One of my fondest memories of pedaling a bicycle is the time I rode with Lance Armstrong.
That’s right. I rode with Lance many moons ago during the annual Ragbrai bicycle ride across the great state of Iowa. Ragbrai stands for the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. It’s billed as the oldest, largest and longest multiday bicycle touring event in the world. I’ll add that it’s also the most fun.
This ride started decades ago when a couple of columnists from the paper decided to bike across Iowa and invited readers to come along. About a dozen joined in, and Ragbrai was born.
Nowadays some 10,000 to 12,000 riders show up for the weeklong rolling festival of a ride that covers 500 or so miles across the Hawkeye State. Distances average around 60 to 80 miles per day. That sounds like a lot, but when all you’ve got to do all day is pedal a bicycle you can cover some ground.
Back when I was doing Ragbrai in the early 2000s, Lance was somewhat of a regular on the ride. He’d show up and ride for a day or three, enjoying the pastoral views of cornfields and cattle with the rest of us. In the towns we passed through, all riders, Lance included, basked in over-the-top Iowa hospitality.
Lance was the media darling. There’d be his picture on the front page of the Des Moines Register of Lance eating a slice of pie in a church basement or sipping a cold one in a small town tavern.
He had plenty of time for these extra curricular activities since he covered the daily miles lickety-split in just a few hours. One or two evenings during the week, he’d give motivational talks that were well attended.
One sunny day, I was pedaling along a stretch of two-lane blacktop around 11 a.m. when in my rear view mirror I spied a throng of bicycles heading my way and gaining fast. Then all of a sudden swoosh! They passed me and vanished over a hilltop in the blink of an eye.
It was Lance and his entourage all right. So yeah, I rode with Lance Armstrong — for about half a second. He went by so fast you could almost hear him breaking the sound barrier. Guess he was smelling all that fresh-baked pie in the next town down the road.
Ah Ragbrai. There is nothing like it. This year’s ride is July 23-30, but registration is closed for this trip, although there could be a waiting list. Ragbrai is a week-long endurance cycling race for some. Others see it as a seven-day nonstop party. Most riders, who hail from every state and overseas, fall somewhere in the middle.
It’s a bike trip for sure, but there’s so much more. Every town riders pass through during the day rolls out the red carpet and then some. There’s brats, tons of fresh-cooked sweet corn and an endless selection of pie, the official food of Ragbrai. If you want to visit a beer garden and dance to live rock and roll at 10:30 in the morning you can do it on Ragbrai.
Each year, the route meanders through a different part of Iowa. Along the way, farm families set up stands and serve everything from ice cream to grilled pork chops the size of a catcher’s mitt. Riders testify that Ragbrai may be the only 500-mile bike ride you can gain weight.
Every evening in the overnight towns is like Bikes, Blues and BBQ. There is plenty of all three, only the bikes have pedals.
If all this sounds like your cup of java, Ragbrai is definitely one to put on your to-do list. It may take some training to ride 60 to 80 miles or more each day, but you’ve got all year to get ready for Ragbrai 2023. You might even get to ride with Lance.
Flip Putthoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org when he’s not on his bike.