Tuesday was a day to remember
Bicycling was so popular Tuesday in Iowa that the helmeted two-wheeled zealots were forced to stop and walk the most claustrophobic segments of a blissfully flat, overcast 50-mile jaunt from Perry to Des Moines, where RAGBRAI hadn’t rolled in 16 years.
The official count of bicyclists was almost 24,000, but those who have for years tracked numbers during the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa estimated that, over the course of the day, there could have been thousands more.
RAGBRAI’s third day benefited from what one rider from the Northwest praised as familiar “Seattle weather.”
But a cool climate was far from the only factor in the ride’s favor for what may have rated our state’s top day of mass bicycling — sort of a secular-pilgrimage equivalent of the Pope’s 1979 visit to Living History Farms.
Since the last Des Moines overnight stop in 1997, downtown has boomed with brewpubs, boutiques and festivals. Entire districts have blossomed in formerly vacant industrial space. And a network of rail lines-turned-bike trails has spread into the countryside like so many veins and arteries to feed the heart of the city.
The Iowa State Patrol counted 23,845 cyclists leaving Minburn. But Doug Cutts, the trooper who stands at RAGBRAI intersections and tallies bike traffic with his clicker, estimated that hundreds more riders lingered in Minburn and weren’t counted. And another 2,000 or so could have joined in Dallas Center.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz said that by his estimate Tuesday topped the throng of 32,000 counted in 2010 in Altoona. He’s confident that upwards of 35,000 bicyclists streamed through central Iowa Tuesday.
“I’ve never seen a crowd bigger than it was today,” Juskiewicz said.
The view from the bike seat seemed to support the generous estimates. Ray Bennett of North Liberty, on his 27th RAGRAI as part of Krewe Bubba Clyde, relished sweating alongside his fellow Iowans as a concerned employee of the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. But as a veteran bicyclist he acknowledged that Tuesday offered stop-and-go pedaling.
“I’m trying to think of a polite way to describe it,” he said with a furrowed brow. “The route is pretty bloated — a lot of day-trippers.”
RAGBRAI registers 8,500 weeklong riders and 1,500 day-pass riders to help keep the highways safe and manageable. But of course a good idea breeds hangers-on who lack the official pink plastic wristbands.
David “Stoney” Stone’s Booneville Bar served as the last party oasis of the day before West Des Moines and the metro area proper. He thought 3,000 pounds of ice would be plenty but was left with only 600pounds by 1 p.m.
“And it’s not even hot out!” he marveled.
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie reportedly began the day in Booneville as the RAGBRAI DJ’s first dancer at 7:30a.m.
Of course, Lance Armstrong wrapped his third and final day of “Tour de Iowa” on Tuesday.
Gov. Terry Branstad also joined what he termed our “colorful spectacle” at 7 a.m. in downtown Perry.
He and his gaggle of fellow riders organized by the Iowa Economic Development Authority, or IEDA, shaved a few miles off their day by sampling the popular Raccoon River Valley Trail for a glide straight to Minburn, where they joined the official RAGBRAI route.
Branstad, 66, rode a full week of RAGBRAI in 1988. He admitted that he’s not much of a bicyclist these days, with his own bike tucked away deep in storage. So Tuesday he steered a red Trek hybrid loaner.
Branstad, continually pushing his Healthiest State Initiative, huffed up and down hills for a total of four-and-a-half hours and logged about 28 miles from Perry to Van Meter.
RAGBRAI’s Juskiewicz gives him credit for it: “To see the governor practice what he preaches is just a great thing for all Iowans.”
Branstad even chose to walk up an extra hill when he visited the Iowa Veterans Cemetery outside of Van Meter; retired Col. Robert King, the new executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, pedaled among the governor’s group. King is a paragon of health: a Team Grind Kings stalwart on his 23rd RAGBRAI — “every mile, every hill.”
Another notable: Gary Slater, the Iowa State Fair’s CEO, rode his first day complete with “Follow me to the Iowa State Fair” emblazoned on the back of his T-shirt. Today’s route that leads out of Des Moines, on the way to Knoxville, snakes down the fair’s Grand Concourse. It’s official: Iowa’s two summer mega-events have merged.
“This is kind of reminiscent of the concourse,” King mused as he surveyed downtown Dallas Center.
It was amid the mad press of Dallas Center, in the vicinity of the cow and chicken bingo, when 18-time RAGBRAI rider Bill Hamilton pushed his bike alongside Branstad and Michael Gould, an IEDA project manager. Hamilton remarked to Gould while gesturing at the governor, “Don’t let him go too fast!”
“I knew that joke wasn’t going to come out!” Gould shot back with a sarcastic grin.
For all of you out-of-state or international RAGBRAI readers, the dustup du jour for Branstad revolves around the firing of a criminal investigation agent who complained of speeding by the governor’s official vehicle, including a “hard 90” along U.S. Highway 20 in April.
But I can verify that Tuesday’s pace was slow and steady, with frequent downhill braking. My mere presence brought up the speed-scandal as a topic while riding the trail.
“You don’t have to worry about any bad press,” Jason Boten said as he clocked our group pedaling a hard 12 miles per hour on the flat straightaway — with the occasional burst of speed to 13.
Boten is a graphic designer with IEDA, but more importantly, an affable bear of a bearded man who referred to himself Tuesday as a Sasquatch. He’s the sort of rabid bicyclist who packs all his camping gear on his bike and has refused all IEDA hotels and homestays this week in favor of his beloved tent. He’s also singer-guitarist in the local band Nest of Snakes and designed the green and white IEDA jerseys.
Only on RAGBRAI do you meet so many of these characters in one spot. And only on RAGBRAI could you end up biking with Branstad on your right while a 61-year-old man named DeVar Dahl from Alberta, Canada, pulls up on your left and waxes eloquent about the contours of the rolling Iowa landscape and swears that if he didn’t live in Canada he would move to Iowa. (One nitpick: A side of applesauce should be more commonly served with our scrumptious pork chops.)
This week on the road I’ve been reminded of RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras’ reaction last week at the opening of the “Riding Through History” bicycling exhibit at the State Historical Museum. Yes, he seemed honored and humbled and moved and all that. But he also stood in the middle of his idiosyncrasies-turned-hallowed institution and marveled, “It’s just weird.”
And so Iowa’s wacky, winding ride has led to moments like this: The governor and his group lingered Tuesday beneath the Cozy Cafe tent next to the Casey’s convenience store on the edge of Van Meter — a quintessential summer RAGBRAI setting. The governor sipped a sweet tea, munched on a sandwich and spun stories that began with the requisite mention of Van Meter native and Baseball Hall of Famer Bob Feller and meandered to John Grisham’s baseball fiction and the Chicago Cubs’ (most recent) 1908 World Series win.
For one afternoon lunch amid the Seattle weather in small-town Iowa, Branstad was just one among 35,000 (or however many) members of the RAGBRAI faithful, retelling some of his favorite stories along the trail.