CARROLL, Iowa — It took me nearly a week of riding RAGBRAI the first time to learn the importance of pacing yourself.
That goes for the road and the beer gardens.
I also learned the value of a comfortable saddle over some 500 miles. To ride early, when the dew is still rising from the corn and soybean fields, and the midday heat is hours away. And the importance of good friends who will ride with you through the good times and the bad, because you will surely experience a little bit of both.
I grew up in a small town in northeast Iowa, and for me, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa was a rite of summer. You knew that for a week in late July, long stretches of country roads would shut down and every sleepy town along the way would wake up, celebrating 30,000-plus riders on their journey east.
When my editors at The Associated Press asked what it’s like to ride RAGBRAI, and perhaps provide a first-person account of a day on the road, my first thought was: “Great, just what I want to do after 100 miles in the sweltering sun.”
My next thought was: “That’s a lot harder than it sounds,” and not just because of the circumstance but because there are a lot of ways to do it, and it means something different to just about everyone on the road.
“It’s the reset button you need in life every year,” says Brian Talbot, who rides with me on Team Fohty. We are 26 strong this year, friends who come together from all corners of the country and every walk of life for a week of joy and suffering.
As I’m writing, our entire group is camped out beneath a towering maple tree, tents scattered across the lawn of a gracious host family. Our little red school bus that transports our gear from town to town — and usually a few riders who have made it halfway and had enough, whether that be riding or drinking — is parked in the driveway.
“If you describe what this is to someone in their normal life,” Talbot says, “they’re going to say, ‘You’re crazy.’ And we probably are a little bit. But you can’t understand it unless you’re there and do it for yourself.”
“It’s summer camp for adults,” adds Karalyn Kuhns, another member of Team Fohty, who seems to know someone from every team on the ride. That includes riders from the Air Force who have it in their rules that they must stop to help change any punctured tire, fix any broken chain or assist in any medical emergency that they see.
“A lot of people go to a lot of work so we can have fun for a week,” Kuhns said, “and along the way, you see people you never see any other time of the year. And it’s just so wonderful.”
I can’t say it was wonderful to hear Al Green belting out “Ride Sally Ride” at 5:30 a.m. to announce our departure from Sioux City a couple of days ago. Or face that brutal headwind to finish a 110-mile trek to Ames on Tuesday. Or running out of cash along the way when the little kids selling lemonade only accepted cash.
But in the words of Team Wimpy, one of the other established groups on the road, “The ride will provide.”
It will provide things you never thought you’d see in your life: dozens of silver-haired seniors stripping down to their shorts and sliding across a homemade Slip ‘N Slide in the small town of Breda; Team Unicorn with the corn cobs stuck to their helmets like a horn, this being Iowa and all, pedaling merrily along; the rider on the circa-1910 high-wheeler, because those expensive carbon-fiber road rockets make things a little too easy; and the smiling guy trundling along on his unicycle.
“It’s really fun to hear all the comments,” says Kyle Campbell, the unicyclist. “People on RAGBRAI talk to one another anyway, but I probably talk or interact with 3,000 people a day. They say a compliment, or give a ‘Woo!’ And that’s fun and motivating.”
Whatever it takes to get through the miles.
As I’ve grown older, the 500-mile odyssey has — along with producing new aches and pains — taken on new and different meanings. In particular, it has produced memories that you will carry with you through every terrible climb and every freeing downhill, and through those awful days when the rain is unrelenting or the sun never seems to find a cloud.
I always come back to the 2017 ride, which went through my hometown of Decorah. My dad had beaten cancer once, only for it to return, and we knew he didn’t have much time left. So even though our house was a couple of miles off the route, and atop a series of brutal hills, the entire team road up there to see him together.
We laughed. Told stories. We had the kind of quality time that has seemingly become so scarce these days. Two months later, he was gone. But not those memories.
About those friends who will ride with you — I wasn’t just talking about the heat and the hills, or the punctured tires and the saddle sores. In many ways, I wasn’t talking about the ride at all, because RAGBRAI is about so much more than the ride.
“It’s the adventure of biking across Iowa with friends,” says another teammate, Brenda Moore-Dowling, “but they’re more than friends; they’re family. And that’s why it’s something we look forward to every year.”
Dave Skretta is a Kansas City, Missouri-based AP Sports Writer. He has ridden RAGBRAI many times, though he’s never tried to write on a couple of wobbly legs at the end of a long day on it. Skretta is providing periodic updates from the road. He has ridden 241 miles through the first three days.
AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports