RAGBRAI: Iowa by Bike

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Fairfield, Iowa, with its own bike slogan. Photo by TJ Kent.

Fairfield, Iowa, with its own bike slogan. Photo by TJ Kent.

Mark ToppelEvery year Iowa invites the world to RAGBRAI, a meandering bike tour across the state, west to east, via an ever-changing route. Founded forty years back by the Des Moines Register, the capital city newspaper’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) was then a few dozen people riding from the Missouri to Mississippi, and now numbers a few dozen thousand making it the “oldest, largest, and longest bike touring event in the world.”

My friends and I, all cyclists of varying abilities, road tripped up north in late July to try out 400 plus miles of rolling hills and see what eight days of Iowa could offer.

The road trip group from San Antonio preparing to leave San Antonio

The road trip group preparing to leave San Antonio. Photo courtesy Marc Toppel.

Short on start lines, endorsements, and official regalia, there is little sense of RAGBRAI’s governing body. Follow the guy in front of you and probably stop when you don’t see anyone else around. Find a camping spot in the overnight towns, eat, drink, and repeat.

Countless volunteers worked hard behind the scenes placing orange arrows on isolated farm roads, but it’s fun to believe a large group of cyclists (and unicyclists, some skateboarders, and a runner) spontaneously spent a week together in rural Iowa. Outside of the ride itself, the whole week seemed like a good excuse for seasoned athletes and responsible adults to kick back en masse.

West Point, Iowa, the last rest stop before the finish line. Photo by TJ Kent.

West Point, Iowa, the last rest stop before the finish line. Photo by TJ Kent.

Representing San Antonio, our bike “team” was a loose assemblage of 11 friends, coworkers, family, and ex-girlfriends. A few had participated in years past, in even looser assemblages, but this was our attempt to self organize 20 somethings (cough) into a common identity.

Easy enough, as we’d all made it a few years responsibly having jobs and doing laundry. Somewhere along 36 hours of road tripping, 411 miles of biking, and not doing laundry, conflict did arise. Eleven-person dinners were hard enough to put together before we knew was gluten was – add to that: guessing if your vegetarians friends were vegetarian that night.

The night before the start of RAGBRAI, members spend time with hosts in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo by TJ Kent.

The night before the start of RAGBRAI, teammates spend time with hosts in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo by TJ Kent.

We had two cars among our core seven team members as well as a truck with an attached Airstream for friend TJ Kent’s family. We split up the driving to carry our supplies to the overnight towns. I took off Day Four, and rode every other day. Some drove two or three days. Some would drive the supplies, get to the day’s midway town and ride the rest of the way with the group.

The caravan that supported us along the way

The caravan that supported us along the way. Photo by Marc Toppel.

It took until Day Seven to reorganize the overstuffed car to relieve my own claustrophobia. While RAGBRAI itself seemed to self manage 28,000 cyclists over one week, our team took a little over two hours to argue about the proper rate of Chipotle consumption when on a cross-country road trip.

Two overnight thunderstorms and a quick tent disassembly later, our team spirit was stressed but ultimately strengthened. We’re better friends now because of our week of soggy, overstuffed tents and weak phone signals.

Baristas, navy airmen, architects, and cyclotron engineers have complementary skill sets when forced together.

Members Rama Chavali, Aari Laftipoor, Lauren Deal, Marc Toppel, and Erin McCaw prepare for a hundred plus mile day. Photo by TJ Kent.

San Antonio’s Team Party Pants members Rama Chavali, Aari Laftipoor, Lauren Deal, Marc Toppel, and Erin McCaw prepare for a 100-plus mile day. Photo by TJ Kent.

There were 27,989 new friends to make at RAGBRAI, but more often than not we stuck together and quickly regrouped before hitting the road each morning.

Day Two from Harlan we even managed a 6 a.m. start, which we’re all still proud of.

Nathan Zunker dons his signature pants. Photo by TJ Kent.

Nathan Zunker dons his signature pants. Photo by TJ Kent.

Day Three was relatively epic when you’re watching spandex clad roller skating under an old dripping water tower, enjoying your third beer of the morning and first cloud cover of the week. We all rode together that day, despite a range of cycling abilities between triathletes to downtown single speeders, often singing in awful harmonies and donning the team uniform of neon patterned short shorts. “Team Party Pants,” as we were known, was a hit – especially when other riders discovered our Texas origins.

“You’re from Austin, right? Do you actually bike down there?”

“Nope, we’re from San Antonio and yes we do.”

Day Six in Oskaloosa allowed a sit down steak dinner that was the most formal we’d managed in a week of eating wet trail mix.

Most RAGBRAI stops land in small towns far removed from Des Moines or Cedar Rapids. Not too unlike the scattered small towns of Central Texas, complete with stone courthouses on town squares, the overnight towns of Iowa were surprisingly prepared for the population to quadruple for a few hours at a time. Day One and only 25 miles into the ride we rolled into the particularly small 848-person Neola and saw a town eager to accommodate with tractor rigged bike racks and Sunday morning bartending.

