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TRAVELING IN STYLE : Free-Wheeling in Farm Land : Every July, Thousands Converge on Iowa to Ride RAGBRAI, the Country’s Largest Bicycle Bash, and Soak Up Sun, Beer and Large Helpings of Midwest Americana

<i> Des Moines-based writer Bill Pierce is working on a novel based on RAGBRAI. </i>

It’s a sultry weekday afternoon at the end of July in the central Iowa hamlet of Colo (population 770).

Normally, Colo’s only tavern would be so quiet at this hour it would be considered untoward to plug a couple of quarters into the jukebox. Today it’s standing room only. Beer pours from the taps in an unending stream. A tottering pyramid of beer cans covers a table toward the back. It’s so loud that conversation is accomplished by screaming into the ear of the person next to you. Those of us crowded inside are making our own musical entertainment. We’re singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of our lungs.

Outside, a melee several thousand strong has taken over Colo’s main street. There are faces painted in the outlandish colors and totems of a Woodstock reunion, as well as regalia that would not be out of place during Mardi Gras. And everywhere there are bicycles, more in number and variety than can be imagined: racing bikes and mountain bikes and tandem bikes and antique bikes and futuristic recumbent bikes. All the while, thousands more bicyclists surge into town. The locals wander and gape in wonderment.

For the 23rd consecutive year, this rolling festival will appear this summer in the normally tranquil reaches of the nation’s heartland. It’s RAGBRAI (pronounced “RAG-bry”), the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a weeklong odyssey that now attracts more than 10,000 participants. About half are Iowans; the rest come from every other state and 20 countries. Better than two-thirds return again and again, and veterans of 20 years are not uncommon. Having ridden 18 consecutive years myself, I can’t conceive of a summer without it.

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During its seven days, RAGBRAI meanders from west to east across Iowa, past fields, pastures and forests, in hills, flatlands and river valleys, and among farms, small towns and the occasional city. RAGBRAI was the first cross-state bicycle ride, and although nearly 30 states now hold similar events, most of these allow far fewer participants and charge riders much more. And none possesses RAGBRAI’s myth and elan. For fans of summer bicycling in America, this is the mother ride.

In the towns and on the road each day, riders encounter scenes of Midwest Americana almost surreal in their perfection: John Deere tractors lumber down country lanes hauling wagons laden with enormous rounds of hay; smiling farm children in bib overalls pose next to prize-winning Hereford calves. Folding tables arrayed on church lawns groan under the weight of homemade pies, pitchers of fresh-squeezed lemonade, platters of two-inch-thick pork chops and golden ears of fresh-picked sweet corn swimming in butter--all of it laid out in anticipation of RAGBRAI’s long riders. It’s enough to make plausible the notion that Iowa, once known for little more than its staunch conservatism and commitment to the work ethic, is actually the mythical place of the heart portrayed in “Field of Dreams” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”

The particulars of the ride are relatively straightforward. On the Sunday of the last full week in July, RAGBRAI departs from a town near Iowa’s western border on the Missouri or Big Sioux rivers and travels, almost all of it on paved secondary roads, to a location on the Mississippi River in the east on the following Saturday. The route differs each year, but generally comprises a total distance of 450 to 500 miles.

Eight thousand bicyclists, chosen by lottery, are awarded passes to attend. For a fee ($80 this year), each rider is entitled to camping space and to have his or her baggage trucked between towns. But thousands more unsanctioned riders, sometimes dwarfing the number of those with passes, tag along for all or a portion of the ride. Organizers officially discourage the gate-crashers but have become resigned to the futility of barring them from what are, after all, public roadways.

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This ragtag, two-wheeled army is accommodated each night at fairgrounds, college campuses and parks, typically in county seats with populations of 5,000 to 10,000. Riders find themselves standing in long lines for practically everything--for food, for showers, for a spot at the bar and, always, for bathroom facilities--but outright whining is considered bad form. After an average day of riding 70 to 80 miles (the last day is shorter, and one day has an optional “century loop” for those hardy enough to cycle 100 miles), life comes down to three priorities: Pitch your tent, grab a warm shower and devour a big meal. In keeping with the RAGBRAI esprit, most riders usually manage to summon the energy for an evening’s celebration as well.

While it isn’t necessary to be a committed bicyclist to survive RAGBRAI, certainly seasoned riders have an easier time of it. Anyone who has cycled 500 miles in the preceding three months, with at least one ride of a minimum 50 miles, should be able to participate without undue agony. Although riders include children as young as 7 and grandparents edging into their 80s, RAGBRAI largely remains a baby boom phenomenon; the average age of participants has slowly risen from the mid-20s in the early years to the mid-30s on recent rides. Hard-core Generation Xers, who seem to disdain long-distance bicycling as yet another of their parents’ dweebish preoccupations, are sparse. Still, a small contingent of 20ish in-line skaters wearing backward-tilting baseball caps usually plies the ride in mocking counterpoint to the main event.

