Posted by: trevormeers | August 5, 2011

Day 6: Pedalin’ Like the Paparazzi

Dispatches from a week-long bicycle trek across Iowa.

With a rolling population of about 15,000 people, RAGBRAI is no less than a mobile town that changes its ZIP code every couple of hours on the way from the Missouri to the Mississippi. Each evening, the riders and their support teams swarm across a host town, with tents and gaudily painted buses filling seemingly every ballfield and residential yard. By daylight, most of them have rolled up their tents and moved the show east.

Despite the perpetual motion, life in this small town has a lot in common with that in any other. For one thing, you run into the same faces with surprising frequency, even though all of you are stretched across 60 or more miles of highway, because RAGBRAI has a brand of celebrity all its own.

Lance in Iowa a few years back.

Lance Armstrong, for one, made one of his semi-regular RAGBRAI appearances this year, riding from Carroll to Boone. Despite being the buzz of the tour (several handmade signs said, “Lance! Stop here!”), Lance was hard to track down, even by newspaper reporters sent out to watch him. Some have wondered whether Lance’s aura has dimmed due to the doping allegations finding increasing traction on his once-Teflon reputation, but based on the number of jerseys bearing the Live Strong and Mellow Johnny’s (Armstrong’s Austin, Texas, bike shop) logos, Lance is still big business.

Pretty much every day, I had to put up with the Air Force cycling team’s unis making my job sound pretty lame with their slogan of, “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.”

This guy, as far as I know, rode all 454 miles on his old-school “safety” bicycle, just like a dude on the wallpaper at Spaghetti Works. The pedals on his bike are connected directly to the enormous front wheel, meaning that there’s no coasting, since the pedals spin anytime the wheel turns. And brakes consist of you finding a way to hold the pedals down to a manageable speed. This older photo doesn’t show it, but on this year’s ride, he sported a waxed handlebar ‘stache that probably provided some kind of pedaling mojo.

Every day, I passed Blake a couple of times, one time hearing someone yell, “Hey, there’s Skateboard Guy! He’s famous!” Blake was shredding his way across the entire state on his skateboard as a fundraiser for a project to dig wells in Africa. Each morning, I’d see him steadily doing his push-glide-push routine along the highway, styrofoam coffee cup in hand.

Banana Man, who spends the other 51 weeks of the year as an accountant, made a near-daily appearance with his tandem recumbent decked out like a ripe Chiquita. Late in the week, he was joined by a whole bunch of riders dressed as bananas, with the Chiquita girl riding by yelling to people, “If anyone sees Banana Man, tell him I’m waiting for him at the top of the next hill.”

Several college-age riders did at least one day in leisure suits and Ray-Ban shades. Another guy rocked a Chicago Blackhawks hockey helmet while taking on Iowa on a banana-seat bike with ape-hanger handlebars.

I ran into these two Elvii as they were sitting down to turkey drumsticks from Tender Tom’s. “Oh, man,” Elvis #1 said. “I’ve been looking forward to this all day.” Elvis #2 told me that they started out with four guys in jumpsuits on their squad, but one fell to a tendon injury. The other one? “Oh, man,” Elvis 1 said. “He’s fast. He’s gone up there somewhere.” Being a good reporter, I asked Elvis 1 for his real name and dutifully started taking notes as he said, “Uh, sure. That’s Aaron. A, a….” He was snorting into his drumstick when I caught onto the joke.

Obviously, the best way to get noticed on the ride is to come up with some schtick that makes the ride far more difficult and uncomfortable in the interest of a good laugh. But the riders that kept making the deepest impression throughout the week were the ones who needed no antics to raise the difficulty. Each day, I’d pull up some hill past a guy in a hand-crank bike, relying on his arms to make the journey his legs can no longer power. Every time, I wanted to say something trite to encourage the guy, but everyone else passed in silence, and I decided that the best approach was treating these riders just like all the others.

Toward the end of the week, I was standing with a photographer when a rider stopped and said, “You’ll want to get a shot of this guy coming up. He’s on a hand-crank bike and is like 70 years old.” There was something that looked like a hockey stick pointing above his seat, and I wondered what it was. The other rider said, “It says it’s his ‘Help me up the hill handle.’ I guess you’re supposed to push it to give him a hand.” The road here was dead flat, but judging by the way the rider was cranking, I don’t know how much help he’d needed over the week, even when things got hilly.

Don Saxton in The Oxford Project.

My favorite RAGBRAI celebrity of the week was probably a celebrity to me alone. Riding into Oxford, I felt like I was entering storied ground, thanks to The Oxford Project. This book showcased photos taken of nearly all of Oxford’s 676 citizens in 1984 and 2004. It’s a fascinating look at not only small-town life, but how we see ourselves when captured in moments two decades apart. One of my favorite shots in the book shows a guy named Don Saxton. Between the two shots, almost nothing has changed. Don, a retired teacher who has been mayor since 1974, wears almost exactly the same shirt, pants and glasses. His arms drape down in both shots in a bland, generic line, and his wristwatch is slid halfway up his forearm in both 1984 and 2004. He told the book’s creators, “I’m satisfied here. Never thought of moving. My roots are too deep.”

As I sat in the Oxford fire hall eating a ham ball sundae, I glanced up and noticed the pose and the watch before I saw the face. There was no mistaking Don, even though he’d traded the short-sleeved dress shirt for a T-shirt on the big RAGBRAI day. The look had worked for him for 20 years, so why shouldn’t I expect to see it on the day I stopped into Oxford? I snapped a picture of Don just so I could compare it to the book later, but I never did get up and go talk to him. It seemed like he’d said all he wanted to in the book, and, besides, you never know what to say to celebrities.

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