Finding a bit of home on Iowa’s weeklong cycling extravaganza
By John H. Ostdick
Photos by the author and Jim Ostdick, Michelle Medley, and Don Knight
A thick, damp fog hangs almost as insanely close as the hundreds of bicyclists laboring on all sides of me on this main street leading out of Perry, Iowa. I struggle to shake the feeling that a horde of groggy strangers are trying to climb into my seat with me, or worse, knock me right off of it.
All kinds of images flash through my brain, a bit scattered pre its morning coffee fix. I find myself talking to my long-dead father Leo, a native Iowan whom I’m sure would be perplexed by the crowd gathered here. He doesn’t answer, or come walking out the cornfields to steady my Trek, but the thought process is calming. (As I had hoped, I do feel his presence often during my week in Iowa.)
As this bulging snake of riders turns left to climb out of Perry, large portions of them disappear in the hanging grayness only to pop out in the sunshine breaking through the fog further up the hill. All I can take in from my seat are the fog trying to swallow me, and an illuminated sea of bobbing helmets up above me.
The annual RAGBRAI ride across this state has overnight quadrupled the population of this year’s smallest host city. This morning’s buzz is that a possible-record influx of “day” riders joining us weeklong participants for a 52-mile spin into the state capital of Des Moines has swelled our ranks to 25,000 or more cyclists. It feels that and more.
The moment is equal parts unnerving and wonderful, claustrophobic and freeing — and totally RAGBRAI, which got its start as a writing lark by two Des Moines Register staffers in 1973 (hence the alphabet soup name, Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa).
At 56, I am here as part of a couple of long-ago planted seeds. During my previous life as a magazine editor, one of my writers wrote a story on this seven-day, 400-miles-and-change adventure (a different route is chosen each year from towns bidding to be on the route, which starts at a city on the western border and ends at a eastern border site; the average distance is 468). I loved the story and his personal accounts of the race, and later mentioned to my brother Jim that we should ride RAGBRAI one day. Fast forward 20 years, and I get this winter email from Jim explaining he will be riding from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, in the summer and that he thinks we should do RAGBRAI together in the middle of his quest as a homage to our Ottumwa-born and raised father on the 50th anniversary of his death. (It later appears as if our participation this year is fated: The 2013 route passes within a few miles of the house Leo grew up in.)
So launches the “Finding Leo” adventure of 2013. As soon as my Dallas riding buddy Don hears of the plan, he goes all in as well, and we start making training plans (for the interested, a very helpful training regimen is available at http://ragbrai.com/category/ragbrai-training-blog/ ).
Finding Our Way
In case there is any doubt, let me be clear: I have no love for riding in groups. Before we started training, Don and I were the most casual of cyclists, with our average ride being about 14 miles, he on a mountain bike and I on a hybrid.
And like most folks, we are hardly cut for Spandex. In fact, Don’s wife Kathryn is out walking their dog one morning when she sees the silhouette of three riders riding toward her. As she recounts later, she thinks to herself, “Good for those three thick boys for getting some exercise.” And, of course, those guys turn out to be Don, Stan, another cycling buddy, and myself.
We adopt the “Thick Boys” as our training moniker (although our official RAGBRAI team name is “Gutting It Out”). Some interesting — and occasionally painful —training rides and a transformation to road bikes later (a 100k sponsored ride in the June Dallas heat convinces me to switch), we find ourselves meeting up with Jim mid-cross-country ride at my sweet cousin Carole’s house in Omaha, Nebraska, just across the state line from the 2013 RAGBRAI start in Council Bluffs. Somewhere amid the craziness, my wife Michelle signs on to drive a support vehicle for us.
RAGBRAI, which announces its route and host cities each January, holds the claim as the oldest, largest, and longest bicycle-touring event in the world — a far cry from its origins, a six-day ride adventure comprised of two Des Moines Register columnists and some hangers-on. Spandex, jerseys, gloves, and helmets were nowhere to be seen back then. It can be very hot (the 2012 version was a scorcher), and Iowa has more hills than an outsider might imagine. We are very fortunate overall in choosing this as our first RAGBRAI: While we are a little battered by the heat and humidity the first two days, a furious overnight storm front that pelts our tents with hail brings with it cooler air that will last the week. And the official 408 miles (we ride a little more than that) is among the shortest courses in its history.
