By: Alex Barker
It’s late July and I’m drunk at a beer garden with about 4,000 strangers in the lovely downtown of Cherokee, Iowa.
To my right there is a man in Daisy Duke cutoffs and a striped referee’s shirt judging a push-up contest between a girl and a man she has just met, who is beating her by ten pushups and counting, with another girl sitting on his back. Everyone has glow-sticks dangling around their necks and limbs, like shackles of fun in a party prison yard. To my left a kid wearing a “party starts here” shirt lets me pet his ferret. The ferret is wearing a glow-stick around its neck too.
Look beyond this young man and you see hundreds more people, mostly ages 30-50 in t-shirts and spandex shorts, their hair sprinkled with grey. Their faces, complete with laugh-lines and crow’s feet are accented by sunburn. This is the night after day two of Register’s Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, as it is better known.
RAGBRAI is the largest bike tour in America, with over 10,000 riders registering each year
and riding across Iowa. It starts with a dip of your back tire in the Missouri River and ends with a dip of your front tire in the Mississippi. The route changes each year, with cities and towns bidding for the chance to have the major economic and social boom come through their limits.
My family has friends in Iowa, and when my mom insisted on finally visiting them years ago, a quick web search made the storied ride an obvious choice for my dad’s next adventure. Coming back with tales of excitement, manhood, and warm summer nights, my dad insisted that I one day ride alongside him, taking in the land, the people, and the cultural cluster-cuss that is RAGBRAI.
Naturally, we decided the summer after I turned 21 would be our safest, and most legal opportunity. After living out on my own for a few years, it would be a welcoming embrace of father-son time, and probably one of the last times we would truly have just to ourselves before I graduate college and start to see him less and less.
On the drive to Iowa, my dad, who doesn’t drink, and had to help raise his family of seven kids while growing up, is all smiles.
“It’s such a party,” he tells me. “Wait till you meet my friends.”
My dad, who was on his fourth RAGBRAI (having seen Lance Armstrong ride by twice in those four) had met people on the ride from Georgia and North Carolina, and met up with them to ride and hit the bars each time. We rode as a part of their team: Team Pedal Faster.
This is a bike tour, and not a race, but there are teams, mostly for camaraderie purposes, and for the purpose of getting into the ride period. RAGBRAI is so popular that each year they have hundreds more people register for the ride than can be properly supported with places to camp. For this reason, there is a lottery system just to get into the ride. If one person from a team is accepted by the lottery process, the whole team is in.
As soon as we get to the east side of Iowa we drop off our car in a parking lot with the tour
bus, and all of Team Pedal Faster, waiting to take us to up to the northwest corner of the state. The bus would drop us off there, and we could follow the route of the ride back to our final destination: our Ford F-250 majestically waiting by the Mississippi.
As soon as we get on the bus it’s all hugs and handshakes before the bus driver, who is well-accustomed to, and fond of, Team Pedal Faster, says, “Who’s ready to parrrrrttttyyyyy!?!?” and everyone pulls out coolers. Beers all around. Eight AM. I look at my dad, who grins and hands me a beer.
Not only have I not yet had a beer with my dad at this point, but I also have only seen the man consume alcohol once, at a work picnic, on a hot day, after lots of the younger employees told him he’s getting old. You know how this goes. Someone (who I would later find out was our fearless team captain) pulls out a boombox, and “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash fills the artificial-smelling bus. We all lift our beers and sing like no one is watching.
Eight hours, and 11 beers later, we arrive at Sioux Center, Iowa, and the start of this 500-mile journey. We unload our bags and look for our bikes among the thousands that have been hauled by semi-trucks across the state, then set out carefully like all the crayons of a box laid orderly and flat on a table. We make our way across Sioux Center High’s 30-yard line and set up our tents.
After a recovery, the first beer garden (there was one every night) was a must visit. On the way, we stopped at the Specialized Bikes tent. All the major bike-makers have tents up to offer repairs, sell merchandise (as well as bikes) and let you test ride the latest models for a day period of the trip. We stopped and signed me up for a Specialized Roubaix, a bike that retails for around $12,000.
My heart fluttered like a little girl around a cute boy as I rubbed the sexy curves of a bike worth more than I had probably made in my entire life to this point.
