RAGBRAI Commentary: From Boone to Altoona

BY NINA EARNEST | JULY 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Everyone on RAGBRAI is a character.

I don't just mean in a quirky sense. Sure, there are plenty of helmets decorated like loons, young shirtless men belting country tunes, trumpet players, and somewhat out-of-place skateboarders to fit that description.

Traversing 300 miles across the corn and soybean state — on a bicycle, no less — seems like a crazy idea. Yet people do it — love to do it.

For that, we all must be a little different. In a good way.

Adam Raub, ready to ride in his Hawkeye biking jersey, wanted to have a good time with his buddies. Brittney Hopkins joined her family. Native Iowan Linda Steehoek loves to ride on the open road.

Retired Navy medical corps Adm. Marshall Cusic said the trek is "a great way to see the Heartland."

As for me, I was a bit of a RAGBRAI wannabe. I wanted to experience the journey thousands of bikers had talked about.

Though I love biking, I've never taken the weeklong plunge, so to speak. My father and I rode from Danville to Burlington in 2009, but it never seemed like enough of the experience. So when The Daily Iowan needed someone to ride for a day, I made sure I would be the one to go.

And I brought my dad, avid biker and RAGBRAI veteran, along with me.

We joined the pack around 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, following a 2 1/2 hour drive from Iowa City. For the next 56.1 miles between Boone and Altoona, I set out to see RAGBRAI as only a participant can.

There is little new to say about the ride itself. After 39 years, most people have read how the bikers beat the sunrise, riding in a giant pack on Iowa's cornfield-lined back highways, or how state troopers regulate the flow of traffic for bewildered drivers stuck in their cars.

Yet the people — the characters — are where the stories are.

Already aware of my one-day poser status and the fact I was wearing sneakers instead of using clipless pedals, I set out to meet the riders and discover why RAGBRAI appeals to so many people.

In Boone, I found friends Kate Erickson, Deb Gioffredi, their husbands, and a 2-inch tall figurine on Erickson's helmet named Gary Gnome.

"He goes everywhere," Gioffredi said. "If one couple takes a trip, we take Gary with us."

Gary Gnome has visited Rome, Paris, the Swiss Alps, Germany, and sections of the United States. In short, the gnome is more well-traveled than I am.

But, like Gary, I was determined to enjoy my day on the road.

Camera strapped to my back and patient father by my side, I finally started pedaling at 7 a.m. Dark clouds above threatened storms that never materialized, and the Sun managed to stay tucked behind the clouds until 10:30 a.m. The morning remained relatively cool.

Riders clogged the highway as Jennifer Lopez and Bon Jovi blared from portable radios. Everyone was on their guard for calls of "biker on," "biker off," "rumble," and "car up." Participants counted down the miles until the next small town: Luther, Slater, Sheldahl, Alleman, White Oak, Elkhart, Bondurant, and finally, Altoona.

At each town, Dad unclipped from his pedals, and we slowed to a walk. The busy town streets, so congested with riders and vendors, demanded a stop.

In Slater, I met the members of Team Navy Cycling. In Elkhart, I hastily ate a fruit granola bar bought from the local Boy Scout troop. In Bondurant, I became more determined than ever to reach Altoona in good time. As my dad astutely observed, the constant chatter heard during the start of the ride slowly died away as fatigue settled in. The more my legs began to stiffen, the harder I wanted to ride — even as the heat increased once the Sun broke free of the clouds.

Each stop gave a peek as to what RAGBRAI had to offer.

And what I discovered, through several stops and interviews, was the answer I expected all along: People love RAGBRAI because they love Iowa.

"We have a beautiful state," Steehoek said. "And you know, it's funny because you remember the towns you go through. Somebody will mention a town, and you'll say, 'Oh, I rode through that.' "

Today, thousands are stopping in Coralville. Some will seek out Kinnick Stadium, many the beer tent.

Yet either way, the town will be just one more character in your RAGBRAI adventure. Enjoy your stay.

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