. . . and Other Lessons on Corn, Kickstands and the American Way Learned From the Seat of a Bicycle on a Cross-State Ride
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 25, 2002; Page E01
Those who think Iowa is as flat as a corn tortilla have never biked the steep inclines from Anamosa to Bellevue, in the state's eastern region. Nor have they pedaled the drawn-out hill just outside of Cherokee, in western Iowa. Or huffed and puffed up . . . shall I go on?
Before I embarked on RAGBRAI, the party-train bike ride across Iowa held each July, everyone from my mother to my bike mechanic told me that the state was vertically challenged and that I wouldn't have to change gears. They must have been thinking of Kansas, because seven days and almost 500 miles later, I can say with conviction: Iowa is bumpy, lumpy and just one altitude shy of being Colorado.
But that's just the point of the annual event: to learn something new about the home of the Hawkeyes, which even locals refer to as the "Fly-By State."
With low registration fees (the Iowa tour is $100) and plotted routes that wend through small communities and past historic sites, cross-state bike events nationwide are attracting two-wheelin' tourists of all ages and endurance levels -- though some, like Cycle Vermont, require Ironman quads. But none has the sheer numbers, or longevity, of RAGBRAI.
The Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa sprung from a challenge made 30 years ago by two journalists. The dare was to bike across the state, west to east, as a means to reconnect with tiny-town U.S.A. The writer-riders then invited other Iowans to tag along; 300 pedalers showed up, with nary a hotel reservation among them.
It has since blossomed into, as one Des Moines resident put it, the "second-biggest event after the presidential caucus." This year, 8,500 registered riders inched across the state, from Sioux Center (where they dipped their back tire in the Big Sioux River) to Bellevue (where they soaked their front tire in the Mississippi). An additional 1,500 applied for one-day passes, while an unknown number of renegades just jumped into the pack, easily blending into the helmeted, Lycra-clad masses.
Every state was represented, with nearly half of the participants from the Hawkeye State, and the riders formed a weird mishmash of America's workforce, from the first lady of Iowa to hog farmers. We followed a meticulously plotted route noting terrain gradations, mileage marks and stopover towns -- which invariably dolled up their downtowns with colorful balloons and streamers, bands, food vendors and roadside greeters, such as the Orange City women dressed in clown-size wooden clogs who served Dutch delicacies to the sweaty hordes.
"This is the gran'daddy of rides. Anything goes," said Gary Gard, a 46-year-old jeweler from Chicago. "People will sleep in ditches or a doorway, take a shower from some lady's garden hose or go to the bathroom in the cornfield."
Thankfully, the corn is head-high in July.
Riding the Right Way
"Tomorrow, you are going to go out and have fun," commanded Sharon Cashman, mother of four and a co-leader of Overland Touring.
I traveled with 34 couples, families and friends I met through Overland, a two-van bike-tour company that hauled our luggage and tracked down more-secluded campsites (often on locals' lawns). By comparison, the thousands who relied on RAGBRAI's services had their bags carried -- and dumped -- by a giant truck, slept at ant-colony-like campgrounds and waited as long as 45 minutes for a cold shower in a public facility.
Since I was a "virgin" rider, I didn't want to get trampled by the multitudes, nor did I care to wear cork-size earplugs to bed (to mute the sound of thunderous snores). And I was banking on getting pointers from the many veterans in my group.
On the first morning, however, I awoke in my tent in a stranger's yard -- only to see back tires pulling out of the campsite. No one was lingering over coffee, doling out last-minute tips. I was alone -- or at least as alone as you can be amid a mob.
I rode fast, with few stops, as if I were dashing to an appointment. Having packed up my gear at dawn, I was in the first pass-through town before the "Today" show had even wrapped up. I stopped briefly for a water refill and bathroom break, then zipped along to my final destination -- 54 1/2 miles from my now-abandoned campsite. Even with a small malfunction (a knotted, droopy chain that was graciously fixed by a resident), I still managed to land in Cherokee by tea time. Now what?
I quickly understood my folly. If you get in too fast, you'll miss the roadside attractions -- like Mr. Pork Chop, who's been selling slabs of meat from his pink truck for almost 20 years, and Chickenman, a skirt-wearing hooligan who hydrates riders with free beer tapped from his Barmobile. Along the barely trafficked roads, food stands spring up beside fields of crops, hawking sweet corn and Red Bull. Locals construct makeshift water slides in their yards for belly-sledding, while farmers invite riders to come pet their pigs and then eat, conveniently enough, pork sandwiches. Even the state cops, armed with Super Soakers, are playful.
"It takes 2 1/2 days for new riders to figure out RAGBRAI," said Dave Harrenstein, another co-leader and a 20-year ride veteran.
I learned in less than 24 hours.
Party on Wheels
RAGBRAI has multiple personalities. It's a family ride, and a sporting adventure, and a giant Taste of Iowa, with a built-in calorie burner. It also answers to "Woodstock on Wheels" and "Eat Your Way Across Iowa." But the most fitting sobriquet I heard was "Mardi Gras on Wheels."
Depending on your frame of mind, the ride can be meditative or highly social. For long stretches, I would pedal along silently, lulled by the swaying corn stalks. But then a shooting arrow of riders would whiz by, or a group of goofballs wearing cans of Spam on their helmets would pass, snapping me out of my reverie.
I met Team Lizard on Day 2 as I was chugging up a hill, energy waning. The pack of friends from southeast Iowa were wearing shocking pink tank tops with a lizard logo and loops of Mardi Gras beads. But what really made them shout for attention was the 60-pound wooden box that one hearty rider, Doug, was lugging behind him. Inside was a stereo and two blaring speakers that could knock a cow off its feet.
"Man, what bet did you lose?" a rider asked Doug as he sped by.
Team Lizard and I palled around from town to town as we ticked off the miles. I played "Name the Barnyard Stench" with the young farmers. As we passed silos and barns, they'd sniff the air and guess the livestock: hogs, cows or chickens (it all smelled like dirty diapers to my urban nose). At times, we would discuss farm subsidies, or renewable energy sources, or Britney and Justin's breakup.
But then we'd hit a town -- and it was social hour. Communities whose populations barely break four digits would be invaded by a Cirque de Soleil of freaks in padded spandex.
Many riders travel as teams, and the sillier, the better. There was Team Tutu (guys wearing tutus on their heads) and Team Daeryl (everyone is named Daeryl, and there is no consensus on the correct spelling). A woman who biked with a red-helmeted Scottish terrier in a basket would walk her dog.
In beer gardens set up for riders, beverages came in only one size: X-Large. As the day wore on, girls would start dancing on tops of buses, and sometimes shirts would be tossed into the wind. Guys' shorts would work their way down as they slid ungracefully on water slides.
And me? While I'm not one to refuse a hose-down or a frosty beer -- hydration is essential -- there's only so much keg-fueled Baccanalia one can take in an afternoon. Plus, I had 13 more miles to go before the next round of cocktails.
Singin' in the Corn
On the van ride from the airport, I quizzed Harrenstein about some of the state's top tourist sights and whether they were along our bike route. The aluminum Virgin Mary in Sioux City? No, 40 minutes away. Riverside, the future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk? Nope, too far south. The Field of Dreams, the coffee-pot-shaped water tower (a homage to Mrs. Olson)? Buddy Holly's crash site? No, no, outta luck. Was I destined to see only soybean fields and paint-chipped barns?
Not in the least.
In Cherokee, the local symphony performed before a packed house. Concertgoers were crammed into the high school auditorium, squatting on the floor, resting on their backs, propping their tired legs on the stage.
The maestro -- dressed, like the audience, in biking attire -- presented a roster of songs that touched upon the week's major themes: patriotism, freedom, bicycles and, of course, corn.
"We're from I-O-way, I-O-way. . . . That's where the tall corn grows," we sang, raising our arms high and shaking them like corn stalks in a tornado.