At the beer garden, there were all the usual beer garden-culprits: $4 cans of beer, a couple cover bands playing their hearts out, and no chairs. I eyed the crowd. I took a sip of beer. This was beautiful. A play-place for grown-ups was the whole vibe, and this youthful, single, dumb 21-year old was ready to partake. I quickly met a 27-year old dance instructor from Los Angeles that was doing the ride with her brother for the first time. We sat in the grass, half-tipsy, and discussed our hometowns, our bikes, and the eclectic group we had found ourselves quickly falling for. She was nervous about the distance, and had, “only been riding about 20 miles a day for a few months.” I laughed and reassured my new friend that this would be plenty.
Growing up with my dad in and out of presidency of the Tri-City Cyclysts Club, I had my fair share of bike knowledge, and butt-to-bike-seat-knowledge. At the age of 1, as all members do upon meeting the mark, I received my patch for riding 1,000 miles. All of them, of course, were spent in a small trailer, being tugged by my enthusiastic
(insane?) father, but I’ll be damned if I don’t still find ways to brag about it, even to LA dance instructors.
After multiple inspiring performances by the band, the night wound down with fireworks
overhead. My dad, who had seen me talking to a bunch of local girls at 9 pm had politely made himself scarce and told me to make it back to the tent safely in time to take it down and ride. After handshakes, bent over laughs, and all-together pathetic dancing, I was invited out to the bar by two cousins that were born and raised in Sioux Center, the girl I was closer with (can you say that after an hour) acting as my tour guide. She was a local hair-dresser and Sioux Center is a small, gossipy place, so we couldn’t walk more than 10 feet without well-to-doers stopping her to give her the latest scuttlebutt, or tell her how beautiful she was and that they hoped she could do an appointment next week sometime.
Exhausted, I mentioned that I needed to get back to S.C. High pretty soon, seeing as how I
had to ride at seven AM and it was already 3:15. They laughed. They’d take me back, but only after a quick stop at Hardee’s. If you’ve never eaten at a Hardee’s in the wee hours of the morning, in a rural community, on a party night, don’t. Everyone was drunk, laughing, and getting orders wrong. My friend, who at this point seemed to be the Queen of Sioux Center, walks behind the counter and grabs our food. After eating what appeared to be double of everything I ordered (friends with the queen-swag) we tailed back to the high school for goodbyes. I hadn’t even touched a bike yet, and was having fun.
In the morning, with a headache and some serious stench, I tore down my tent with the rest of my teammates, re-hashing the events of the night while we all chuckled in the dawn’s glow.
The next day, with a fresh mile-free ass, I hopped on the Specialized Roubaix. I can’t really tell you what it’s like to ride a bike that nice. It’s not like playing basketball in Michael Jordan’s shoes, it’s like playing basketball AS Michael Jordan for a day.
We breezed through the fifty-some-odd-miles ride to Cherokee, stopping at a farm where
people were selling vodka lemonades and hamburgers with about 15 miles left in the day. Well, I guess they weren’t selling vodka lemonades… that would be illegal without a liquor license, so what I will say is that they were selling lemonades, and then gave as much vodka as one could want to any customers.
Buzzed, full, and burnt, my dad and I found shapes in clouds as we both fell asleep below a giant tree in the front yard for an hour.
Some of the best things about RAGBRAI: there is no hurry, there is no agenda, it is what you make it. The ride is known for being everything that a rider wants to make it. Some go for the people, some for the drinks, some for the ride, and some for all three.
While most of our teammates rode from bar to bar along the hundreds of miles, (“first bar on the left, unless it’s on the right!”) their were other riders who took cycling more serious, including one pro cyclist that would wake up and ride the route before 10AM, then swoop back to ride again with his friends and family.
Dad and I spent most of the trip taking things easy. We did, afterall have to find someway to haul our butts 500 miles. My rules were simple: always coast on down-hills, no matter what, pedal lightly up the hills, and eat food at every town we rode through on our way to that night’s camp destination. Vendors were everywhere, so that last one wasn’t too difficult, just expensive. You know you’re on a cool adventure when you eat ribs, steak, drink 5 beers, and eat three pieces of pie before lunch and still lose tons of weight while getting a tan.
My word of warning if it sounds appealing to tread the cornfields for an entire state: drink water too. I am a pretty athletic person with a large sports background in general, not just cycling, but I found myself dehydrated midway through. In the very middle of the ride, for three days in a row, we had our hilliest, and hottest days, with each breaking 100 degrees. The thing about Iowa is there is no shade. Like, nowhere in the state is there any shade. It could be miles from place to place without shade and water to the next one, and every time I got off my bike, I was sunburnt, sore, and had salt caked onto my cakes of salt, which where all over my clothing. You know those clinging and tinking sounds a car enginemakes on a hot day after driving an hour? That is how my arms and legs felt anytime I stopped moving.
