RAGBRAI leaves cyclist with personal insights
Posted Aug 2, 2004 by BIKEIOWA user
Aug. 2, 2004
By Sharon Bohling / correspondent
All you need to know about life can be learned from the seat of a bicycle.
Granted, it may seem like an exaggerated statement, but when you’ve just rode 518 miles across Iowa, you are prone to such ideas — or perhaps it’s just the lack of oxygen to your brain when you’re panting through more than 12,000 feet worth of hill climbs.
Whatever the case, participants in the weeklong Registers Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) could not have emerged from the experience unchanged as they tested their physical stamina and emotional limits.
The relief and exuberance was evident as about 10,000 riders pulled into Clinton on Saturday with the traditional RAGBRAI rite of passage, dipping their tire into the Mississippi River to end their journey that began July 25 in Onawa, along the banks of the Missouri River. Riders beamed as they posed for pictures with family and team members who helped pull them through sunburns, road rash, soaking rains and pain in muscles they didn’t even know existed.
Dozens of townspeople lined the streets in Clinton to welcome the riders with cheers, applause and the occasional spray from a garden hose. “One last hill to climb and you’ve made it,” the signs along the road read and I was overcome with emotion as I struggled to crest the final hill. I made it.
My goals for the week weren’t overly ambitious. First, I wanted to make the entire length of the ride, with the century loop thrown in for good measure, on my own two wheels. Secondly, I did not want to bail out and walk my bike up any hills, no matter how long or difficult the climb. I accomplished both, even if I inched along at 7 mph to do it.
Perhaps if I were a more serious cyclist, I would have recorded how long it took to complete the miles for each day or my average speed or my maximum heart rate. But for me, this ride was more about the experience rather than the performance.
I learned or was reminded of many valuable lessons as I pedaled through 52 towns, some boasting little more than a granary, water tower and few houses, and tucked within a quilt of green soybean fields and gold-topped corn that make up Iowa’s landscape.
Life looks different from the perch of a bicycle seat going 15 mph and when you’re riding for hours, you have plenty of time to clear your mind and re-assess your outlook. Oftentimes, riders forget to slow down and enjoy the ride. There’s so much in life to see and experience that you miss when you’re barreling ahead.
No matter how tough your struggle, there are others facing even greater challenges, such as the two paralyzed cyclists who completed the route on specialized bicycles that allowed them to pedal with their hands. If you offer them a kind word and encouragement, it will lighten your load.
Sometimes you have to simply will yourself through the steep hills and the rain, taking comfort in memories of the past sunny days and the knowledge that indeed, the sun will come out again tomorrow.
At the end of a particularly long and grueling day, it helped to have other riders around to share the day’s victories and struggles and joy can be found in unexpected places, like spotting a blues singer who was standing in the doorway of a small town on a rainy day, sharing his music as we rode past.
Riding all day and camping every night boiled life down to its basic essentials. All you really need is somewhere to sleep and some food and water to sustain you. It is amazing how thankful you become for a clean bathroom and a hot shower. For cyclists, smooth pavement combined with wind at your back are bonuses.
Perhaps what set the stage for such a contemplative journey was the first day when I walked past a downed cyclist at the bottom of the hill. The ambulance already had arrived and his fellow riders were desperately pleading with him to hold on. I learned later that Kirk Ullrich, 49, of Davenport, Iowa, had died at the hospital after suffering injuries when he flipped over the handlebars as his bike wheel caught in a crack in the center of Crawford County Road E16 near Schleswig.
As the riders filed by the scene, we were reminded of our own mortality and the realization that what we were doing was not without risk.
During the week, I discovered much about Iowa. For one, it certainly is not flat and it is filled with some of the nicest and friendliest people that you will ever encounter. But, I learned much more about myself. I have the inner strength to take me through whatever I may face in the journey ahead. I also can be fearless, as evidenced by racing down hills at speeds upward of 30 mph with only two inches of rubber and about 20 pounds of metal alloy separating me from the pavement.
I think the most important lesson I gained from this experience is that it really doesn’t matter if you’re first or last, sometimes just finishing is enough.