Is This Heaven? Biking through Farm Country Mixes the Field of Dreams with Dante’s Inferno

cheesehead helmets, sore knees, & Iowa hills
Eight times I’ve been on all or part of the forty annual bike rides across Iowa (Ragbrai), and that’s enough saddle-sore miles to know that a trip through the Midwest’s breadbasket state can offer plenty of contrasts. Most of the time, it is a peaceful, spandex-clad army cruising the back roads, savoring local farm food, and soaking up the remaining vestiges of small-town life. The Des Moines Register organizes ten or fifteen thousand riders who spend seven days pedaling from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. They chomp on sweet corn, inhale slices of blueberry pie, and invade towns with no stoplights but plenty of hospitality.
The 450- or 500-mile trek is a great way to see agriculture at ground level, and there is no denying, it’s grown into a monster success. But enough of the happy talk. As with anything worthwhile, a few warts can show up under those padded bicycle shorts, and this year, the conditions reminded us all that a ride through Pleasantville might have some bumps and bruises. A few examples:
#1 The Inferno: Earlier this week, the temperature reached the century mark for several days—news reports claimed the mid-afternoon pavement under our tires simmered at 130 degrees. On Tuesday, when we turned east, past the Lehigh Hill and into a stiff headwind, Dante whispered in my ear, “This is Level Five. You only have yourself to blame.”
#2 Hell Froze Over: Contrast this year to my first ride in 1981. On the second day, an 80-miler to Lake City, the temperature never climbed out of the 50s. A cold, slanting rain drove most from their bikes and eventually flooded our campsite. Citizens became angels of mercy and took shivering riders into their homes, garages, and barns.
#3 Healthfood: The term can be an oxymoron at times. Roadside stalls, church suppers, and tent breakfasts provide amazing food along the way. But the constant pedaling can be an excuse to carb-load, and not everyone eats salads, fruit, and lean meat. Pie for breakfast?  With a bacon-flavored Bloody Mary on the side? Or maybe pancake-on-a-stick, infused with sausage of course. The numerous fruit smoothies balance out the subsequent cold beers.
#4 That Fresh Country Air: And it is. Fog hugging the creeks in the pastures as bikers roll along just after sunrise—pure Grant Wood. But a confinement farm might change the mood if it’s upwind, and I remember following a loaded hog truck for a mile or so during one ride. Nothing like the smell of bacon when it’s still on the hoof.
#5 Physical Fitness: Yes, it’s aerobic, Yes, prepping for the ride gets you working out. But let’s be honest. The back? Quasimodo could sympathize. The legs? They burn fire going up some of the hills. Sunburn, helmet head, bugs in teeth, bike chain tattoos on leg calves—but the worst is still the old Dead End. No spandex girdle can keep the ride from being a pain in the padded bike shorts.
# 6 Alone Together: Those looking for a quiet ride in the park may instead choose New York City’s Central Park. Ragbrai is morning crowds swarming to the first town in a hunt for coffee and breakfast burritos, or a tire-to-tire companionship at 30-miles-an-hour downhill with someone from Germany chatting about farming. Those who don’t like the ambience of kybos or the wait for a warm shower should attend boot camp instead. 
# 7 Green Fades to Brown: The biggest negative this year was the drought—we had an eye-level view of a once verdant garden state. Corn and soybean fields that are usually green and lush were brown and shriveled. Lawns were steel wool, and streams were bone dry. You don’t fry an egg on the pavement this year—you barbecue ribs.
farmyard slip & slide cool down
But the optimism remains. The townspeople come out in force. The ride includes every type of person, every type of bike, and every type of story woven into the fabric of a one-week parade. Traditionalists on three-speeds coast by, a ten-year-old drafts behind friends like he’s in the Tour-de-France, a 64-year-old Englishman wears French clothes and rides an ancient bike. Riders might meet politicians, celebrities, Australians, Air Force members, or the 88-year-old mayor from McCallsburg.

Riders get hurt; riders get married; riders pedal along through the heart of the country wondering why they put themselves through it. Then they finish like my friend Don did this year. We load our bikes onto the car rack, and he says, “So, about January should we start planning the trip again? Some overseas friends wanna come for the next one, so maybe we could rent a camper. All tailwinds and 80-degree days next year.”  Did I mention that riding also affects the brain? by dan gogerty  (search the desmoinesregister for Ragbrai stories and photos)

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