RAGBRAI XLII Countdown – July 20-26, 2014
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On the final day, collective magic along the route

FORT MADISON, Ia. There was a key moment on last week’s nearly 407-mile parade of two-wheeled corn-gawkers when I was reminded of the crucial magic of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Late Thursday afternoon I pedaled out of Pella after filing a column. The sun beat down, a headwind mocked me, and while nearly alone on the road I was ready to collapse and be scraped off the pavement — or perhaps festooned with shiny Mardi Gras beads by Team Road Kill.

But then half a dozen or so young riders with Team Haggard rolled up from behind, blaring LCD Soundsystem songs from a Bazooka bike stereo on a back fender while waving their hands in the air and chattering away.

I drafted them, was buoyed by my second wind and rolled on to Oskaloosa in the same fragrant jersey I had been wearing for three days straight.

Yes, it took a pair of journalists gutsy enough to propose this rural Woodstock on wheels. But the decision of at first hundreds and now tens of thousands of bicyclists (and Iowans along the route) to respond to their call and share the road is what makes it work.

It’s a collective magic.

When caught up in the camaraderie of a team or embroiled in a conversation from the bike seat, the miles fly by.

Similarly, every time I passed RAGBRAI runners Richard Kresser or Pete Kostelnick, or any member of the Adaptive Sports Iowa team that triumphs over missing limbs and other challenges, I was duly inspired.

Not that this was a year when moral support was a drastic necessity for most of the meandering, paunchy herd.

On the contrary, the refrain from RAGBRAI old-timers was that this 41st ride, the second-shortest route, may qualify as the easiest.

Steve Hexom, the radio DJ from Burlington who has reported from 34 RAGBRAIs, insisted that he “doesn’t even have a second to compare it to.”

RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz agreed that the week was “pretty easy due to temps and tailwinds.”

The week’s rainstorms doused more bands and campers than bikers.

Don Gonyea of National Public Radio, a RAGBRAI first-timer with his “No Pie Refused” trio, praised the ride as “an amazing community to be a part of. It kind of restores your faith.”

He also declared the peach pie in Bonaparte to be tops for the week. (His colleague Scott Horsley preferred his heavenly slice of peach in Neola.) Saturday was a fitting 63-mile finale.

The route was strewn with signs for cold beer, but the morning chill felt more like hot toddy weather before the sun cut above the barn rooftops.

I lost count of how many times we crossed the Des Moines River Friday, let alone last week; the Missouri and Mississippi rivers hog all the attention.

The brain becomes as sluggish as the legs by Day 7. Saturday morning east of Keosauqua I drafted a semi flatbed laden with big round hay bales and might have hallucinated that I was chasing a load of Shredded Wheat for Paul Bunyan.

Bunyan is Minnesotan, otherwise I’m sure I would have seen him on the ride along with the guy dressed as Batman. At this point the shocking RAGBRAI scheme is one that hasn’t been tried.

Where else does a wiffle ball bat fashioned into a drinking funnel qualify as valid biking gear?

Where else do you find Kristen Nordaker from Des Moines kissing her first pig (and last, she swears) in the middle of Van Buren County?

Where else does Frederic Hayden sell his mom’s homemade baklava at the end of his driveway north of Van Meter, wearing a rubber snake around his neck and calling himself Snake Boy?

Where else do you sit in a heap by a homemade sign that points the way to Spanky’s Bait & Tackle as four women pedal by discussing Woody Allen and Mia Farrow?

Where else does Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, stand in his sleeveless shirt and biking shorts in front of Team Livestrong in Hedrick and share about his younger brother’s battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and his 2-year-old nephew’s bout with liver cancer?

Where else does Zanne Newman from Champaign, Ill., discover a derelict phone on the ground, and the owner happens to be a fellow RAGBRAI rider that lives just 10 minutes from her?

Where else does the Lions Club in Neola feel pressured to bake 125 pies itself, because the last time RAGBRAI rolled through town, the Spandex-clad connoisseurs balked at purchased pies?

Within the last 10 miles of Saturday’s ride I had two conversations about Cycle Oregon, a steeper state trek dreamed up by an innkeeper and a newspaper columnist (this sounds familiar) and first run in 1988.

A woman from northern California who has ridden it pedaled alongside me toward Fort Madison and said that with just 2,000 riders, Oregon can’t compete with the RAGBRAI culture.

And the intense climbs tend to scare all but the diehards away.

“When you’re grinding uphill, there’s not a lot of time for woo-hoo and the wigs,” she said (as she passed me up a hill).

Not that RAGBRAI is all goofball antics and copious calories.

On the square Saturday in West Point, with the attention-grabbing “Mt. RAGBRAI” bicycle pile nearby, I found Vietnam veteran Roy Vieth from Verona, Wis., wandering among the 10 black granite slabs of the town’s war memorial on the corner.

