Reprinted here at the request of Baoli Yang with the permission of author RON BERLER
Of the countless sporting events canceled nationwide this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, few will be missed more than RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). This week would have marked the ride’s 48th year. Instead, it will be its first miss. I first pedaled RAGBRAI in 1986, on assignment for Outside magazine. I loved it so, I returned twice on my own. Here’s the original piece. My hope is that it will inspire others to saddle up next July when, hopefully, RAGBRAI resumes:
Team Flab is taking five atop a small rise just outside of Fernald, Iowa — an unscheduled emergency stop on day four, mile 240 of RAGBRAI, the annual amateur pedal across backroads Iowa. Across the highway is a roadside fruit-and-personal services stand, where for 50 cents — the price of two apples — a student from a nearby nursing school will walk on your aching back like a geisha, and then administer a total (well, almost) body massage.
Team Flab’s two junior members are sprawled on the grass, flushed the color of bubble gum. They are waiting for the senior member to return from across the street. “If it weren’t for these stops, I’d never do this year after year,” remarks one of them, a pear-shaped Des Moines businessman in his thirties. He is fashionably dressed in a black Team Flab tee shirt and wrap-around shades.
Just then, the senior member, a Des Moines insurance man in his forties, emerges from the personal-services tent. “Trust me,” he says, grinning. “This is not your normal bicycle marathon.”
We are at the 14th edition of the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, known to natives as RAGBRAI. To cycling sophisticates, RAGBRAI (rhymes with peach pie) probably doesn’t sound like much: a no-pressure, seven-day pedal past 500 miles of corn on one side of the road and 500 miles of soybeans on the other, in sweltering heat. But this is the granddaddy of amateur bike marathons — a combination mellow Tour de Iowa and crazed, cross-state street fair. “A ten-speed Mardi Gras” is how the senior member of Team Flab describes it.
Last July, 7,500 of us — or maybe it was 10,000, nobody really knows for sure — swept out of Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River, and pedaled 479 miles across the fertile, rolling Iowa heartland. Partying like frat boys, feasting like banqueters, we dipped wheels in the muddy Mississippi a week later in Muscatine.
Supposedly, I was there to ride with the Siouxland Cycling Club of Sioux City, Iowa, and file a handlebar report on their trek across the state. This proved impossible. Not only was I unable to keep up with them, I couldn’t even wake up with them. Like some mysterious Bedouin tribe, they would dress and break camp in the eerie, 5:30 a.m. moonlight, an hour before what I considered morning drive time. I couldn’t catch them, either, because most had logged 1,940 more training miles than my 60.
And so I pedaled with other strays. One was John Banks, a Florida businessman who complained that the only hills he ever climbed were the raised greens on the local golf course. Another was Penney Plumb, a computer programmer affiliated with the 100-member Harlan Huff ‘n Puffers Bicycle Club. “I thought I’d spend this week reexamining my personal philosophy and the way I’ve been living my life,” she panted after struggling up the topographical bumps northeast of Des Moines known as the Iowa Alps. “But honestly, all I can think about is the next hill.”
It’s hard to explain the enthusiasm for RAGBRAI. The hours are worse than a sharecropper’s, and even RAGBRAI officials concede there are lovelier lands to cycle. It doesn’t seem to matter. From atop a lonesome rise overlooking miles of corn tassels switching lazily like cow tails in the breeze, the 40-mile line of cyclists seemed like some crazy, two-wheeled Shriners parade. “Corny as it sounds, you can’t imagine how the whole state gets involved in this,” said Don Benson, the retired Des Moines Register public relations manager who has coordinated RAGBRAI since 1973. ‘The communities the ride passes through go all out.” Small wonder. RAGBRAI pumped an estimated $100,000 into each of the six towns that successfully petitioned to be overnight stops — a considerable chunk for farm towns suffering hard times.
What, to an Iowan, is all out? Swooping into Conrad (population 1,108) on day four, we braked, startled, in front of a half-dozen local women ringing a 16-ton Kilimanjaro of farm earth piled in the town’s main intersection. They passed out complimentary baggies full of town dirt and serenaded us with the village theme song, “Conrad, Black Dirt Capital of the World.” In Panora (population 1,211), 19-year-old Sheila Johnson, the reigning Guthrie County Pork Queen, was among the dignitaries who greeted us in the town square. The Audubon County Cowbelles and Cattlemen tossed us $6.50 dinners, featuring 12-ounce, charcoal-grilled ribeye steaks cooked to order, potato salad, baked beans, buttered rolls, Mountain Dew and homemade cherry pie. A farmer outside McCallsburg (population 323) opened his swimming hole and trucked in kegs and kegs of beer. Over in Washington (population 6,584), the self-proclaimed “cleanest town in Iowa,” residents invited us into their homes for hot showers. Near Green Mountain (population 126), a thoughtful farmer hung rolls of toilet paper from a fencepost abutting a field of nine-foot-high cornstalks. OLD FASHIONED BATHROOM, invited his hand-lettered sign.
