The NPR & Groucho teams beside their new bus.

This year I rode on the Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) with the cycling teams from NPR – aka No Pie Refused – and Team Groucho, lead by the great Bill Danforth of Shenandoah, Iowa. This year the Des Moines Register drew a line beginning halfway up the state and ending likewise, ranging from the little town of Anawa and ending in Davenport, with overnight stops at five towns in between. Some were places I knew very well, like Ames and Iowa City. Here are some highlights:

Teams Groucho and NPR get a new bus that plays the All Things Considered theme. With a disclaimer on the side of the bus, NPR riders assure listeners that no donations have gone pay for its purchase, decoration, fueling or upkeep.

The weather is so good it’s weird. There was virtually no rain during our cycling travels and by the end of the week we were seeing high temperatures in the upper 70’s. In July. In Iowa. In Jefferson I had a pleasure of being on a big open porch on a two-story home and seeing a sudden nighttime downpour blow into town and drench the neighborhood before moving on. All of us remained dry and well entertained as we sat in our chairs and watched the rain fall.

Disclaimer on bus.

For the first time I hear the band Hairball, as they performed Tuesday night in Jefferson. Hairball is a cover band playing 1980’s big-hair heavy metal tunes. Their act spans the gap between celebration and satire. They’re not bad, and they’re on stage with plenty of flashing lights, smoke and shooting flames.

My bike performs well but the gears and crankshaft started making sounds that make it seem that something’s amiss. I take my bike to roadside mechanics thrice with no effect. I finally decide to stop listening.

Don Gonyea and Richard Harris of the NPR team.

Team Groucho finds homes for us in RAGBRAI overnight towns where owners are willing to let us camp on their floors, use their showers and laundry machines. The custom is for all bike team members to offer a small and cheap gift to the host with a story to go with it. My gift – the Chico Bag – went over pretty well, and my story got some laughs. The Chico Bag is a tiny bag that’s stuffed with a bigger bag that emerges when you turn the small bag inside out. It came from the KPBS membership department. Thank you for your support! Of RAGBRAI, in this case.

Bill and Betsy Danforth, father and daughter, of Team Groucho.

We overnighted in Ames where my wife went to high school and where her father taught at Iowa State, and lived until cancer took
him last November. We got to ride our bikes into Cyclone Stadium and do a lap around the football field. That evening we hung out by a brewery outside of town where donors & listeners of Iowa Public Radio showed up to meet the NPR types. My wife’s stepmom
Rae showed up. We stayed in a neighborhood with big old two-story houses that were surrounded and shaded by strapping mature trees.

Cycling into Cyclone Stadium in Ames

In Newton we stay with an old couple. He’s a retired Episcopal Priest and she’s a former school teacher and a full-blooded Ojibwe Indian. Very proud of her heritage, she has a room full of framed artifacts from her culture, including a beaded women’s jacket, a pair of moccasins, and a photo of her parents harvesting wild rice on the White Earth Reservation. She captures us with her stories. Especially one she tells of her grandmother dying, and what grandma tells her and asks of her as she goes. A lot of us, sitting in the living room in silent attention, shed a tear. They also had a bottle of Dewars scotch, and I was very glad to have some.

Following the unprecedented NPR victory in pie-eating contest. Des Moines Register team is on the left.

NPR wins the pie-eating contest for the first time! The annual relay race between NPR and the Des Moines Register (one pie slice per person) has ended in disappointment for our side the two previous times we’ve done it. In this year’s contest, NPR gets a slow start but makes up for lost ground as our anchor team catches up and finally surpasses the competition. Our final eater, the diminutive Camila Domonoske, puts away her pie and opens wide her mouth to show the referee it’s all gone and NPR wins by an eyelash.

Camila done, at Mississippi River

Central Iowa is the part of the state where I grew up. There were plenty of hills to climb but usually a tail wind to give you a welcome push. I saw my stepmother in law in Ames. I ran into two sisters from my hometown that I hadn’t seen in 40 years. I stayed with my brother in the Quad Cities after rolling into Davenport and dipping a wheel in the Mississippi River at the end of the ride. More than sixty miles a day for seven days made for another RAGBRAI. I’ll be back. Maybe not next year but I’ll be back.

Me done.

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