WorldRiding a bike across Iowa isn't for the sane....

Riding a bike across Iowa isn’t for the sane. Sign me up. : The Picture Show : NPR


A rider makes their way along RAGBRAI’s route on a foggy morning Wednesday, July 28, outside of Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Day 4 of the annual recreational bike ride across the state of Iowa.

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A rider makes their way along RAGBRAI’s route on a foggy morning Wednesday, July 28, outside of Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Day 4 of the annual recreational bike ride across the state of Iowa.

Michael Zamora/NPR

Iowans might be insane.

OK, let me back up. I lived in Iowa for about four years, working as a visual journalist and photo editor at the Des Moines Register. I helped share countless stories about inspiring people and places across the state. Iowans, like most Americans in the communities I’ve lived in, are overall good people.

Yet many of them seem to lose their minds the last week in July when they decide that traveling from one side of the state to the other on a bicycle is a good way to spend the week. And they do. In droves. Getting up early, partying late, filling the streets of rural Iowa towns along the way and then doing it all again the next day.

Brett Griffin of Oswego, Ill., eats popcorn as he walks down the streets of Schaller, Iowa, wearing an American flag and star-spangled speedo Tuesday, July 25. Griffin, who said this is his seventh time on the ride, said he and other members of his team, Giraffe’s Up In The Air, wear the eye-catching costumes to draw attention to their fundraising efforts for children’s cancer research.

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Brett Griffin of Oswego, Ill., eats popcorn as he walks down the streets of Schaller, Iowa, wearing an American flag and star-spangled speedo Tuesday, July 25. Griffin, who said this is his seventh time on the ride, said he and other members of his team, Giraffe’s Up In The Air, wear the eye-catching costumes to draw attention to their fundraising efforts for children’s cancer research.

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The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, bills itself as the “oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world.” The yearly tradition was started by two columnists at the Register. It went from a group of a few friends in 1973 to more than 18,000 registered riders this year.

Thousands of riders flood the streets of downtown Schaller, Iowa, a town with a population of just over 700 people, on Monday, July 25, during Day 2 of RAGBRAI.

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Thousands of riders flood the streets of downtown Schaller, Iowa, a town with a population of just over 700 people, on Monday, July 25, during Day 2 of RAGBRAI.

Michael Zamora/NPR

I’ve covered parts of the ride in previous years, both on a bike and in a car. I completed the entire week-long, 427-mile ride in 2019 as part of NPR’s biking team, No Pie Refused. It is quite a feat. Parts of the ride are insanely beautiful, everyone is extremely welcoming and there’s so much pie to be eaten along the way.

Alex Brooks of Minneapolis, Minn., (left) and Tim Connors of Robinsdale, Minn., eat slices of pie Tuesday, July 26, during a pit stop in Rolfe, Iowa. Connors said they were trying to eat a different slice of pie every day, with strawberry rhubarb, a childhood favorite, ranking as his top slice so far. “That’s because the key ingredient in pie is nostalgia,” Connors quipped.

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Alex Brooks of Minneapolis, Minn., (left) and Tim Connors of Robinsdale, Minn., eat slices of pie Tuesday, July 26, during a pit stop in Rolfe, Iowa. Connors said they were trying to eat a different slice of pie every day, with strawberry rhubarb, a childhood favorite, ranking as his top slice so far. “That’s because the key ingredient in pie is nostalgia,” Connors quipped.

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Alex Brooks of Minneapolis, Minn., takes a bite of his cherry pie Tuesday, July 26, during a pit stop in Rolfe, Iowa.

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Alex Brooks of Minneapolis, Minn., takes a bite of his cherry pie Tuesday, July 26, during a pit stop in Rolfe, Iowa.

Michael Zamora/NPR

It’s not a race. Yet somehow everyone seems to win.

The experience has a way of immersing you in its roving community of rabid cycling enthusiasts, whether you’re actually riding on two wheels or not. As someone who rode out the pandemic in the hyper-vigilant city of Washington, D.C. (where I am still required to wear a mask in the office), being back in Iowa felt like I was transported to another place and time.

