This Friday’s featured photo is another that you won’t find on my website, but is still worthy of a quick chat. The shot was taken at the Mississippi River landing in Dubuque, Iowa in July of 2010. Some of you might look at this and wonder what I could have been thinking, trying to ride my bike into the river like that. Others, especially those of you from Iowa, probably have a pretty good idea what this is all about.
The scene here is of a Mississippi River tire dip and represents the traditional culmination of an annual bicycle tour across Iowa, known as RAGBRAI. Every summer tens of thousands of cycling enthusiasts from every state and all over the world travel to Iowa to take part in this event. Riders customarily begin by dipping their rear tire in the Missouri River on the western edge of the state then follow a seven day course with the ultimate goal of bathing their front spokes in the Mighty Mississipp. The route is predetermined, with pass through communities and overnight stops designated for each day. Though each year is different, the ride generally averages a distance of around five hundred miles total, broken up into 60-80 mile daily intervals.
RAGBRAI is the world’s largest and oldest cycling event of its kind. Along the route, entire towns basically shut down for the day to welcome riders and immerse them in Midwestern hospitality. It’s difficult to describe the scene as sleepy little farming communities, barely a dot on the map, swell in population by ten-fold while cyclists appear like locusts, swarming from the western horizon. The atmosphere is that of an enormous traveling party. Highways are all but closed to vehicle traffic and from the air you could witness a solid procession of bicycles, thirty miles long, making their way from one stop to the next. In towns, vendors fill the streets selling food, Gatorade, and beer. Bands play and residents line the course waving flags and holding up signs welcoming the throngs of spandex clad visitors to their little corner of the globe.
RAGBRAI is huge here in Iowa. It could be argued that it rivals the State Fair or the Iowa-Iowa State football game as our marquee event of the year. The tour warrants a tremendous sense of pride as those who might not normally consider visiting pedal by to check things out. Those who would have once referred to this as “fly-over country” quickly discover otherwise. (It’s nice to be known for something other than corn and caucuses.) Many who take part in RAGBRAI are rewarded with an endearing experience that leaves them determined to come back year after year. The ride is also a boom for the state’s economy, generating estimates of nearly 17 million dollars in revenue each July. The beneficiaries of much of this windfall are church groups or civic organizations, and others in small towns still struggling to keep Main Street alive.
While RAGBRAI offers abundant festivities and wide spread benefits, make no mistake, it is also a challenge. Lost in the tales of impromptu street parties and the search for the perfect slice of apple pie is the fact that your primary objective is still self-propelling a bicycle across an entire state. This may seem an idyllic invitation to some, but the uninitiated quickly learn it’s a daunting task. One misconception that is at least partly to blame is the purveying notion that Iowa is flat. “Flat like yo’ mama!” we say. (Okay, that’s not a slogan ride organizers are likely to adopt anytime soon, but still…) As anyone who has spent any time traveling by wheel or on foot can attest, terrain assumes an entirely new definition when attempted under your own power. Iowa is not flat. We may not have mountains, but the state is covered by rolling hills. Particularly on the back roads the course generally traverses, you will encounter some moderate to steep grades. Also, RAGBRAI is always held during the last full week of July; a time in Iowa that the heat and humidity can be absolutely atrocious. Not only do you spend the day engaged in the strenuous task of pedaling beneath a blaring sun, by night you camp in crowded tent cities reminiscent of scenes from Woodstock. Sleep doesn’t come easy with parties raging nearby, and you must wait in line with thousands of your closest friends in order to use a port-a-john or shower in the back of a converted semi.
For those willing to look past such inconveniences, however, and take it all in stride, RAGBRAI offers a grand adventure. I’ve completed the ride three times now; 2006, 2008, and 2010. Each time has proven more enjoyable than the last. The first I rode solo and the second with a couple of friends. My most recent RAGBRAI was shared with my wife, her parents and sister. We used our ride as a fundraiser for Rotary International’s polio eradication efforts, and wore jerseys emblazoned with the slogan “End Polio Now.” I’ll never forget the day when another rider came up from behind our group and shouted, “Why, because of the horses?” Apparently he had read it as polo, and thought we were part of an animal rights campaign. (As I recall, it was particularly hot that day. I think any one of us would have loved to have been on a horse right then.) Nonetheless, it was a great trip, and an awesome opportunity to spend time as a family in such a unique undertaking.
So what’s the purpose of discussing this now? While RAGBRAI isn’t held until July, this weekend marks the rides second most anticipated event of the year. Tomorrow night in Des Moines, the route for RAGBRAI 2012 will be announced. This info is always kept pretty hush-hush up until time of official announcement, and I’m excited to hear what path across the state they will choose this time around. As you can see, I’ve fallen into the routine of returning to ride every other year. Cris and I are definitely starting to feel the urge to go again.
The question is, who wants to come along?