RAGBRAI: Inventiveness And Initiative Are Hallmarks Of Week-Long Bicycle Tour
“The first question,” bicyclist and WNIJ contributor Dan Libman asked, “is ‘What does it stand for?’”
RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, and 2017 is the 45th year for the event, which began in 1973 with 130 riders. It was the brainchild of Des Moines Register reporter John Karras and columnist Don Kaul, who invited the public to join them on a week-long pedal across the state.
Over the past four decades, RAGBRAI has grown to more than 10,000 registered participants plus any number of additional riders – including some celebrities, who may ride for one day or more.
“And it kind of doesn’t matter any more because, after 45 years, many people on the ride aren’t even aware RAGBRAI is an acronym,” Libman added. “What does matter is that thousands of riders dip their back wheel in the Missouri River, ride their bike for a week, and then dip their front wheel in the Mississippi, having ridden across the entire state of Iowa.
“Think of it as a giant rolling Burning Man moving across one Midwestern state, like a slow-moving swarm of locusts: 20,000 people sleeping in tents in towns with populations of 800, eating everything in the Casey’s and the HyVee, leaving a wake of empty beer cans and chafing-butter wrappers.”
Libman rode in his first RAGBRAI in 2011 then returned for the events in 2015, 2016 and again this year. He collected photographs and conversations with Iowa residents and RAGBRAI participants to share with WNIJ listeners.
RAGBRAI XLV began the morning of July 23 in Orange City, seat of far-western Sioux County. Since it isn’t located on the Missouri River, Libman said, they actually brought some water from the river to Orange City so that cyclists who wanted to do so could dip their rear wheels in Missouri River water, if not in the body of water itself.
Libman says the riders become familiar with Iowa in a way that is truly unique. Local groups from small towns along the route figure out ways to raise money for their causes by selling food, beverages and -- sometimes -- other services.
Halfway through the first day on the road, in a small city of about 1,000 residents designated as Sunday’s “meeting town,” he asked a woman named Jennifer to explain a recurring icon.
“What’s with the mustaches? Why is everything mustaches?” he asked.
“Primgharwas founded by seven gentlemen who all had mustaches,” Jennifer explained, “and they took the first letter of their names and made the word ‘Primghar.’ So it’s the only Primghar in the world.”
Actually it was eight gentlemen with a combination of beards and mustaches, and they were primarily responsible for laying out the county seat after an 1872 vote that decided the courthouse should be in the exact geographical center of O’Brien County.
Jennifer was one of the many people fundraising along the RAGBRAI route. She was raising money for an organization called the Pride Group, a meeting place for people with physical and mental disabilities.
“We have sub sandwiches, watermelons, cinnamon rolls, coffee, Gatorade,” Jennifer shared the fundraising menu, “shade, free water fills: You name it, we got it.”
The Pride Group’s goal is to improve several aspects of their facility, she explained.
“Pave the driveway, get a bigger parking lot so that more families can come and visit,” Jennifer said, “and then we also built a shelter house, so we’d like to get picnic tables and things like that for our residents.”
The idea is pure genius, Libman notes. “Local charities have tremendous needs without the resources to fundraise beyond a small pool of community members and parents,” he said. “Middle school bands need music stands, villages need to maintain their community parks. Why not get thousands of new people to come through town, get them hungry, then sell them food?
For example, Newman Catholic School in Mason City was selling Gatorade, Clif Bars and water.
"This gentleman here is doing a story on fundraising here at RAGBRAI,” a wrestling coach introduced Libman to onlookers, “and we’re doing wrestling and cheerleading. So far it’s going well; we’ve had a steady stream of people."
The wrestling coach explained that a “Meet Mat” costs $10,000. That’s a lot of Gatorade – but, for an added donation, the cheerleaders would give you a cheer.
RAGBRAI has its own language: “pass-through town,” for example. Not surprisingly, it’s a town through which the riders pass but there’s no planned stop. That doesn’t mean there is nothing being offered for sale, such as food. But the cyclists had their own individuals plans in such towns.
"I’m looking to pass through," said one woman.
"You are really?" responded her companion. "I need to hit up the kybos."
Libman explained that riders have two ways to deal with certain personal needs during RAGBRAI. Using the omnipresent roadside cornfields is the most popular, and the other is using a “kybo,” which is the RAGBRAI term for port-o-potty.
