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  • Sun July 29 2007
  • Posted Jul 29, 2007
Drinkers, kids: All part of RAGBRAI REID FORGRAVE REGISTER STAFF WRITER July 29, 2007 Add comment "Are you ready?" the Nadas shouted. A crowd of thousands packed the beer garden in the shadow of the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. The day's ride was done; the beer was cold. The crowd roared its approval Wednesday night as the Iowa band began its set. Over a hill a couple of football fields away, 62-year-old Truman Williamson, a retired middle school teacher from Indiana, sat cross-legged in his tent, a headlamp shining down as he wrote in his journal. He was shaded from the mosquitoes but still within earshot of the revelers. As more than 10,000 cyclists trek through Iowa every July on the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, they separate into two distinct classes. The first RAGBRAI is the "jerseys," as one hard-core partier says. This RAGBRAI rises before the crack of dawn. The jerseys are often at the overnight town by noon and asleep shortly after dark. And they're all wearing official cycling jerseys. The other RAGBRAI is the "back of the pack" riders, who typically rise around noon. Sometimes they bike to the next town, sometimes they ride a bus; it all depends on the size of the hangover. In recent years, according to RAGBRAI lore, the naughtier of the two RAGBRAIs has dissipated. It's tamer, many say, as police have cracked down. The family-oriented, early-rising RAGBRAI thrives. The biggest riding crowds go earlier in the morning. A closer inspection reveals the partying side survives quietly and away from the early risers. "The party is still there," said Tommy Juhl, a 31-year-old from Cedar Rapids who rode his 15th RAGBRAI this week - and who wears a condom on his fishing cap. "You've got to go find it." A handful of stories refutes the reported demise of RAGBRAI rowdiness: - One member of Team Subtle Savages went to bed at 2 one morning, still wearing his kilt. He woke up naked during the night in a basement he'd never seen before, a mile away from his campground. He's a sleepwalker, you see, and heavy drinking didn't help his case. - A Planned Parenthood booth in Cedar Falls was a popular attraction, handing out nearly 1,200 condoms during the day. "We've heard some stories," said Julie Bosier, manager of the Cedar Falls office. "One gal came up and said, 'We could have used you last night.' " - Outside Hoss's Saloon on Main Street in Fairbank, bar owner Amanda Albrecht shouted at passing riders: "Free Jell-O shots!" "I had 665 shots," she said around 2 p.m. Thursday. "Now I'm down to the last few." Leading the charge of RAGBRAI's party crowd are the Subtle Savages. They drink until 3 a.m. every night. By 10 or 11 a.m., they're on the road. They throw away $16 worth of beer can deposits daily. At 5 cents apiece, that means they're drinking at least 320 cans of beer a day. And those are just the cans that make it into the garbage. "We don't like riding with the jerseys," Juhl said. "And we try to stay away from children." Joel Altringer, a 25-year-old Subtle Savage from Des Moines, explained their strategy: "We like to bike fast and drink beer. It's not about not knowing what day it is and not caring." But even for these partiers, the ride isn't as wild as it once was. "It's definitely quieter," said Don Baker, 36 of Cedar Rapids, on his 11th RAGBRAI. "It's definitely mellowed a lot, in a good way." In a good way because, a decade or two ago, the partying had gotten out of hand. Clearly, things have changed. For instance, there are designated quiet campgrounds now. Some towns this year planned entertainment for the younger set, including a children's theater in Spencer and inflatable rides and water "wars" in Humboldt. Riders mix fun with being family-friendly, too. On Thursday, Santa and four elves stood in a beer tent, sipping bottles of Miller Lite. This, one would think, might be that crazy party crowd. But look closer. Santa and his elves, clad in sweat-soaked felt suits, were handing out 60 pounds of candy canes. They spoke of their best moment of the ride - a 1-year-old excited at seeing Santa Claus. "It's so much more family-oriented now than ever," said Santa Claus, aka Andrew Clements, a 41-year-old state trooper and father of three from North Liberty. An example of the family side mingling with the party side: Team Short Bus stopped in Dunkerton on Thursday afternoon, plopped down in the shade and consumed six 18-packs of beer - "curb beers," they call them. Then they got up and biked to the next town, plopped down in the shade and ... you get the idea. "But even though there's all these 18-packs of beer, the majority of us are very serious bike riders," said Beth Steffensen, a 39-year-old from Des Moines. "It's just a good balance. "We have friends from Des Moines who have a husband, a wife and three kids, all on one bike. They're doing it their kids' way. And they're having a great time. For them, at 9 o'clock the pillow looks pretty good." "RAGBRAI is all things to all people," said David Baxter, 37 of Galesburg, Ill., on his 23rd RAGBRAI. "It's this blank canvas where you can come and make it what you want." And so the two RAGBRAIs peacefully coexist. Of course, every social conflict must have its philosopher. And so we return to Truman Williamson, alone in his tent and scribbling in his journal as the Nadas concert rages over the hill. He knows the two RAGBRAIs add up to one big, beautiful RAGBRAI that's as much for the early risers as the late-waking partiers. But to the partiers, Williamson has a message about getting some sleep and getting out early to see the sun rise over the cornfields and the cyclists' taillights flickering like fireflies: "You should try it," he said. "Just once." Reporter Reid Forgrave can be reached at (515) 284-8236 or rforgrave@dmreg.com

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