Marc Toppel surveys the host town of Knoxville from atop local farming equipment. Photo by TJ Kent.

Marc Toppel surveys the host town of Knoxville from atop local farming equipment. Photo by TJ Kent.

The local farmers were very accepting of the revised bar schedules and perhaps attended the late church service that day.

Out between those bustling metropolises, every top-of-hill and end-of-gravel road became a temporary center of commerce. The entire region’s cheerleaders were ever present, selling cookies and Gatorade from the backs of trucks. A particularly systematized Amish group hawked fried hand pies and engine cranked ice cream. Returning vendor Mr. Porkchop specialized in the best handheld pork chop you’ll ever eat, prepared in a pig pink school bus, parked in the yard of an isolated farm house. In the week of my most exercise ever, I felt nearly gluttonous.

Everywhere between the in-betweens was corn. Miles and miles. Corn, corn, corn, and some soy beans. There is nothing else. At once inspiringly Americana and hunger inducing, you do learn that little is edible. Our honorary Midwestern teammate Allen, once a cornfield worker, says it’s destined for cattle feed and ethanol, or corn syrup at the most.

Brothers Matt (pictured) and TJ Kent photograph each other crossing Lake Red Rock in outside of Des Moines.

Brothers Michael (pictured) and TJ Kent photograph each other crossing Lake Red Rock outside of Des Moines.

Iowa has some of the most fertile soil in the world, and Iowa takes full advantage. Every square foot of field and vacant lot across the state is fit for farming, giving the state a kind of useful density that puts New York City to shame. In effect, the actual towns and farm houses are very contained, avoiding the sprawl that Texas ruralism allows. Again, the fields are hardly for corn-on-the-cob picnics, and they summarize a lot of poor health and environmental choices by our nation, but it’s easy to romanticize agriculture when you see it rolling over hills all around you.

Perhaps its Iowa’s lack of identity that makes RAGBRAI so special. San Antonio and Texas in general have a range of traditions, historic figures, and oil painted imagery burned into the world’s imaginations, but one could argue that this bike ride is Iowa’s defining feature. Refreshingly modern, this community focused athletic event is free from the centuries old identity that Texas parades around.

Fairfield, Iowa, with its own bike slogan. Photo by TJ Kent.

Fairfield, Iowa, with its own bike slogan. Photo by TJ Kent.

Each year, for 40 years, it’s found a new route and stays fresh. Each year it could be the biggest thing to happen to every Neola along the way, giving those towns a chance to tout their own unique traditions and icons. Some turn their 15 minutes of fame into carnival productions, complete with pro wrestling and roadside sousaphonists. More often than not though, it’s just a chance for the townspeople to say hello.

All those miles would make you think it’s a young person’s game, but the average RAGBRAI age of 45 put our team in the minority. At no point, however, did we feel out of place. Older women coast right by me while climbing those hills. I heard one septuagenarian talking about her 107 mile day, taking the longer alternate route that is bragged about by us young kids. Outside of her helmet and carbon fiber road bike, she was dressed like anyone’s grandma would for a nice walk. On Day Six, on a particularly long stretch of shadeless highway, hundreds of cyclists had pulled over, surrounding a 100 foot long slip-and-slide constructed of hay bales, tarps, and a water pump hooked into the pond below. One by one, and sometimes three at a time, an endless line of 40-somethings flew down the hill, having the times of their life.

In Iowa, I figured out growing up isn’t so bad.

San Antonio could learn a lot from the Iowans. Fiesta turkey legs wouldn’t feel so bad after a 50-mile morning ride (or even 10). We’ve made great strides in the last few years with Síclovía, Build a Better Block, and range of more active community events well documented by the Rivard Report. I know our obesity numbers are dropping, and this past weekend’s Bike Beat at Main Plaza was surprisingly similar to the nightly town square parties, embracing the outdoors, athletics, and our neighbors. As our city grows and evolves, so does our team, possibly doubling in size with new recruits. Please join us next year, as long as you’ve got a bike and are comfortable in neon print zebra shorts.


Marc Toppel is architect for Urbanist Design, and will ride his bike more when it cools down.


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3 thoughts on “RAGBRAI: Iowa by Bike

  1. This was my fifth RAGBRAI. Just to let you know, all 41 runnings of Ragbrai have been WEST to EAST finishing at the Mississippi River.

  2. Tim, silly typo on my part. Everyday I appreciated the sun setting at my back, even if the Iowa sun is relatively tame.

    Are you in San Antonio? We didn’t find many Texans there.

  3. Marc, you write very well and have a rather wonderful perspective on RAGBRAI! I’m not from San Antonio either but was born just outside of Marfa and am related to John Wesley Hardin. As an adult I’ve lived three years in Beaumont and seven in the Dallas area but “grew up” and now reside in Iowa so I feel I have some perspective on both states. I’ve done 20 RAGBRAIs so I have a little history there as well. Anyway, Yours is one of the best first timer reviews of RAGBRAI I’ve read if not the best. Glad to hear you plan to return! Bill

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