“I knew we had found our niche,” said John Karras, the godfather of RAGBRAI, “the night in Guthrie Center, our second year, when I arm wrestled the town strongman at midnight.”
According to Karras, a retired Register copy editor, there was never supposed to have been a second RAGBRAI, or even, really, a first. In 1973, Karras persuaded Donald Kaul, a notorious couch potato and then the paper’s Washington columnist, to cycle with him across the state and reacquaint himself with rural Iowa. Very casually, they mapped out a seven-day route and made motel reservations. As an afterthought, they invited readers to join them.
When the two arrived at their starting point, a Sioux City motel, they were astounded to find 300 eager cyclists awaiting them. Among these was Clarence Pickard, 83, of Indianola, who showed up on a woman’s Schwinn (a woman’s bike was easier to mount, he explained), wearing black sneakers and a silver pith helmet. Clarence won hearts a few days later when he lost his bearings and peddled onto the interstate. Rescuers set him back on course, and somehow he completed the trip. Ten years later, RAGBRAI XI was posthumously dedicated in his honor, with each entrant receiving an arm patch emblazoned with a likeness of Clarence’s helmet. He remains the ride’s greatest folk hero.
Inspired by Clarence, 1,800 cyclists joined Karras and Kaul the following year. In 1983 the Register was forced to begin charging a modest entry fee ($12.50 then, $25 now) to defray organizational expenses and hold down registration. Last year, admission was limited to 7,500. Even so, several thousand additional day riders managed to join the procession.
Some may wonder: Who are these people who flock to pedal away a perfectly good summer vacation in deepest Iowa? Eyeballing the highway, it seems like just about anyone. Eleven-year-olds on hot-pink Univegas, slurping snow cones. Schools of bare-chested teenage Casanovas buzzing packs of tube-topped cycling girls. Moms and dads with toddlers strapped into sidecars. Moms and dads with dogs strapped into sidecars. Geriatrics pump-pump-pumping along on antediluvian clunkers.
Lately though, it seems that RAGBRAI has been discovered by a tonier set. According to a recent survey, approximately two-thirds of the event’s adult riders are professional or managerial folks — Midwestern yuppies whose campsites often resemble their living room — a television here, a tape deck there, TV trays loaded with Chablis and Brie. “The Register and the larger bike clubs have long provided trucks to haul sleeping bags and tents,” explained Dave Kass of the Siouxland club. (I did manage to catch up with the group each evening.) “Some of us just have a broader definition of what is essential camping gear.” In Red Oak (population 5,333) the first afternoon, one Siouxland member, John Kota, 43, reclined on a chaise lounge like Lawrence of Iowa — freshly showered, reading a newspaper and enjoying a chilled beer. A few yards away his personal staff — two teens hired for the week at Dickensian wages — hastily erected his tent. Our campsites — located on high school football fields, town parks, front lawns or wherever there was room (we doubled the populations of most host towns) — looked like Whole Earth Catalog home-furnishing conventions.
Early on the second day, when the only sound on the road was the clicking of derailleur gears, still another kind of cyclist pedaled our way: Bruce Babbitt, a would-be Democratic nominee for president. The former Arizona governor had mounted his bicycle in the hope of increasing his name recognition in Iowa, prior to its primary, from near nothing to…well, something.
The Babbitt entourage consisted of the candidate, his wife (punk-chic in black cycling shorts accented with pink racing stripes and a hot-pink top), two security officers, an advance man (until his knees blew out) and several reporters. Babbitt rode at campaign speed, waving to curious farmers and talking issues — children’s rights, nuclear disarmament, anything at all — to whomever pedaled along. On the advice of his wife and political advisers, he had equipped his chocolate-brown Schwinn Le Tour Luxe with “as many American-made parts as I could find.” Babbitt began his Iowa education almost immediately. Encountering a soybean field, he pointed from his bicycle and inquired, “What’s that?”