The RAGBRAI saga begins in 1973, when Des Moines Register feature writer John Karras and political columnist Donald Kaul were scrounging for material to occupy an otherwise slow summer. Karras and Kaul were among the millions of Americans who had taken up bicycling during its resurgence in the early ‘70s. They decided they would ride their bicycles across the state and write about whatever happened along the way. Readers were invited to accompany them at their own risk; more than 300 did. The route was published in each day’s Register, and the riders found themselves greeted by well-wishers and curiosity seekers as they passed through Iowa’s plentiful small towns.

Billed originally as “The Register’s Great Six-Day Iowa Bicycle Ride,” the event was successful enough to expand the next year to a seventh day, and to acquire a new name (SAGBRAI, for Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) and 1,500 participants. Nascent political correctness precluded a similar acronym for the fourth year, which led to the now permanent generic name.

RAGBRAI’s weeklong isolation from the outside world encourages riders to adopt personas sometimes wildly at odds with their workaday selves. An otherwise restrained computer analyst from Des Moines, for example, dons Native American garb and a loincloth, attracting a bevy of female admirers. “My first - graders--and their parents--wouldn’t have any idea of who I am or what I do for this one week,” confesses a teacher from a small town in Illinois.

Upon their return home, riders are often questioned by the uncomprehending about “who won?” That couldn’t be further from the point. For all but a very few, RAGBRAI is anything but a race. The majority of riders spend entire 10- or 12-hour days merely moving themselves down the road from one small town to the next, spending as much time off their bicycles as on them. The rewards belong to those who have the best time as opposed to those whose times are fastest. “Like Leo Durocher said,” a RAGBRAI veteran from Madison, Wisc., has observed, with some satisfaction, “the nice guys finish last.”

RAGBRAI’s organizers would prefer to portray the event as a virtual Disney World on the prairie, but the complete picture of the ride is somewhat less virtuous. Authorities are hard-pressed to police a throng this large, and crowds of adult revelers are sometimes punctuated by the grins of underage drinkers. Entertainment can degenerate into bikini mud wrestling, beer slides and wet T-shirt contests, and streakers on bicycles have been known to buzz the ride.

While some treat RAGBRAI as a weeklong fraternity bash, for others it is as wholesome as a church picnic. They consume nothing stronger than iced tea and attend religious services each evening (there are also nightly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings). For their part, organizers have made attempts to tone down the most outrageous partying and make the ride safer and more family oriented. A Ride Right committee distributes materials emphasizing safety and moderation. Some of the efforts have been successful (98% of riders now wear helmets), but it remains difficult to restrain an event that seems to turn everyone into an adolescent.

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More than a few romances bloom on the ride, and there have even been bicycle weddings. Men still outnumber women about 3 to 2, a fact that some women are quick to exploit. Those wishing to meet athletic men, unattached or otherwise, can have a field day, with little difficulty finding themselves the nexus of attention. At the stops, health organizations distribute condoms and promote safe sex, once all but unmentionable in the provinces of the rural Midwest. But one wonders if the ardor may be somewhat diminished after the anguish of 70 or 80 miles on a bicycle seat.

As RAGBRAI has grown ever larger, intriguing social castes have emerged that allow riders to forge an identity among the group (if only to recognize each other in crowds). It’s a vaguely tribal pattern that sometimes merely reflects the organized bicycle clubs to which many belong; other “teams” are formed specifically for the camaraderie of riding together on RAGBRAI. Among them are Team Gumby and Team Hobbes and Team Road Kill and Team Cheddarhead and Team Marine and Team Me-Off and Team Skunk and Team Spam and Team Sprint and the Wicker Baskets and the Rogues of the Night and the Killer Bees, to name but a few.

In recent years, the winners of the informal competition for “team cool” have been the members of Team Bad Boy. Four young men in their 20s from Colorado, they have elevated themselves to RAGBRAI’s first rank by sheer physical prowess. Each of them rides a mountain bicycle laden with enough paraphernalia to bring the total weight to about 150 pounds. These include the complete provisions for a back-yard barbecue. One Bad Boy carries a full-size charcoal grill, another an enormous plastic cooler, a third pulls a fully stocked bar, replete with crystal cocktail shaker and martini glasses, and the fourth transports a home stereo system powered by an on-board gasoline generator. Like pied pipers, they lead a gaggle of groupies and camp followers for an instant party wherever they stop.

The “team” phenomenon notwithstanding, one of RAGBRAI’s central unspoken tenets decrees that you leave behind whatever position and privilege you enjoy the other 51 weeks of the year. The person you strike up a conversation with on the road or in line for a shower may as easily be a truck driver as a college professor, a cocktail waitress, a retired farmer, a high school senior or a judge. It’s as purely democratic as anything Jefferson ever envisioned, and it makes for easy friendship among folks who might not mix outside of the ride. Participants through the years have included a number of celebrities--among them former Oakland Raider Ben Davidson and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad--who have marveled at their ability to travel almost anonymously.

