RAGBRAI news team
Wed, Jul 25, 2012 | by Brian SmithShare
ZEARING, Ia. — This is what RAGBRAI’s random, homespun social magic is all about, folks: On a whim I park my bicycle and knock on the door of a farm house on Wednesday’s route between McCallsburg and Zearing. I get welcomed into the (air-conditioned!) kitchen and end up meeting perhaps the funniest retired farmer in Iowa.
Or at least Dan Phelan has such a stockpile of jokes and one-liners that I could’ve remained there bantering with the 79-year-old, his wife, daughter and son-in-law the rest of the week as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa rolled on to Clinton.
The family’s kitchen table was like a comedy routine, and if Phelan replaced Jay Leno I might actually watch “The Tonight Show.”
Phelan moved to this farm in 1942, he said, as one of the first Irish Catholics plopped in the middle of a bunch of Norwegian Lutherans. He and his wife, Jean, now rent out their 280 acres and with this year have seen RAGBRAI roll past their door three times.
He doesn’t like to hold back. Washington politicians are “thieving crooks” (among other things I can’t print). Farmers’ rural cooperatives have become “just another noose around our neck.” There are two kinds of people: those with a sense of humor, and the others whom he can’t stand.
“I wonder how many enemies he’s going to make?” Jean shook her head with a big smile.
He won’t be around much longer, anyway, Phelan said; he’s been battling prostate cancer. If anybody wants to spit on his grave, fine.
This seems like a family that knows how to laugh through its troubles most of the time.
So much of RAGBRAI is consumed by the obvious — who’s the goofiest on a bike, who’s out in the yard waving, who’s selling Gatorade. But there are so many characters like Phelan whom we miss.
And his childhood in tiny Valeria, Ia. (north of Mitchellville), sort of typifies the ideal Iowa that RAGBRAI also strives to recreate — one with no strangers. Phelan’s family consumed the entire north side of town.
“I didn’t even know that you knocked on the door to get in the house,” he said, since the streets were lined with relatives.
Unlocked doors. No bike locks on RAGBRAI. All of us want to live in that world.
“You got enough paper for just one more joke?” Phelan offered.
So Phelan told his mortician in Zearing that he’s going to need a wider casket than originally planned.
Why, the mortician wondered?
“I’ve got to have two or three fire extinguishers where I’m going,” Iowa’s funniest retired farmer said.
Wednesday’s most obvious symbol of small-town selflessness might have been Lendall Mechaelsen. He manned the free water station in Kamrar, the first town out of Webster City. Whereas most of these stations on RAGBRAI feature multiple water streams constantly spraying from a PVC pipe, Mechaelsen was forced to yank an old-fashioned hydrant pump handle — up and down, bottle by bottle.
“I don’t mind helping out,” Mechaelsen said, “but I’ve got a few things I’ve got to get done.”
He was just being courteous: The simple option of leaving the pump open would create a muddy pond.
Downtown Jewell was a study in contrasts, from somber to silly.
In the middle of the business district I found myself among the green and white T-shirts of Team Ash — the second annual memorial RAGBRAI ride for Ashley Okland, the 27-year-old real estate agent who was gunned down inside a model home in April 2011. The murder remains unsolved, vexing her family and friends, including some 75 riders on this year’s RAGBRAI team.
Okland’s father, Tim, stood next to Becca Hendricks of Des Moines, who was riding the slain woman’s Cannondale bicycle. The family hasn’t a heard a new thing in the cold case, the grieving father said.
“Keep Ashley in all our minds and hope something comes up,” Tim said of his team’s goal this week.
It’s good to remember that many on RAGBRAI ride for far more than pie.
Speaking of the food, however, Iowa Sen. Rob Bacon from Maxwell stood in the middle of the bicyclists streaming by on foot to hawk bacon on a stick.
The Republican senator seemed to be having fun making all sorts of wild claims without fear of political reprisal.
“This is why you were born! So you can experience bacon!” he barked.
He even tailored his pitches to each RAGBRAI team.
“Team Kybo? Helps you get there quicker! Bacon on a stick!”
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t the stick superfluous considering bacon’s conveniently consumable shape? No. Everything makes sense on RAGBRAI, especially after full sun and headwinds.
Let me add an editorial complaint here that I’m sure has been filed by saddle-sore RAGBRAI scribes before me. In at least two spots (south of Ellsworth and west of Marshalltown) I noticed drink containers littering the side of the road after a water stop.
Here’s a plan: Any rider caught littering the road must complete a century loop that very day. Or have his/her pie wristband revoked.
I know there’s no such thing as a pie wristband, but I’m going to try to establish that, too. We need a way to ration them; they’re selling out too fast, before I straggle into town.
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