RAGBRAI tech: Starved for signal and juice

Riders flock to the free charging station in Manson on RAGBRAI’s second day. (Kyle Munson/The Register)

 
RAGBRAI, Day 2 — Monday morning out of Storm Lake began, ever so appropriately, with a rainstorm.

Alumni of last year’s ride will remember the torrential downpour that slugged us the morning out of Waverly. This wasn’t nearly that demoralizing. This rain was lighter, almost pleasant.

If not for the water that pooled in my shoes, it might have been blissful.

There can be a certain zen to watching the droplets spray off the rear bike tire in front of you, trace a graceful arc through the air and pelt you directly in the nose.

My biggest fear in the soggy pedal from Storm Lake to Newell was to slip on slick pavement or fall prey to wet brakes. And of course my glasses were a blurry kaleidoscope.

“You don’t get the full experience unless you ride in the rain!” a passing rider shouted to me with an amused grin.

“I only wish my phone agreed!” I yelled back.

Of course as a journalist on wheels I had my phone, roll-up keyboard and spare batteries sealed in plastic bags. (And my low-tech spiral notebook.)

The rain helped to remind me just how much that evolving tech has transformed the character of RAGBRAI. 

The main form of intra-team communication used to be message boards plastered with notes in the overnight towns. The plywood in Storm Lake was pretty sparse. There was an occasional “Where are you? Call me” note. And “Carl — No phone service in this area. Looking for you. — Frank”.

But many of the colorful team road signs that used to decorate the route have been long since replaced by phones and apps. 

Even here on this remote rural odyssey our phones once again are the essential tools. Which means we have to keep them dry. Make sure they’re charged. And be on constant prowl for free wifi because cell service is nonexistent or overloaded.

Riders in Newell piled into the community center and cafe and tried to take a peek at weather radar.

Down the street, Craig Shultz and Ben Lovejoy checked their phones. Shultz said that he could see the benefits of riding RAGBRAI entirely digitally dark, as some do to avoid phone preoccupation. But he’d rather share the journey with family and friends.

I rarely had enough cell signal Monday to push through a single tweet, let alone my failed attempt to stream live Periscope video in Fonda.

At a farmstead east of Fonda I ran into three out of the 31 members of RAGBRAI’s dining elite, Team Gourmet. Reason Ford from Dakota Dunes, S.D.; his brother Joe Hernandez from Memphis, Tenn.; and Jason White from Raleigh, N.C., were eager evangelists for the GroupMe group text-messaging app that has improved not only their bicycling but their daily lives. Ford and Hernandez set up a separate group for their large family — literally spread to all four corners of the continental U.S. — to stay in touch.

From left, Jason White, Joe Hernandez and Reason Ford of Team Gourmet . (Kyle Munson/The Register)

 
“We are closer now than we’ve ever been before,” Ford said. 

He finds that group messaging keeps the family chatter more focused and substantial compared to Facebook, which he despises.

“I don’t care that the baby ate her formula well, or the hay was a good cut,” he said of some of his least favorite Facebook posts.

Monday’s midpoint town of Manson was a study in tech contrast.

On one hand, Mary Anne Kessler of Norwalk stood at the edge of town and waved a team flag atop a PVC-and-duct tape pole more than seven feet high. This is the first year for the 10 members of the Big Gear Girls, who needed an unplugged way to find each other. They’ve tried to use the walkie-talkie app Zello, but it’s almost impossible, Kessler said, to scrounge enough bandwidth. 

 

Mary Anne Kessler of Norwalk flies the flag for Big Gear Girls. (Kyle Munson/The Register)

 
As I stood there, fellow Big Gear Girl Rachel London-Nyhus from St. Paul, Minn., rolled up because she had spotted the flag.

Down the street, the Google free phone-charging tent with more than 70 available outlets was swarmed with riders in need of juice. Elena Chiquito from Equador, on her second RAGBRAI, had been standing there for an hour when I spoke to her.

 

Elena Chiquito from Ecuador waits for her phone to charge — one of RAGBRAI’s least fun diversions.

 
She drains her battery by taking too many pictures, she sighed, but can’t help herself.

A man who can empathize with my Twitter trouble on RAGBRAI: Jim Turner, 60, from Alabama, is @RAGBRAI_riders. He snagged the catchy handle in 2008. 

Turner lucked out with robust wifi in Fonda because he had wandered into the Cedar House bar to sample a local IPA. His other hobby (consistent with a booming subset of RAGBRAI) is craft beer. 

“I guess when I retire I’ll try to sell it,” he said of his Twitter handle.

That doesn’t strike me as particularly lucrative, but there’s money to be made with batteries and mobile bandwidth on this formerly quaint, simple ride.

Jim Turner, in search of craft beer, is the man behind @RAGBRAI_riders.

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