August 9, 2005
This is a story about what I did on my summer vacation, or How a Bicycle Ride Across Iowa Beats the Hell Out of Colorado’s Ride the Rockies.Iowa is famous for hosting something called RAGBRAI. The acronym is recognized by many riders across the country even if they don’t know what it means. It stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.It started when a couple of beer-swilling former columnists for the Des Moines Register newspaper started inviting friends along on their annual bike tour of Iowa. From those humble beginnings 33 years ago, the ride has turned into a monster. It attracts 10,000 riders per year. They come from across the country and even overseas. Small farm towns aggressively compete to bring the route their way, much like French villages vie for the Tour de France.
RAGBRAI features sick humor, like decorating squashed possums and other road kill with sparkling beads and sunglasses. It features debauchery, like naked participants dashing down a runway and doing belly-flops on a tarp lubricated with beer. And, yes, it features some serious riding.I grew up in Iowa and still visit frequently after moving to Colorado 20 years ago, but never took the time to participate in RAGBRAI. Big mistake.Truth be told, I was intimidated in a strange sort of way. I cycle a lot and have done Ride the Rockies a couple of times, which leads cyclists over several high mountain passes over the course of 400-or-so miles in seven days.But friends that rode in RAGBRAI told tales of hitting the taverns in all the little towns dotting the Iowa countryside. (If you’ve never been to Iowa, trust me, there are many, many little towns dotting the countryside.) My derelict friends drink a beer or two, then hit the road in temperatures that frequently soar into the 90s with humidity in the 70 percent range. Just the thought made my head explode and my calf muscles cramp from dehydration.But this year I could no longer dodge the persistent inquiries from my brother-in-law, Jim. I agreed to mix in a couple of days of riding in RAGBRAI with visits to my family and in-laws. Great decision.
We missed what might have been the most memorable and infamous day in RAGBRAI history. A windstorm, which actually might have been a mini-twister, hit the town of Sheldon on the last Monday in July. A huge limb fell from a tree in a yard where campers were sacked out. The limb crushed a rider in his tent.Thousands of other campers escaped injury but not the terror. One older fellow later told me the wind was blowing so hard that it bent all his tent poles and laid the canvas flat. He stayed put, he said, because his tent and belongings would have blown north into Minnesota otherwise. Many people did lose their stuff.My party of five hooked up with the RAGBRAI caravan two days later in the town of Algona. Our instructions were simple: Search the north end of town for the bus of the team that was temporarily adopting us. They would haul our gear, provide snacks, keep two beer kegs tapped and scout yards to camp out in at the host town at the end of each day’s ride.The Team Bayard bus, named after a southern Iowa town, was easy to spot. It was painted deep red with “Hee-Haw” prominently etched in big yellow letters. When we approached we were greeted with a chorus of Hee-Haws from 20-or-so team members. That’s their way of keeping in touch amid the crowds and mayhem.Like all overnight host towns, Algona threw a hell of a party. Riders and their entourages, people who drive buses or other personal support vehicles, spilled out of all bars. A street dance had little trouble attracting people to the beer garden. Vendors of all sorts of culinary delights lined the main street.
But, hey, all sorts of cities and towns can throw a good party. What made RAGBRAI unique were the teams, most of which had retrofitted school buses with paint jobs ranging from elaborate, body-shop quality masterpieces to home-style works that appeared to have been hand-brushed in someones back yard. Scores of buses park throughout the town, along with other sag wagons hauling food, grog and gear. It transforms RAGBRAI into a rolling party.The teams aren’t teams in any organized sporting sense. There is no team competition in RAGBRAI. It isn’t a race. They are teams in sense of camaraderie. They have jerseys made. Their logo is on the bus. They ride together. They party together.Some of the more memorable teams included (stop here if youre sensitive) Team Wind, whose motto was Looking for some tail, settle for some head.The Donner Party has jersey printed with the saying, “We eat the slow ones.”
The women and men of Team Tutu were dressed as their name applies.Team Iwanna made sure people knew they wanted a beer or wanted to reach the next town.Perhaps the best organized was Team Gourmet. They had a traveling chef from Chicago and two assistants who hauled their cooking gear, coolers of food, pots and pans, and utensils in a trailer. A woman on the team reported one day, sitting in a bar about halfway through an 80-mile ride, that the team would be greeted at the destination town with tenderloin steak, shrimp, fine wines and delectable desserts.The team aspect of RAGBRAI is also largely foreign to Ride the Rockies. In Colorado it’s more an amalgamation of individuals who can certainly conjure up a good time, but nothing like RAGBRAI’s teams.Another key difference is size: Ride the Rockies has about 2,500 riders, while RAGBRAI has around 10,000. Ride the Rockies occupies a corner of a small Colorado town, while RAGBRAI takes over Iowa towns.You don’t need to be on Team Gourmet to eat well. Every Boy Scout troop, church group and civic organization in the towns along the way had set up some type of food and drink stand. A crowd favorite was the pork chop on a stick served by a traveling restaurant called Mr. Pork Chop. The eatery traveled in (what else?) a pink, retrofitted school bus.
RAGBRAI works like just about every other statewide bicycle ride. In Iowa’s case, the ride starts in a town in the west and works east. The theory is you dip your rear wheel in the Missouri River and, at the end, your front wheel in the Mississippi.The route typically covers 75 miles per day for seven days, with a “century” ride of 100 miles pegged for one day.Roads aren’t closed for the bike riders, but only the unfortunate travelers end up sharing a route. Unlike in the mountains, there are lots of alternatives available in the Midwest. RAGBRAI designates a preferred alternative for the team buses and sag wagons between the destination towns.As a result, bikers rarely have any traffic flowing with them and, even more remarkably, only encounter a few vehicles going against them. The swarm of thousands of bikes usually flows over both lanes, with the far left reserved for the fastest riders.That’s one of the distinct advantages that RAGBRAI has over Ride the Rockies. In Colorado, there are so few highways in the mountains that traffic continues to flow pretty much as normal, forcing bikes onto the extreme right of the road. RAGBRAI is much more relaxed because of the absence of cars.
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Iowa riders are also more at ease because they know they don’t have a 12,000-foot mountain, like Independence Pass, to tackle the next day.On both the Colorado and Iowa trips, you can ride any speed you want with no pressure. Trail blazers can always find a pace line, where cyclists are closely following one another, traveling the speed that suits them. And people who want to mosey along two or three abreast can carry on their conversations at ease.I even managed to lick my fear of drinking and pedaling. Temperatures were comfortable, with the mercury never topping 80 on my two days on the ride. On my first day of the ride, I behaved myself by not cracking a beer until 9:40 a.m. And believe me, we didn’t drink alone.Next year I’ll venture back to Iowa for three or four days of the ride. Anyone have a bus for sale?Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org