RAGBRAI news team
Sat, Jul 28, 2012 | by Kyle MunsonShare
CLINTON, Ia. – Steve Esmachen swung himself off his bicycle Saturday morning and dipped his tires in the Mississippi River — the ritual end to what is variously described as a zany rural circus or a mystifying form of self-punishment for which people squander good money and summer vacation.
But even after pedaling 471 miles last week on his inaugural Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, Esmachen wasn’t sick of life on two wheels.
The lithe 58-year-old from Crownsville, Md., is among the die-hards who have formed the low-to-the-wind backbone of RAGBRAI culture for 40 annual treks.
“It would take a stick of dynamite to get me off this thing,” he said of his bicycle.
Not that RAGBRAI was easy for him, whether in terms of travel logistics or oppressive weather. His younger bicycling buddy, also from Maryland, Dan Fulk, 38, summed it up in two words: “Wind and heat, that’s what I’ll remember.”
But when we RAGBRAI riders stop complaining, a more meaningful consensus surfaces.
“It just felt like Americana at its best,” Esmachen said.
That sentiment is reiterated daily on each year’s ride.
“It gives you the feeling like every time you go into a town it’s the Fourth of July,” was how Rob Schurz from Poquoson, Va., described it Thursday as he squatted on a straw bale in front of a bar in Garwin with a Bloody Mary in his hand.
RAGBRAI evokes not just the Fourth of July but nearly every major holiday, considering both a haunted house and Santa Claus appeared along this year’s route.
The two events that tend to dominate Iowa’s summer calendar, RAGBRAI and the Iowa State Fair, showcase our old-school Americana to the rest of the world.
The State Fair rallies us in the name of agriculture as we cram everybody onto the same 445 acres. But RAGBRAI goes a step beyond by convincing riders to go out of their way to roll down Iowans’ Main Streets and step inside their living rooms.
It’s one thing to ponder what it means to be neighborly on the clanging, Vegas-loud approximation of Iowa that is the State Fair’s Grand Concourse. It’s another to meet rural Iowans on their home turf.
Steve Peters, a roofing contractor from Pleasant Hill, Calif., has watched San Francisco’s East Bay Area boom around him since childhood. He stood in a Wendy’s restaurant near the Clinton dip site Saturday and got philosophical with a few strangers about why he rode his first RAGBRAI this year.
In part he wanted to recapture the small-town vibe he enjoyed as a kid, before his hometown grew too big, too fast for his liking.
The time warp he sought came in fleeting moments last week — moments as simple as purchasing a granola bar from a 7-year-old girl’s roadside stand.
The RAGBRAI setting reminds him of “the American identity thing,” Peters said. And that identity tends to get lost in urban sprawl. It can be heartbreaking to him.
It’s also a bit ironic that riders from cities around the globe flock here pining for that sense of community, in towns where businesses and population continue to seep away the rest of the year without RAGBRAI.
Bicycles once were the dominant means of delivering newspapers as paperboys circulated through these streets. Now a bicycle ride dreamed up by newspapermen is one of the only events that reliably, annually delivers tourists to the remotest corners of rural Iowa.
RAGBRAI riders cherish simple gestures. For instance, 28 kindergarten to sixth-grade children from Kids Club day care lined the street in Story City and greeted riders with cheers and a procession of high-fives — with the last kid in line evaluating the sweatiness of each bicyclist’s palm.
“We tried describing (RAGBRAI) to them, and it kind of goes over their heads,” said instructor Heather Klein of Ames. “Now it makes sense to them.”
It’s true that understanding RAGBRAI, no matter the age, is best accomplished by diving in.
That’s why for these first two years of riding RAGBRAI, I’ve bunked in Iowans’ homes in each overnight town. It’s the perfect chance for an up-close view of these communities, and their hospitality is humbling.
It’s a perennial problem for the Register: We never can express enough thanks for the extraordinary efforts of the overnight towns, let alone the rest of the Iowans who help along the route.
For instance, I received no fewer than three pickup-truck rides from friendly locals when I was bicycling the route and needed a fast hitch-hike to town to meet deadline. In each case, the first guy I talked to obliged.
On my second annual RAGBRAI, I juggled writing deadlines with riding miles and managed about 70 percent of the route — more than last year’s 50-percent mileage mark.
This was despite the collapse of my lower back Friday morning as I gritted my teeth and heaved myself back on the bike. But RAGBRAI doesn’t cater to self-pity.
Not when you’re sharing the road with inspiring riders who cope with all manner of disabilities — cerebral palsy, blindness, amputations, etc. Or who ride the route on a unicycle.
Or when the first-time riders on my own Team Sauerkraut, supported by our unflappable driver, Bill, clocked all the miles.
Or when you meet Scott Mills at the dip site. The 41-year-old Des Moines man, pictured on the cover of this year’s RAGBRAI program alongside buddy Steve Buser from Ames, took two days off this week’s ride for chemotherapy. He was diagnosed in May with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but was back on his bike to finish the ride.
He feels great. “I’m not sure why that is,” he shrugged. “I’m supposed to be getting sick and losing my hair.”
Mills even donned a cape and crown and jokingly dubbed himself “King of RAGBRAI” this week. I think he’s earned the title.
“Glad it’s over?” a fellow weary biker asked with a commiserating smile as I hobbled away from the dip site Saturday.
“Me, too,” he said.
I expect to walk normally again later this week.
The memory of pain should fade by next summer, in time for RAGBRAI’s Americana time capsule.
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