Originally posted July 26, 2005
The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa or RAGBRAI for short began on Sunday accompanied with temperatures over one hundred degrees for the ten thousand registered riders and assorted five thousand who crash the party. The ride is traditionally held during the last full week of July and goes from Missouri River to Mississippi River, which is an average of 500 miles. Iowa gets a bad rap for being a flat state and unless you have ridden across on a bicycle, you would probably agree. Those of us, who have ridden across on a bicycle, know that this isn't even close to the truth.
I have ridden on every mile of two RAGBRAI's in the past and it really isn't as hard as it seems riding anywhere from 60 to 100 miles a day. We usually get up at the crack of dawn to get some miles under our belt before the heat of morning sets in for good. After five or ten miles, we usually stop at a roadside stand for a stack of pancakes and then it is back on the road. All around us, in front of us and behind us are hundreds of riders stretching from horizon to horizon so there is plenty of company and entertainment. It is these people who keep your mind away from the agony located in your butt and legs as you peddle along talking and taking in the sights.
All along the route, food tents liberally dot the roadsides and about every ten miles or so, there is another town where some sort of entertainment is playing and plenty of libations are sold to cool the thirst. Roadside ditches are lined with sheets of plastic and turned into pools for soaking tired bodies. Huge stock tanks full of ice are loaded to the gills with watermelons, sodas and beers. Some towns graciously open up their public pools to the general masses for what always ends up in plenty of nudity and belly flop contests or both. There are always the ever-present beer gardens set up in drifts of plastic cups of those who have been there before you. There is always live music, talent shows, and plenty of water related activities design to keep you wet and cool. Nobody rides through these towns without stopping and nobody rides slowly. The standard procedure is to stop, get off and walk your bike through town so that you don't wreck while gawking at the carnival like atmosphere.
If we had timed things right, we would get into the overnight host town by about one o'clock to beat the worst of the heat. The group I rode with usually wrote the town's chamber of commerce ahead of time looking for host families who would allow us to sleep in their back yards or better yet, spare air conditioned rooms. This would help us avoid the overcrowded general campground and better suited our early morning bicycling farmer lifestyle. We would set up our gear and then set out to find the all you can eat pasta dinner that some church group always seemed to be serving out of a church basement. There, we would eat mountainous plates of spaghetti chased with loaves of French bread until our spandex biking shorts were stretched to the limit. Then it was back to the shaded tent or air condition room floor to take a siesta and to wait out the heat of the day in a carbohydrate induced coma.
In the evenings, we would usually hop on our bikes and ride around town checking out the entertainment and sometimes partake in it. Up to fifteen thousand bikers and a few thousand onlookers would also have the same idea so it was usually a wild time. Sometimes you would find a nude slip and slide set up on some grassy hill, dancing going on in the park or a pie-eating contest going down on main street. For some, usually the people who didn't get started riding that morning until around noon, the party is just getting started. For those who started early, when the sun goes down and the coolness of the evening begins, we disappear to our shelters in preparation for the next day.
For seven days, these same scenes are repeated over and over. Riding, pancakes, more riding, punctuated by frequent stops for food and water, more riding, bicycling nudist sighting, more riding and finally pulling into the overnight town, spandex busting spaghetti dinners, carbohydrate induced comas, more walking around town, more fun and libations, sleep of the dead, and repeat. Five hundred miles later, you coast down the final hill to the Mississippi River to dip the front tire of the bicycle into the river completing a journey that began with a rear wheel dipped into the Missouri River. Day two was yesterday and as you read this, day three is almost over for some and just starting for others. So if you are driving through and get stopped for several hours while thousands of bicyclists ride by in the hundred-degree heat, it isn't that all of Iowa has gone crazy, it is only RAGBRAI.