Cell phone reception is spotty at best, making it even easier to disconnect from the outside world. The seemingly chaotic news cycle disappears. And everyone seems more concerned about whether the grilled-cheese vendor will be in the next town on the route than the latest COVID or Monkeypox numbers.

It’s all very exhausting. But in a lot of ways, extremely comforting, too. Many riders use the week to reconnect with family and friends. Gary Burger, a 75-year-old from West Des Moines, Iowa, talked about how he doesn’t get to spend much time with his grandchildren these days as they start to go off to college. He was in the middle of a 105-mile day, riding with his 21-year-old grandson, Aaron, as his wife drives the motor home they stay in at night. What a way to reconnect.

Gary Burger, 75, of West Des Moines, Iowa, puts on his helmet as he and his grandson, 21-year-old Aaron Burger of Cedar Falls, Iowa, get ready to get back on the road Wednesday, July 27, during a pit stop in Algona, Iowa. Gary Burger said he was riding with his three grandchildren and his wife. “It’s just a lot of fun and gives us a chance to talk,” he said.

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Gary Burger, 75, of West Des Moines, Iowa, puts on his helmet as he and his grandson, 21-year-old Aaron Burger of Cedar Falls, Iowa, get ready to get back on the road Wednesday, July 27, during a pit stop in Algona, Iowa. Gary Burger said he was riding with his three grandchildren and his wife. “It’s just a lot of fun and gives us a chance to talk,” he said.

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People are nice. Welcoming. Extremely proud of the community they’ve built, and truly having the absolute best time doing it.

If this is what insanity looks like, maybe we all should go a little crazy now and then.

A group pf riders makes their way through the early morning fog Wednesday, July 28, as they make their way out of Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Day 4 of RAGBRAI. Riders travelled more than 100 miles that day, completing a “century ride” in honor of one of the ride’s late co-founders, John Karras, who died late last year.

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A group pf riders makes their way through the early morning fog Wednesday, July 28, as they make their way out of Emmetsburg, Iowa, on Day 4 of RAGBRAI. Riders travelled more than 100 miles that day, completing a “century ride” in honor of one of the ride’s late co-founders, John Karras, who died late last year.

Michael Zamora/NPR

Left: Michael Licamon with Amos Deans catering roasts up corn for hungry riders Wednesday, July 28, as they pass through Algona, Iowa. Right: Henry Miller of Memphis, Tenn., bites into an ear of corn in Algona.

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Left: Michael Licamon with Amos Deans catering roasts up corn for hungry riders Wednesday, July 28, as they pass through Algona, Iowa. Right: Henry Miller of Memphis, Tenn., bites into an ear of corn in Algona.

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A group of children watch as riders make their way into town Tuesday, July 26, in Rolfe, Iowa, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI.

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A group of children watch as riders make their way into town Tuesday, July 26, in Rolfe, Iowa, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI.

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Left: Riders wait for a train to pass through West Bend, Iowa, so they can continue their 56-mile ride Tuesday, July 26, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI. Right: Riders carefully cross train tracks in downtown Whittemore on Wednesday, July 27, on Day 4.

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Left: Riders wait for a train to pass through West Bend, Iowa, so they can continue their 56-mile ride Tuesday, July 26, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI. Right: Riders carefully cross train tracks in downtown Whittemore on Wednesday, July 27, on Day 4.

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Riders fill up their water bottles at a sprinkler station set up along RAGBRAI’s route Wednesday, July 28, in Whittemore, Iowa.

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Riders fill up their water bottles at a sprinkler station set up along RAGBRAI’s route Wednesday, July 28, in Whittemore, Iowa.

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A rider passes by a set of silos along the optional gravel loop Tuesday, July 26, on his way from Pocahontas to Havelock, Iowa, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI.

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A rider passes by a set of silos along the optional gravel loop Tuesday, July 26, on his way from Pocahontas to Havelock, Iowa, on Day 3 of RAGBRAI.

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