RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle trek across the state of Iowa, has become the go-to activity for bicyclists from around the world. Annually since 1973, tens of thousands of bicycle riding enthusiasts pour into Iowa’s small rural towns and ride some 400 plus miles from the border on the Missouri River to the waters of the Mississippi.
This year I, along with seven other friends, joined the crowd of some 18,000 people. We rode across the landscape of corn and soybean fields, through small towns and camping in church basements, yards or the occasional home. The week before the start was fraught with 98-degree temperatures and humidity intended for the tropics. Fortunately, a cold front came through on the night before the ride, showered us with rain on the first day but brought lower temps and humidity. It was a glorious week.
Each day we rode an average of 60 plus miles in a parade that from any satellite must have looked like a long snake making its way across the rolling hills. If you think Iowa is flat, you’ve not been there. We were riding over the Southern Iowa Drift Plain formed from retreating glaciers and resulting in some of the most fertile soil on the planet. Up and down and up and down, we rode our bicycles. Along the way farmers, school children, and vendors set up tents where one could purchase much-needed fuel in the form of Amish pies, pickles, and other types of calories. We needed it all, and in the one epic 90-mile day, I consumed more calories and water than I usually do in a week.
The ride is most enjoyable, and it’s easy to pick up brief conversations with your fellow travelers. A husband and wife wore bicycle helmets with Loons on top, so this lead to a chat about Minnesota and people we might have in common. Two young boys, age 8 & 10, had sprinted far ahead of their parents. They were on their fifth RAGBRAI ride, having been a part of tandem bikes with mom and dad on previous trips. This was their first on their bikes.
The US Air Force cycling team, the largest cycling team in the world, was everywhere. Their task was to both enjoy the ride and stop to assist people with flat tires, snapped brake cables, or jammed chains. A team from Saudi Arabia was riding the tour because they hoped to bring back to concept to their home country. Hmmm, a bike ride across Saudi Arabia… I think that might be a little warm for my tastes. The point of all this is the community that is formed. In the course of seven days, you are bound by this physical and emotional, and yes, spiritual experience.
There is a liturgy and rhythm to the ride. In an event like this, and people delight in many and various ways. We are all in this moving caravan, this pilgrimage across the landscape, the modern-day Promise Land. Each of us brings with us our hopes and disappointments of the lives we lead, the quiet desperation and longings for something we dream can be. Together riding the ups and downs of the Iowa landscape, our shared humanity taking it all in.
Previously Published on Bishop on a Bike
Photo courtesy of author