Famous or not, all riders soon learn the exasperating truth about Iowa’s topography. Despite its appearance from an airplane, much of the state is emphatically not flat. In both the western and eastern sections, the hills seem to roll endlessly from the perspective of a bicycle. It’s not that they are so high (none of Iowa is above 1,700 feet), but that there are so damned many of them. One year’s RAGBRAI route boasted a day in which the accumulated change in elevation totaled 8,000 vertical feet.

Nor is Iowa’s climate always cooperative. Temperatures soar into triple digits, and thunderstorms awe-inspiring in their magnitude bring midnight-black clouds, driving rain, marble-size hail and tree-downing winds. One morning in 1981, 6,000 riders set out in a cool drizzle. In hilly terrain, the rain intensified, the head winds rose and the temperature fell into the low 50s. Only a thousand of us finished the day on our bikes. The rest opted for the “sag wagons,” a fleet of vans that always follows the route, rescuing the halt, the lame and the broken-down. Among RAGBRAI veterans, that miserable day will be ever remembered as Soggy Monday.

In an age when concern for the safety of property and person are paramount, RAGBRAI seems quaintly exempt. Apart from the rare arrests for bicycle theft or creating a public disturbance, crime is virtually nonexistent. Parents routinely send their teen-agers off to ride all day with minimal supervision. And because Iowa is not a major tourist destination, the townspeople along the route welcome the novelty of a wholesale invasion of visitors. Even after 22 years, the “howdy, neighbor” and “aw, shucks” hospitality that locals extend to RAGBRAI riders remains largely sincere and intact.

While riders in the early years were frequently greeted with free food, cold drinks and even meals and lodging, the sheer numbers now usually preclude wholesale giveaways. But freebies still occur. In the western Iowa town of Portsmouth last summer, the local grocer donated a truckload of watermelons. And though the cry of “free beer!” is, sadly, most often a facetious rumor, it occasionally pans out. In an act of classic small-town stubbornness, a resident outside one village poured lavished $350 worth of keg beer for riders as they passed his home on their way into town. Asked the reason for his generosity, he snarled: “I’ve been feuding with that SOB at the tavern uptown for years. I figure every beer they drink here is one they won’t be buying up there.”

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Other examples of kindness strain the imagination. Realizing that among riders’ most longed-for desires at day’s end is a hot shower, the southeast Iowa town of Washington (population 7,000) sponsored “shower a biker.” Willing residents were asked to hang a towel over their front porch or doorway; many even provided towels and toiletries. Consider opening your bathroom to 15 or 20 strangers to appreciate the true depth of such hospitality.

For most riders, the most difficult part of RAGBRAI is not the hills or sleeping on the ground or the humidity or the thunderstorms. It’s having to end a weeklong escape that focuses almost entirely on itself and makes the real world seem far away indeed. The goodbys are warm and heartfelt, with many promises to see each other next year. “Post-RAGBRAI stress disorder” parties are held in Iowa cities and as far away as Florida to help ease the transition. Perhaps the real attraction of RAGBRAI is that, for the most part, the tolerance and goodwill to which we so often pay lip service is actually practiced for a week each summer, on bicycles, in Iowa.

GUIDEBOOK / RIDING RAGBRAI

When and where: Applications are no longer available for 1995’s RAGBRAI XXIII, which will take place July 23-29 from Onawa to Muscatine. The route is announced in early February, and lottery applications are available several weeks later. The deadline for the drawing is usually April 1; those who are awarded passes (more than half of the applicants) are notified by May 1.

Getting there: American Airlines, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines, TWA and America West fly to Des Moines, the state capital. Scheduled air service is also available to Omaha, Neb., Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, S.D., all near Iowa’s western border; and to Moline, Ill., and Cedar Rapids, Burlington and Dubuque, Iowa, in the east.

Prices: The registration fee ($80 for 1995, which includes accident insurance) entitles the rider to camping space and to have baggage carried between overnight towns, but not to and from the beginning and ending points. Charter buses typically charge $40 to $60 each way for transporting riders, baggage and bicycles. While on the ride, expect to spend about $25 per day for food and drink.

Where to stay: Hotel accommodations are virtually impossible to obtain in all but the very largest overnight towns; most riders stay in campgrounds, so pack a tent and sleeping bag. (It’s possible to have a camper follow the route to provide private accommodations.) To simply observe RAGBRAI, drive to the town closest to the midpoint of a given day’s ride.

For more information: RAGBRAI, P.O. Box 622, Des Moines, Iowa 50303-0622; (515) 284-8282.


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