Friday, August 6, 2010

eight days with a biker gang

Starting in May of 1965, the late Hunter S. Thompson spent a year living with the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, and ultimately published a book titled “Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs”.

Born To Be Wild

Ultimately, Thompson made a fair amount of money from the book, which led to a number of other successful publications, but he had to suffer through a Hell’s Angels “stomping” in order to get to that point.

July 31 marked the end of my personal journey with a local biker gang. Although it was a very memorable experience, I didn’t suffer any ill effects from the trip, and I’m already looking forward to my next encounter with the gang, which will probably be a year from now.

In 1972, two feature writers from the Des Moines Register (John Karras and Donald Kaul) decided that it would be fun to ride their bicycles from the west coast of Iowa to the east coast of Iowa, a journey of approximately 450 miles. They invited some of their readers to join them, and when “the great six day bicycle ride” officially kicked off on August 26, 1973, 300 cyclists met in Sioux City, Iowa. Among the group was 83 year old Clarence Pickard of Indianola, who completed the entire trip on a used ladies Schwinn bicycle, while dressed in long underwear, a long sleeve shirt, trousers, and a silver pith helmet.

The name of the event was changed to RAGBRAI in 1975, and Roman numerals were adopted for the first time. (RAGBRAI is an acronym for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) The trip that was completed this week was RAGBRAI XXXVIII

Over the years, the event has become increasingly popular, and the 2010 event included approximately 20,000 cyclists from most of the states in America, as well as several foreign countries. Lance Armstrong has completed the ride a few times, and recent events have always included participants from Livestrong, his charitable organization.

Since 1973, 26 people have died during the ride itself or from injuries suffered on the ride, but the majority of those deaths were from heart attacks suffered while resting. One of the RAGBRAI riders actually got hit by a deer last year, but managed to escape with only minor injuries.

Our daughter Kelly completed her first RAGBRIA in 2008, and was joined by her mom (the RV driver) in 2009. This year, I brought along my ancient Peugeot racing bike, and completed two days of hard core riding that totaled about 150 miles.

This year’s ride featured TWO weddings:

Rick and Mary Lynn

Kim and Sue at the Tiki Bar

After the wedding in Clear Lake, the new bride attached her bridal veil to the back of her helmet for the remainder of the ride.

It’s also been rumored that there have been at least a few children who were conceived during a RAGBRAI, which brings to mind Stephen King’s 1977 novel, “ Children of the Corn”

The stated purpose of RAGBRAI is to complete a bicycle ride, but the event has evolved far beyond that simple idea. Until you’ve actually witnessed the sight of thousands of bicyclists gliding over the rolling hills of Iowa, it’s nearly impossible to describe a ride that is literally poetry in motion.

I actually met “the banana man” this year, as well as one of the Elvis impersonators, and I had the pleasure of devouring the best pork chop I’ve ever had, courtesy of “Mr. Pork Chop”, who came to the event is a pink school bus with a pig’s snout painted on the front. On my second day of riding, “team Heifer” flew by on a black and white tandem, dressed in matching black and white costumes, with a cow’s tail flying stiffly in the breeze behind them.

By the end of week, the 12 members of our team had literally evolved to the point of family, and the host families that we encountered along the route weren’t far from that. Our “family” this year included Jim and Lisa in Sioux City, Mike and Cindy in Storm Lake, Bob and Donna in Clear Lake, Trisha and Tony in Waterloo, and Dan and Bev in Manchester, as well as the group of people pictured below:

Both of our kids live in a neighborhood of Chicago where weekly shootings are pretty much taken for granted, so it’s refreshing to be reminded of the fact that there ARE still cities in America where people don’t feel a need to lock their doors at night, and where it’s not all unusual for a dad to take his pre-teen sons on hunting expeditions.

The RAGBRAI route changes every year, and this year’s event started out in Sioux City, just like the original. Along the way, we passed through Clear Lake, which necessitated a stop in the cornfield where Buddy Holly passed away in 1959:

Hunter S. Thompson was the originator of the writing style called “gonzo journalism”. To quote Steve Martin, Thompson was definitely “a wild and crazy guy”, as evidenced by the quote below:

“I wouldn't recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they've always worked for me.” - Hunter S. Thompson

In spite of the fact that he probably would have had trouble riding a bicycle around the block, he DID offer a few tidbits of wisdom that could be applied directly to RAGBRAI.

One of them is this one:

"The person who doesn't scatter the morning dew will not comb gray hairs" - Hunter S. Thompson

If you translate that phrase into English, he’s telling us that only those brave souls who get out early in the morning to pedal like madmen on their bicycles will live to have a long and happy life.

He also offered the following piece of advice for NEXT YEAR’S event:

"Buy the ticket, take the ride." - Hunter S. Thompson

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