Though Babbitt made it across the state, he met with indifferent success. On one hand, the former governor achieved mention in Time, People, the Wall Street Journal, and on NBC TV’s “Today” show. On the other hand, the Arizona Republic reported this exchange between the candidate and Pat Link of rural Maxwell:
“So you’re running for president?”
“If everybody like you will help me.”
“What’s your name?”
The third evening out, in Perry (population 7,053), a Siouxland cyclist named John Gray sat me down at a picnic table. “I want to tell you about a few of RAGBRAI’S legendary figures,” he said, explaining that I rode too slowly to run into any of them myself. It is true that on the first day I arrived too late in Emerson (population 441) to witness members of the Team Silver Streak Bicycle Club belly whop across the floor at Chip’s Office Lounge, which had been wetted down with beer served by the mop tub.
“Back in 1979 there were the Boxheads,” said Gray, an attorney and veteran of six RAGBRAIs. “These were a group of young men who rode the entire day with boxes over their heads, as evidence that they had each consumed a 12-pack of Pabst. Some had to be escorted by state troopers into camp at night.”
He also told of Pat Doyle, then 20, a truck driver from Dubuque who vowed to stop at every saloon along the 1978 ride. Alas, Doyle spilled from his bike in Iowa Falls, some 250 miles short of his goal.
I myself hadn’t done much drinking, beyond roadside lemonades. I was simply too tired. What night energy I had left I saved for the host community’s town square, each transformed into a carnival-goer’s paradise: Confectionary stands shoulder-to-shoulder with fried chicken stands, pastry stands, rock ‘n roll bandstands and, of course, beer stands.
That night in Perry, we achieved lasting bicyclist brotherhood when computer programmers Julie Snodgrass and Steve Hanel dismounted their turquoise Santana tandem bike in a nearby town park and, before thousands of cheering cyclists, recited their wedding vows. They were married by the Reverend Art Seaman, who wore khaki bicycle shorts for the occasion, to complement his clerical shirt and collar. The bride stood before him in a skintight white cycling suit, set off by puffy satin sleeves and a lace skirt. The groom had altered his black bicycling shorts and white, short sleeve jersey to resemble a tuxedo, complete with cummerbund and tails. Reverend Seaman advised the couple, “Marriage is like a bicycle wheel. Sometimes it is round and perfect, but other times it falls out of balance and needs to be trued.”
I first noticed the sag wagon two days later, on day five. By this time I was cycling with what John Karras termed the zombies.
“The zombies,” explained Karras, “shouldn’t be on the road in the first place. They ride with their shoulders together and their heads down, pedaling oh so slowly, without even the energy to talk.” Well, excuse me. Our itinerary that day had called for us to cycle 78 miles across land as rolling as a pleated curtain, against a steady, 15-mile-per-hour headwind. The sag wagon followed behind the pack, scooping up the terminal droopers. We zombies were ambivalent about giving up and accepting a ride. True, it would mean an end to our suffering. But sag riders were booed and hooted all the way to camp, even by the sag wagon drivers. I preferred the ten and a half hours of road pain.
That was the night, however, that my world changed and I fell in love with RAGBRAI. A thunderstorm packing 60-mile-per-hour gusts whipped through camp, causing thousands of us to seek shelter in Belle Plaine High School. We slept, curled like spoons, in the hallways, the classrooms, the school library. When we awoke, the rain had ceased, most of our tents had survived and the wind had shifted. From there on, aided by a gentle breeze at our backs, RAGBRAI was a plains-flat proficiency run.
There is an attitude, a certain self-confidence that comes from living physically. This no doubt explains why a few of us former zombies stopped to knock back a few beers at a roadhouse inn outside of Riverside (population 826) at 8 a.m. on the final morning of our ride. We were full of ourselves, filthy, loud, our riding gloves worn slick, our bicycle togs pungent and sweaty. We might even have taken over the place, had not a commercial ended on the bar’s TV and live coverage of the Tour de France resumed. We stared at the leader, America’s Greg LeMond. He pedaled with such force and fluidity.
It’s hard to explain what happened next. On the television, hundreds of Frenchmen cheered as the leaders swept through a small country crossroads. In a strange way, their cheers seemed directed at us. Someone mentioned the thousand or so people already lining the streets near the finish line in Muscatine, 35 miles east.
The cyclist next to me hopped off his barstool. “What are we waiting for?” he demanded. We marched from the bar and pedaled down the road.