The vendors and onlookers along the route are often as entertaining as the riders. Within the first few miles on the first day, we were just gaining momentum when we circled a bend and spotted a mass of cyclists forming a line just off the road. The Pancake Man, Jim Kuper of Council Bluffs, Iowa, was busy tending to a grill that he jury-rigged to make 96 pancakes every two minutes. A box that slides over the grill dispenses batter four pancakes at a time. “We flip them over our heads, around our back and onto a plate,” says Kuper, a RAGBRAI personality for 24 years now. “They always challenge me to see if I can throw a pancake 50 or 60 feet. I’m good to about 40 feet.”
Further down the road, we found Mr. Pork Chop, who sets up a pink bus with a corkscrew tail and hawks pork chops. In Coon Rapids, Iowa, we held a squealing piglet at a makeshift petting zoo in the main street of town. “The thing that has really astonished me over the years is the imagination of these people,” says Karras, who is taking Spinning classes to train for his 33rd ride. Karras remembers a bunch of farmers in northwest Iowa who got together and figured out how to square dance with tractors. “They were steering like hell, dosey-do-ing,” he says.
Amidst the circus, there are also signs of old-fashioned America. Lemonade stands spring up at the ends of driveways, Slip ‘N Slides spread across yards and cheerleaders and mayors often greet riders at the entrances into towns. When we made it to Underwood, the first town about 25 miles outside Missouri Valley, little kids in cowboy boots were handing out silver sheriff badge stickers. “The hometown goodness of Iowa still applies today like it did back in 1973,” says T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI’s director. In fact, he says, it’s RAGBRAI’s greatest resource.
When it comes to hospitality, towns maneuver to outdo each other. People offer up rooms in their homes and yards for overnight campers, home-cooked meals and dips in their swimming pools. “They have this mi casa, su casa mentality,” says Juskiewicz. One time, LeBeau and a friend had made arrangements to stay at a stranger’s home along the way, and when they showed up there was no one home, just a note on the door directing them to their rooms and the keys to the Oldsmobile parked in the garage.
The preparation it takes for a town of 3,500 or less to handle the onslaught of 20,0000 cyclists is a feat in itself. Towns hosting the event are responsible for coordinating public safety and signage right down to how much ketchup is needed for the barbecues. And, in the end, it seems as though the sense of accomplishment felt by the towns is as great as that of the riders.
It’s the things you can’t control, like the weather, that are the most stressful, according to Juskiewicz. On my journey, we experienced this in Harlan, Iowa, on the second night of the ride, when we awoke to sirens, the thrashing of our tent and a loudspeaker advising everyone to take shelter. A band of storms coming through was bringing high winds, lots of rain and a possible tornado. “It’s July in Iowa,” says Juskiewicz. “It can get kind of dicey sometimes.”
The truly treacherous days in RAGBRAI history are always remembered. “Soggy Monday,” of 1981, left many hitching $5 rides from Iowans with pickups and cattle trucks. “If you want to know what Monday was like, get on your exercise bike and crank down the tension so that you can hardly turn the pedals then, have someone spray you lightly with a hose while a high-speed fan blows on you. Pedal for 10 hours,” wrote Donald Kaul in his recap of the day. Then, in 1995, on “Saggy Thursday,” winds of up to 40 miles per hour left many piling into the ride’s sag wagons, for tired riders. Commemorative patches were made for both days; the harder the ride, the prouder the riders are for having weathered it. Headwinds, heat rashes and cold showers (both outside, and inside locker rooms) are all part of the adventure.
For Ryan and me, it didn’t take long to decide that we’d be back for RAGBRAI again, joining the 66 percent of riders every year that are repeaters. Under bright blue skies and with the wind at our backs, we spent the last day’s 52-mile ride devising a team jersey for the crew of friends we hoped would join us. Would we get an RV? Doctor up a bus? Camp? Those would be details to work out, but it would be done. We sailed downhill into the river town of Le Claire, birthplace of Buffalo Bill, dunked our wheel in the Mississippi, as is tradition, and lifted our bikes above our heads in victory. We had done it—all 471 miles.
Heading home, we drove back across Iowa on the interstate. What took us seven days by bike took us four and a half hours, but when we noticed the names of towns we had ridden through listed on exit signs, we found ourselves reminiscing about the young violinist who serenaded us in Mount Vernon, the little market where we ate corn on the cob and fed the husks to the goats in Homestead and the monster hill between Ogden and Boone, Iowa, birthplace of Mamie Eisenhower. “From a car, Iowa is fairly dull,” says Karras. “But from a bike seat, it can be beautiful.”