Iowa's theme song is quite charming, in a round-the-campfire way, and almost as catchy as the state's runner-up tune: "The Church in the Wildwood." The chapel of note, with its brown-paper-bag exterior, sat along the bike route in Nashua, across the street from a stand of toilets. A popular spot, indeed.
The church was beckoning riders to enter, and leaving my bike along the road, I took a seat in a front-row pew. A tour guide in an ankle-length prairie skirt stood at the altar and recounted the church's history, which involved a music teacher named William Pitt who fell for a woman, and then for this romantic, leafy setting. After much planning, and a delay caused by the Civil War, the Little Brown Church was completed in 1864.
Since then, nearly 71,000 couples have said "I do" here, while countless others have renewed their vows -- including dozens of RAGBRAI couples who have stood before the simple altar, biking glove in biking glove, their cheeks flushed from love and a stinging head wind.
The ceremony closed with an organ-accompanied rendition of the eponymous song. Using a cheat sheet, I sang along with the congregation -- and continued humming it for the next several miles.
Pass on the Pork
Just as famous, or at least as revered, as the Little Brown Church, is Team Gourmet, an icon among RAGBRAIers.
Riders speak in awe of Team Gourmet, wanting to know who its members are, where they are staying, what they are dining on. Rumors flourish: They eat off china and drink from crystal. Chandeliers are strung from the trees. The white-linen table is softly lit by candelabra and the opalescent moon above. Biking shorts are banned.
The truth: They eat off paper plates and sit on the grass. They are assigned kitchen duty. And they often don't shower before dinner.
But while their style is more family picnic, their epicurean palate is pure three-star Michelin.
The Chicago-based group travels with three chefs, two assistants and a pair of massage therapists; a truck kitted out like a culinary institute's test kitchen; and a freezer full of ingredients impossible to find in landlocked Iowa, such as squid and alligator.
My first Team G sighting was during breakfast on Day 2, as I was waiting in line for a Twinkie-size breakfast burrito. (Gourmands dine well only at dinner; they eat all other meals at the roadside troughs.) With their blue biking jerseys imprinted with the week's menu on the front, they stand out in a crowded cafeteria.
I rushed up to a Team Gourmet trio and tried hard to look them in the eye but couldn't help staring at their chests: balsamic and Dijon-glazed ham with roasted pearl onions, baby carrots and asparagus with maple butter, turtle cheesecake. This was high-on-the-hog dining, hold the pork loin.
Team Gourmet sets up dinner in its homestay families' yards, or inside if it's drizzly. The guest list includes member riders, the chefs, their hosts and their lucky friends and neighbors -- plus the occasional wild-card diner.
And who are these enviable sorts? Perhaps a stranger in a bike helmet who helped a member change a tire or bandage a scraped knee. Who are personae non gratae? Craven brown-nosers who lay on lame platitudes thicker than wedding-cake frosting.
And so at the hour when most early-bird diners were gorging on all-you-can-eat potatoes, I was holding hands with my fellow gourmands, saying grace for the safety of the riders, the cool weather and the food we were about to eat.
As for my own personal prayer, it went something like this: Thank you Oh Great God of Gastronomy for saving me from another night of slippery spaghetti and anemic red sauce. Amen.
An Awakening in Iowa
Veteran riders say RAGBRAI has life-altering powers, like a lightning bolt that rejiggers your atoms. It sounded like a lot of "Cycling for the Soul" blather to me. But I quickly came around.
As I crossed Iowa, I heard countless testimonials from companion riders. There was Joe from Connecticut, who, jazzed by the physical challenge, lost 100 pounds! And Naomi from Nebraska, who decided to quit her job and move to Colorado! Dave of Iowa reevaluated his friendships -- especially those who ditched him on the hills.
My epiphanies weren't so life-changing: When I dipped my tire into the muddy Mississippi, I did get misty-eyed, having accomplished one of my biggest challenges to date. And while I learned a lot about my own physical and mental thresholds, and how high they can rise, one of the biggest revelations was that . . . no, Iowa is not flat.
It's definitely hilly, and I couldn't wait to tell all those naysayers how very wrong they were.