I took a too-small bike on a too-long ride, and it proved to be one of the highlights of my life so far.
In 1973, two reporters for The Des Moines Register set out on a west-to-east bicycle tour of Iowa to write about their experiences for the paper. The route was made public in advance, and all were welcome to join them as they pedaled from Sioux City to Davenport. Ultimately, 114 people rode the entire route with the reporters. There was such momentum around the ride that it became a yearly event called the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, but you can just call it RAGBRAI.
This year marked the ride’s 42nd edition of human-powered Iowa exploration. I made it my first, riding the full 475 or so miles on my daily commuter bike.
For those who cling to the misguided notion that it’s all about the bike, allow me to describe my ride. It’s a green Brompton M6-L, an English bike that folds down to a fraction of its size for easy indoor storage or for bringing aboard public transportation. I so fell in love with the utility of this thing that I ended up selling my ritzy road bike when it became clear that the Brompton was robust enough to do it all.
By the way, this is what it looks like when you close up a folding bike:
In three years of riding it around New York City, I’ve logged 7,000 miles between commutes, errands, leisure rides, and modest distance touring. RAGBRAI, a seven-day ride through heat and hills, would by far be the most serious ride I’d taken it on.
I checked the magic folding bike as luggage out of JFK, flew with it to Moline, Illinois, and joined up with the Quad Cities Bicycle Club on a charter bus taking us to this year’s starting town of Rock Valley, Iowa. (The route is different every year.)
The bus driver introduced himself over the PA: “Welcome to Asphalt Airlines! We’ll be flying at 70 miles per hour at an altitude of seven feet. Call me Mike if you have to call me anything.” Mike’s a joker.
Upon arrival in Rock Valley, there was nothing to do but pitch my tent, drink beer, and make friends until departure the following morning. RAGBRAI is crawling with good-natured people who want to talk to you and hear where you traveled from. After recalibrating my aloof New York sensibilities, I soon had a core group of four friendly faces that I’d ride with on and off throughout the week. We tore up the route together, fuelled largely by lemonade and apple pie.
As mentioned, the tone of the ride is one of overwhelming affability. Everyone’s off from work, everyone likes bikes, so it’s easy to have a friendly conversation with a stranger. My bike proved to be a conversation starter all its own. It’s got small wheels. The handlebars form a letter U. The frame is a single steel tube. It doesn’t look like anything you’d ever see being pedaled by a Lycra-clad hotdogger, hence my affectionate nickname for it: the Clown Bike.
Here’s what riding a folding bike looks like (no, it’s not me, but a guy in a YouTube video):
A fair bit of my ride was spent fielding questions from alternately curious and incredulous bikers: The road warriors scoffed and the bike nerds shrieked with glee. Here were the questions I was most frequently asked:
“Where do you get one of those things?”
A bike shop on the Upper East Side, or any other discerning bike shop around the world.
“Do you have to pedal twice as often to keep pace?”
No. While the wheels are smaller the chainring is larger. It works out to require about the same effort to go the same distance.
“How is that to ride?”
A joy, just like any other bike.
Even if you’ve never done a distance ride before, RAGBRAI makes it quite easy to log some mileage. (You should still have a good number of training miles under your belt before taking off, however.)
The trick is to never worry about a given day’s distance, which varied from 38 to 105 miles. Just count down to the next designated pass-through town. There are several of them each day, every 10 to 15 miles or so, and they’re happy to receive the riders and their empty stomachs. RAGBRAI might stand for “Register’s Annual Gorging and Binging Ride Across Iowa.”
The economic boon of several thousand cyclists on vacation in small-town Iowa with plenty of spending money can’t be overstated. Each rest stop sees area schools, churches, and other organisations get in on the game to sell the riders shirts, bike gear, souvenirs, and nearly any food item you can imagine. Other vendors set up shop along the route itself and travel with the ride each day. My favourite of these was The Smoothie Guys (I recommend peach-strawberry).
At the end of a day’s pedaling, you’re a sweaty wreck with sore legs. Allow me to explain how showering works for the folks who work themselves into a stink. Nearby schools or the YMCA will make their facilities available for a small fee, but it’s never a sure thing.
Most likely, you’ll end up paying a visit to Joe’s Wet Shack. Joe has a big ol’ semi truck, modified to house several shower stalls instead of plastic stuff on its way to a Wal-Mart shelf. Joe and company tap a fire hydrant with the county’s blessing, run it to a hot-water heater, then pipe the water onto the heads and bodies of transcendentally smelly cyclists for $US6 a pop. Joe is the hygiene magnate of Iowa.
Growing up in Virginia, I thought I knew things about wide-open spaces and country sunshine. I didn’t. Imagine looking right and seeing bustling cornfields all the way to the horizon. Then you look left — the corn still looms. Keep looking a little longer and you’ll likely see a rider step out from behind rows of America’s number one agricultural product, having just urinated in between someone’s crops (a common RAGBRAI practice).
Lance Armstrong rides RAGBRAI regularly. He passed me at a former-pro-cyclist speed, between the towns of Sheldon and Melvin. As if we were former pals, I said out loud, “Lance?!” The guy next to me said the same thing, then took off to catch him.
You know what? He couldn’t.
The only time I was not having the time of my life was on day six. It’s not that it rained, but that the mighty waters of Poseidon fell from the sky. Despite loud but unspoken complaints, I and everyone buckled down for it: Rain jackets came out, legs moved in circles, and the weather was behind us after several hours of not-that-enjoyable riding.
I’d love to go all poetic and say that the rain only added to the experience. “Not only are you conquering an entire U.S. state on two wheels but you’re also fighting nature itself” or something. But this wasn’t the case. The rain sucked for a long time, then it ended. Spirits were hoisted right back to the rooftops when it did, however. Cheers broke out in the pack I was with when the sun finally shone again.
The ride concluded with a beautiful downhill that stretched for miles. With the Mississippi River on the left and the finish somewhere in front, we received the priceless reward of coasting effortlessly at 25 miles an hour to the end. Once you finish, there’s nothing to do but eat kettle corn and drink that life-giving elixir that goes by the name of Dr. Pepper.
As the tradition is to dip your rear wheel in the Missouri River on the ride’s first day, you should also dip your front wheel in the Mississippi on the last. This completes the symbolic river-to-river gesture that 12,000 to 15,000 people aim for every year.
As for me and my Brompton, we will keep doing RAGBRAI as many years as we can.
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