Tradition calls for participants to dip their back tire in the Missouri River before they begin, and kiss the Mississippi River with their front tire when they finish. The enormously popular ride had to cap its weeklong ridership ranks at 8,500 (although I have yet to meet anyone who says he or she missed the cut), determined by a computer-run lottery. Participants can choose to use equipment buses to ferry their camping gear from town to town, pay to have independent companies do that and set up their tents daily, or enlist their own support driver to tote the load and vie for camping space each day (host cities have limited housing options on a pre-reserved basis as well). Daily numbers balloon with those on day-ride passes, and the thousands of unregistered Iowans who just decide to ride along for a while.
Navigating Miles of Riders
And that is what happens on the ride into Des Moines. This is the first time in 16 years that RAGBRAI is stopping at the Des Moines state fairgrounds overnight. Rider numbers swell as the day gets longer. The day after the ride, the Iowa State Patrol reports counting 23,845 cyclists leaving the pass-through town of Minburn, but troopers doing the counting with hand-held clickers allow that hundreds more riders lingered in Minburn and were never tabulated. And another 2,000 or so reportedly join at the mid-town stop in Dallas Center. RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz is quoted later in the week as saying that the throng tops the 32,000 counted in 2010 in Altoona, and that he is confident upward of 35,000 bicyclists streamed through central Iowa on this day.
We are a few miles out of Perry before the rider pack stretches out and things become less sardinish. Compared to the previous day’s sometime arduous 86-mile journey, the 52 miles into Des Moines unwinds almost leisurely, gliding through a series of rolling hills and food stops set up specifically for RAGBRAI. For many of these small towns, a RAGBRAI pass-through, mid-town, or meeting town designation is the biggest event of the year.
The RAGBRAI challenge cannot be confused with climbing Everest or riding in the Tour De France, but seven days in the saddle in weather that can be in the 100s or wet and rainy do provide a test. Throughout its history, promoters and riders have struggled to find the perfect descriptor for RAGBRAI. “A Rolling Mardi Gras” is one phrase often used. But as the thousands of riders grind to a stop at small town squares and swamp the vendors, it provides an atmosphere unto itself.
Towns along the way offer options to hydrate, fuel up, or even tank up; some riders swarm designated beer garden areas, swilling beer (unfortunately, Anheuser-Busch seems to have an iron grip on supplies) and dancing in the streets.
We try to spend a little money in each of the towns, especially at local fundraising booths, but eschew partaking in much of the other foolishness, even bypassing the stops now and then when possible. While we never taste the “pork chop on a stick” (the lines are too long) or any hamballs (which none of us want to get near), in Monroe we do chow down on breaded, deep-fried tenderloin patty sandwiches the size of our heads (the meat extends beyond the bun a couple of inches on all sides). Each host town has organizations doing some sort of dinner fundraisers for local organizations, often featuring pasta dishes.
During a lunch break in Guthrie Center during our 86-mile day, Michelle supplies us with Subway sandwiches, which are devoured in folding chairs on a side-street sidewalk beneath an ample shade tree. Betty, whose yard we have plopped in, comes out for a visit. The gracefully aging Betty, a lifelong farmer, has moved into her deceased mother’s house in town. She voraciously seeks tales of our RAGBRAI experiences, coming away somewhat disappointed since we have only two days experience at this point. We have a pleasant visit nevertheless. Just as we are about to get back on our bikes, Betty’s daughter and granddaughter, who have been volunteering in town, join us. They provide us fresh water for our water bottles, and we peddle away.
Other entertainment opportunities include dwarf wrestling matches outside the Longest Yard Bar in the midpoint city of Dallas Center (including the efforts of four-foot-five-inch Little Kato); team competitions with fire hoses that involving moving barrels along a suspended rope; a Christmas theme stop in Runnels, where machines pump out fake snow for picture ops; a roadside photo session with Sasquatch (alas, we somehow miss Shelby’s 76-foot ear of corn); the Dutch-themed and windmill-populated streets of Pella; and music and dancing of all ilk. Cruising through the State Fairgrounds in Des Moines early in the morning is a little surreal; we aren’t ready to stop and wander at any of the vendor booths (many of the 20,000 who partied late and camped in the Water Works Park near the Fairgrounds started much later the next day).
As we pass a large and — judging by the number of cycles strewn by the side of the road — popular water hole off to the left of the roadway, we hear an irritated male voice on a loudspeaker urging visitors there “to keep your clothes on while swimming.”
