Iowa Is NOT Flat . . .

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 25, 2002

Those who think Iowa is as flat as a corn tortilla have never biked the steep inclines from Anamosa to Bellevue, in the state's eastern region. Nor have they pedaled the drawn-out hill just outside of Cherokee, in western Iowa. Or huffed and puffed up . . . shall I go on?

Before I embarked on RAGBRAI, the party-train bike ride across Iowa held each July, everyone from my mother to my bike mechanic told me that the state was vertically challenged and that I wouldn't have to change gears. They must have been thinking of Kansas, because seven days and almost 500 miles later, I can say with conviction: Iowa is bumpy, lumpy and just one altitude shy of being Colorado.

But that's just the point of the annual event: to learn something new about the home of the Hawkeyes, which even locals refer to as the "Fly-By State."

With low registration fees (the Iowa tour is $100) and plotted routes that wend through small communities and past historic sites, cross-state bike events nationwide are attracting two-wheelin' tourists of all ages and endurance levels -- though some, like Cycle Vermont, require Ironman quads. But none has the sheer numbers, or longevity, of RAGBRAI.

The Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa sprung from a challenge made 30 years ago by two journalists. The dare was to bike across the state, west to east, as a means to reconnect with tiny-town U.S.A. The writer-riders then invited other Iowans to tag along; 300 pedalers showed up, with nary a hotel reservation among them.

It has since blossomed into, as one Des Moines resident put it, the "second-biggest event after the presidential caucus." This year, 8,500 registered riders inched across the state, from Sioux Center (where they dipped their back tire in the Big Sioux River) to Bellevue (where they soaked their front tire in the Mississippi). An additional 1,500 applied for one-day passes, while an unknown number of renegades just jumped into the pack, easily blending into the helmeted, Lycra-clad masses.

Every state was represented, with nearly half of the participants from the Hawkeye State, and the riders formed a weird mishmash of America's workforce, from the first lady of Iowa to hog farmers. We followed a meticulously plotted route noting terrain gradations, mileage marks and stopover towns -- which invariably dolled up their downtowns with colorful balloons and streamers, bands, food vendors and roadside greeters, such as the Orange City women dressed in clown-size wooden clogs who served Dutch delicacies to the sweaty hordes.

"This is the gran'daddy of rides. Anything goes," said Gary Gard, a 46-year-old jeweler from Chicago. "People will sleep in ditches or a doorway, take a shower from some lady's garden hose or go to the bathroom in the cornfield."

Thankfully, the corn is head-high in July.

Riding the Right Way

"Tomorrow, you are going to go out and have fun," commanded Sharon Cashman, mother of four and a co-leader of Overland Touring.

I traveled with 34 couples, families and friends I met through Overland, a two-van bike-tour company that hauled our luggage and tracked down more-secluded campsites (often on locals' lawns). By comparison, the thousands who relied on RAGBRAI's services had their bags carried -- and dumped -- by a giant truck, slept at ant-colony-like campgrounds and waited as long as 45 minutes for a cold shower in a public facility.

Since I was a "virgin" rider, I didn't want to get trampled by the multitudes, nor did I care to wear cork-size earplugs to bed (to mute the sound of thunderous snores). And I was banking on getting pointers from the many veterans in my group.

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