Is this beer and bike heaven? No, it’s Iowa.
By Tim Cigelske
A few years ago, I visited a quaint little village known for its wholesomeness and small-town charm. One morning my wife and I stopped at a stand called “Good Eggs” to grab breakfast. As the owner behind the counter scrambled our order, I noticed a portrait of cyclists on the wall with the inscription “RAGBRAI” underneath.
“Did you ride RAGBRAI?” I asked, having experienced a few days of this legendary bike ride myself.
I had just uttered the secret code word. He stopped and looked directly at me.
“Ride RAGBRAI?” he repeated. “I lost my virginity on RAGBRAI.”
I wouldn’t say this experience is typical of the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, also known as RAGBRAI. For the record, public fornication supposedly gets you banned for life, and I heard at least one team won’t ever be welcomed back for this reason.
But this story demonstrates one overarching truth about RAGBRAI: Something about biking hundreds of miles through cornfields on rural roads with about 15,000 other cyclists turns ordinary people into party animals. It’s like a mobile Mardi Gras on two wheels. For the most part, it’s good clean fun. And there may be more beer consumed on this ride than any other cycling event on the planet.
In the past, I rode a few days out of the full seven-day border-to-border ride. This is the RAGBRAI equivalent of a gateway craft beer; an exotic taste that transforms you and makes you want to be more adventurous. This year I joined the full 422-mile route in order to chronicle the complete RAGBRAI experience on the road. We started on a Sunday, dipping our back tires in the Missouri River, and thus began a week one rider called “an utter divorce from reality.”
The ride began in 1973 when a couple of Des Moines Register newspaper columnists announced their intention to bicycle from one edge of the state to the other. Since then, the ride has taken over the state during the last week of July. Each year the route takes different turns through Iowa’s backroads for about 60 to 100 miles a day. This way, the traveling circus that is RAGBRAI can experience as many towns as possible, and the riders don’t wear out their welcome.
Cyclists pedal 15- to 30-mile stretches of cornfield with the anticipation of being welcomed with open arms by the locals. Once they reach outposts like Clarksville and Manchester, celebration ensues. Residents greet the constant flood of hot, tired, hungry and thirsty riders with garden hoses spraying cold water, homemade food and beer gardens.
The economic boon to towns along the route is said to amount to millions of dollars. Food and drink sales send middle-school foreign language students to other countries or even go toward buying a prosthetic leg for a local. A goodwill donation to the Humane Society earned me a pulled-pork sandwich in one town, and at another stop I bought a local Hub City Pale Ale to benefit a farmer’s daughter’s college fund.
“I can always justify buying beer,” one cyclist told me. “But it’s even easier if it’s going to a good cause.”
Not that most on RAGBRAI needed much justification. Many are part of teams with beer-themed matching jerseys, such as Team Good Beer, Team Brew Ha Ha and Team Brew Crew. Others dressed up to party in gear like leisure suits or Banana Man’s full body peel. One rider, cycling from Montreal to Argentina, was biking to as many brew pubs as possible, and he took a detour just to experience RAGBRAI. Team Pokey Spoke printed up T-shirts with a handy 10-step “RAGBRAI for Dummies” guide on the back. Every other number—between items like “apply butt cream” and “take a nap”—is “drink beer.”
If you reach a town with especially hospitable residents, you may even score free beer. Well, not completely free. Usually it’s in conjunction with another offer, but few things like free beer will get cyclists to stop in the first place.
“FREE BEER!” yelled a group lining a city block on Clear Lake. “We’re not kidding! I would not kid about something like FREE BEER!”
I had to stop. After some 80 miles we had just entered the final town of the day, where campsites on school properties and all-you-can-eat dinners put on by church groups awaited. The irresistible smells of grilled sweet corn and pork chops and the sounds of concerts and party-goers resonated from Main Street. But those could come after free beer.
Turns out, the local resident was offering beer in hopes that cyclists would rent a shower for $5 after draining a plastic cup or two of his keg. On RAGBRAI, light beer gets guzzled like Gatorade. When it’s 90 degrees with no shade, few things are more refreshing than a light beer. You can only drink so much sugary sports drink, and water gets boring. There’s nothing like a low-ABV, ice-cold light beer after a long, sweaty day on the bike. It actually gives you new appreciation for macrobrews.
That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy micros, too. New Belgium, for instance, provided text alerts of where to find Fat Tire along the route. It also helped to know the right people. On my first day of RAGBRAI, I received guides from the friendly beer ambassadors of Team Good Beer and Team Brew Ha Ha. These provided invaluable insight into where to find craft beer from liquor stores or bars in rural Iowa, which isn’t an easy task. Or you could just find one of the team’s buses in town, hop on and they’d offer you a cold one. Some even poured homebrew.
Sometimes you don’t even have to wait for the next town to party. One day, I found myself riding with a group called Team Roadkill, which was sponsored by Summit Beer. We were holding a respectable pace and getting to know each other when we suddenly realized we took a wrong turn. Not to worry. We stopped on the side of the road, grabbed the map, and someone pulled out bottles of Boulevard beer for everyone while we figured out how to navigate back.
Another day, I stopped to check out why thousands of cyclists were lingering at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. In addition to the country music DJ, there was a swing high above a pond that people were using to cannonball. It was fun while it lasted. Too many people were diving naked, and authorities shut it down.
“We got blamed for that,” someone from Team Brew Ha Ha told me the next day. “All because someone from our team took her top off and cut the line.”
The final day of RAGBRAI was almost a literal roller coaster. The route took us through the real “Field of Dreams” set in Dyersville, where cyclists lined up 30 deep for their turn at bat like Shoeless Joe Jackson. Then we all had to pedal up a brutal mile-long, 19 percent-grade monster of a hill. Finally, we pedaled all the way down to the Mississippi River to dip our front tires into the water, signifying the end of the road. By then we were tired, achy, smelly—and exhilarated by the journey. After that, it’s a little hard to return to the office.
“It’s culture shock,” said a woman from Team Bad Boy, who all met each other 20 years ago in a Colorado bar. “I need to remind myself not to say things around my co-workers like, ‘I need to go take a piss in a cornfield.’”
For the next 51 weeks out of the year, most of the riders return to quiet, normal lives. Until someone utters the code word in an unsuspecting setting. Then, no matter where you are, you’re instantly partying in Iowa. •
Tim Cigelske is DRAFT’s Beer Runner blogger.