FORT MADISON, Ia. There was a key moment on last week’s nearly 407-mile parade of two-wheeled corn-gawkers when I was reminded of the crucial magic of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
Late Thursday afternoon I pedaled out of Pella after filing a column. The sun beat down, a headwind mocked me, and while nearly alone on the road I was ready to collapse and be scraped off the pavement — or perhaps festooned with shiny Mardi Gras beads by Team Road Kill.
But then half a dozen or so young riders with Team Haggard rolled up from behind, blaring LCD Soundsystem songs from a Bazooka bike stereo on a back fender while waving their hands in the air and chattering away.
I drafted them, was buoyed by my second wind and rolled on to Oskaloosa in the same fragrant jersey I had been wearing for three days straight.
Yes, it took a pair of journalists gutsy enough to propose this rural Woodstock on wheels. But the decision of at first hundreds and now tens of thousands of bicyclists (and Iowans along the route) to respond to their call and share the road is what makes it work.
It’s a collective magic.
When caught up in the camaraderie of a team or embroiled in a conversation from the bike seat, the miles fly by.
Similarly, every time I passed RAGBRAI runners Richard Kresser or Pete Kostelnick, or any member of the Adaptive Sports Iowa team that triumphs over missing limbs and other challenges, I was duly inspired.
Not that this was a year when moral support was a drastic necessity for most of the meandering, paunchy herd.
On the contrary, the refrain from RAGBRAI old-timers was that this 41st ride, the second-shortest route, may qualify as the easiest.
Steve Hexom, the radio DJ from Burlington who has reported from 34 RAGBRAIs, insisted that he “doesn’t even have a second to compare it to.”
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz agreed that the week was “pretty easy due to temps and tailwinds.”
The week’s rainstorms doused more bands and campers than bikers.
Don Gonyea of National Public Radio, a RAGBRAI first-timer with his “No Pie Refused” trio, praised the ride as “an amazing community to be a part of. It kind of restores your faith.”
He also declared the peach pie in Bonaparte to be tops for the week. (His colleague Scott Horsley preferred his heavenly slice of peach in Neola.) Saturday was a fitting 63-mile finale.
The route was strewn with signs for cold beer, but the morning chill felt more like hot toddy weather before the sun cut above the barn rooftops.
I lost count of how many times we crossed the Des Moines River Friday, let alone last week; the Missouri and Mississippi rivers hog all the attention.
The brain becomes as sluggish as the legs by Day 7. Saturday morning east of Keosauqua I drafted a semi flatbed laden with big round hay bales and might have hallucinated that I was chasing a load of Shredded Wheat for Paul Bunyan.
Bunyan is Minnesotan, otherwise I’m sure I would have seen him on the ride along with the guy dressed as Batman. At this point the shocking RAGBRAI scheme is one that hasn’t been tried.
Where else does a wiffle ball bat fashioned into a drinking funnel qualify as valid biking gear?
Where else do you find Kristen Nordaker from Des Moines kissing her first pig (and last, she swears) in the middle of Van Buren County?
Where else does Frederic Hayden sell his mom’s homemade baklava at the end of his driveway north of Van Meter, wearing a rubber snake around his neck and calling himself Snake Boy?
Where else do you sit in a heap by a homemade sign that points the way to Spanky’s Bait & Tackle as four women pedal by discussing Woody Allen and Mia Farrow?
Where else does Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, stand in his sleeveless shirt and biking shorts in front of Team Livestrong in Hedrick and share about his younger brother’s battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his 2-year-old nephew’s bout with liver cancer?
Where else does Zanne Newman from Champaign, Ill., discover a derelict phone on the ground, and the owner happens to be a fellow RAGBRAI rider that lives just 10 minutes from her?
Where else does the Lions Club in Neola feel pressured to bake 125 pies itself, because the last time RAGBRAI rolled through town, the Spandex-clad connoisseurs balked at purchased pies?
Within the last 10 miles of Saturday’s ride I had two conversations about Cycle Oregon, a steeper state trek dreamed up by an innkeeper and a newspaper columnist (this sounds familiar) and first run in 1988.
A woman from northern California who has ridden it pedaled alongside me toward Fort Madison and said that with just 2,000 riders, Oregon can’t compete with the RAGBRAI culture.
And the intense climbs tend to scare all but the diehards away.
“When you’re grinding uphill, there’s not a lot of time for woo-hoo and the wigs,” she said (as she passed me up a hill).
Not that RAGBRAI is all goofball antics and copious calories.
On the square Saturday in West Point, with the attention-grabbing “Mt. RAGBRAI” bicycle pile nearby, I found Vietnam veteran Roy Vieth from Verona, Wis., wandering among the 10 black granite slabs of the town’s war memorial on the corner.
“I just always stop and take a look,” explained the 66-year-old, on his seventh RAGBRAI.
“People just take so many things for granted,” he said and gestured at the stones.
Bikes get strewn just about everywhere on a town square during RAGBRAI, but not one touched the memorial.
Vieth snapped photos of the stones. We don’t realize what might leave an impression when the Technicolor circus from around the globe lingers in some of Iowa’s obscure corners.
The “woo-hoo and wigs” are just the obvious spectacles.
So this ride has been enshrined in a museum. It has wound its way through Iowa’s two largest cities in the last two years — Cedar Rapids last year and back to Des Moines this year for the first time since 1997.
RAGBRAI itself might qualify as among the 20 largest cities in Iowa on its fuller days.
The next 40 years has begun, and Mike Van Meter is a face of that future. The 9-year-old from Delhi first crossed the state on RAGBRAI at age 3 in 2007 in a trailer pulled by his dad, Clarke.
This year, after 600 training miles, Mike pedaled his way under his own power on his Specialized hybrid.
Aside from his son’s ice cream-induced cramp on Monday, the week was “totally painless, really,” Clarke said from Saturday’s dip site. “He’s ready to go play.”
Mike, meanwhile, admitted that his first full RAGBRAI was hot, miserable and hard. Not that that deters him.
“Yeah, I want to do it every year,” he said. It’s fun to be “eating pie and ice cream and seeing all the people.”
All the people: Van Meter looks to be part of that RAGBRAI critical mass and collective magic for the future.
For all the woo-hoo and wigs to come.
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