So, last summer I did my first organized bicycle tour: RAGBRAI. And, since the 2017 route was just announced this past weekend, I thought I’d share my own personal recount of this two-wheeled highlight.
First off, no, I didn’t just sneeze and press a bunch of keys all at once. It’s a real name.
RAGBRAI (pronounced Rag – Br – eye) is the largest organized bicycle ride in the United States. It attracts a horde of about 20,000 cyclists, unicyclists and even the occasional penny farthing-ist each year with the promise of cold craft beer, smoking hot BBQs at the top of each hill, live music in every town and a huffing 420 miles of open pavement. And it always happens during the last seven days of July.
My friends told me about this ride several years ago and have been campaigning for me to join them since the day they convinced me to pick up my first bike (back then a mint green beach cruiser). I knew it was only right to ride with them if and when I finally decided to do it. So, when I road-tripped across the US last summer, I made sure to plan my travels around the ride.
Where does this party-on-two-wheels happen, you ask? None other than the great state of Iowa.
Yes, there is a lot of corn. No, it’s not all flat – over 10,000 feet of climbing proved that. And yes, it’s very hot. So….why do it? Well, that’s harder to explain. If you love cycling and beer and you love meeting other people that love cycling and beer, you won’t find yourself in better company.
People fly, drive and pedal in from all across the United States. I met several fellow West Coasters, and one guy who – impressively – cycled from Portland on a bike he welded together himself. Respect. For many, it’s a team occasion, complete with a name, matching kits and a boom box precariously strapped to the back of their fearless leader’s rig. The route changes every year. But it always goes from the Missouri to the Mississippi Rivers.
After trekking across half the country for two and half weeks in my car, I met my friends in Nebraska and threw my gear in their truck for our ride to Iowa. We crashed with some family of friends and celebrated one last night in a comfy bed, opting to do the ceremonial tire dipping in the river Saturday night. On Sunday morning, we headed to town and pointed our handlebars East.
I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But I definitely wasn’t ready for naked water slides, live bands at 10 am, beer trucks parked in cornfields and the iconic pink Mr. Porkchop truck. It was so personified that it might as well have been its own character in any recount of the seven-day adventure I was now a part of. There was no official starting point and no race agendas. As my team – Team Failure to Plan – started gearing up on that first dewy morning, the air was electric and the energy was palpable. We checked tire pressure, stashed away our granola bars and were off….
“Wait!” a friend yelled. “You’ve never done this before….you need to be initiated. Where is the sharpie? Someone PUHLEASE tell me we brought a sharpie!”
A small commotion ensued while everyone dug through panniers before one of the guys revealed the prize. And that’s how the obligatory “RAGBRAI virgin” became haphazardly scribbled on the back of my calves; A telltale sign to any passing rider that this was, in fact, my first rodeo. And then we were actually off, with nothing but smooth highway and rolling cornfields as far as the eye could see.
At least at first.
“Over the next hill is…another hill”
The first night, we pitched our tents in a backyard sourced from Warm Showers. On day two, we awoke to blistering heat and hills that just didn’t quit. My resolve was being tested. Already. What was supposed to be an easy-peasy no-need-to-train ride already had my legs screaming after less than 100 miles.
I was beginning to regret banking off having general fitness to get me through this one.
Everyone else seemed to be having the time of their lives as they zoomed up the hills on their road bikes, but my steel frame seemed heavier than ever and squeaked along at its usual pace – slow. I made a mental note that Iowa was, in fact, as terrible as most people who aren’t from Iowa always thought. And was very seriously questioning the sanity of people who were already downing beers at 8 am in 90-degree weather with 300 miles in front of them.
But the bad mood dissipated quickly, and each day I woke up with a new vigor that wasn’t there the day before. The aches in my body faded and were replaced with a feeling that felt strangely similar to….happiness. The heat suddenly seemed bearable – thanks to afternoon naps. My legs sprang into action each morning. Pedaling became as easy as breathing.
And then I started to live the true RAGBRAI life: falling into stride with my six friends, blasting music, singing at the top of our lungs with what breath wasn’t used by pedaling, and eating second – and then third – breakfasts each morning. There seemed to be strategically placed and much-appreciated cold sprinklers, watermelon stands and food trucks all along the route. Each small town welcomed us with open arms. They happily threw a party for the cyclists as their populations ballooned to 20x normal size for one night a year in July.
It was the quintessential Midwestern hospitality…
…and it was easily my favorite memory from the year.
I was living and traveling with 20,000 kindred souls. We swapped stories, shared beers and exchanged gear tips.
For two days, I rode with the guy that was cycling across the US on a hand-made bicycle. As we rode along side-by-side, he shared his tips from the rode and let me peek into his frame bag – revealing alarmingly little. Another woman I met on the first day bumped into me several days later and we shared dinner, laughing about the same characters we’d happened upon along the route. I even reconnected with an old friend from college while giving high-fives at a rest stop one day.
Despite the odds and lack of cell service, you’ll always find the people you know at RAGBRAI.
Suddenly, a bike ride across a fly-over state that was just supposed to be a prep ride, became something completely different. It became about lifelong friendships. About reconnecting with friends I didn’t even know would be there and making new ones that I still talk to months later.
By the time I dipped my tires and tired legs in the Mississippi River on the following Saturday, my mood had gone full-spectrum. As our friend drove us back across the state – undoing a week’s worth of hard pedaling in just a couple hours – the memories and people of RAGBRAI already started feeling like a faraway past.
Did that all really happen? I laughed until I cried. I stayed out all night dancing with new friends. Then I woke up, pedaled 60 miles a day on limited sleep and forgot about everything but the present moment. But most importantly, it confirmed that on my bicycle was exactly the place I want to be most.
Who would have thought a bike ride across a fly-over state would do all that?
PS: If you want a sneak-peak at this year’s route, here’s the post I found on their site.