Have you always wanted to shit in a cornfield? Would you like to leather-ize your skin in just 7 days? Are you too comfortable when you sit, stand or walk? Well then, do I have just the thing for you! The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI if we’re being hip. This self-propelled insanity is a 500 mile bike ride that starts on the West side of the state and ends in the Mighty Mississippi on the East side. Not sold yet? Get this; it’s held during the hottest week of the year, is on open roads – giving you the exhilarating feeling of watching your life pass before your eyes every time a semi barrels past you, you get to bob and weave your way in-between 20,000 of your closest friends, oh yeah – and people DIE. EVERY. YEAR.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “what a bunch of idiots” then the joke’s on you, because while these people are as crazy as a bunch of bats out of hell, they love it, and keep coming back year after year. In fact, this was the 44th time riders mounted their saddles and hit the open road. It all started back in 1973 when two guys from the Des Moines Register thought to themselves, “Hey, it’s hot as hell, the humidity is near 100%, we’ve got a week to spare and two bikes collecting dust – let’s see if we can’t ride across the entire gosh damn state!” Not only did they follow through, but 120 people (who apparently had very loose schedules) joined them. The following year they repeated the West-East ride, via a new route, this time with 2,000 participants. Each year the numbers get bigger, with this July’s ride culminating at a near-chaotic 20,000 making RAGBRAI the oldest, longest and biggest bicycle touring event in THE WORLD.
This year’s route went through scenic southern Iowa starting in Glenwood and ending in Muscatine, covering just shy of 500 miles and over 18,500 feet of climb. For the ordinary person, it’s hard to really visualize what 18,500 feet of climb looks or feels like, so let me indulge you. Pictured above is our lovely rolling entrance into what turned out to be seven days of killer hills. There’s this theory that what goes up, must come down – but have you noticed that it’s not true in reverse? What goes down, does not need to come up; which is precisely what makes biking inclines so difficult. Flying down the hills between 35 and 40 mph we tried to gain as much momentum as possible to haul ourselves up the next incline. But, after what felt like 10 feet of uphill climb we were at risk of rolling backwards should our legs stop pumping the pedals. “Down shift! Down shift!! Oh, god, I’m in first gear!” On those climbs conversations stopped, we lost our breeze, the heat intensified, and after SOLID MINUTES of going up, up, up our legs felt like the devil himself lit them on fire. If you could hear anything at all over your heart pounding, blood rushing and the air your were fighting to fill your lungs with then it was the heaving and gasping of fellow bikers as we all soldiered on at a glacial speed of between 4 and 6 mph to the crest. These hills aren’t called “killer” for no reason. It was halfway up one such incline that a poor soul’s heart gave out, and there he died. Once atop, gears shifted back up, we caught our breath and proceeded on with our conversations all the way down the other side only to lift our heads and see another, BIGGER hill. Sigh.
There’s nothing that can unite a group of people faster than a common enemy, and on RAGBRAI those hills bound us tighter than sardines in a can. We all hated them, but those of us who made it, felt like champions when we got to the top, mainly (in my opinion) because we knew what awaited us…pie. I would give a cow a rectal exam for a piece of Iowa pie, which brings me to what makes RAGBRAI stand apart from all other bike rides. The dear people who do, on a regular basis, give rectal exams to cows, horses, and I suppose to just about anything with a back-end; Farmers. While their necks may be red and their teeth 2-6 cards shy of a deck, their hearts are pure gold and they are what make this ride exceptional. No where else would you be able to ride your bike, and have someone come out on their front lawn to offer you – a complete stranger – a glass of ice cold lemonade or their spigot to refill your water bottle or their field to take a crap in. In the overnight towns, people opened their homes for bikers to have shelter and a bathroom with something other than a corn husk to wipe with. They baked pies that are out of this world, and subsequently got me up and over the hills. They rang cowbells and cheered as we passed by their homes, and a few gold stars made giant slip n’ slides and dip tanks for us to cool down in, bless their hearts. I may be a bit biased, as my maternal grandparents hail from the mighty small town of Chariton, IA, but I’ll be damned if you can find a kinder person than an Iowan. Riding through nothing but fields of meticulously laid corn and soybeans, my respect for the farmer has grown ten-fold. I have trouble keeping my succulents alive (which lest I remind you, need little to no tending to, thankyouverymuch) while these families are growing millions of necessary plants to keep us fat and happy, and to them I say, “Thank you. Your fields are beautiful, and they are not the worst place I’ve ever gone to the bathroom.”
Now, back to the ride. Amongst the masses, I had the privilege of pedaling with people from all over the world, from the Air Force, with Lance Armstrong (seriously!), but mainly Iowans. Most importantly, however, was my full-time riding buddy, my sister, Katie. After the other Britt and I separated back in June, I not only lost my life-partner, but my bike-partner and was dreading making the trip alone. Lucky for me, I have the BEST sister in the world, and without having put in the 1,000 miles of training like I did, and without even having a bike of her own, she stepped up, said she’d do it, and damn-it she did! She borrowed a bike from our uncle, bought a helmet and joined me on the open road. I gave her a crash course on gear shifting and bike commands as we were crossing the start line, and, much to my surprise, she had it down by the time we went over the second hill. Talk about a champ!
When riding in such close proximity with so many people, you get to talking, but more often than not you hear bits and pieces of other rider’s conversations. Not having the full context, I spent a lot of time filling in the pieces to one-liners I heard along the route. Some of my favorite being:
Every ladybug I ever ran into has been an asshole.
PAAAAAAATTTT! I need to STOP!
What’s that thing I did for Halloween? Jack in the Crack!
I think I need to take my pants all the way off to pee.
With the conversations that I was involved in I found it strange that no one, not once, ever asked me what I did for a living. Out in the real world, away from all this woodstock-on-wheels, when meeting someone new 9 times out of 10 one of the first things they will ask you, and vice versa, is “what do you do?” Not on RAGBRAI. These people were more interested in how many times you’ve ridden, how you’re feeling, where you come from, who your family is and whether or not you’ve got butt-butter to spare.
If you had asked us on day one if we’d be back the next year, our response would’ve been, “ask me in two months.” However, on day seven we were both in love with the ride and have already started booking next year’s trip. From the laid back bikers, to the golden-hearted farmers and their rock-star pie, to the general feeling of accomplishment at the end of each day this was one of the greatest things I’ve ever been a part of. Sure I spent more time peeling my shorts down in corn fields or worse – sweat boxes that were the porta-potties – than I ever would have asked for, chafed my butt raw, got sunburnt, developed blisters and risked life and limb every time I mounted my bike, BUT I also got to spend a week with my sister, met some of the most generous people on the planet, and can now say that I RODE MY BIKE ACROSS THE ENTIRE STATE OF IOWA!