What do we make of a summer without RAGBRAI?
- 17 July, 2020
- Des Moines Register
By Michael Morain
Whenever you revisit a small town that you first saw during RAGBRAI, it can seem empty. Quiet. Even a little strange.
On the corner where you once devoured a pulled pork sandwich or danced in a mob with 10,000 of your closest friends, there is now only birdsong and a breeze.
These days, the whole world seems like that. A little weird. A little off.
And this weekend, in particular, our instincts as Iowans tell us we should head west to the Missouri River for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Riders feel the tug as surely as the swallows that flock to San Juan Capistrano (they still did) and bulls that stampede Pamplona (they did not).
Rickety old school buses held together with paint should be clogging Interstate Highway 80 right about now. Locals in the Loess Hills should be bracing for the onslaught, counting and re-counting hamburger buns, gazing skyward and worrying about the weather.
On Facebook, the rest of the world should be quietly blocking the accounts of their cyclist friends to avoid the annual crush of bike photos. (Maybe you’ve heard this one: How can you tell if someone has ridden RAGBRAI? They’ll tell you all about it.)
But not this year. In fact, if there weren’t all those photos from previous rides, you might wonder if the whole thing was a dream, like Brigadoon or a certain “university” on the shores of Okoboji. Or maybe it was a hoax, like the Cardiff Giant, carved from a chunk of Fort Dodge gypsum.
But maybe RAGBRAI’s improbability is part of its appeal.
People don’t believe it until they see it for themselves. Until they pedal to the crest of a hill and behold the swarm of humanity invading the town ahead. Until they nap in a park. Until they wait an hour for a port-a-potty, a shower, a scoop of ice cream — or any other basic human need.
And then they’re hooked. They vow to return. They turn into Spandex-clad zealots and recruit all their friends to join, too.
So when it’s canceled, we don’t know quite what to do.
When there was all that chatter last fall about the upstart Iowa’s Ride, an alternative adventure, Mike Draper, the oracle of Raygun, wisely identified RAGBRAI as one of Iowa’s four statewide pillars, with the caucuses, the Cy-Hawk football game and the State Fair.
This year we’ve watched those pillars wobble or fall, one by one. The caucuses turned into a debacle. The football game: canceled. The fair: called off for the first time since World War II.
So what’s still holding Iowa up? What’s holding us together?
A lot, actually.
You can still ride your bike. Many RAGBRAI teams, including my own Team Yellowjacket from Graceland University, are riding together virtually this week and sharing photos from wherever we happen to be.
You can still find a bunch of roadside attractions. There’s even an app for that, called Iowa Culture, which maps more than 3,500 landmarks across all 99 counties.
You can still visit the award-winning “Riding Through History” exhibit at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, which reopened a few weeks ago (with a few extra health-and-safety protocols).
And you can still talk about RAGBRAI, which for riders, at least, is part of the fun.
The historical museum has invited Iowans to donate artifacts — physical or digital — that chronicle how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected life in Iowa, including RAGBRAI. I’m not sure what virtual souvenirs will emerge from a virtual ride, but bike people are nothing if not creative.
And just as RAGBRAI riders will one day recall the ride that was canceled, the rest of Iowa will swap stories about 2020 the way we talk about the pope’s visit in 1979 or the floods of ’93.
Remember when they canceled the fair and we fried Oreos at home? Remember when they called off the game and we just stared at an empty lawn? Remember when we pedaled 450 miles on a stationary bike in the garage and camped in the back yard?
Our kids and grandkids will roll their eyes. But we’ll know it’s true.
Former Des Moines Register reporter Michael Morain covered RAGBRAI for 10 years and now manages communications for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
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