Davenport, Ia. — If I rode RAGBRAI for no other reason than to pedal myself ravenous and then enjoy a roadside breakfast of Amish gooseberry pie a la Mode, I contend that my sweaty, sunburned week could be justified.
Saturday morning I forked my final heavenly slice of RAGBRAI 2015 pie while slumped on a folding chair next to a cornfield. Randy Neuendorf of Waverly sat nearby.
“I appreciate the beauty of Iowa much more now,” Neuendorf said of his first full RAGBRAI.
He and his friends had left Iowa City at 5 a.m., before the main glut of riders got rolling. So his final miles were dominated by the rural serenity, not RAGBRAI’s usual dense circus.
“I think I kind of prefer the craziness a little bit,” he admitted.
Denise Griswold from Phoenix, Ariz., emerged from her pit stop in the corn and returned to the pie stand.
“It was harder than I thought,” she said of her first RAGBRAI. “Cooler than I thought. But a lot of fun. A lot of cool people.”
That’s as good a summary as any. One of the coolest people I met was Bob Studer of Ames, who qualifies as one of our wise elders on wheels. I shared lunch with him inside a grocery store in downtown Aplington. He sipped a chocolate milk. Studer, 79, has pedaled RAGBRAI continuously since the fifth ride.
“Everybody says, ‘How do you do it?’” he said of the reactions from his fellow bicyclists as they pass him hunched over on his carbon-fiber Trek.
Studer tapped a finger on his noggin, smiled and said, “Put it up here first.”
Sheer stubborn willpower: RAGBRAI is good for cultivating that trait.
Not to mention that Studer was a litigation engineer for the Iowa Department of Transportation — so he knows every crack and crevice of the roads of RAGBRAI more intimately than most.
Speaking of roads, I biked 87 percent of the week’s 462 miles — although in circling the entire perimeter of Credit Island to reach the Davenport dip site I felt as if I might have made up the difference.
I hit my deadlines but not, thankfully, the pavement.
I reveled in sweet (tart?) victory with my colleagues Michael Morain and Tim Meinch when we defeated National Public Radio’s “No Pie Refused” team in a pie-eating contest Friday in Mt. Vernon. Kudos to our radio friends, though: They have added heaps of journalist camaraderie to RAGBRAI in their three years on the route. Long may they ride!
And if Barb Mozingo of Mt. Vernon ever offers to bake you a rhubarb cream pie, take her up on the offer. Savor it, don’t scarf it like I did in the contest.
Speaking of pie (yet again), I met Eddie Senn in the library in Vinton. He handed me the card he doles out to riders along the way: One side features a recipe for chess pie (a Southern, custardy classic). The other gives his address in Washington, D.C., with a request to please send him your favorite recipe. He tried this last year for the first time and received about 100 recipes. I warned him that I’ll want an early copy of his cookbook if he ever publishes “Recipes of RAGBRAI.”
While pedaling I couldn’t decide which RAGBRAI variation seemed least attractive: on a unicycle, skateboard or roller blades.
I took note that both craft beer and human foosball seemed to be the two official booming trends of this year’s ride.
Helmet-mounted GoPro video cameras are the trendy accessory.
The hay-bale toss in Solon — bales with duct-tape handles that must be heaved over a high-jump bar without knocking it off its posts — might have been my favorite spectator sport.
Sorry, Team Roadkill: I noticed only two stiff critters along the route. You must have missed the skunk that was perfectly positioned, its upraised paws just begging to be decorated with pieces of candy.
Speaking of things that emit a foul stench, I was happy to see sparse politicking by presidential candidates along the route. The big, blue Trump bus parked near the nightly RAGBRAI concert seemed to be the most glaring presence (of course).
I was heartened to see Team Shirzanan, a women’s team of Muslim athletes from around the globe, embraced by RAGBRAI. But then I cringed when I passed a house west of Vinton where some idiot flew the Confederate flag in the front yard. It might have been recently purchased, because it also was emblazoned with the phrase “I ain’t Confederate.” As if that specious claim makes it OK to display a racist symbol as tourists from around the globe roll by your door.
This wasn’t a hot year for RAGBRAI (horror stories from 2012 still abound), yet shade was my most precious commodity. Beneath a towering pair of maple trees I met Ted Stueck. The farmer, 72, takes a three-mile walk daily — a walk that was made much more colorful by RAGBRAI.
My favorite request of the week might have been from Randy Greenberg of Austin, Texas. He sat down next to me and asked, “Would you take a photo of me with my raisin cream pie?” I happily obliged.
One of my favorite signs of the week adorned a Kybo at a rural beer and food stand: “Please: No pork chop bones in the pottie (sic).”
Friday I tried to “go civilian” — mostly skip work and experience the real RAGBRAI for once that everybody keeps telling me about.
I even went so far as to linger at a convenience store in Springville to stand in line for an indoor restroom.
I know: I’m pathetic.
At this point it’s difficult to switch off the hawkish reporter instinct. I still caught myself scrutinizing fellow riders and scanning the landscape for any hint of a newsworthy detail.
Then again, my role as roving journalist does force me to talk to more people. And RAGBRAI might be the best place in the world for converting strangers into friends.
“The people that you meet — bicycles are the best,” Studer told me over our lunch in Aplington.
I ended my week with what tasted like the world’s most delicious quinoa salad at a cafe in downtown Davenport.
It wasn’t a fat slab of a pork chop served with a paper towel. But I need to save some sort of motivation to get me through my first grueling day of hills next year.
See you in 2016, RAGBRAI Nation.
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