Of all the characters I imagined I might meet along Wednesday’s 50-mile rolling route from Des Moines to Knoxville, the “Condom King” of RAGBRAI probably surprised me most.
But before I reached him I pedaled out of Des Moines amid a gaggle of confused out-of-staters on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
A rider with what sounded like a Texas drawl speculated what that gleaming golden dome might be as we snaked along Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. He wasn’t the only one whose first guess was a church, not the Iowa Capitol.
The day’s first steep climb ran alongside the Capitol. One rider remarked there at 8:09 a.m.: “Nothing like a hill to kill a good beer buzz.”
Day Four might be when RAGBRAI’s “Lord of the Flies”- style societal fraying begins to show.
No beer was served outside Des Moines at Adelphi Calvary Baptist Church. But the congregation sliced up 150 watermelons to give away. Their ultimate goal was to hand out excerpts of Scripture. But for those uninterested in being filled with that sort of spirit, a small air compressor was plugged in on the lawn to provide earthly air.
The Christmas-themed cacophony in Runnells was impressive. But I was drawn inside to the quiet refuge of a century-old Latter-day Saints church on the corner that a few years ago became the Runnells Historical Society.
Inside, Sara Dixon explained that she’s riding her first RAGBRAI because it runs through this town where she grew up.
“It’s like an old-home journey,” she said while browsing sepia-toned class photo composites. “It’s been an emotional day.”
Dixon and her sister, Ann DeLange, both from the Dayton, Ohio, area, pointed to their father Bob Beattie’s senior picture as well as their grandparents’ black-and-white faces.
Four of Beattie’s five adult children are spending the week together on the ride.
I sometimes forget that RAGBRAI isn’t always a zany introduction to Iowa; sometimes it offers reclamation.
There was plenty of encouragement Wednesday, from the crack Southeast Polk pep band in Runnells to the Prairie City-Monroe cheerleaders on the square in Monroe.
Riders gathered around the fountain and beneath the shade in the square, grooving to organ jazz — and by “grooving” I guess I mean that they were either splayed on the lawn or slurping a smoothie.
Adam Smith of Team Bonjour Kitty from San Francisco was clad in a hooded Scooby-Doo body suit. Smith, 41, originally from England, is a member of the team that has become famous for its themed daily costumes, such as lingerie and Hello Kitty. Wednesday was themeless, so Smith chose his $20 Scooby getup on what he expected to be the week’s coolest day.
There must be a charitable mission behind this kookiness?
“No, no,” he said. “It’s very narcissistic. We only do it for ourselves, because we like it.”
For some reason that seemed a refreshing RAGBRAI perspective: no agenda, all quirk.
The day’s sightseeing spectacle was the mile-long bridge across the Des Moines River at the edge of Lake Red Rock. Stopping on the bridge was forbidden, but I found Brad and Lorie Armstrong clambering atop the rail at the north end to pose for photos with the scenic, watery backdrop.
Lorie, an Ironman triathlete (most recently qualifying in 2009), bypassed vacations to New Zealand, Australia, Alaska and the beaches of Hawaii in favor of the roads of RAGBRAI as the perfect way to celebrate her 60th birthday.
“I don’t like to sit on the couch much,” she guffawed.
Brad’s training was one hour per day on a spinning bike for a month and a half. “But that 83-mile day — slayed it, baby,” boasted Brad, 59.
The couple never had set foot in Iowa before this week, but Lorie already was yowling out a hearty “Pork Chooooop!” when asked for a favorite roadside highlight.
Not to neglect the Condom King: It was easy to spot Charlie Newman from Champaign, Ill., with a golden plastic tiara atop his helmet. The 19-year-old with the Skunks is on his first RAGBRAI.
As the story goes, Newman’s friend from Ames is a RAGBRAI veteran and former Planned Parenthood employee who receives 1,000 condoms to give away each year on the ride.
So Newman was pressed into service, carrying bags of 100 condoms on his bike and perfecting what he called the “uphill condom pass” to fellow riders inching along.
By the Wednesday of RAGBRAI, Christmas in Runnells, Scooby-Doo and the Condom King begin to seem almost normal — and not just to the guy with the 8 a.m. beer buzz.
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