] dome

Brett: If it’s not already the subject of a Wes Anderson-esque Indy film than it should be

Me: we also camped in the field of dreams town that summer too

Me: it was quite an adventure

Me: yeah, Lance Armstrong passed us on the road on the way into Cedar Falls and then spoke at the concert before leaving the ride early to fly to France to support his team who was on the verge of winning the tour Alberto Contador won that year riding for team discovery

Brett: Man I really want a long form blog post detailing this trip

Well Brett, here you go.

First of all, this “trip” is both figurative and literal as all the best ones are. Some people turn to psilocybin or LSD to unlock the darker areas of their mind, but for me televised midwestern small college football proved an effective psychotropic. Watching that game in the UNI-Dome flashed me back to this event in 2007:

ticket for Blues Traveler in UNI-Dome Cedar Falls, IA, July 25, 2007

That fuzzy, blue-tinted image of an admittance ticket recalls a strange and wonderful week in our lives. When that photo was taken my wife and I were in the latter stages of riding our bikes across Iowa during the peak heat of July. Stranger still was that we were far from alone; there were some 10,000 kindred spirits along for this ride. For those uninitiated this is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI. It’s like a small city suited up in lycra, determined to party its way across America’s heartland.

The beauty of the thing is in the hospitality on display at each town along the way. Churches and volunteer fire departments hosted pancake or spaghetti fund raisers at each stop. Some of the towns would host themed welcome parties. The locals would come out to cheer the cyclists on as they passed through and offer them refreshments. The nightly host towns would upend their sleepy personas to host concerts, fairs, and other exhibitions to entertain the crush of overnight visitors.

In 2007, the stop towns were:

  • Rock Rapids (starting town)
  • Spencer
  • Humbolt
  • Hampton
  • Cedar Falls (home of UNI)
  • Independence
  • Dyersville
  • Bellevue (finishing town)

All told we covered just under 500 miles in those 7 days.

In all honesty, I remember the events just as clearly as you would expect after fourteen years. That is to say, it’s mostly a haze of heat, corn, and soybeans, with the occasional pig farm mixed in to challenge us on how long we could hold our breath. I do remember certain bits, certain encounters along that way which I’ll do my best to recount.

The photos accompanying my recollections are pretty blue. That’s not because Iowa looked different in 2007, but because of the borrowed digital camera we carried. It was significantly smaller than ours, which was a perk given we’d carry it on the bikes. Unfortunately, there was something wrong with it - in hindsight maybe it was just a white-balance setting, but at the time we took it in stride as one more quirk of the trip.

We drove from our home in Florida out to Iowa. I remember we listened to an audio book we’d borrowed from the library on the way - Carl Hiaassen’s Sick Puppy. It really helped pass the miles and almost got us lost a couple times.

We arrived in the village of Bellevue on the Mississippi River and camped on the local high school football field. The next day we would take a bus across the state to Rock Rapids that was provided by the charter service we signed up with, Pork Belly Ventures.

camping on the football field

I remember it was a long bus ride. Sadly, I don’t remember much else about that day or the starting town of Rock Rapids. In my mind that was a day for anticipation and logistics. We busied ourselves fetching our bikes off the semi-truck, reassembling them, and otherwise preparing for the ride to start the next day.

Some riders were trekking out about 10 or 15 miles west of town to dip their back wheel into the Big Sioux River, which forms the border between Iowa and South Dakota. That was done to add symmetry to a ride that would end when they dipped their front wheel into the mighty Mississippi on the other side of the state. While I appreciated the symbolism, we didn’t join in, and instead opted for an early night of sleep.

Again, I don’t remember much about the specifics of the first couple days. It was hot and windy, and I learned that a trip into the corn fields to relieve yourself came at the cost of mud caked cleats. God, that mud was really something.

Bethany was well and truly sunburned after the first couple days, so the rest of the ride we were on the road as soon after first light as possible. This mostly kept us out of sync with the hard partiers who tended to sleep late and roll mid-day. Nonetheless, it didn’t feel we missed out on anything as we still got to enjoy the party atmosphere along the way.

A few encounters do stick out to me.

One evening we talked to a fellow rider who grew up with parents who raised him off the grid. We got to talking because we were both in IT, and I was musing about how nice it was to be off-call and out of reach. He was a database administrator who grew up in a cave, so he had some interesting perspectives on the topic.

At the fairgrounds in one of the overnight cities, I think it was Spencer, I had a really nice chat with a guy who was a faculty member at Iowa State University. To no surprise, he did something in agriculture. We had a pleasant conversation about the value of the land grant Universities – ISU and my alma mater, University of Florida, both being examples. That was the same night we showered in a concrete building on the fairgrounds that was usually for the sake of hosing off livestock.

Here I’ll link to the official RAGBRAI website with a “Best of RAGBRAI 2007” photo scroll.

Obviously each town had its own character and layout. The crush of the rolling carnival would mostly congregate into tent cities overnight:

Tent city

Though smaller groups would cut deals with locals to have use of their homes or camp on their lawn. Some of the groups were pretty serious and had their own party/sag wagons like this setup:

Party bus

The charter group we travelled with was something of a tent city unto itself. Though it was frequently apart from the main tent city. We did well, and managed a good setup for ourselves with the Kelty:

Camp made

One night during the ride, the charter company organized a daiquiri night with drinks made in a bike-powered blender. I wish I had a picture. The throughput on their setup couldn’t keep up with demand.

