Your Momma, Andy of Mayberry, and 35,000 Bikers

It’s only common sense nowadays: lock your doors, padlock your possessions, and protect your personal information. But on the 41st annual bike ride across Iowa (Ragbrai*), thousands of folks were breaking these rules—and many other axioms of the modern world. After all, momma always told you not to stop to help strangers along the road if they looked suspicious—and a haggard-looking biker sporting a pig-adorned helmet and wearing a jersey that says “Team Road Kill” must certainly fit that category.

This year’s ride through the rolling hills and verdant fields of Iowa boasted some of the kindest weather, shortest routes, and largest crowds in the event’s history. More than 35,000 bicyclists broke attendance records by joining the day-three leg of the week-long trip. But many things about this ride remained the same.  As always, folks in these Midwest towns unlocked their doors to strangers.

A family on the north edge of Perry opened up their house—with bedrooms and showers—to eight or ten bikers, including us. They also welcomed twenty or thirty campers in their beautiful paddock area.  As with many hosts, they provided bananas, rolls, and lively conversation—for free.

We’ve consistently had good luck in our years of cycling home-stays. We’ve slept on the porch of a classic old home in Jefferson, in the small recreation room of a family with three kids in Council Bluffs, and in the basement of a home brew specialist in Harlan.That incident was due to an act of nature. We were camped in yards when tornado sirens started wailing at 3:00 a.m. The man opened his basement to 25 or so campers, and even though we didn’t get into his strawberry wine, we didn’t get much sleep that night.

The most trusting host had to be a Tipton woman from a few years back. We biked up to her house and read a note on the door: “I’m at the church serving food. Go right in. Shower on your left. Fresh pie on the kitchen table.”

I bike with team Wasabi, a small group of friends who teach or did teach at an American school in Tokyo. Although we often ride together, it’s common to cruise alongside complete strangers for long stretches of the trip. You won’t exchange social security numbers or passwords, but in some ways, nobody is a stranger on this type of migration. You’ll hear accents from around the country and around the world. Folks describe their homes, from Dusseldorf to Denver to Dubuque. They might explain why they’re biking—for a cause (“I’m celebrating one year of beating cancer”) or a family bonding (“If I don’t strangle my husband from behind on this tandem bike, our marriage is secure”), or for metabolism purposes (“If I bike, I can consume mass quantities of ice cream, pork chops, and beer”).

With Governor Branstad, Lance Armstrong, and other notables along, you’d think I would have caught sight of a celebrity. I did see gold-clad Elvis, Batman on a bike, and the guy riding a pimped-up plastic Big Wheel. But the crowds were massive, especially in the small-town stops. Many of us would park our unlocked bikes in some alley as we visited food stalls, historical displays, or the get-your-picture-taken-with-a-goat guy. I would imagine something got stolen during the week, but I didn’t hear of it. Even the money paid to the goat guy was legit. He was raising funds for Heifer International.

And the road still features Good Samaritans in these modern times. If you have a flat tire and little mechanical ability, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers. On Ragbrai, any breakdown or accident results in multiple offers of aid. The Air Force Bike Team became the superheroes this year. Members of their squad stopped so often along the route to help, it’s a wonder they made it into the last town each day before dark.

Maybe I have stardust in my eyes about this year’s trip. After last year’s intense heat and headwinds, the butt-busting miles seemed almost pleasant. And maybe others can tell you of theft, rudeness, or late night debauchery. But all-in-all, Ragbrai 41 seemed to confirm the fact that Andy of Mayberry values still float around the countryside. I am, however, still concerned about the sight of so many of us baby boomers prancing around in spandex. Now that’s something your momma should definitely warn you about.  by dan gogerty (banana pic from

*The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  Check this link for information and photos—including blog entries from Des Moines Register journalists.

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