RAGBRAI - The Curiosity of Cycling Culture

September 02, 2019

Whoever said Iowa is flat is a liar. While the terrain is no comparison to the steep climbs of Colorado or Idaho—its sprawling rollers are pretty darn fun. Rolling through the humid cornfields from town to town where “Iowa nice” isn’t just a catchphrase was an experience I’ll never forget.

I had some severe trepidation going into this considering my longest ride ever was a metric century a couple of years ago, and I’ve had heatstroke. Iowa is hot and humid. Couple those fears with the fact that I don’t ride 60-90 miles every single day, back to back. But this week, I did just that.

I loaded up my bike and headed out to the meeting town of Council Bluffs with two other people from our PEARL iZUMi Crew. We had our tents all set up for us each day by our great charter, Bike World Iowa. They had all the basics we needed. All we had to do was ride from town to town, eating and drinking our way across Iowa and trying to keep cool.

The first night of the eight-day adventure was filled with thunderous fireworks to kick us off, lightning storms and a torrential downpour that lasted the entire next day. 62 miles in the rain was actually not all that bad. Because once you’re wet, you just keep on trucking. The fact is that nothing really dries out in Iowa in 70% humidity. We did our best to create makeshift clotheslines for our kits to dry. Fail. The skies cleared and we showered at the YMCA for $5 bucks and partied with a heavy metal tribute band called Hair Ball well into the night.

Several of the “teams” and I use that term loosely, were happy to give us tours of their converted school busses that now serve as their RVs. The Cyclopaths, The Diegos, Team White Bus, and Bad Bobby, just to name a few. They take a lot of pride in their busses, how they’re decorated, and the amenities they have on board. Music and a full bar or a cooler full of beer were the standard must-haves for most team busses.

Our Crew for RAGBRAI.
Fireworks light up the sky on the eve of the start of RAGBRAI.
RAGBRAI is kind of an eating contest with a bike ride to break it up.
Team buses are one very interesting way to see the RAGBRAI life.

Each average day of about 75 miles led us through a foodie paradise filled with pork chops, Amish pies, pickles, ice cream, and any kind of food on a stick you can imagine! And don’t forget the beer gardens. It’s weird to see people drinking beers at 9:00 a.m. and riding bikes, but hey, it’s RAGBRAI! No one’s in a real hurry to get from A to B.

There were riders on road bikes, fat bikes, tandem bikes, you name it, and it’s there. 30,000 other people all with the same passion. There were bike packers, little kids, dogs in baskets, and many people well into their golden years celebrating all things biking, beer, and camaraderie. One guy, Clarence, was 93 years old and this was his seventh RAGBRAI! At that point, any fears I had coming into this thing had flown right out the window.

Between each town, there were locals and church groups were selling baked goods and bottled water fundraising for their causes. People waited out on their front porches waving at everyone passing by all day long. I loved seeing their big smiles as they shouted out to us, “Welcome to our town!!!!” Some folks offered up their homes for shade, air conditioning and even a free ride to town if you wanted. By the sixth or seventh night of camping in a hot, sweaty tent you’re pretty close to being over it. But on the last day of our journey to the other end of the state, I have to say I was feeling pretty nostalgic. It’s customary to ‘dip’ your tires in the Mississippi River at the end. We celebrated our adventure and toasted with our new found friends. This was the ride of a lifetime I’ll never forget.

Relaxing in my tent condo with a book.
Meeting just a few of the locals.

The overwhelming consistency of this Woodstock on wheels was the inconsistency of the riders. By that, I mean the people I met were fathers and daughters on tandems, people that regrouped just once a year since their college days to meet up just for this ride. Heck, a guy from Holland wearing wooden clogs with SPDs!! All shapes, all ages, all nationalities, all abilities. That is what I noticed really makes RAGBRAI so special. It’s not a race, it’s a ride to celebrate “you,” whoever you are. Taking the time and making the time to get out on your bicycle no matter what kind and be welcomed by every single person out there. This week, bicyclists merged into one big melting pot. As different as we all are, we all love one thing. Riding bikes (and eating pie).

Keep RAGBRAI weird.
Roads closed to cars are definitely a nice way to ride across a state.
Closing out the 2019 RAGBRAI adventure at the Mississippi.

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