Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is this heaven?

No, it’s Iowa

Just before Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), in the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams, trotted back into the cornfield for the first time, he turned and asked Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner),“Is this heaven?”, to which Ray answered,“No, it’s Iowa”.

Although there may be folks on the East and West coasts who consider the state simply as a dull place to fly over, Iowa is noteworthy for a number of reasons:

The first presidential primary in the nation

Birthplace of Herbert Hoover, and a number of other famous Americans

Home to “The Bridges of Madison County” (in Winterset)

Home to the REAL “Field of Dreams” (in Dyersville)

Host to the RAGBRAI

In the beginning, when a few friends got together for a casual bike ride across Iowa in 1973, no one imagined that a tradition would be born, let alone that it would become the longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event in the world.

My kids and I are “bicycle nuts”. All of us own multiple bicycles, and my wife Sharon, after a 20 year absence, recently acquired another bicycle of her own. During the summer months, Kelly earns a living as a bicycle tour guide in downtown Chicago.

As a result, it was inevitable that one of us would eventually decide to tackle the RAGBRAI.

Kelly (who is currently signed up for her second Chicago Marathon) was the first one to go (in 2008), and she had so much fun that she signed up long ago for a return trip in 2009. Now that she has completed her second RAGBRAI, she is determined to participate in the event for the rest of her life.

This year, Kelly and her friends borrowed a 29 foot RV for the trip from her friend Joey, who drove it all the way from California, and they “hired” a driver - her mom.

Joey, Judy, and Gary all came from California, and Sharon, Kelly, Jenny, Ryan, and Brett came from the Chicago area.

Jenny, Ryan, and Kelly are all members of chainlink

On the same day that the 15th stage of the Tour de France was heading uphill through the Alps, and the International Cycling Classic Grand Prix was held in downtown Evanston, my “little girl” hit a blistering 40.1 miles an hour during the “first stage” of RAGBRAI.

Although the route varies slightly from year to year, the RAGBRAI covers approximately 470 miles over 7 days. It's safe to say that the people that sign up for this event know how to "go the distance".

Contrary to what you may think, Iowa is FAR from a flat state. The western portion of the state (due to ancient glaciers) is extremely hilly, and so is the portion immediately west of the Mississippi River.

One of Kelly’s teammates hit 44 miles per hour this year coming into Burlington ..

with his brakes on the whole way.

The last leg of the RAGBRAI is actually the hilliest part of the entire tour.

Although the safety record of the tour has been good through the years, those dangerous hills claimed a victim this year when 69 year old Donald Myers, a professor of engineering management at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, crashed on the last day of the RAGBRAI.

Eight host communities are selected each year – one each for the beginning and ending points, and six overnight stops. RAGBRAI tradition calls for riders to dip their rear wheels in either the Missouri or Big Sioux River at the start of the event, and their front wheels in the Mississippi at its conclusion.

The RAGBRAI is more than just a bike ride. It’s really a celebration of community. That “community” includes not only the 8500 riders from around the world (the 2009 event included folks from South Africa, Scotland, and England) who completed the week-long journey, but also the countless host families scattered along the route.

This year, those host families included people like Bob and Jeanne from Red Oak (owners of the fire pit), Bill and Deb of Indianola (parents of the little twins who drove the riders around in golf carts) and Tom and Alice from Ottumwa (don’t ask their neighbor about the mailbox that Sharon knocked over with the RV), who have a HUGE house and a pond in their back yard.

Along the route, the riders ate lots of homemade pies, had a few cold beers, and (on the third day) marveled at the sight of a field full of hot air balloons (the 40th Community State Bank National Balloon Classic was held this year just east of Indianola).

Since its inception, the RAGBRAI has had some interesting characters, like 83 year old Clarence Pickard of Indianola, who completed the first one riding a used ladies Schwinn bicycle, while wearing long underwear, a long sleeved shirt, long trousers, and a silver pith helmet. In 2007 and 2008, Lance Armstrong and his team, LIVESTRONG, participated in the event, and the team (without Lance) was also here for the 2009 event. Banana man was back again this year, and so were the Elvis impersonators.

This year, five college boys mooned the crowd in Mt. Pleasant, and someplace in the middle of the state, one of this year’s riders got hit by a deer. The bicyclist picked up a few scrapes, but Bambi didn’t fare quite as well.

To bring this story to its conclusion, and in answer to the question, “is this heaven”, all I can add is this:

If you’re a long distance bike touring enthusiast, and you’re in Iowa during RAGBRAI, yes it is.

1 comment: