By Karen Keninger
I just finished riding RAGBRAI, (The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) all 454 miles of it from Glenwood to Davenport. I ride a tandem as the stoker with my friend BJ as the captain. Now you may ask why anybody in their right mind would want to spend seven days bicycling up and down the Iowa hills, between 55 and 75 miles each day during the hottest week of the year, camping in a tent every night, just to get from Glenwood to Davenport. I believe each person who does this, and there are thousands, has his or her own reasons for doing it. Some go for the rolling parties. Some go for the sight-seeing; some for the people-watching; some for the achievement. And some, I’m sure, for many, many other reasons. Here are some of the things I enjoyed most.
The landscape. There’s no better way to understand a landscape than biking through it. You become aware of every hill, every valley, every bridge, every town. The pace is fast enough to be interesting, but slow enough to take it all in moment by moment.Iowa’s rolling hills are lush and green this time of year. The corn is taller than I am, and the smell of it gives a sweetness to the air. We studied some handouts from the State Department of Natural Resources that described the geology and geography for each day’s ride. This helped put the whole picture in context for me and provided landmarks such as rivers to watch for. Knowing, for instance, that you’re cruising along the Des Moines Lobe from Boone to Altoona, or along the Iowa Rivervalley meant flat and easy work. The hills in western and eastern Iowa meant challenges followed by the exhilarating sense of freedom that comes with a fast downhill coast. (Our fastest speed this year was 45 miles per hour down into the Des Moines Rivervalley east of Pilot Mound. Our slowest might have been climbing the hill on the other side of the river valley.)
The environment. Because biking is a quiet activity–no motors, no rushing wind (usually), it’s not hard to identify the features of the environment as we pass through the countryside. This time of year, the trees and grasses are alive with katydids, cicadas, and grasshoppers singing their little hearts out. Open fields have blackbirds and killdeer. From a pasture I might hear a cow mooing or an occasional horse whinny. And, of course, the nose is not deceived by what my dad the farmer used to call the smell of money–the occasional hog or chicken farm. The sun, the clouds, the wind, and the occasional rain are all sensory inputs I have no trouble discerning as well. I could feel and appreciate the cloud shadows on partly-cloudy days as they cooled the air and gave a brief respite from that summer sun.
The towns. We passed through 35 or more Iowa towns on our trip. Each one was a carnival of welcome, of food, libations, music, and activity. Coming into each town we were welcomed by people along the route cheering us on, spraying us with cold water, offering us drinks and snacks. We skipped the beer gardens with their loud music and ample attendance. But it was fun to hear in some towns the announcers calling out the places people were from, or to hear the city band in the park playing rousing tunes.
The people. Thousands of them. As we biked along on any given day, some people were slower and some faster than we were. So we were constantly either passing people or being passed. That meant that we encountered hundreds of riders each day. Some went pumping past us at twice our pedaling rate. Some carried music with them. Some were deep in conversation, and we’d catch snippets as we passed. We cruised along and talked with some, learning about their experiences, their bikes, or sharing ours. And, or course, in the camp and in the towns, at meals, and in lines, talking to people from all over the country. We met people of all ages from families with children in tow to grandparents along with the expected 20-somethings in prime physical condition. We saw hand-cyclists, a woman with one leg, and a deaf woman.
The Food. Loads of it, including the best pies in Iowa, lots of homemade ice cream, church spaghetti, pancakes and pork chops, you name it. All abundant, reasonably priced, and delicious!
My long-time biking partner BJ made this trip possible for me: Captaining the tandem, reporting everything of interest that he saw, serving as guide in the campgrounds, and helping me navigate the crowds, and the amenities. Fortunately, he was as interested in riding RAGBRAI as I was, so we made a good team.
My friend Tai rode RAGBRAI this year, too. She worked with Adaptive Sports Iowa to find a biking partner. They were there with 24 people including ten hand cyclists, Tai, a blind cyclist, and support volunteers to help make the ride possible. RAGBRAI is for everyone, old and young, able-bodied or not.