“I just always stop and take a look,” explained the 66-year-old, on his seventh RAGBRAI.

“People just take so many things for granted,” he said and gestured at the stones.

Bikes get strewn just about everywhere on a town square during RAGBRAI, but not one touched the memorial.

Vieth snapped photos of the stones. We don’t realize what might leave an impression when the Technicolor circus from around the globe lingers in some of Iowa’s obscure corners.

The “woo-hoo and wigs” are just the obvious spectacles.

So this ride has been enshrined in a museum. It has wound its way through Iowa’s two largest cities in the last two years — Cedar Rapids last year and back to Des Moines this year for the first time since 1997.

RAGBRAI itself might qualify as among the 20 largest cities in Iowa on its fuller days.

Now what?

The next 40 years has begun, and Mike Van Meter is a face of that future. The 9-year-old from Delhi first crossed the state on RAGBRAI at age 3 in 2007 in a trailer pulled by his dad, Clarke.

This year, after 600 training miles, Mike pedaled his way under his own power on his Specialized hybrid.

Aside from his son’s ice cream-induced cramp on Monday, the week was “totally painless, really,” Clarke said from Saturday’s dip site. “He’s ready to go play.”

Mike, meanwhile, admitted that his first full RAGBRAI was hot, miserable and hard. Not that that deters him.

“Yeah, I want to do it every year,” he said. It’s fun to be “eating pie and ice cream and seeing all the people.”

All the people: Van Meter looks to be part of that RAGBRAI critical mass and collective magic for the future.

For all the woo-hoo and wigs to come.

8 Responses on “On the final day, collective magic along the route

Greg Borchert

July 29, 2013 at 12:28 pm

This was my 4th consecutive Ragbrai, and they just keep getting better. I ride a lot, do harder rides like Ride the Rockies as well as other multi-day rides throughout the year, so except for the century on Monday it was a pretty easy ride for me.
That having been said, there’s nothing I’ve done on a bike anywhere that measures up to Ragbrai. I thought a lot about why that is, and for me it’s that for a week I get to be a little boy again. I get to ride my bike, sleep outside, eat whatever I want whenever I want, and hang out with friends – just doing whatever we want to do in the moment. The festival atmosphere adds a dimension of constant celebration, and the people of Iowa make it varied, down home, safe and fun! It’s like being ten years old again, except maybe even better!

Linda Harding

July 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm

Thank you for coming to Keaosauqua and please come back again! Doug, Linda & Roberta

Tom H.

July 29, 2013 at 4:43 pm

This was my 6th and best experience… Of course, I say that every year. It was hard to leave West Point…. we had a dancing (and singing) banana, great activites around the town square and the realization that once we got to the river it would all end. No more ice cream at 8:30 AM, beer at noon, and slip and slides… I don’t think any state except Iowa can pull this off. Thanks RAGBRAI!

Eric M

August 1, 2013 at 3:01 pm

I’m a native Iowan and I returned from Denver, CO to ride my first RAGBRAI this year. I cried for joy nearly every day from pride for my home state. Glorious! I had no idea it was so much fun. I agree with the previous comment, only Iowa can pull it off! It was way more than just a bike ride to me–a celebration of people, community, hospitality, and general wackiness. Thank-you!

Avatar of Linda Brooks

Linda Brooks

August 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm

This was truly a memorable experience. It is the people, both riders and the people on the route that make this what it is … and I will be back many many many times (my butt may never forgive me). I was born and raised in Iowa, and my family hosted riders once in Spencer (a night that had some pretty wicked storms if I remember correctly) – so I’d had the bug for many years – now I just wish I hadn’t waited so long to jump in the craziness!

T. Gap Woo

September 17, 2013 at 10:12 am

“Collective magic” barely scratches the surface! RAGBRAI 41, my first of hopefully many more, was an absolutely outstanding experience. It is hard to number the highlights of the experience, since there are so many to recount: from the heart-bursting swell of pride riding past the American Flags on the downhill into Van Meter to the retired school food service director in Pella who invited my wife and me to her home for tea and S-cookies; to the wonderful Iowans who opened up their hoses and shady yards to the spectators on the roadsides cheering us on; and from the senior citizens sitting on the front lawns of their nursing homes to the little kids high-fiving us. As I told many people along the route, “If you ever visit Pennsylvania, I hope the people you meet treat you as well as we have been treated here in Iowa.” Except for the trucker for Casey’s General Store, who flipped the bird to us as he crawled through traffic, I never encountered that “chip on the shoulder attitude” popularized in Meredith Willlson’s The Music Man. I can’t wait until RAGBRAI 42 and am already mulling over my “Guess the Route” entry.

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