When ten thousand bicycles sweep into town, the racks fill quickly and then the walls. Where to put your bicycle? Some laid them on the grass but we discovered how to stand up two bicycles against each other the first day of RAGBRAI (the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).

You line up the two bikes anti-parallel, head to tail, about a foot apart on level ground. Then, lean them toward each other and turn the handlebars toward the other bike. With a little practice, you get this:

The white bike to the front is Tall Papa's thirty-five year old Peugeot. His hand-made Timberline orange handle bar bag was very helpful in finding him in a crowd, and the bike itself attracted several conversations.

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The adventure began with our son's casual invitation, "Would you like to do RAGBRAI with us?" We had heard and read about RAGBRAI for decades, but do it ourselves? Ride across Iowa? In July? With ten thousand strangers?

But how often do invitations like that come from adult children? And wouldn't the company of friends and family make RAGBRAI more enjoyable, or perhaps even possible? So we signed up with BIC (Bicyclists of Iowa City), put our names into the lottery for spaces on RAGBRAI and waited.

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Fast forward seven months of training. (Anyone interested is welcome to leave a comment.) We board a bus in Iowa City and drive to the western edge of Iowa at Glenwood. People pour off the buses, grabbing bike boxes and duffles and finding camping sites. Tall Papa assembles five bikes in 100+ heat index with sweat dropping and then streaming from his face. If this is RAGBRAI what on earth have we let ourselves in for? A steamy night and light sleep, and we wake early knowing that we are (meaning I am) slow and need all the time we can get.

Off we go at six in the morning. A cloud of red fireflies as the stream of bikes flows away with red rear blinkers. Perhaps this is what it is like to be a swift in a flock at sunrise or a school of fish in a stream.  
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What luck! Our first ten miles, fueled by fig newtons, brings us to a great breakfast by the Optimists: a stack of four pancakes, sausage, orange juice, coffee, butter and syrup. The tables under the tent have companions already and we discover one of the great joys of RAGBRAI, the instant conversations among strangers. All along we will find that almost everyone is warm, civil, and cheerful - sharing where they're from and something about themselves that will start an unimaginable variety of conversations.

It is the people that make RAGBRAI, the riders and the volunteers (there are only six paid staff for this immense event). The riders come from all over Iowa, the US and the world. We met or saw folks from Turkey, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, the Slovak Republic and most of the states. The volunteers make all the event in the towns happen: the breakfasts in the first town on the route, the massive block party in the meeting town where support teams can access the route, the smaller but vital welcomes at pass through towns, and the monumental work in host towns to camp or house ten thousand or more bikers, not to mention their support crews. RAGBRAI is a nomadic town.

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There are as many RAGBRAIs as riders. Ours is shaped by the rock bottom fact that I am slow.  How slow? Recumbents pass me. Eleven year olds pass me. Sexagenarians pass me. A mother towing a trailer with a baby passed me. Recumbents pass me going up hill.

It's not quite as pathetic as that sounds. I keep pace entering and leaving towns, because the massing of the bikes makes everyone slow. I even pass some people going downhill because I keep on pedaling and many coast. Nonetheless a seventy mile day or a hilly sixty mile one mean seven or more hours of biking, something I thought impossible half a year ago.

RAGBRAI immerses you in the moment. With bikes on each side, ahead and behind, you keep a continuing awareness of your own speed, their speeds and directions and the flow ahead. An ordinary car lane can hold three abreast in the denser flow, though two across is more common. Imagine bikes covering the road to the horizon. You may think you can but I found that my imagination was a pale weak thing against the reality.
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Snippets. The short civil litany between the riders and the state troopers who guard intersections:
"Thank you!"
"You're welcome!"

The calls to self-regulate the flow: "Car up!" (car approaching from in front) "Car back!" (car approaching from behind) "Rider on!" (biker about to merge in) "Rider off!" (biker about to leave the flow to the side) And each call is passed along, faster than the approaching car, and the flow wavers and contracts or veers to allow the change.

The Iowa Conservation Team white tents: always on a shady hill crest catching breeze, promising free bananas and water and a chance to send a post card.
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A change in quantity can bring a change in quality. Two may indeed stand where one will fall. A person alone could ride his bike across Iowa, but one person alone cannot do RAGBRAI. RAGBRAI is the flocking of riders, the massing in the meeting towns, the warm welcomes in the host towns, the instant conversations over snacks and water and in the shade, the mutual warm regard at the end of the day.

I hope I've given you a glimpse, a whiff of RAGBRAI. I know I've failed to share the experience because for decades I had read accounts by writers far better than I and RAGBRAI still took me wholly by surprise. Some things, like young love or a good kosher dill pickle, are ineffable.

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Originally posted to Wee Thoughts on Mon Aug 01, 2011 at 06:23 AM PDT.

Also republished by J Town and Community Spotlight.

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