Food Feature: Spandex invasion
Hustling across the heartland for the Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa
Every year Iowa's Des Moines Register hosts the Register's Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa. More than 10,000 bikers come from around the world to experience this granddaddy of a ride, make new friends and get a little closer to America's heartland.
Being alums from the University of Iowa, my friends Pat Meskel, Jay Grissom and I decided a bike trip across the state would be an excellent mini reunion and a great way to see the state we each grew up in — inch by agonizing inch.
Somewhere I got the mistaken impression that we were only going to be riding 50 to 60 miles per day, so my training consisted of bike rides through the neighborhood, seldom exceeding three blocks. What a shocker when, on the first day, we found out we'd be averaging more than 80 miles a day.
We didn't realize this until somebody pulled us aside at a volleyball game in Beebletown (population 19) on day one. We'd been having beers and playing volleyball there since 9:30 a.m.
"Aren't you worried about making it to the next town by sundown?" the person asked.
"No," we replied. "We only have 20 miles left."
It was then that the person informed us that a bridge had been washed out the week before and the trail had to be retooled, adding an additional 45 miles to the route. We had 65 left to go! It was 4 p.m.
We got into town that night well past nightfall and missed the dinner the local Shriners were hosting at the high school gym, so we had to ride around town looking for a Taco Bell — excellent fuel for the next day's journey.
Most people on the ride get up around 6 a.m. to get an early start. On our second day, we woke up at 9 a.m. The campground was nearly empty when we stuck our heads out of the tent. We didn't have time to pack. We just grabbed our stuff, shoved it on the truck and hopped on our bikes. On our way out of town an elderly man walking down the street looked at us and yelled, "You guys are never going to make it!"
The great thing about being behind the rest of the group is that you get to have the whole state to yourself — and Iowa is a beautiful state. Farm plots spread out like patchwork. Families set up booths on the side of the road to sell water, bananas, hot dogs and homemade ice cream.
Contrary to popular belief, Iowa is not flat. It has one hill that begins on the west side of the state and rises gradually at an angle of about 20 degrees until you get to the east side of the state. The angle of incline is just enough to hurt your legs.
Bag portage is included in the $100 application fee, but like most bikers, we teamed up with another group in advance to rent a yellow Ryder truck. We didn't realize there would be 3,000 other trucks just like ours on the trip or that we'd spend our evenings riding from truck to truck looking for our campsite. Each night we'd tell our driver he needed to find something, a flag, anything to make our truck stand out from others. He'd nod his head like he understood, but he never got a flag. By the third day we were no longer on speaking terms with our driver.
On the fourth day, Pat began to complain that he couldn't get the 1985 Falco hit "Rock Me Amadeus" out of his head. He'd suddenly break out with "super-stah ... zzz-zzz-zzz-zooper-stah." I myself had R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" going through my head — not the whole song, just the annoying part that goes "If you belieeeeve, they put a man on the moon." That phrase ran through my mind repeatedly as I drove past miles and miles of cornfields with only the butt of the rider ahead of me to look at for a change of scenery.
I was on a mountain bike with wheels so thick they were more suitable for a Mack truck than a bicycle. Jay and Pat were riding well-equipped road bikes, so I had to peddle twice as hard as they did just to go half their speed. By the time I'd catch up to them in each town, they'd be ready to go again. The only rest I got was at night when I was sleeping.
The campgrounds, which were usually spread out among parks and football fields, were nothing more than shantytowns of Spandex-clad squatters. We were like a traveling caravan of refugees. Tents poked out among Ryder trucks, dirty laundry was strung from tent top to tent top and people walked with a hobble.
Each night a church or social group would offer dinner at the high school cafeteria — ham, goulash, home-baked pies and cookies — but because we'd spend a good hour looking for our truck, we usually missed it. The next stop was the shower, and the showers were always cold. I'll never forget waiting outside the shower bunker in Marshalltown with my towel, listening to the screams of agony coming from the grown men inside. It was like a death chamber in there.
The towns would go all out to welcome the riders. Children would line the streets to slap our hands as we rode by while senior citizens sat smiling in nearby lawn chairs. Some towns would bring out their high school marching bands to toot their horns as riders passed through. I always felt like a hero, riding through these quaint little Iowa towns as the marching band played warbled versions of John Phillip Sousa masterpieces off in the distance.
It's a tradition to start the journey by tipping your back tire in the Missouri River. You end the journey by tipping your front tire in the Mississippi. Between these two bodies of water we put 610 miles on Pat's odometer.
After tipping my front tire in the Mississippi, I collapsed.
The Register's Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa XXIX runs July 22-28. Applications and entry fee must be received by April 1. Go to www.ragbrai.com for forms and information.