In 1973, Des Moines Register copy editor John Karras and columnist Donald Kaul conspired to escape the newsroom and meet real Iowans out on the farms by biking across the state. They invited readers to join them. To their surprise, more than 200 turned up at the designated rendezvous, a Sioux City motel.
What began as a lark has evolved into a boisterous Iowa institution. The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) has traversed the state every July for 23 years—always eastward from the Missouri River to the Mississippi in seven days, but by different routes and accompanied by proliferating hordes. "We didn't invent this, we discovered it," Kaul says. "People always wanted this kind of adventure. It's the highlight of their year."
At least a dozen states have organized copycat tours, but none of them matches the RAGBRAI in size or gusto. Imagine a Woodstock on wheels, a marathon crossed with a Mardi Gras. "The RAGBRAI is like the Grand Canyon," says Karras, now semiretired from the paper. "You can't envision it until you get there."
Nothing could have prepared me for what I found in the border town of Onawa, this year's launch point. On the eve of the race, the fourth Saturday in July, a honking caravan of Winnebagos, U-Hauls and schoolbuses outfitted with rooftop decks converged in merry gridlock. RAGBRAI's mass of 14,000 cyclists subdivides itself into clubs, charter groups and various other tribal cliques distinguished from one another by uniforms and logos. Here they came: Team Widebody, Team Tushosaurus, Team Wimpy, Team Whiners, Team Crotchety, Team Cucumber, Team Gumby, Team Cockroach, Team Barfly, Team Horny, Wisconsin's Dairy-Aires, the Flying Monkeys and the Killer Bees, among others. "It's like a big family reunion," Kevin Voysey of Two Rivers, Wis., said after dipping his rear wheel into the Missouri, the inaugural ritual of each year's ride. "Nobody is a doctor or lawyer. Barriers just drop. For seven days, it's just RAGBRAI."
Within hours the cyclists and support crew outnumbered the population of quiet little Onawa (birthplace of the Eskimo Pie) nearly four to one. An enclave of tents and booths had sprung up. There, riders drank beer, got massages, bought T-shirts, consulted repairmen, ate dinner, read the Register's front-page coverage of the event, checked the forecast and, more often than not, downed more beer. The tent city covered so much acreage that friends communicated by posting notes on a message board made of eight sheets of plywood.
I began Sunday's 70-mile trip to Lake View before dawn, pedaling down Onawa's main street, Iowa Avenue, amid a seemingly endless procession of cyclists riding three or four abreast. Soon we were surrounded by cornfields and weathered barns.
RAGBRAI is so vast, one rider would later tell me, that he lost his best friend for the whole week. Fortunately it is also oddly intimate. Strangers fall into uninhibited conversation. Bikers buddy-up for an afternoon. Some riders wear T-shirts listing topics of discussion.
"This town is quiet," somebody said as we coasted into Mapleton, the first organized rest stop on day one. "They must have been partying last night."
"This town is always quiet," a man in overalls called from a sidewalk.
In fact, Mapleton was poised to host more people than it had on any other day in history. A sea of Lycra and helmets swelled as riders milled about, refilling water bottles, sipping coffee and waiting to use portable toilets. Bikes were strewn everywhere. An old woman played a battered piano that had been carried outside for the occasion. The migration would continue for hours.