In July of 2009 I rode the farthest I have ever ridden a bicycle in a single week- almost 490 miles across Iowa- during the [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, known as  “RAGBRAI.”  On May 1st of this year I received a congratulatory email from the RAGBRAI organization, saying I made the cut in the lottery, and will be able to officially participate in RAGBRAI XXXVIII! Hooray! The lottery is held to limit the number of official participants to 10,000, so the small towns along the route are not unduly burdened. Unless Lance Armstrong is also riding , there’s a pretty good chance that anyone who registers will be picked in the lottery. Lance tends to draw crowds, for some reason.

I don’t know exactly when I first heard of RAGBRAI. I may have heard about it while attending the University of Illinois, or maybe I had read about it in Bicycling Magazine. I have always been a bicycling enthusiast; not a racer, but more than just a casual rider. I often imagined what it would be like to ride long distances, at least longer than the occasional 20 or 25 miles I would ride whenever I got the chance. Before RAGBRAI, the longest distance I had ridden was 88 miles from Riverside, Illinois to Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. That was 19 years ago.

1991 ride to Twin Lakes

88 Miles from Riverside, IL to Twin Lakes, WI in 1991

One of my associates at work is an Iowa native and highly recommended the ride, which he called a “Woodstock on Wheels.” I was three years old when Woodstock took place, so I wouldn’t know one way or the other. My friend had never actually participated, so couldn’t tell me what to expect. I looked up all I could online about RAGBRAIs past, especially lists of  tips and “what to bring.” I followed a popular list pretty closely, and added other things for adverse weather, bike failure, social events, or in case I had to “zip tie” something (which I did, several times). Regardless,  I over-packed.

I tried to prepare for every contingency, and most of the things I packed I could reasonably expect to use. However, I can definitely tell everyone what not to bring: traveler’s checks. Tool of a bygone era.  Back in the day, we always got travelers checks for vacations, usually skiing out west. The last time I used them was (coincidentally) 1991, when traveler’s checks were still common. Most people I encountered on RAGBRAI were surprised to see them, one cashier had never even heard of them, and one restaurant manager refused to accept one. This year, cash and a credit/debit card it is! For the general list of what else I am planning on bringing on RAGBRAI XXXVIII, see Johnny B.’s RAGBRAI Packing List.

You can ride as an individual, or as part of a “team.” Teams are non-competititve, and serve simply as an easier way to get picked by the lottery- if one team member gets chosen, the rest of the team is automatically chosen. I joined team West is Best through an acquaintance of a former coworker of a good friend of one of my high school classmates. The name comes from the side of the spectator stands of the University of Illinois’s Memorial Stadium preferred by the team leader. He prefers the west side, apparently. In five years at the same university, I think I went to one game. I sat on the east side, but felt no animosity toward those across from me.

Team West is Best

Members of Team West is Best at the Missouri River the evening before the ride

We had a diverse team, even if three out of seven (or eight?) were lawyers. At least they were different kinds of lawyers. We all got along very well, maybe because we were generally of the same temperament (as long as our respective blood sugar levels were in check). It works best when you don’t expect everyone to stay together for the whole day’s ride. Eventually, you meet up somewhere, if nowhere else except the campsite at the end of the day. People of all abilities and most ages participate; the object is not how long it takes you to ride, but that you ride at all and you enjoy the scenery, the company, and the food.

We enjoyed the food. Very much. There was little need to carry food while riding, because there were numerous vendors parked in and in between towns on the route who were happy to fill our tummies. We were not concerned about calories, since we burned them off by the time we reached the next stop. Little Farm Fair Trade Coffee was our choice for the daily caffeine fix- good coffee and a good cause. There were regular food vendors following the tour across the state, so if you missed Pancake Man or Farm Boys one day, you could catch one of them the next day. There was sure to be a local organization hosting a pancake breakfast for those not bugging out of town too early. For the rest of the day’s meals, there was plenty of pork, corn, pie, smoothies, and arrabiata penne pasta with rosemary-encrusted salmon to satisfy our caloric needs. Dinner was usually what you could find in the overnight town, whether it was one of the food stands in the town square, a small buffet, or a Wendy’s. I will go into more detail in the next installment.

I saw all shapes and sizes of people, riding all kinds of bicycles (and two unicycles). Generally speaking, though, it was a very “white” crowd. I won’t drag this into a discussion about racial demographics, it is simply an observation. Bikes are, after all, one of the things white people like. More than half of the participants were between 40 and 60 years old, which explains the abundance of ’60’s, ’70’s, and ’80’s music blaring from portable sound systems and performed at the concerts at night. Why are so many riders from this age group? They are the ones who are working and can afford to take a week off in the middle of the summer to ride across Iowa. Those who are younger may not have enough vacation time, those older may not be physically up to it. I hope to still be able to ride at all in my eighties, let alone ride 490 miles in a week.

Cornfield Rest Area

Cornfield Rest Area

I must say here that I am forever thankful the Good Lord gave us cornfields and KYBOs. The cornfields were everywhere and provided a secure place to answer the call of nature. KYBO is RAGBRAI slang for a porta-potty. It means “Keep Your Bowels Open”. And I did. Select cornfields were outfitted with a roll of toilet paper and a camp shovel, when there was no nearby KYBO. Yes, I used all three options.

The last day, which was the shortest distance, was also the toughest physically. Maybe my body knew the end was near, and started shutting down early. Burlington, Iowa, the ending town, held one more challenge: Snake Alley, a winding hillside street reminiscent of San Francisco’s Lombard Street. Those up to the challenge were diverted up Snake Alley. I made it through the switchbacks without stopping, but I can see why many did not. The ride finally ended with a ceremonial dipping of the front wheel in the Mississippi River.

Snake Alley

Snake Alley in Burlington, IA, was once named the "Crookedest Street in the World" by Ripley's Believe It or Not

Following the ride, I was pretty pumped up about the whole experience. My wife, who normally wishes I would speak up a little more often, was probably wondering who kidnapped her husband and left this motormouth in his place, and can she keep him. I even picked right up with biking to work the following week. 38 miles in a day was tame compared to the 108 miles I did on the fifth day of RAGBRAI.

What did I take away from the experience? One: Iowa is picturesque, friendly, and totally not flat. If Leland, Michigan is God’s Country, He vacations in Iowa. Two: Lawyers aren’t that bad a lot. Mostly.  Three: I really love bicycling, and it can be more for me than just recreation. I started bicycle commuting nineteen miles to work partly to prepare for RAGBRAI, and I will continue even if I won’t do a RAGBRAI in a particular year.

I will eventually be able to bring one or both of my children along in several years, and maybe even my wife (who is not quite the avid cyclist I am), if I can convince her to ride a tandem. I would feel guilty hogging all the fun.

Next time, more in-depth coverage of food!