The rolling hills, lush cornfields, and rustic farms. The food stalls, small town main streets, and family lemonade stands. The flat tires, sore butts, and sag wagons.
The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (Ragbrai) has been flowing since the mid-seventies, and I’ve jumped aboard ten or eleven times since 1981. This year I could only link up for two days, but I pedaled enough to know that many things have stayed the same—and that’s a good thing.
The ride involves an average of 10 to 20,000 folks migrating across the state on bikes, and details of the week-long odyssey are available on several sites, including the official Ragbrai page. I rode with friends, their friends, and a herd of strangers from around the world—you can easily strike up conversations with local residents, bikers from overseas, and maybe a zen meditation practitioner from Fairfield or a wind energy expert from the West Coast—who also loves talking about Stalin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Deng Zhao Ping.
Of course the nature of farming has changed in the past decades, and Iowa now has giant wind turbines sprouting near confinement hog operations while a half-million dollars' worth of equipment works the fields. Drones soon—robotic tractors too—but the farmers and small town residents seem much like the folks we encounter on every trip.
Last year I wrote of townsfolk who let us stay in their homes and the fact that I never lock my bike or worry about crime on the trip. Today’s headline from Ragbrai is that the Mason City police have cash that has been turned in by those who found it during the overnight stop there. The town famous for the flim-flam Music Man Harold Hill is also known for its hospitality and honesty.
Two years ago I wrote of the hellish heat on the trip. It hit for one day this week, but on Tuesday a front moved through and cool northerlies took over. The weather is quite rightly the key topic of conversation. But by the time you’ve ridden in lightning storms, 100-degree days, constant headwinds, and a freak July rainy day that only reached 58 degrees, then you are ready for anything. You’ll still complain, though.
For many riders, the week-long bike ride is about as close as they ever get to agriculture. Three years ago I wrote about the way farming looks from the top of a tortuous bike seat. This year I’ve found a link to the Iowa State University Cyclaholics—ag professors who make the annual trek to observe agriculture—and have a good time. And of course some things have changed with my bike gear since my first ride in ’81. I eventually gave in to wearing the padded shorts, padded gloves, and clip-on shoes. I was a late holdout—those things are for wimps. My legs, hands, and tailbone wish I would have wimped out much earlier.
I also used to ride a clunker bike—it had gears but was as heavy as a small jeep. I still haven’t moved to an elliptical or recumbent or other new style, but this video clip has short interviews with those who have. I’m also quite sure I won’t try a unicycle, roller blades, or the “banana boat bike” that appears every year. I don’t mind a few changes, but the beauty of the trip is the flow—the feeling of hitting the road with 18,000 other bikers as you cruise across Iowa’s fields of dreams.
by dan gogerty