Aging with Adventure with Eric Weld: Adventuring en masse: Weeklong, cross-state bike ride with 20,000 cyclists had pros, but more cons

  • The author dips his rear bike tire in the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa, the customary ritual to begin a RAGBRAI ride. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC WELD

  • Fields of tents pitched inches apart fill every available space in local parks of host RAGBRAI communities across Iowa.  PHOTO COURTESY ERIC WELD

  • This old-fashioned high wheel bicycle, known as a penny farthing, was one of many novel bikes seen on RAGBRAI. Others included a two-story bike, a car bike, a rider cycling backwards, and a few transporting dogs in rack carriers. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC WELD

  • The best time to ride in Iowa in midsummer is at dawn, when temperatures are relatively cool, the smell of cornfields waft through the morning air, and the sun rises over the fields. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC WELD

  • Every RAGBRAI ends with a customary front bike tire dip in the Mississippi River and a celebratory bike lift, here in Davenport, Iowa. PHOTO COURTESY ERIC WELD

For the Gazette
Published: 9/7/2023 3:59:45 PM

Some adventures are about getting away from people, venturing solo into isolated wilderness for a dose of peace, quiet and uninterrupted introspection.

Other adventures are about the people you meet — fellow adventurers from an array of places and backgrounds — interacting with interesting personalities, sharing stories and useful information, exchanging contacts and keeping in touch to accentuate and extend the journey.

If you’re looking for the latter, except on steroids, I recommend, above all other group adventures, the annual RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is an acronym title of a yearly summer west-to-east bicycle ride across the state of Iowa. It’s the oldest and largest bike ride in the world and has inspired similar cross-state rides in more than two dozen other states. The ride, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, was originated and is sponsored by the Des Moines Register. RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.

If it’s an adventure with people you want, a RAGBRAI ride will deliver, and then some.

I participated in this year’s RAGBRAI, along with 20,000 fellow cyclists from every state and 20 other countries. The ride takes place every year during the last week of July. This year’s event set out from Sioux City, on the state’s western border, next to the Missouri River, on Sunday, July 23. It ended six days later, on Saturday, July 29, in Davenport, on the banks of the Mississippi River. We pedaled 502 miles, through 30 towns and cities and past countless cornfields.

Nights were campouts, with tents and support RVs parked and crammed inches apart in the fields of host towns’ school grounds and parks. Arriving early was key to claiming a favorable spot (i.e., in the shade) before 19,000 other riders showed up.

A stark contrast

In joining this year’s RAGBRAI, I was looking for a short-term goal to help me stay in shape for the summer. Having completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT) on May 16, I envisioned needing an incentive to keep moving afterward, in order to avoid what can be a mental and physical let-down for many thru-hikers after such an accomplishment. Also, I spent my youth in Iowa, living in Iowa City until age 15, and grew up aware of and curious about RAGBRAI. My father, uncle and cousins had taken the cross-state ride, and I figured its 50th anniversary was a good time to finally do it myself.

I wasn’t necessarily looking for a stark juxtaposition to the isolation of the AT; days of hiking alone through remote forests without seeing another person. Re-entering civilization after such prolonged aloneness is a culture shock. I still hadn’t grown accustomed to having people around when I joined the massive throng of cyclists to begin RAGBRAI in Sioux City.

Spending a week with tens of thousands of strangers drawn together by our love of cycling is a roller coaster of emotion, physical endurance and mental focus. On a superficial level, it’s a constant jockeying for position on the roads. You’re pedaling along, most of us at 15 to 20 miles per hour, riding six narrow lanes across, shoulder-to-shoulder, weaving in and around other cyclists, wheels inches apart, the constant hum of whirring chains and tires on pavement. You do your best to yell out and signal your intentions to move over or pass, but tempers often flare when someone shifts over too abruptly, suddenly slows down or passes too closely.

