Bring on the Bikers Iowa: The state's friendly folks attract thousands of riders and observers to the Midwest's annual end-of-July version of the Tour de France.

September 29, 1996|By Brad Kava | Brad Kava,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

The best bicycle trip I've ever taken wasn't in France, California, Washington or Colorado.

It was in Iowa.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- especially about California, where summer gives us a perfect climate for spending days outdoors.

But despite the heat, the hills (yes, Iowa has them), the bugs and the occasional drizzles, a group of Iowans, with support from city and state governments, has put together a biker's dream come true, leading more than 10,000 riders across the state without the bother of cars, and offering a picture of a friendly Ward and June Cleaver America that seems to have faded from the rest of the country.

The RAGBRAI (the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) cleared up a lot of my misunderstandings about Iowa. Riding 10 miles an hour over 437 miles of roadway between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, I learned the state is not flat or boring, despite its reputation.

The ride started 24 years ago with 150 riders following a pair of Register columnists as they explored the small towns of their beloved state.

It has since grown into the Midwest's version of the Tour de France, attracting not only the riders but an additional 10,000 people who show up to cheer them on and join nightly parties. It takes place the last week of July every year (next year will be its silver anniversary).

Small-town Iowans take days off to watch the ride as it passes through their towns (many of them smaller than the number of passing bikers). They bake pies (some sell them; some open their kitchens to riders free); kids line the entrances to towns to slap high fives and greet bikers; there are dances, live entertainment and fireworks many nights. Farmers sit outside their homes on lawn chairs offering free food and drink in return for conversation. And many invite riders into their homes to use beds, back lawns and showers.

The bikers -- a combination of a pioneer wagon train and Woodstock -- stretch across farm roads cleared of car traffic.

"No one thinks of Iowa as a tourist destination," says Sue Dressler, 27, who drove several hours from Des Moines to serve food and watch the riders pass through Bancroft, her hometown. "They think it's just boring and flat. But this is something you have to see. A lot of people are so impressed with our towns they come back year after year."

She's right. RAGBRAI administrators say only 47 percent of the riders, whose average age is 37, are from Iowa. Others come from every state in the country and from around the world.

I met many who set aside the week, including former Oakland Raider Ben Davidson, 56, who rode with his wife, Kathy, 56, and his 31-year-old niece. The San Diego resident has ridden eight of the last nine RAGBRAIs after learning about it from a golfing partner.

Corn and beans

"I like the infinite variety of Iowa," he jokes. "Sometimes you get the corn on the right and beans on the left. Sometimes the beans are on the right. Sometimes it's all just corn.

"Really, though, this is America at its greatest. It's completely different than California. People are really friendly. The only drive-bys you have are with water pistols. And people are more willing to talk on bicycles."

Kathy says the couple recently took a vacation to a high-priced Dominican Republic resort and met no one. In Iowa, they pull off at every town and almost every roadside farm stand and spread four hours of actual riding over a leisurely 12-hour day. They are partial to the beer gardens that spring up about every 10 miles.

"Here we stop and talk to everyone," she says.

"Yeah, you got to stop and smell the roses," says the former Raider, who is considerably thinner than in his playing days.

"Or the Buds," says his wife.

There are as many ways to ride the state as there are riders to do it.

Some are zealous, getting up at 6 a.m. and covering daily distances ranging from 50 to 86 miles by noon. Others approach it like San Francisco's Bay to Breakers, forming a colorful pageant of amateur and goofy bicycle teams, turning every evening into a giant spring-break-like party.

Most people have yearly rituals or wear shirts with writing on the back to give other riders an idea of their interests.

Team Skunk, with more than 300 members, wears white and black each day. On their "formal day," they sport tuxedos.

The Aim High Air Force team includes 130 U.S. Air Force officers in red, white and blue jerseys who are riding with Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall. They ride fast and true and don't want strangers drafting behind them.

There is a team of fake nuns, who drive instead of pedal, and sing in different towns.

Chef for Tom Arnold

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