Posted by: trevormeers | June 10, 2011

Two Days on the Bike & I’m a Gonna’ Make It Home Tonight

In the long-ago days, before clocks or calendars came to the endless prairie that would become Iowa, the native tribes marked summer’s arrival by the coming of the bicyclists. Today, Iowans still know June by the lovelorn blinking of fireflies in the front window and the trains of Spandex-clad riders stretched along the white lines of county highways. They’re all migrating in a sense, eventually winding up in a mass congregation somewhere on Iowa’s western edge on a Saturday afternoon in late July. This is where they launch RAGBRAI, an annual bike ride of 500-ish miles from the Missouri to Mississippi.

Swap out the name on the welcome sign, and you can repeat this scene 10 or 12 times a day on a ride across Iowa.

Up to 30,000 cyclists join the throng each day, but before that great river of gears starts churning east, a trickle of riders checks out the route in early June, and I just spent a couple of days with them, doing preliminary research for a magazine story based on the actual ride in 7 weeks.

RAGBRAI, unlike the cinnamon rolls at your local bakery, really is world-famous. Cyclists come from around the globe to participate in the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa and witness a rural life they wouldn’t believe existed until they’d spent a week pedaling through it. The ride’s name is pronounced by all humans but one as “RAG-brye.” The only adherent to the alternate pronunciation is John Karras, one of two Des Moines Register reporters who founded the ride in the early ‘70s. Karras, now well into his 70s, I think, insists the name is “RAG-bray,” because “ai” always makes an “ay” sound. He’s cranky even at the people who now operate the ride for getting this wrong.

Banana Man prepares to--wait for it--peel out of the parking lot.

On the days I joined the pre-ride, about 25 people came along, making our days a statistically valid microcosm of the larger RAGBRAI to come. On the first day, we met three of RAGBRAI’s Four Horsemen: Heat, humidity and headwind. (Hills were mostly absent in the flat center of the state.) We danced with both heat stroke and hypothermia in a 24-hour span, leaping from a 97-degree heat index to 55 and rain.

The riders themselves were equally diverse, at least in an Iowa cyclist kind of way. There were a couple of triathletes. Several very heavy dudes who can still generate surprising speed on a bike, although mostly on the downhills. A wheelchair user pumping out the miles with a hand-cranked bike (insert inspiration here). A couple who never got more than 10 feet apart and seemed to be absolutely thrilled with every moment of the day. And, of course, Banana Man.

“Is this the place for the pre-ride meet-up?” Banana Man asked me at 7:30 a.m. outside the Boone swimming pool. He was pulling on a body-length banana outfit that included a large pointy top and the initials “BM” on the back. As we chatted about the fact that neither of us knew exactly what we were doing, he stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Banana Man, by the way.” I said, “I gathered,” and we set off through the park to find the ride.

Our day-one tour of about 55 miles was one of the week’s easier rides. We rolled through endless acres of foot-high corn, with the occasional soybean field mixed in just to prove that crop rotation hasn’t completely lost out to government corn subsidies. The only trees in sight towered in stands dropped here and there on the horizon, signaling a farmstead. When we passed a newer house with only spindly saplings in the yard, it provided a reminder of the completely arbitrary nature of placing a home out here. The old farms may seem like they’ve always belonged in their leafy oases, but 100 years ago, they, too, were plunked down on the prairie to battle the wind in a spot that seemed as good as any other.

Whirring through the route’s tiny towns, I was reminded that even though I live pretty much in the country and consider myself rural folk at heart, I spend most days cut off from the world of centralized high schools, water towers and volunteer fire departments that pay for their trucks with softball tournaments. In March, I attended a planning meeting where representatives of each RAGBRAI town were asked to stand and share their town’s claim to fame.

Alleman: “The only thing that makes us unique is the twin TV towers. Hopefully, we’ll become famous for something else.”

Mitchellville: “Well, we have the girls’ prison, I guess.”

Dedham: “We’re a town of 360, and our bar is the third largest bar for our beer distributor.”

Ladora: “We had the Jello wrestling pit during the 2006 RAGBRAI until the Highway Patrol shut us down.”

As the meeting was starting, I helped myself to coffee from a cardboard box from Panera Bread. An older guy walked up, looked at the java pouring out of a box, pushed back his cap and said, “Well. Now I have seen everything.”

In meeting all the local gentry, I came away not with a feeling of superiority, but a little envy. As clichéd as it sounds, their pride and all-out investment in keeping their towns going are inspiring. RAGBRAI plays a big role in that, as most pass-through towns have playgrounds, church roofs and numerous other projects funded by cash raised selling food and drink to bicyclists. The North Polk Comets wrestlers set up a fund-raiser in 2006 and are just coming to the end of the money in 2011.

If company's comin' on the RAGBRAI route, you put out the pie. We found this waiting for us in Elkhart.

On RAGBRAI, home cooking is an economic development engine. Riders burn somewhere around 35,000 calories during RAGBRAI, and most of them probably still gain a little weight during the ride thanks to an endless supply of pie, ham balls, sweet corn, pork chops and the infamous Country Boy Burritos.

As we rolled toward Alleman, Banana Man cranked up beside me and told me his story of the Country Boy, which, he said, “is longer than my arm.” Banana Man rides a recumbent bike outfitted with a tiny speaker blaring the Beatles, Bon Jovi, AC/DC, George Thorogood and a variety of other hand-picked road tunes. When he’s not pumping up a hill, Banana Man likes to sing along.

As Thorogood ripped through “Bad to the Bone” on the speakers, Banana Man told me he went up to the Country Boy Burrito trailer last year and ordered a custom burrito. “What do you want on it?” the burrito guy asked. “I want you to hurt me,” Banana Man replied. Warming to the challenge, the burrito-ista loaded up a weapons-grade breakfast, filling the tortilla with eggs, jalapenos and any other manner of edibles he found in the trailer.

I asked Banana Man how it turned out. “The burrito won,” he said. “I guess I’m getting old.” Then we pulled into the Alleman co-op’s parking lot, and the giant banana grabbed his water bottle and walked inside to see if the locals could offer a refill to a guy still chasing the RAGBRAI dream.



  1. I’m a bit concerned about Banana man………

  2. Hmm…Banana Man meets Loin-cloth guy. I’m thinking there’s a story in that, or at least a Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi channel original movie.

  3. This is a great story…and it features my favorite superhero, BananaMan!

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