It’s RAGBRAI week in Iowa and even though we’re only two days in, I’ve come to the unmistakable conclusion that RAGBRAI is worthy of all the praise that is heaped on it from points both near and far. For the uninitiated, RAGBRAI is the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It was the brainchild of two reporters who thought it was strictly a one and done kind of thing, but they’ve been doing it for 45 years now and it’s stronger than ever. It’s the granddaddy of all state bicycle tours, and people come from all over the world to participate.
The idea behind RAGBRAI is pretty simple. Start somewhere out by the Missouri River and finish on the Mississippi. In fact, tradition demands that you dip your rear tire into Big Muddy before starting and your front tire in Old Man River to finish. In between, you spend seven days and a little over 400 miles on Iowa two lane. At night you’ll get to sample seven different small towns where you are celebrated and treated like prodigal sons and daughters who have finally found their way home. The route changes every year and it’s quite an honor to be chosen as an overnight town. The competition is fierce and local communities like Orange City (this year’s night one town) pull out all the stops.
One thing that strikes me about RAGBRAI is that it isn’t over-commercialized like so many similar events. Take the official jersey. It’s corporate logo free. That’s pretty rare in this day and age. RAGBRAI Is also focused on small towns instead of the big city. The Tour of France finishes on the Champs Elysee. This year’s RAGBRAI finishes in Lansing, Iowa, which is about as far from Paris (both geographically and ideologically) as one can possibly be. Sure, we get the occasional big name. Lance Armstrong showed up a while back and Counting Crows played one of the towns a few years ago, but it’s not about them…not even a little.
And therein lies the magic. RAGBRAI isn’t about the big shots. It isn’t really even about bicycles. The bike is just an excuse to set off on a week long barnstorming tour of small town middle America. RAGBRAI is really about those small towns and eating on the lawn and listening to music and camping out with 8,500 of your closest pals between seven day long bike rides. It’s about renewing old friendships and making new ones. It’s about reconnecting with something that, deep down, we know we’ve either already lost or are at grave risk of losing. There’s a hunger for this and it’s broad and deep. It’s visceral. It’s palpable. This is the real thing.
And so people come to Iowa for a week every summer to seek out the simple that they have been denied in the rest of their lives. They get on a bicycle and in the process they become children again. They come for the magic without understanding that they are the magic and can make every day magic if they want to. Some are undoubtedly changed. So are we. They make us all better as a result.
So welcome to RAGBRAI and welcome to Iowa. We’re glad you’re here and we’re glad you brought your bikes. Ride on.