“Kybo” actually is an acronym that stands for “Keep Your Butt Off."
Libman hints at a recent controversy regarding such needs. “I don’t want to say that we RAGBRAIers are more progressive than the rest of you,” he said, “but kybos have been gender neutral since the first RAGBRAI in 1973.”
Some charity groups have found very creative ways to harness the unique power of RAGBRAI.
"Do you know the name of this town?" Libman inquired at a pass-through town a bit more than halfway through Monday’s ride.
"This is Mallard," Elizabeth responded. She’s a volunteer with Milkweed Matters, a group dedicated to increasing Monarch butterfly habitats. They actually set up at eight locations along the route.
They were asking people to toss seed balls -- clumps of mud and clay with milkweed seeds in them -- into appropriate places like roadsides ditches, gardens, and parks. "Just do it from the bike," she said. "It’s wonderful! We’ve got people riding across the whole state. Why not crowd plant?”
"Absolutely." Libman did his part – for Milkweed Matters and the Monarch butterflies.
Wednesday presented a challenge for the riders, when the skies opened and indicated the need for an unscheduled stop.
“What had been an overcast day got scary fast,” Libman recalled. “Dark thunder clouds moved in, and my group found ourselves pedaling as hard as we could, just making it to Swaledale, where we took shelter in a Methodist church basement.”
Although parishioners made eggs for the refugee riders at the church, Libman was among those who found another option in that pass-through town.
“I noticed a free beer tent was right across the street, and next to that was a free bacon tent thanks to the Iowa Pork Producers Association,” he said. “I decided a little rain wouldn’t kill me and left the church basement.”
A couple of towns down the road, in Cartersville, Libman found Marcus who was wearing an NIU Huskies bike jersey. This was his second RAGBRAI, and he said it was going fantastically well. He hadn’t even minded the rain.
“We were in cover for the beer tent in Rockwell,” he said of the day’s meeting town. “That was probably 10 o’clock this morning. 9:30…10…yeah.”
“Nice,” Libman responded, “10 a.m. on a Wednesday in a beer garden. Gotta be RAGBRAI.”
Everyone has their own RAGBRAI method, according to Libman. They ride road bikes or racing bikes or other contraptions.
“People ride old fashioned Penny-Farthings with giant front wheels,” he said. “I’ve seen people doing the whole ride on unicycles. Some people carry their own bags, self-sustained style, and others ride a tandem.”
Stu and his 10-year-old son Max were riding just such a bicycle built for two.
"I’m the captain and Max is the stoker,” Stu said, “but I think he’s loafing back there, so tomorrow we may switch it up."
"Is that right?" Libman asked the youngster.
"I guess," Max replied.
Stu is a RAGBRAI veteran, having ridden so many times he had to think when asked how many. He’s also done road races and organized many riding events out of his bike shop in Freeport, Ill. Stu said there is one major issue that first-time RAGBRAI-ers need to give special attention.
“Always tires,” he said. “I think that’s something people always neglect, having your tires in good shape. You see so many people along the road with flats, fixing and repairing … It’s so critical that you have really good tires.”
Stu explained that riders should inspect their tires before leaving for a ride like RAGBRAI. “People don’t really look at them,” he said. “They don’t. You see people come in and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do RAGBRAI.’ It’s like, ‘You’re not doing it on those tires are you?’ ‘Yeah, we are.’ It’s really a bad idea.”
Libman also talked with a Loves Park rider named Jeremy, who said he had two goals on his first RAGBRAI: get a chop from Mr. Pork Chop and see Lance Armstrong, who often rides a day or two each year. Armstrong did ride on Thursday, along with some of his NASCAR pals.
"It was a double pace line,” Jeremy described finding Armstrong, “and I started to build speed so I could get behind and blend in their draft. As I pulled up alongside of them, I made eye contact with one of the guys in the group and immediately recognized him as Jimmie Johnson. Seven-time NASCAR champion, and also the guy I grew up being a fan of. I make eye contact and he actually smiles and waves and gives me a head nod. I gave him a head nod back.”
Jeremy joined the pace line and soon found himself behind Lance Armstrong: half of his dream fulfilled. But they were coming up on the iconic pink bus of Mr. Pork Chop.
Situated at some point on the route every day, Libman explained, Mr. Pork Chop is a RAGBRAI institution along with Tender Tom Turkey, the Back Pocket Craft Beer Tent, the Amish Pie cart, Thelma’s homemade ice cream sandwiches and plenty of others.
