RAGBRAI: Riding a bike across Iowa isn't for the sane...
Iowans might be insane.
OK, let me back up. I lived in Iowa for about four years, working as a visual journalist and photo editor at the Des Moines Register. I helped share countless stories about inspiring people and places across the state. Iowans, like most Americans in the communities I've lived in, are overall good people.
Yet many of them seem to lose their minds the last week in July when they decide that traveling from one side of the state to the other on a bicycle is a good way to spend the week. And they do. In droves. Getting up early, partying late, filling the streets of rural Iowa towns along the way and then doing it all again the next day.
The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, bills itself as the "oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world." The yearly tradition was started by two columnists at the Register. It went from a group of a few friends in 1973 to more than 18,000 registered riders this year.
I've covered parts of the ride in previous years, both on a bike and in a car. I completed the entire week-long, 427-mile ride in 2019 as part of NPR's biking team, No Pie Refused. It is quite a feat. Parts of the ride are insanely beautiful, everyone is extremely welcoming and there's so much pie to be eaten along the way.
It's not a race. Yet somehow everyone seems to win.
The experience has a way of immersing you in its roving community of rabid cycling enthusiasts, whether you're actually riding on two wheels or not. As someone who rode out the pandemic in the hyper-vigilant city of Washington, D.C. (where I am still required to wear a mask in the office), being back in Iowa felt like I was transported to another place and time.
Cell phone reception is spotty at best, making it even easier to disconnect from the outside world. The seemingly chaotic news cycle disappears. And everyone seems more concerned about whether the grilled-cheese vendor will be in the next town on the route than the latest COVID or Monkeypox numbers.
It's all very exhausting. But in a lot of ways, extremely comforting, too. Many riders use the week to reconnect with family and friends. Gary Burger, a 75-year-old from West Des Moines, Iowa, talked about how he doesn't get to spend much time with his grandchildren these days as they start to go off to college. He was in the middle of a 105-mile day, riding with his 21-year-old grandson, Aaron, as his wife drives the motor home they stay in at night. What a way to reconnect.
People are nice. Welcoming. Extremely proud of the community they've built, and truly having the absolute best time doing it.
If this is what insanity looks like, maybe we all should go a little crazy now and then.