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Why leave Seattle for Iowa?


Posted on August 11, 2010 at 2:42 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 11 at 2:42 PM

Why would you ever leave Seattle in late July? I get that a lot. As usual, summer really started this year just after Independence Day. And then I left. For the second year in a row, I was drawn from the low humidity and mountains of western Washington to air you can wear and low grades of Iowa. RAGBRAI has that kind of pull.

This year's week-long (R)egister's (A)nnual (G)reat (B)ike (R)ide (A)cross (I)owa was to be one of the shortest (442 miles) and flattest ("Flatter than what? Kansas?," cynics ask) in its 38-year history. Team Dirty Martini ("Who wants a stiff one?") captain Eric noted that would mean more time spent in dive bars. Oh, like you thought biking across Iowa with 20,000 of your closest friends implied ascetic living? RAGBRAI is less Tour de France and more Sturgis motorcycle rally, except without Stephen Tyler falling off a stage. As far as I know, no one from Smashmouth toppled into the crowd at the kickoff concert in Sioux City. Then again, if a tree falls in the forest...

If RAGBRAI wasn't demanding enough, this year a few of us decided to make it even harder. On the second day, you had the option to turn the 79 miles into a century ride -- 100 miles if you're scoring at home. Five of us took it upon ourselves to do it, even as we received upturned eyebrows from other team members. But that's the thing about RAGBRAI: you always want more. More riding, more beer, more time spent with your friends. Well, at least the last two things. But as we left Wes's Place in Rolfe, amid a sea of riders slurping down jello shots with more than 40 miles till home, it felt like we were stepping up to the real RAGBRAI challenge. We were taking its best shot. And when the odometer showed three digits, I felt like I'd truly planted a flag in Iowa's soil.

Thank heavens for Eric's parents driving a support RV to the next overnight town. They were the true MVP's of this ride. You can't imagine how nice it is not to have to carry 20+ pounds of supplies on your bike. And after riding 60, 80, 100 miles in a day, there's nothing better than coming into camp with your tent set up and a veritable IV drip of salt and yeast replenishment arrayed before you. Because, you know, it's not like there was a chance to eat or drink at J & D's Hob Nob in Britt, also home to a hobo museum. And luckily the VFW in Garner didn't run out of walking tacos by the time we got there. Even so, Eric and I were starting to bonk as we wobbled into the town of Stout. Luckily the pizza there carried us the next eight miles to Dike, home to several excellent temporary food tents and a historically stellar girls' high school volleyball team.

History was also a theme on this year's ride. One night we stayed in Clear Lake, where Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in 1959. And while we talked about visiting the site, the closest we got were period newspaper clippings on the wall of Elly's Lakeside Tap. When you have the chance to drink in the basement of a crotchety elderly woman's home, apparently you do that over all else. And you don't regret it. Later in the week, we passed through the "Field of Dreams" in Dyersville. Now a tourist attraction, this is one cornfield you don't soil, lest the ghost of Kevin Costner haunt you forever.

Iowa's normal heat and humidity really only pressed down on us one day. The misnamed Clear Lake provided cool relief, followed that night by a dazzling lightning show. Luckily the heavy stuff missed us, and I was spared from providing an obfuscating meteorological explanation of what happened. The Iowa version of a tire swing -- a trapeze hanging from a giant crane-like arm suspended over a manmade lake -- gave us a cooldown and the unfortunate view of hundreds of biker tans.

Rain wouldn't stop us and it didn't stop Iowans from cheering us on. Pulling out of Waterloo on a day that would have made Seattle blush, I saw three women clapping for us, kept barely dry by a tractor plow. An hour later, soaked and despondent as thunder crackled overheard, we sought cover in a warehouse. A guy pulling a boombox pedaled in, Katy Perry's "California Gurls" blared, and RAGBRAI "So You Think You Can Dance" 2010 was on. In other dance news that day, the eponymous Ed Auer of Peg & Ed's Happy Auer in the town of Winthrop, danced like he'd been waiting for RAGBRAI all his life. Meanwhile, he grabbed the "Team Party Patrol" stamp from a comely young lass and made his mark on everyone in the bar. 

I learned some things from last year. This year I stuffed all my gear into two bags instead of one. I also flew back right after the ride ended instead of the following day so I could cut short everyone's end-of-ride celebration. Wait, never mind. Actually, I did improve my tally of new beer koozies; I picked up eight this year. (Last year's leader in the clubhouse -- three -- now sounds ridiculously low.) And of course, I made new friends. Virgin Martini rider John is also from Seattle, and we've already planned a Washington ride. That is, provided we can settle on a route rife with dive bars and streetside breakfast burrito vendors. Babysitter Molly got an "A" for team support, as well as how she pulled off the "Not Everything in Iowa is Flat" t-shirt. And when team member Tom needed stitches on his fingers from a nasty fall, I felt bad for him. Then he got back on his bike and rode the rest of the week. If he can do that, then the rest of us can at least do the same. Then the question becomes not why would I leave Seattle in July, but why wouldn't I.