Beyond Mapleton the flat expanse of cornfields gave way to the Loess Hills, Is ANYBODY WALKING YET? read a sign posted near the brow of a long slope. THE HILLS GET MUCH WORSE AFTER DANBURY, another said. "Anyone who came here thinking Iowa is flat is going home with a different view," said Phil Wirsing of Rochester, N.Y.
No one was happier to reach Lake View, the first night's stop, than Marty McDougall and Beth Wilson. They had planned to marry at 4 p.m. on a stone pier jutting into Blackhawk Lake, but they lingered too long in Wall Lake, the previous town. They pedaled to the altar about a half hour late, dismounted and exchanged vows wearing black cycling shorts and T-shirts, then spent the night in a tent.
They weren't the only ones pedaling with a sense of occasion. Heidi Soliday, a sportscaster for KCCI-TV in Des Moines, started the ride although she was more than eight months pregnant. "It was my eighth straight RAGBRAI," Soliday said after finishing. "I wasn't going to let a little thing like pregnancy interfere." She reluctantly agreed to take it easy this time; she rode only on selected days, and she carried a cellular phone just in case.
The rides were long but never dull. For one thing, a particular humor attends RAGBRAI. This year's joke: Tom Hanks is making a movie about RAGBRAI. It's going to be called Sorest Rump. Halfway through Tuesday's 75-mile ride to Iowa Falls, I was passed by a bearded man wearing a red-striped dress. Ed Gelles of Knoxville, Iowa, rolled along on a 1941 bike equipped with a single gear. A sign on it said GEARS ARE FOR WIMPS. Logan Hottle of Philadelphia covered all 500 miles with her cairn terrier, Shelby, in her front basket.
It's hard to get bored when you stop for sustenance every five miles. The RAGBRAI is said to be the only 500-mile bike trip on which participants often gain 10 pounds. I began each day at the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast for 2,000, served under a tent. The rest of the day was a movable feast. Every farm sold lemonade; every town offered bratwurst and beer.
The most ardent eater of all was Mark (Dr. Pie) Hilton, a De Witt, Iowa, veterinarian and the official RAGBRAI pie judge. Traveling with his own six-member Team Pie ("pedalin' for a piece" was its motto), Hilton sampled 20 or so slices along the route and graded them on a scale from zero to 100. This year's winner: a pecan-and-coconut concoction called "sawdust pie," which was baked by Elaine Wardenburg, a co-owner of Emma's Tea Room in Williamsburg. Hilton declared it the best he had tasted in five years of judging.
Gluttony is excusable when you're covering great distances. On the fourth day road-toughened legs propelled us 98 miles (with an optional spur for those who wished to surpass 100). But the triumphant day ended on a sad note: one of RAGBRAI's old guard, 81-year-old Madeleo Blake, died of a heart attack that night in his camper after cycling the optional miles and eating a generous dinner. It was his 20th RAGBRAI. "This is the way he would have chosen to go," said his wife, Ileane.
The next day we biked 75 miles into southeast Iowa—a modest distance that turned difficult when a 30-mph headwind stirred cornfields into violent motion. We fought for every yard, even downhill. I felt as if I were dragging a manhole cover.
A touch of sunstroke had made me loopy by the time I reached Keswick, so I ducked into the American Legion hall for a slice of rhubarb pie. A cyclist lifted her head from the table and vowed she would give her bike away rather than face the day's 10 remaining miles. She was not alone. Three thousand bikers gave up and rode to Sigourney in vans known as sag wagons. By the time I dragged into Sigourney that afternoon, the massage tent looked like a M*A*S*H* unit. Some had dubbed the day Terrible Thursday, others 4-H Day, for heat, humidity, hills and head-wind.
After a glorious 60-mile ride expedited by merciful tailwinds on Friday, we faced on Saturday a 48-mile sprint to the finish in the town of Muscatine, a onetime home of Mark Twain. In West Branch I ate my last stack of pancakes, outside the cottage where Herbert Hoover was born. "This is a downer of a day," Pete Nicolai of Sioux Falls, S.Dak., said as we paused in West Liberty, the penultimate town. "In a few miles the rush to exchange addresses will begin. Twenty-four hours from now we'll all be missing RAGBRAI."