The weaving, shifting cycling crowd made for constant close calls. Safety was over-dependent on participants’ cycling etiquette, instincts and adherence to protocols. Every day I saw at least half a dozen accidents and mishaps, usually minor but occasionally serious. More than 30 riders have died on the ride in RAGBRAI’s 50 years — including one during this year’s ride — mostly as a result of accidents and heart failures.

Iowa in summer

For anyone who thinks of Iowa as a flat expanse (that’s many native New Englanders), I challenge you to bike across it. Iowa is definitely not flat, as evidenced by the 17,000 feet of climbing up hills throughout the weeklong ride. To picture Iowa’s terrain, think of the rolling hills background in the iconic painting, “American Gothic,” by native Iowan artist Grant Wood. It’s a constant up-and-down, riding the rollers, as we say, rarely a long, flat stretch.

A standout feature of RAGBRAI is the searing heat and sapping humidity. Iowa in July is a sun-scorched canvas with barometer-breaking humidity and perilous heat indexes in the hundreds. The hardest day of the ride was day four, a 91-mile ride from Des Moines to Toledo in 99-degree heat with 90% humidity, climbing 4,500 feet. Many didn’t complete the day’s ride and ambulances working down the road shoulder to pick up heat-exhausted cyclists were a common sight.

Every adventure, it seems, includes such days, when you have to reach down and summon your innermost reserves to push through to the finish; when you have to silence the voice in your head that tries to convince you to stop, rest and relax instead of completing what you committed to.

What we gain by persevering through such moments is well worth the momentary discomfort. These tests help define who we are deep inside and provide a reserve to draw from in future challenges. They reset the bar of our capabilities and inform us that we can do more than we think we can. These are among the most valuable takeaways of adventuring, part of the answer to why we do it.

It’s the people

I’ve always loved the spontaneous interactions of adventure. Happening upon other adventurers for 10-minute exchanges of stories, information and excitement is a highlight of being out there. Adventuring people are an interesting, largely friendly, happy lot.

That said, there is a limit to my tolerance for adventuring crowds. At times, this year’s RAGBRAI may have surpassed that limit. I enjoyed meeting several other riders exploring the world in their ways. One, named JP, cycled down from Minnesota’s boundary waters to join RAGBRAI. Another, Jim, who rode up from Kansas City. Another fellow rider traveled over from Nepal. (Inevitably, in a crowd of 20,000, you also get a few knuckleheads who think the road belongs to them. I came across a few of them, too, thankfully a minority.)

In some ways, I think of my RAGBRAI ride as the opposite of a cross-country bike ride I took in 2021, from Easthampton to Los Angeles. While RAGBRAI was a relatively brief one-week ride, my cross-U.S. adventure was protracted, 68 days total. And where my pedal across America was solo, often remote and isolated, with only occasional people encounters, RAGBRAI was always crowded.

Cyclists were everywhere, all day long: in long lines waiting to fill water bottles, for the porta-potties, for coffee and breakfast, in hundreds of tents pitched inches from each other. Normally private daily habits, like brushing teeth and changing into bike gear, are done in the full view of thousands of others doing the same thing.

One and done

For many people, RAGBRAI and other group outings check all the boxes for adventure. They love the crowds, more the merrier. “It’s about the awesome people I met,” they might impart among the trip’s highlights.

RAGBRAI is an intense, awesome cycling migration. But for me, one RAGBRAI was enough. I’m glad to have done it and checked it off the list, and I may be interested in other cross-state rides with smaller peletons.

Adventuring en masse has its advantages, to be sure. Safety, for one. With so many others always around, you’re assured of assistance should the need arise. There’s also a psychological comfort in the constant knowledge that other people are experiencing similar struggles and sensations at the same time as you. Striving for a common goal bonds us together.

For the most part, I’m seeking something different from adventure. Communing with nature is near the top of the list. Peace and introspection are up there, too. The space to reflect, observe, breathe, hear and develop my thoughts, expand creative ideas, and be aware of the moment while challenging myself physically and mentally.

Eric Weld, a former Gazette reporter, is the founder of


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