3 Carthage Folks Bike Across Iowa
Carthage was well-represented at a major event in Iowa this summer, with two separate groups in attendance who did not even know the other was going! The event was RAGBRAI, which is an acronym for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. A non-competitive bicycle ride first sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper in 1973, RAGBRAI goes across the state of Iowa from west to east and hosts recreational bike riders from across the nation and even some foreign countries. It is the largest bike-touring event in the world, with more than 10,000 participants. (The organizers claim to limit the number to 8,500 week-long riders and 1,500 day riders, but many people just join the ride on their own, so the exact number is uncertain. Some people claim there might be closer to 20,000.)
Local attorney Rick McPherson and his daughter Rachel biked in the seven-day, more-than-400-mile-trip, and his wife Elaine served as their support staff, driving their truck and camper to the next stop each morning, finding a spot to camp, and seeing that all of their electrical, air conditioning, water, and other basic needs were met. She also took care of the two family dogs who joined them on the trip.
Former Panola College Band Director Mike McGowan also rode his bike in the event, but his travel experience was much different. He made his arrangements through one of the many bike charter companies who serve participants in the event. He drove to Davenport, which was the last stop on RAGBRAI, loaded his bike, luggage, camping tent, and other equipment on a huge semi/trailer, and rode a chartered bus to Onawa, where the event was to begin. He set up his tent there, spent the night, and followed that same routine each day to and from whatever town was the host community that day.
Even though Mike and the McPhersons didn’t know about each other’s participation and never ran into each other during the week, all share similar stories and sentiments about the week and agree that it was amazing. Mike says, “It’s not just an event. It’s more like a pilgrimage, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Rachel began biking after college and has worked with Bike and Build, an organization which raises funds to impact affordable housing across the nation with cross-country bike rides. She also participated in the Tour de Tucson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, and the Hotter than Hell Ride in Wichita Falls with her father. She is also a runner, with two marathons, five half marathons, and many 5K races under her belt. She and Elaine are running a 5K together in Tyler in December. She ran the Dopey Challenge at Disney World in January, which includes a 5K the first day, a 10K the second, a half marathon the third, and a marathon the fourth. “You can see why they call it Dopey,” she says. “It’s a ridiculous amount of running in four days!”
Rick biked in college a bit but became more interested in it when Rachel began riding. It has been 10 years since the Wichita Falls ride, and he now mostly enjoys just getting outside and riding around near their home. He first read about RAGBRAI in the 1980s in a Sports Illustrated magazine and thought it sounded really neat, but he says, “I thought I was probably too old to do it. It’s pretty funny that here I am riding in it more than 30 years later, and I wasn’t even close to the oldest one in the ride!”
Mike began riding six years ago with a neighbor who was a serious biker who had participated in many big rides, even one to Pennsylvania. “He encouraged me to begin riding,” says Mike, “and sold me one of his old cruising bikes designed for shorter distances and neighborhood biking. At first, a ride of 10 miles would kill me, but after a couple of months, I really liked it, was able to go longer distances, and bought my first road bike. We started riding regularly to Lake Murvaul and rode 70 miles in the Lufkin Purgatory in the fall after I had started biking in the spring. Unfortunately my neighbor moved away, but even alone, I still enjoy riding. Since my retirement in 2015, I have tried to ride every day, and I usually put in at least 100 miles a week, more when I am training for something like RAGBRAI.”
All of these Carthage folks were impressed with the huge diversity of people and bicycles in the event. There were people of every age, ethnicity, gender, shape and size, and educational and occupational level. There were bikes of every kind as well—high wheelers, unicycles, recumbent, tandem, and even one made from lumber 2x4s. There were dogs riding along in crates and trailers, little children in bike trailers or sidecars, and every other imaginable sight. They all met people who had ridden in the event multiple times, and Mike met one man who has ridden in every one of them. Some people considered it mainly an athletic event and were recording their times and trying to get to the next town as fast as possible. Others were more interested in all that was going on: enjoying the scenery, stopping often to rest, catching the personality of each community, and being a part of the local hospitality.
They all were also amazed at the huge support the event receives from people throughout the state, and what an enormous economic boost it is. There is a different route every year because all the towns want a chance at the money brought into their economy. As they rode, they saw a constant parade of food and drink booths, some sponsored by individuals, some by civic, school, or religious organizations, some just commercial ventures. Each town they went through was having a downtown fair, and people were also standing out in their yards waving, encouraging the riders, and watching. The most prevalent foods for sale were Iowa pork and corn and homemade pies of every kind, but also ice cream, craft beer, spaghetti and lasagna, and every other kind of treat anyone could want. Rick says, “It was like a party on wheels! You could not ride even five miles without seeing something to stop for.” Mike adds, “It was obviously a big deal in the state, and certainly it was a big boost for their economy, but I was most impressed with the welcome from people just standing out in their own yards, ones who had absolutely no skin in the game but were just great people!”
Mike sums up each of these riders’ feelings about RABRAI: “You can make this trip into anything you want, and that’s exactly what everyone does and why you see absolutely everything. You can go alone or with your family or with a large group. You can party, party, party, or you can have quiet solitude. You can make it a big athletic competition, or you can keep a very slow pace. You have choices about everything the whole trip and can make it into an experience that is just perfect for you!”