A Familiarity in Discovery
My father Leo was born to Herman and Ida, both native Ottumwans, in 1917. My connection to his family here faded after my father’s death in Texas at 46. I remember some early visits to my grandparents’ house, how we kids slept out on the screened-in back porch, how he kept a large garden and canned its harvests, how the smell of the thick rye bread they baked filled the house when we visited, and their stern but familiar demeanor. From time to time during this ride, I recognize my dad in some of the people we meet. It is not riding through the homeland, exactly, but it seems somehow familiar.
Leo wasn’t around for most of my life discoveries, from learning to ride a two-wheeler to acing my first job interview. So throughout my life, I’ve tried to take advantage of any situations that make the connection with someone who was as much shadow as light in my young life. RAGBRAI is proving just such a touchstone.
After quickly learning the importance of calling, “Rider on,” “Slowing,” and “Rider off” to let the surrounding horde know our immediate attention, we fall into a daily pattern that best fits our needs.
During the week, we camp in a fairground, a yard, a state park, and a municipal park, spend one evening in a hotel (Des Moines), and another in the home of local residents. We generally break camp and load the car for Michelle before 8 a.m., ride within shouting distances of each other for about 10 miles before stopping for coffee and breakfast sandwiches; hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (in the beginning, Jim calls out “water” every 15 minutes or so until we get into the rhythm); moderate our pace; meet Michelle in the day’s mid-town to eat lunch in a patch of shade; ride another 10 to 15 miles more, take another break; and finally try to punch a hole in the glutted cell traffic to find out where Michelle has set up camp; set up the tents, rest and shower if we can find one; eat and crash.
I lose track of how many times we cross/parallel the Des Moines River. I have two flats in one day. Each host town has an evening party with bands but until we reach Fairfield on the last night of the ride and enjoy pizzas from a portable wood-burning oven, we never participate in the festivities.
Jim gives us each ride nicknames, a holdover from his trail hiking days perhaps. He calls me “Uno “and Don “Dos,“ and Michelle “Roadie.” He takes great delight in how Don flies down hills and uses the gathered momentum to help him crest the next. We both marvel at the euphoric expression that brightens Don’s face in the doing.
Finding bathrooms can prove daunting with all of this activity going on. The lines for “kybos,” what the Iowans call their portable toilets, are always imposing day and night, which is why you see thousands of riders “doing the RAGBRAI,” which involves a trip into the cornfields. Unoccupied bicycles waiting at the edge of a cornfield are recurring sites. I will never look at an ear of Iowa corn the same.
As we pass a black cow statue the size of a dump truck, some dairy folks are handing out ice cream and cartons of chocolate milk.
“Free ice cream,” a healthy young Iowa maiden calls out, offering samples from the side of the road.
“FREE ice cream?” a lanky cyclist repeats, incredulous.
“Yes, FREE ice cream.”
“Is this heaven?” the biker responds as he reaches out for an ice cream sample.
“No, Iowa,” an overtaking cyclist chimes in, as if she had ridden 300 miles just waiting for some one to say that.
“Oh, she SO got you,” one of the cyclist’s companions says.
These riders — and the cycles they navigate — come in all shapes and sizes. First-timers who ride with group are identifiable by the VIRGIN spelled out in marker on their legs. Every day I pass a skeletal woman who appears to be in her 70s or older. Her small saddlebag carries a notation on it — I may be old but I’m slow. She’s a picture in the slow-and-steady mode, as is a must-be-pushing-450-pounds gentleman who strains up each hill on his recumbent bike.
Defrocked Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong rides the first few days with a team that zooms up the steepest hills Iowa has to offer at more than 35 miles per hour (as clocked by Ron, a performance rider who says he hung with them for a few miles one day). Signs in yards along the route beseech Lance to stop and visit, including one that says, “Lance Armstrong, today is my birthday. Please stop for me” (as we pass, we ask people in the yard, and yes, he did just that).
The most impressive able-bodied participants, however, might be 30-year-old Tim Roberts and 25-year-old Jason Pardie, who are tackling RAGBRAI on unicycles. As I dig up a steep rise one day, I sidle up to Pardie and offer my amazement at his effort. I am compelled to ask him how he copes with the ups and downs on one wheel.
“I don’t dare let my attention stray beyond the several feet in front of me,” says Pardie, who has ridden in five RAGBRAIs (this is the second consecutive year he will ride the full route). Although he acknowledges that he has had to walk at a couple of really steep places, he strives not to break his momentum as he climbs, and remains cautious and relaxed on his pedals on the way down. Even more amazing, he is tackling RAGBRAI on a borrowed unicycle: His unicycle fell off his vehicle’s roof and was hit by a truck on the way to the ride. (Under the it-had-to-happen eventually category, two runners — identified as Pete Kostelnick and Richard Kresser — also complete the RAGBRAI course for the first time.)