Sure enough, that day I passed a man who was riding the whole ride on a unicycle, a man that rode the whole thing just standing and pedaling- he had no seat, and was actually passed by a 10-year-old while going up a hill. That night I drank two 32-ounce bottles of Powerade, took a shower, and went to bed at 8. If you party too hard, it will catch up with you, no matter the impressive mass of your youth.
Finally, you must take someone on RAGBRAI with you. If you take a new friend, prepare for
them to become a best friend. If you take a parent, be ready for them to become a friend and a hero. I had two absolute favorite moments on the 8-day ride.
The first was the morning after those three hot days, the ones that made me wonder if
hell was central Iowa. Dad started off the morning with a pep talk while taking down our tents.
“Alright, Alex, I’m tired, you’re tired, and we still have three days of this ride to go, so today we need to take it really easy and just enjoy the ride,” my dad said, as I vigorously shook my head yes and mumbled various thank-you’s to the good creator above.
Like clockwork, we get out on the road, and we just got in the zone. In China, there is a saying called wu-wei-wu, or “thinking without thinking, and doing without doing.” It’s safe to say that we had our wu on volume 11. As we are pushing up hills, around bends, and by sleepy riders, one after another hops on behind us, all riding very nice bikes and all very athletic. In cycling a pace line is a line of riders who ride single-file and very close to each other’s back tires that way, only the person in the front of the pace line is experiencing the full effects of the headwind. Dad “pulled” (led the line) for a little while before passing it to me, and I went apeshit. We were averaging about 21 miles an hour when you balanced the rolling downhills and uphills.
Rider after rider started hoping on the back of our pace line, which now was up to 20 people, all trekking behind at the same pace, just a foot behind our wheels. Dad gasps to me, “Don’t stop going or they’ll run us over.” The funny thing about pace lines and Barker men is that we only like to be in the front, pulling, because we are so large that no one else blocks the wind for us. Might as well help people out while setting our own pace, right?
Anyways, we get really cranking, and I pull almost the whole 16 miles before the first small
town, before, exhausted, I get to the final hilltop with the city, and a mile of winding road all laying before me. I coast and suck air like it’s going out of style while all the thankful, experienced cyclists whizzed by me, each patting my back, or saluting and telling me what a great pull it was. Call me dorky, but a glorious one-mile downhill, on a bike I was given for free, minus the front wheel, while surrounded by appreciative riders saying I was exceptional, all on the way to breakfast, is just my idea of a good time.
My absolute favorite moment was abstract and delicious in every way possible. I can’t
tell you when it happened, and I can’t tell you the context, because over the days, Dad and I would get separated for little ten-mile chunks and just ride our own rides, but at the top of one particularly steep hill I caught up with the thick calves and back tire of my father’s bike. Grunting and sweating, with no words exchanged, we hauled our bodies and bikes up the hill. At the top, we could see for miles and miles around, over foggy farmland, and country roads that seemed to intersect like ships passing in the night… only for a brief moment before continuing on around the world. At the top, still in silence, my father and I shifted into low gears and just coasted down the much flatter, and longer side of the hill.
Looking around, the wind whipping by my face as our bikes descended, I found perfect peace. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling, but it was the closest I’ve ever felt to heaven on earth. We were rolling at a smooth 45 miles per hour that felt like 20, and when I looked up from the speedometer I saw an image I’ll never forget. My dad, leaning hard on the handlebars was smiling like a man who had been freed. The wind tossed his hair, his smile ate up the sun, and his happiness ate up my heart.
Somewhere in the middle of Iowa, I saw the exact image I knew I would remember through tears when he would one-day pass away.
With all of this being said, it should be known that no article could possibly sum up RAGBRAI… that would be impossible. Instead, realize that this is just my story, and that it is as different from the next person as how our evenings were spent in high school. I couldn’t even muster a way to fit in the quarter-mile long slip’n’slide, the dizzy-bat games at rest stops, the ride back to my tent on another team’s bus, or the active Air Force pilot that didn’t just help me fix my popped tire- he gave me a new one.
Alas, I don’t think RAGBRAI was intended to be remembered clearly and precisely, but rather like a hazy hill you rode with some friends after a few drinks in the late part of July some odd years ago.
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