A Virgin’s RAGBRAI – A Reflection

Last week my partner and I participated in our first RAGBRAI. On the surface, RAGBRAI is a week-long bike ride across Iowa with around 20,000 people. But, like most things, the surface only tells part of the story. There is more to RAGBRAI than riding. The human element ended up impacting me significantly more than the hills, occasional headwind, and boredom from staring at corn for 8 hours a day. Before I get to that, here are some basic stats for you.

46th Annual RAGBRAI (2018)
Scheduled Miles – 464.8 miles
Actual Miles – ~500 miles
Scheduled Elevation Gain –  12,576 feet (or a little more than climbing Mt. Fuji)
Estimated Calories Burnt – 32,000 kcal (or over 700 Oreos)

So, those are the stats. Here is how an average day went.

0530 – Wake up
0600 – Actually get out of the tent and begin morning routine
0700 – Load camping gear onto the truck that will take it to our final city for the day
0710 – Refill water and start cycling
0815 – Arrive at first town and have breakfast/coffee, stand in line at porta-potties (or “kybos”, as people from Iowa call them… WTF?).
0845 – Cycle
0945 – Arrive at second town, drink beer and stand in line at the porta-potties.
1015 – Cycle
1130 – Arrive at the beer tent, drink beer and eat from food trucks, and stand in line at the porta-potties.
1200 – Cycle
1205 – Poop in the corn fields
1210 – Cycle
1330 – Arrive in the fourth town and eat more food or take a nap under a water tower. Drink beer.
1530 – Realize what time it is and start cycling again
1630 – Arrive in final town, set up camp, drink beer, go into town for food
2000 – Start yawning, drink beer, head to bed

Pretty dull, huh? Ride around just to drink beer? Why the fuck would you do that?

Well, my inquisitive friend, the answer is “because of the people”. I was absolutely shocked at the number and type of people that were present. I mistakenly expected to be riding with a bunch of fit people who obsessed over cycling, but that wasn’t the case. There were people from all different backgrounds with different physical abilities. I saw people who were missing limbs, were 90 years old, had nicotine addictions, and appeared very unathletic. To watch people push their bikes up hills over and over and over again was fucking inspiring.

While the event had a lot of diversity of age, economic status, ability, and gender, it was pretty much an event that can be classified as “shit white people do”. There were some people of color present but I’d guess it was far less than 1% of the population. I’m not sure why this is the case but I’m sure someone could write a dissertation about the demographics of RAGBRAI. There were more men than women (I’d guess about 75%/25% split) but the younger group of riders seemed to see more gender equality.

There were basically two age groups that were present: Millennials and men over the age of 50. There were exceptions and I saw parents riding with their children of all ages. I saw parents with infants in a trailer and some riding with their teenagers. I met a 14-year old girl who had ridden in 4 RAGBRAI’s before this one. It seemed that if this experience was something that a person wanted then there were no real barriers to entry… well, except for finances. Even being somewhat frugal RAGBRAI can be an expensive endeavor. If you didn’t have a bike and camping equipment already this could turn into a multi-thousand dollar week.

Hmm, I’m having a lot of trouble articulating what I loved about it. I can say “the people” until my voice (fingers?) give out but it really can’t be explained well. It actually reminded me a lot of Burning Man, a point I articulated an annoyingly large number of times. The people were kind, loving, friendly, and helpful. There was no real judgment or criticism. It was a culture very different than the one we generally live in.

One of the major differences was the interaction between men and women, particularly how men act around women. Despite the fact that most women were wearing tight clothing I never heard a single cat-call or witness any derogatory comments. It is almost like the men present viewed the women as equal participants in the event instead of something that is present for their own entertainment. There were camel-toes and moose-knuckles everywhere, women wore sports bras and men went shirtless, people changed clothes in public, but it wasn’t sexual at all. Like Burning Man, the exposed bodies became very normal quickly and lacked the sexuality that we currently attribute to tight pants or an exposed midriff.

I mistakenly thought that the event wouldn’t lend itself to much creativity, but that wasn’t the case at all. There were more than just bicycles riding. There was a guy who rollerbladed the whole thing, someone on a bike made of 2x4s, some elliptical cycles, many recumbent bikes, at least two unicycles, and at least one old-timey bike with a front wheel that was at least five feet tall. People wore costumes and outfits that served a practical purpose, it made them stand out.

I’m not one for bright colors or jerseys that advertise my views, but I think when I go next time I will adopt some of the habits of veteran riders. When you are all cycling it is difficult to stand out, difficult to find a way to relate beyond “Hey, where are you from? How many times have your done RAGBRAI?”. So a shirt that has your home state, favorite beer, or a clever quip can make conversations a bit easier.

The actual riding time was similar to what I expected, lots of corn fields and a handful of Trump stickers. Traveling through a red state is always interesting. There was an unbelievable number of not-so-subtle sex and drug jokes that the towns put forth. The one that stands out to me is “Grab me by the ears and shuck me” (a reference to shucking corn). These people who would support throwing people in cages based on possession of weed feel free to make jokes and laugh about references to drugs. There is just something about that weirds me out.

Overall though, it was an amazing experience. I hope to have more to write later (I should have taken fucking notes) but if you have any specific questions please feel free to write. RAGBRAI, again like Burning Man, is something that I unequivocally recommend people do if they are remotely interested in it. If you don’t have a good time, then that is your fault. It is an unforgettable experience that allows for growth and experimentation.

Wanna stay in touch? Got a question for me? Want to tell me why I’m wrong and are curious how I got everything so backward? Have an idea for a blog post? Drunk and wanna send me a Snapchat? Wanna become penpals and send each other letters in the mail?

Feel free to reach out at any of the ways below while I take a Facebook break!

Email address: pjneiger@gmail.com
Instagram: @peterneiger
Questions:  pneiger.sarahah.com or www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH
Snapchat: @pneiger
Also, I wrote a book about a cross-country bicycle ride I did!
“Wandering Oak: A Rite of Passage”

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