Since I have returned home from riding across Iowa, a lot of people have asked, “What’s RAGBRAI like?” Well, it’s a lot like riding your bike for the fun of it with your friends and meeting lots of like-minded folks along the route—kind of like when you were a kid.
It’s also like a choose-your-adventure book with options for how you might spend your day popping up every mile or so.
It’s like going for a ride to get something to eat and finding it at a roadside stand, but instead of noshing and returning home, you just keep riding until you feel like stopping again. It might be a homemade slip and slide that entices you, a tour of an historic “Axe Murder House,” or an inviting pool.
You go with the flow of thousands of other riders—at whatever pace you like—until you reach the next town. When you get to that town, it is throwing the biggest party it has likely thrown in years and you and all of your new friends are invited. So you party, or keep riding, or nap, or whatever you feel like doing. Until you reach the day’s travels’ end. Then you likely eat, party, or sleep. When you wake up the next day, you do it all again and it is the same as it is completely different.
This year was my first time riding RAGBRAI and it is a massive, colorful, delightful wander through Iowa on bikes. I went with my friend John and met up with Lauri from Bike Law Maine and her husband Ethan, Bike Law Colorado’s Brian, Bike Law Kansas & Missouri’s Vance, and of course, Bike Law Iowa’s Jim. We quickly added to our rolling crew with Jeff, Marie, Randy, Doug and Rob.
Forget your computers/Garmins/heart rate monitors, you can measure the distance in signs to upcoming Amish Pie stops and daily beer gardens. After a while you are able to discern distance by calibrating off the sign denoting the mileage to Mr. Porkchop and the visual of the smoke trail up ahead.
Mr. Porkchop is only one of the many roadside eats available. There was also Brewer Family Farms that set up at each of the Iowa Craft Beer Tent /Backpocket Brewing stops (the lunch stop and the party stop). The lunch spot featured a “Hot Beef Sundae” and the party stop featured skinless brats in a delightful variety of flavors. If you had a beer at 10 of the stops and got your card punched, you could earn a t-shirt proudly proclaiming you, “Earned it.” I earned it.
In the mornings there were plenty of coffee stops, pancake stops, bagel stops and yogurt/granola stops to fit your routine all along the sides of the roads.
When you stop in towns you can get just about anything you want from a quick bike repair to free sunscreen to a “cooling dip” in an ad hoc “pool” at the local fire station.
You can also find some interesting people both locals and fellow travelers. In Creston, IA we met the mayor while knocking out deep-fried pork tenderloin sandwiches and Goose Island IPA on the sidewalk. We started talking because I liked his tie. He had just stepped out of the VFW hall.
In Leon, I met Erik from Maryland. He built his Proteus tandem. It caught my eye not only because of how sharp it looked, but because Proteus bicycles is part of my earliest cycling memories from growing up.
In Centerville I met Nelson Vails, former bike messenger, track and road racer, Olympic Medalist and National Champ and all-around good guy.
RAGBRAI towns are also notable for the people you do not meet. In Centerville, I tried to get a shave at a barber shop but BOTH! were “Closed for RAGBRAI.” Presumably the proprietors were out riding.
If people weren’t riding, they seemed to be out enjoying the party. I, as well as what seemed to be the entire town, was blown away by the Hairball show in Centerville and equally impressed by the dude who rode his bike down the bowling alley at 2:00 a.m., too. RAGBRAI gets weird and it’s great.
The whole ride was fun. Sure there were crashes, a few sketchy riders here and there, but overall, everyone is in it for the good time. I only saw ONE jerk on the road and he was riding a motorcycle right on the yellow line giving the road version of “chin music.” Not bad considering we traveled almost 500 miles west to east over the course of the week.
Along the way, you start to make new friends. You tend to recognize folks that leave about the same time in the morning that you do and tend to stop at some of the same types of places along the way. You get a whole new group of riding buddies if just for the week. I was really proud and excited by the enthusiastic response we received not just to being part of the rolling show, but to the sharpness of our kits. We received more than a few shout-outs along the way.
I’ll be back. I will also be armed with the knowledge of my virgin mission across Iowa. I will be back better prepared to enjoy as many of the attractions and distractions as I can and the bike Law crew will be, too. Buckle up.