You mentioned many of the attractions of RAGBRAI: food, beer, challenge, outdoors for a summer week, but I don’t think these listed items get to the heart of the REASON someone does their first RAGBRAI. And then there is the apparent madness (for those who have never ridden RAGBRAI) of someone who would go back and do this mad week in the corn again (and again and again). Why do all these goof balls return to Iowa every July like the Sandhill Cranes to Nebraska or the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano to the Mission every March?
I think you have to separate the first RAGBRAI from the returning rider. And age probably is another important factor in the reason. I used to live in Omaha in my 20s-30s. I knew folks who did RAGBRAI, and I would dismiss them as idiots: Why would I want to waste a week of my life riding through cornfields in Iowa? Moronic.
Four years ago, in my 50s now, my knees and ankles not appreciating the 5K run abuse anymore as I fought the middle age flab and sag, and having become a fan of the Tour de France, I was inspired to go out and drop a grand on a decent bike to get in some non-impact exercise. I realized I needed a tangible goal in order to push myself to ride regularly, and that “losing weight” or “getting fit” was too vague a goal to keep me motivated. My parents, who live in Des Moines (I was born in Waterloo back in the Eisenhower Era) suggested I do RAGBRAI. That was in July of 2013. So I focused on 2014. I was going to go alone or with friends, but I was going to go. Luckily, a couple of other dear friends saw the beautiful madness of RAGBRAI and we flew in from FL and NM. First two days I wondered what the hell I was doing, as I had a shaky knee (corrected by raising my saddle 1/2″) and hadn’t yet tasted the pie (I was still consuming Energy Bars like I was in training – luckily I learned!). Then we had a stop at the Surf Ballroom on a 40 mile day. We had a couple of adult beverages, I stood on the stage where Buddy Holly once stood, and I fell in love with RAGBRAI.
So the first year for many I think is the challenge, a goal, a mad whim.
Why do they (I) return?
This is the trickier answer I think, as RAGBRAI is whatever you make of it. I can only speak for myself. I plan to make every one of them at least up to the 50th, when I will be 62 and hopefully retired. I missed 2015 due to my ankle injury, but my teammates rode with a new teammate. I sat on my couch under the influence of percoset and morphine and shed tears of sadness and joy when my teammates sent photos from the Corn toasting me with a morning Bloody Mary or an after ride scotch and a cigar. After a year of PT and hardcore training I returned for 2016, again really as a challenge, a goal, a “dammit I’m back!” ride from the depths of injury and depression. I shed tears when I dipped my bike tires in the Mississippi last July, thinking of all those people (especially my dear wife) who helped me on my recovery back to health.
Now 2017, this will be my third, and I will be riding with two new teammates, the original two unavailable this year, and I can’t wait to ride with my new teammates. In addition, this year’s RAGBRAI has a different identity for me. It is what makes my 40 hour work weeks seem insignificant, and my life more joyous. I know, sitting in a boring meeting about logistics or workflow that in July (maybe only 225 days, or 143 or 65), I will be back in the Corn. RAGBRAI for me, a happily married guy, is a safe “mistress” to daydream about. It is the months of training rides, it is conversations with friends planning and reminiscing every time we get together here in FL. It is the sense of accomplishing a rather impressive physical feat even though I’m an old fart (sniff sniff…where did the years go?!). I’m not going to climb Everest, not going to break any world records, but riding across Iowa is pretty darn cool, crazy and fun to talk to others about. I talk about RAGBRAI like a newly born again Christian! “Do you know RAGBRAI? It will change your life!”
My wife does not understand in any way what is so attractive about riding a bike for 60+ miles for seven days, sleeping in a steamy tent for seven nights, standing in line for a shower, or KYBO-hovering for eight days! I gave up trying to explain. She does know when I return from Iowa I am in the greatest mood and on a cloud for weeks and weeks, so she grudgingly appreciates RAGBRAI.
Now RAGBRAI is a magical list:
All the wonderful street food, Iowa craft beer, Bloody Marys, vodka lemonades, water from the fire hydrant/PVC rigs, pie, ice cream, chatting it up with all the locals in their bars, businesses, stands, volunteer fir department beer gardens, church ladies, Amish, the children who cheer you and high five you when you come into town, the cheerleaders and high school bands, the local garage bands, chatting with other riders- on the road and in camp, a few laughs at the different rigs and outfits of fellow riders, arriving in camp after a long sweaty or rainy day, that hot shower, that cold camp beer(s), hanging with you team after the ride sharing stories, a wonderful or crappy night of sleep, getting the bike ready in the morning with the anxious 6am energy. Man, I get excited just writing this list.
RAGBRAI for me is just so different from the rest of my life. Perhaps it is that, a bit of a cleansing of mind and spirit. A Control-Alt-Delete reboot of your life’s RAM, and hopefully not your harddrive!