Finding community in RAGBRAI

BY CHRIS CLARK | JULY 24, 2009 7:15 AM

More than 10,000 people on a 442-mile bike ride across an entire state drinking countless cases of beer and eating daily at places like Mr. Porkchop, Mama Raphael’s, and Tender Tom’s — a life only RAGBRAI riders know.

But what do I find most compelling about this week — an event drawing thousands of people, some from the other side of the world, to ride their bikes across Iowa?

The sense of community.

I have never been on RAGBRAI, and I am not originally from Iowa. I came on this trip with no expectations, ultimately knowing nothing beyond a universal opinion that “RAGBRAI is awesome.”

When I arrived in Council Bluffs with Team Deere-Heart on July 18, things were less than ideal.

I knew almost no one I was riding with, one of the brake pads on my yellow 1970s Schwinn LeTour fell off, and I was informed I had committed the ultimate rookie mistake: not bringing a helmet.
But it didn’t take long to get comfortable.

I should have known when I noticed I was the only person to bring a bike lock or the first time I left my tent open with my computer, two cameras, and my wallet.

It hit me when I rode to the Missouri River with a few members of Team Deere-Heart on July 18 to take pictures and interview some people about the tire-dipping tradition.

As I set up to take the shot, the Deere-Heart riders stopped smiling.

“What the hell are you doing?” Doug Brodersen asked me. “Get your bike, and get your ass down here.”

It was then I got my first glimpse of what it meant to ride RAGBRAI.

From Day One, participants and residents in host communities came together to form a tightly-knit RAGBRAI family.

Driving into towns, every sign welcomes RAGBRAI riders into their communities, volunteers sit at every corner helping to direct traffic, and residents open up their homes to teams with more than 20 tents.

Everyone looks out for everyone. Whether it’s a bike accident during the day or helping a neighbor set up a tent in the rain, when you’re at RAGBRAI, you’re at home.

Even for Tim and Cindie Travis, a couple who sold their homes and quit their jobs in 2002 to pursue their dream to ride their bikes all over the world.

I originally got in contact with Cindie Travis through Twitter about a week before the trip.

I ran into the couple sitting at a picnic table near Team Deere-Heart’s camp, searching for Internet on a laptop and talking to passersby, trying to sell their books chronicling their journey across 22 countries over four continents.

Cindie and Tim Travis are riding with Team Road Show, a group of quirky unicyclists and jugglers riding with their friends, who told the couple in 2003 they were welcome to join them if they ever rode RAGBRAI.

“We immediately felt comfortable with these people,” Tim Travis said, noting their constant traveling makes it easy to meet people but hard to relate to them. “It just fit.”

Tim Travis said that because he and Cindie Travis are always riding, they were happy to drive the team’s bus in exchange for an easy way to carry boxes of their books.

“Riding really isn’t about the bikes,” Tim Travis said. “It’s more about the people you meet. The bike puts you into situations, into communities, where you can find hospitality. If you were to take a bus through a city, you just drive right through.

“On a bike, you’re right there. You’re part of whatever community you’re riding through.”

When Tim and Cindie Travis finish RAGBRAI, they will finish their ride across the country and begin writing their third book before continuing their travels. They have already started planning their next trip: a three-year trip to India and its neighbors.

But for me, the adventure ends Saturday, when I walk down to the Mississippi River, dip my front tire in the water, and smile for a picture alongside my first RAGBRAI family, Team Deere-Heart.

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