Although RAGBRAI has somewhat outgrown its full costume era, there are still plenty of entertaining themes about — although you would think the prevalent teams wrapped in Hello, Kitty garb (including tutus and tights on a couple of the guys) would have played itself out by now. Team Flamingo sports pink feathers flaring out of its helmets. Team Quack, and their new in-duck-tees, announces its presence with a chorus of duck calls. Team Bumble Bee, dressed in yellow-and-black striped jerseys, like to emote a loud collective buzz as it passes. Bikers pulling small trailers with boom boxes blasting away are a novelty the first few days, then not so much — especially the guy who has Oklahoma on a loop. And, of course, slogan shirts and jerseys abound. I chuckle when one stoutish woman passes me, leaving me to consider the humorous contribution she makes with the marker-scrawled, “Does this shirt make my butt look fast?”
PICKING A GREAT FIRST RAGBRAI
Unlike the previous year’s drought-ravaged scenery, the 2013 course’s vistas are lush green (with picturesque rows of corn to our left and fields of low-growing soybeans on our right, or vice versa). As riders enter specified pass-through towns on the route, little Iowan squares become elbow-to-elbow stopdowns, with food vendors and local fundraisers selling everything from Gatorade and water to pies and fresh Iowa corn. Rows of bicycles lean on rope lines, sides of structures, anything that will provide support. The scene resembles a traveling Iowa fairground, with weeklong vendors pulling up stakes overnight and setting up amid local fundraising booths in the next town. Only we supply the bearded ladies and other carny types.
And everybody along the way is just so darn Iowa nice — from the side of the highway, where people set up lawn chairs in the shade for riders to take a break from the sun, to the towns, where locals provide spots on their lawns or in their homes for riders to overnight. Like Roger and Donna, a very nice couple in Perry, who let us pitch our tents in their yard and use a shower (do I hear an Amen, people?). And Susan, in quirky Fairfield, who welcomes us into her home overnight, provides a tour of the transcendental meditation capital of the United States, and shares dinner on the square with us.
Our muscles and brain functions are mostly good-weary at the end of each day. Michelle performs flawlessly in the support car, making sure we have adequate fluids, finding great campsites, and playing the ukulele and singing to us as we recover at the end of the day. Before the week ends, she will make an emergency room trip in Knoxville, Iowa (Jim, food poisoning), and have to navigate a scary dirt road through a cornfield maze after she makes a bad turn, runs onto the riders’ route, and has to freelance her way out.
We are overwhelmed by the support and friendliness we encounter along the way, although on the last day, a 63-mile ride from Fairfield to Fort Madison, Don and I tire of the sing-song encouragement “it’s all downhill from here,” only to face another hill to climb (in truth, the last 20 miles or so are, indeed, almost all downhill).
After dipping our tires in the Mississippi, we have morphed into the “Thick Brothers” — although slender Jim throws our average off a bit. We load the bikes up and head back toward Omaha, where Jim will spend a week recovering from his food illness before resuming his cross-country trek (he ends up riding more than 6,000 miles by the time he ends up in Oceanside, California, in November, but that’s another story).
We stop on the narrow, hilly cobblestone street of old Ottumwa and revisit Leo’s birthplace. It is the first time I’ve seen it since I was a very young child. I carry a piece of Dad back with me. My mother had passed in the spring, and in going through her things I had found a medal with a blue-white-and-gold ribbon for the “32nd Annual Session of the Grand Council of Iowa” with my dad’s name and hometown, commemorating his participation in a youth leadership conference put on by the Des Moines Rotary in June 1931. During my training period, I had placed the medal in a baggie, and stuck it in a storage bag on my bike (it remains there months after leaving Iowa).
As I gaze upon his childhood home, I clutch the medal in my hand. I don’t know that I found Leo on this adventure, but I sure felt him with me as I peddled the 408 miles along with thousands of other free souls. That, for me, will always sum up the spirit of RAGBRAI.
ABOUT THE RIDE
RAGBRAI’s success has spawned more than 200 multi-day rides in at least 32 states. The ride coordinators figure that more than 280,000 riders have pedaled more than 17,000 miles through more than 800 towns — including all of Iowa’s 999 counties and 80 percent of its incorporated towns — since the tour’s inception.
For more information, visit http://ragbrai.com