We were somewhere around Denison on the edge of the corn fields when the Eurostyle Chamois Butter began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe we should stop at a watering station…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us, and the road was full of the riders. They came on in droves—a dozen here, a hundred there—all in matching skin-tight synthetic jerseys bearing their affiliations, cheesy slogans and home ports. It was almost 6:00 A.M., and we still had more than seventy miles to go. But there was no turning back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out. I was, after all, a professional bike lawyer, so I had an obligation to cover the story, for good or ill.
I caught the eye of a ten year old rider as he passed on my left. “By the way,” I said. “There’s one thing you should probably understand.”
He stared at me, not blinking. Was he gritting his teeth?
“I want you to know that we’re on our way across Iowa to find the American Dream. That’s why we have to travel by bicycle. It’s the only way to do it. Can you grasp that?”
The boy nodded, continuing his pass on my left. He began attacking the next hill (there are HILLS in Iowa?!) and disappeared over the horizon. I knew he understood.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
As the good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson once said, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Let me start by saying that I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed on for RAGBRAI 2018. I began my practice as a bike law attorney less that one year ago, having made the jump from half a decade in medical malpractice litigation. When my new boss approached and asked whether my wife and I would be interested in riding across Iowa as representatives of BIKE LAW IOWA, I felt obliged to sign up without hesitation. Only later did I learn the details of this Sisyphean task, but by then it was too late to turn back, lest I incur eternal shame amongst my colleagues.
As a rider, my credentials were limited to commuting to work in the City of Chicago, along with the occasional day trip or weekend ride to a regional brewery. Could I even do this? On the far end of it now, having made it through the week unscathed, I assure you that anyone can make RAGBRAI work physically – whether that be through use of a recumbent, chartering a supported ride, or frequent constitutional stops to the Craft Beer tents. Having put to rest the concern of whether I could do it, the question arises of why somebody would want to ride a bicycle for a week straight across the corn belt. Well, now I can answer that, too.
At first blush, riding for days on end with little change in scenery seemed like torture. Yet as mile after mile of rolling green hillside unfolded, I realized that the lack of external variance in my surroundings drove my thoughts inward. The noise from a car engine typical of most long-distance travel was also absent, allowing me to sink deeper still, absorbing the countryside with more senses than I was accustomed. Melville’s Ishmael said, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Just as seekers for time immemorial have gravitated toward such constants as the sea, or the desert, to court introspection and growth, so too did a prolonged ride across the bucolic backdrop of Iowa farmland serve as an act of moving meditation.
But the journey wasn’t just an internal one. With between fifteen and twenty thousand riders on the road, you can’t help but meet people—lots of people, from every walk of life. A fellow rider asked me about half way into the week, “How many people have tried to talk to you about politics? About religion? Or any of the hot-button topics in the news?” He was right. Instead, we spent the week talking about the weather, the road, the pie. It was a return to a screen-free existence. The locals in every town we passed through could not have been more welcoming, warm, or accommodating. Many let my wife into their homes to use the bathroom, and even more offered the riders water and food from their lawns. This hospitality was all offered up free of charge—it was clear that they simply felt this was the decent thing to do. This was a far cry from the circumspect mentality that I developed as a lifelong Chicagoan—a throwback to simpler times and values—and it served as a reminder of how I ought to carry myself back in the real world.
My wife and I met a number of riders who we will stay in touch with. The trip also encouraged us to go out on longer rides back home, and on every Century we’ve completed since, her RAGBRAI jersey has put us in touch with more people who have made the pilgrimage. More stories and more human connections. I saw scores of riders out there with tattoos commemorating their trip. A common design was an inked chain link for each year attended, and it was not rare to see dozens of links on the leg of one devotee. Something very real and moving was happening on those winding country roads; it is difficult to bottle lightning, and each rider tries to encapsulate and express the experience in their own way. Thank you for letting me try to sort through my own thoughts on the ride. Hope to see you out there next year—if you see a Bike Law jersey, be sure to grab me and say hello.