“We were about a mile from Mr. Pork Chop,” Jeremy continued, “and I’m sitting there getting nervous thinking, ‘Well, maybe I’ll skip the pork chop today because I want to keep riding with these guys.’
"Lo and behold, Lance turns around and says to the group, ‘Hey, we’re gonna stop and get pork chops at this place. The rest of you guys will love it,’” Jeremy said. “So we all peel off as a group into Mr. Pork Chop, and I lean my bike up against a tree, right next to Matt Kenseth (also a former NASCAR champion and native of Cambridge, Wis.), and we’re chatting right as we’re rolling in and everything. I felt like I was a part of their group.”
Along the RAGBRAI route, Libman compiled quite the litany of contributions to fundraising efforts.
“I ate a pulled pork sandwich to help save a swimming pool in West Bend, paid to see a magic trick from students dressed as founding fathers in Lawler who were trying to get to D.C., bought a Gatorade from a family in Granville saving money to see Justin Bieber (I know, but I was thirsty),” he recounted, “and ate some walking tacos to help keep a no-kill animal shelter afloat in New Hampton.”
Patti, one of the New Hampton animal lovers, offered this comment about taking advantage of the RAGBRAI crowd on Thursday.
“It’s an easier way to fundraise, because you can make more money at once to help our dogs,” she said. “We are doing Indian tacos. They’re on warm flatbread with taco meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato. Then we have sour cream salsa. We’re selling bars, Gatorade and water.
Of all the charity work Libman saw, he said that the stakes perhaps were highest in Postville, the last pass-through city on the Friday leg of RAGBRAI.
Riders accustomed to being met by Amish pie makers and church lady ham-ball vendors, were met instead by groups of dark-coated Hasidic Jews.
“We have the kosher slaughterhouse,” one rabbi explained to Libman. “Surrounding that kosher slaughterhouse was created a community over the last 20-30 years.”
But instead of selling power drinks or food items, these men were offering something more profound.
“We are here to find the lost Jewish souls and bring them back to their source,” the rabbi said. “There’s a lot of lost souls we found, and they found themselves.”
Young Hasidic boys stood in the stream of spandex asking riders if they were Jewish and, if so, would they be interested in having a tefillin wrapped around their arm and pray for a moment.
A cyclist from Scottsdale, Ariz., agreed. He said several prayers, ending with the Shema. Asked if it was his first time doing such a ceremony, the cyclist responded, “No; when I had a bar mitzvah.”
When the ceremony was over, the rabbis walked off looking for another soul. Libman was alone with the man from Scottsdale, who clearly was buzzing from the experience.
“Not knowing what to do,” Libman said, “I said mazel tov, and the man grabbed me and hugged me. I’m pretty sure he was weeping.”
The reason for pedaling more than 400 miles across the Hawkeye state becomes clear by the end of the week, according to Libman: “The thing about riding your bike across Iowa is that it’s concrete and real—a square right in the middle of the country,” he said. “You will be able to point to any map and say, ‘I rode my bike across that.’”
He says he’ll continue riding in RAGBRAI for years to come.
“What will next year's route be? It changes every year,” he said, “but whatever it looks like in 2018, I know I'll be on it.”
About our cyclist/roving reporter ...
Dan Libman is a writer, podcaster, book reviews editor for the Fifth Wednesday Journal, WNIJ “Perspectives” contributor, and Northern Illinois University writing instructor. He also has shared his wit and wisdom with WNIJ audiences as a roving reporter, providing man/woman-on-the-barstool commentary for “Politics on Tap” during election years.
His essays and fiction have appeared in Details, The Chicago Reader, the Paris Review, Santa Monica Review, Columbia and many other journals and magazines. Libman’s debut fiction collection, Married but Looking, was published by The Livingston Press.
He is a winner of both a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Paris Review Plimpton Prize, and was awarded a grant from the Illinois Arts Council in 2005 for prose writing. His story, "In the Belly of the Cat," has been included in several anthologies.
An avid bicyclist, Libman has participated in numerous events around northern Illinois and beyond, including RAGBRAI four times. This year, he chronicled that epic ride by talking with other riders from Illinois and with Iowa residents who took the opportunity to raise money for special projects with some unique fundraising events.