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Cycling as life lesson

BY JUSTUS FLAIR | JULY 23, 2014 5:00 AM

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Like any native Iowan, Brian David Bruns knows all about RAGBRAI, the world’s longest, oldest, and largest bicycle touring event, which spans the state of Iowa. The cyclists’ journeys last one week, during which they will cover nearly 500 miles. Bruns knew all this, but he’d never completed the trip himself, so when an old high-school friend suggested they do it, Bruns began training and made plans to come back to his home state. Though he expected just a long bike ride, the journey had a profound impact and led Bruns, a travel writer, so his newest book, Rumble Yell: Discovering America’s Biggest Bike Ride. The Daily Iowan spoke with Bruns about his book, RAGBRAI, and his journey of discovery.

The Daily Iowan: You decided to ride RAGBRAI to reunite with a friend after 20 years. Why was the reunion important enough to bring you back to Iowa for a 500-mile bike ride?

Bruns: We all know about RAGBRAI if you grew up in Iowa like I did, but I didn’t know anyone who’d actually done it, so I had this opportunity to do it. You never really know your home until you leave it. It was more about rediscovering Iowa than it was about rekindling the friendship, to be honest.

DI: You pedaled 500 miles in Iowa’s summer weather, which is often over 100 degrees, yet you said you actually gained weight during the trip. Explain that to me.

Bruns: One of the things you discover about RAGBRAI is what I like to call the Four Ps: pancakes, pork, pie, and pilsner. Those four things will greet you at every small town, every big town, every overnight stop. So by the end of the trip, I needed to ride another 500 miles to lose the weight I’d gained. But it’s a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that.

DI: What was the most difficult part of RAGBRAI?

Bruns: I’m going to have to say — I wasn’t used to riding in crowds, and that scared me. I trained outside of Las Vegas, that’s where I live now. You’ll see in Tour de France where one bike crashes and suddenly 30 bikes go down, and that’s what I was afraid of, all the people. And when I got here, the people ended up being the best part. I think it’s kind of a metaphor for life — you’re scared to do something until you actually get out there and do it.

DI: What did you learn about yourself on the journey?

Bruns: I learned little things about myself, you could say. When you’re on Day 5 or 6 and it’s just been corn and corn and heat, you have a lot of time for introspection. And, of course, a lot of us don’t do that, we go to great pains to avoid it. I learned a lot about myself. I’ve been to more than 50 countries, and I still call Iowa home even though I don’t live here anymore. I rediscovered that who I am is very much a product of my home state of Iowa. I always thought it was Mom and Dad, but it’s Iowa. Iowa is kind of like a mirror; I looked at myself and that’s all Iowa.

DI: What did you learn about your home state?

Bruns: Honestly, I learned more in seven days of RAGBRAI than I did living 25 years in Cedar Rapids. When you’re growing up, what starry-eyed teenager is going to want to go to a small farming town of 100 people? And RAGBRAI, of course, is all about the small towns. Each and every little city that’s sprinkled throughout the state, they all have their secrets and histories and are worth visiting.

I’ll give you my favorite example: Templeton makes world-class rye whiskey that was actually Al Capone’s favorite. They’re so proud of their bootlegging history in Templeton that they actually have signs all around their city park. The kids are learning about nuns that hid booze up their skirts, and they’re all so proud. I thought that was great.

DI: What was the most important take-away you got from RAGBRAI? Why would you recommend the journey to others?

Bruns: The one takeaway is that RAGBRAI is not about biking, it’s about people. And Iowa is special, so don’t take it for granted. I certainly did before. Iowans have that saying, “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.” Coming back as a stranger, I discovered how true it was.

DI: Walk me through the process from bike ride to book.

Bruns: I’m a travel writer, so I know how to look at things with that in mind. I’m a good observer. I never intended to write a book; this was supposed to be a vacation. I learned long ago to always take notes, so throughout the seven days I dictated the whole time. When I look back, I realize the book wrote itself. Each day there was something new and crucial to RAGBRAI. This was the easiest book to write of all my books.

DI: Are you riding RAGBRAI again this year?

Bruns: No, I’m not riding this year, but I will be with RAGBRAI the last few days promoting my book. This is my big PR year, so I’ve been running myself ragged. I’ll ride next year, though.

DI: You finished the ride once, which is more than most people can say, and you’ve completed your book about the journey; why ride again?

Bruns: The experience is that good. The route changes every year. When you’re doing this, by Day 5 or 6, you’re grumbling because of the corn and the heat and swearing you’re never going to do this again, but on Day 7, as you dip your tire into the Mississippi River, you’re already planning the next time.


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