The logistics of the whole ordeal were impressive. I’ve never seen so many portable toilets (they call them “Kybos”), mobile showers, and pop-up food stands each day in a new town. The small touch that I really appreciated was how well everyone took care of the Kybos, so in spite of heavy use, they weren’t disgusting.

Here are some gratuitous pictures of Bethany and me from that week:

Bethany and me

Bethany and me, take 2

OK, so down to what you came here for - the story about Lance Armstrong and Blues Traveller. On the fourth day of the ride we were approaching Cedar Falls, home of the University of Northern Iowa, which was the largest overnight city on the trip. About five miles outside of town there was a bustle behind us in the caravan of bikers. Word spread that Lance was catch us up. Keep in mind this was pre-disgrace, recently retired, seven-time le Tour winner Lance, so people were pretty excited. I remember seeing him whiz by with his posse of body guards… not entirely unlike how teams protect their lead rider in a race. Yep, that’s it. Then we got to Cedar Falls, and after pitching our tent headed over towards the dome. I recall there was a lot of Bryce Paup memorabilia hung about the place.

UNI Dome

The Blue’s Traveller concern was fun, but terrible. The acoustics in the UNI Dome leave a lot to be desired. I think we stayed through a few numbers and headed out after our ears had had enough.

So we moved on from Cedar Falls, and I do have few clear memories of the last day in particular. Before getting to Bellevue the terrain starts to slope down significantly as you move towards the Mississippi. A few miles outside of town I had a clear shot down a long, steep hill and got the bike up to 53 mph - the fastest I’ve ever gone on a bike. It was exhilarating. As we rolled into that last town, hundreds of people lined the streets to cheer us on. It was really moving, like the end of a sappy sports movie, but better because it was in recognition of something we’d achieved. I teared up at the emotion of it.

As tradition dictates we dipped out front wheel into the river to mark the end of our journey:

Bethany dipping her front tire in the Mississippi

After completing the ride, we ran to the tiny local bookstore in Bellevue to grab a copy of Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows which had come out while we were on the ride. Then we gathered our gear, loaded up the bikes, and headed for home with a sense of accomplishment.

What did it really look like?

Because of the lousy camera we really didn’t take many photos. That said, we took a handful of what RAGBRAI really looked like. From road-side, fire-station fundraisers eaten on impromptu benches next to corn fields to an after-ride BBQ plate, calories were an important part of keeping up my shapely figure while riding 60+ miles a day in the heat.

Todd Eats Iowa

Todd Eats Iowa 2

Nothing says RAGBRAI quite like slathering yourself in sunscreen and wolfing down a fundraiser waffle breakfast on the road!

Todd Eats Iowa 3

This was me excited to enjoy a darned fine ear of corn midway through the last day of the ride!

Todd Eats Iowa 4

I remember that pavilion corn clearly because we met this really nice older couple from Wisconsin. They regaled us with tales of the various other cross-state organized rides they had done, and encouraged us to sign up for a ride across their home state.

Not to let the annals suggest that I was the only one eating my way across the state here’s a picture of Bethany enjoying her fundraiser breakfast, but not not being particularly chuffed with me photographing her in the act:

Bethany Eats Iowa Too

With that, I conclude my recollection of that Summer’s great adventure. If you’ve made it this far, I can only hope you enjoyed some part of this story.

One last photo

Speaking of the festival nature that infected the towns we rolled through, this photo struck me as demonstrative:

BMX bike flips on display

This street-carnival display of mid-western bicycular aerial stunts was the real McCoy. The authenticity is dialed up because of its proximity to the local water park and the tire store. I, for one, was glad that medical guy was on standby. I’m left to wonder if his stroller held a baby or was his planned conveyance in that case that the broken husk of a BMXer needed transport. Let us push aside this question.

Alas, one question remains

As the most perspicacious of you, dear readers, are still wondering at the central mystery of this tale, I will now request you do me the honor of permitting me to address it. It is this: Why was I watching a football game between the University of Northern Iowa and Illinois State to begin with?

Well, this is the easiest of questions to answer. In doing so I hope not only to provide a satisfactory conclusion to this story, but also to demonstrate for you that not all who wander are lost.

The answer is this: the forthcoming 2021 Formula 1 season, of course!

If, upon that answer, you find yourself as confused as ever and exclaiming at your screen that it is an hour since you have asked for nothing more than your author to explain himself, rest assured that your desire has my full attention. I hope to convince you now that this is the way I see it as having occurred:

Knowing my fondness for the irreverent journalistic stylings of Spencer Hall and the international sporting mainstay that is Formula 1, the aforementioned Brett sent me a recommendation to an episode of the Shutdown Fullcast podcast titled, “Whatcha doin’ in Bahrain, Pastor?” which is Spencer Hall’s FCS podcast. In this episode he tries to convince his co-hosts to take up F1. It’s a fun listen that hits close to home as I swear I’ve had this very same conversation with my F1-uninitiated friends. So I will now pass the recommendation on to you.

Along the way to the F1 portion of the show (which takes up the better part of the 2nd half), Hall and crew indulge in the amusement and oddity that is to be had in FCS football, and its wooden-domed stadiums. I, growing up on SEC football and being uninitiated, thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. FCS seems to have plenty of room for character and quirk that big-time college football has lost (I attribute this to the keeping-up-with-the-joneses arms race in big-money ball). So I set out to watch some FCS on ESPN+. They’re in the midst of finishing their pandemic-deferred 2020 season right now, who knew?

So that, dear reader, is how I ended up down the memory rabbit hole of our bike ride across Iowa in 2007.