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RAGBRAI!

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The annual ride across Iowa offers an exhilarating test of fitness and a large dose of Midwestern hospitality.

In a late July day in 2004, Mark Conley and seven other cyclists were pedaling a 72-mile route between Fort Dodge and Iowa Falls, Iowa, when it began pouring rain. The closest refuge was a nearby front porch, where a woman stepped out and welcomed them to come up and dry off.

When the weather finally began to clear, the woman refused to let the group leave without trying her zucchini- flecked chocolate chip cookies. “I had never encountered anyone like her,” says Conley, a 53-year-old professor from East Lansing, Mich. “She was so very warm and generous in spirit.”

Moments like this are what define the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, as it’s known to the scores of participants and volunteers who’ve become smitten with the event since its beginnings 35 years ago.

RAGBRAI’s premise is down-to-earth: Spend a week pedaling across Iowa toward the Mississippi River. But for the 10,000 riders who sign up every year — and for the residents of the towns through which the course winds — the event proves uplifting in ways that surprise them all.

“We bring this event to the people of Iowa, and the people of Iowa respond in a way that’s unbelievable,” says ride director T. J. Juskiewicz. “That’s what separates the event from anything else in the world.”

RAG — what?

RAGBRAI began in August 1973, when two newspaper columnists for The Des Moines Register decided to report on the people and places of Iowa by riding across the state. After the paper ran an open invitation for others to join the columnists on their adventure, a few hundred readers decided to hop on their bikes, too. Those who missed the ride begged for another chance the following summer, and a two-wheeled tradition was born.

“Iowa is a perfect state for this ride,” explains Tim Lane, 59, of Des Moines, who’s ridden nearly every RAGBRAI since the event began. “There’s a town about every 10 miles. Imagine rolling across the countryside in the early morning with mist in the valleys and the sun greeting you in the east. In front of you, there’s a line of cyclists several miles long providing a dash of color across the various greens in the background.”

While the route changes every year, RAGBRAI always takes place the last full week of July and always rolls from west to east, starting on the Missouri River, where riders dip their rear tires, and finishing at the Mississippi, where they dip their front tires. The total distance averages 472 miles, or about 50 to 85 miles each day.

Along the way, RAGBRAI’s 8,500 official weeklong riders and 1,500 official day-riders make pit stops or spend the night in about 55 towns. (Though thousands of unofficial riders join the event, RAGBRAI officials offer them no support and discourage them from tagging on without an official entry.) Many communities set up camping areas, creating nomadic villages where riders unroll sleeping bags, enjoy a beer and tell cycling tales around the campfire.

Since it costs just $125 to register, RAGBRAI organizers depend on the support of volunteers, many of whom invite riders into their homes. In 2007, Katherine Cole, a broker associate in Independence, hosted 50 riders in her back- yard, garage and basement, where her husband rigged up a hot shower. “It was very emotional,” says Cole. “We felt like we gained new friendships. Next time, we’d like to host even more.”

Ride Rules

RAGBRAI riders come from all 50 states and all over the world to participate in the family-friendly event. The only age requirement? No newborns who need the support of infant bicycle seats are allowed on the ride. Other tots travel along in trailers, while other kids join their parents on tandem bikes. “We’ve had everyone from tykes who can barely walk to folks in their 90s,” says Juskiewicz.

Riders register for the event at www.ragbrai.org, where they sign up to ride for one day, three days or the whole week, and decide whether they want to go it alone or with a team. Joining a team — or starting your own — can mean additional support not only for logistics, but also for training, camping and transportation to Iowa.

For 17 years, Jerry Turry, 63, has been traveling from Illinois to RAGBRAI on a 10-hour bus trip with the Chicago Urban Bicycling Society. “We’re a team of doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers and more — some are very skilled riders and some are rank beginners,” says Turry. “We’ve learned to use the time on the bus to instruct the rookie riders and remind others of RAGBRAI’s intricacies.”

Throughout the week, Turry’s team plays “Kybo Roulette,” betting on which portable toilet door will open next while they’re waiting in line. They also host a benefit auction. Then they donate the earnings from both these endeavors to Iowa’s Camp Courageous, which serves some 5,000 campers with disabilities every year.

Fundraising like this is another part of the RAGBRAI tradition, with proceeds going to dozens of causes. Even seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong rides to help promote cancer awareness.

Despite the presence of Armstrong and other world-class riders, RAGBRAI isn’t a race. The route opens every day at 6 a.m. and organizers ask riders to be off the roads by 6 p.m., but no clock ticks off winners or cuts off stragglers.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the first one in or the last one in,” says Juskiewicz. “They make you feel like you just won the Tour de France when you roll into town.”

Victories happen in other ways, too. “I rode across the whole state,” says Carol Mahlendorf, 58, a teacher from West Des Moines who has ridden 32 RAGBRAIs. “To me, that’s winning.”

Gear Guide

Of course, having the right gear — especially a good bike — can affect your RAGBRAI experience. Mahlendorf once rode a heavy Schwinn Le Tour, but today advises ride newbies to choose lightweight bikes. “You don’t need the top-of-the-line model,” she says. “You need the best bike you can afford.”

Other essentials include a helmet, bike repair kit and camping equipment, which is shuttled by ride organizers from town to town. You also need a wide range of nutrient- rich foods to help you cover the miles (keep in mind that you don’t need to bring all your food since it’s often provided and you can buy what you need along the way).

Most veteran RAGBRAI riders prepare for the event by logging a few hundred miles in May, June and July. While others just jump on their bikes and ride, this approach isn’t widely recommended: “The more miles you train, the more you’ll enjoy it,” says Lane, who reminds riders that Iowa isn’t flat. “You climb in increments of a quarter- and a half-mile, and the heat and humidity can wear on you.”

Sweet Memories

For all the moments of sun and sweat, however, there are roadside reprieves. During the seasons between RAGBRAI rides, Lane savors memories of freshly picked sweet corn, music, hospitality, vitality, and leaving work and worries behind. “When you’re on RAGBRAI, you only think about the road, the food and the conversations you’re having,” he says.

And for thousands of riders, there is the feeling of pure freedom. “You ride your bike across the state, you meet people and you enjoy goodwill,” says Bill Versluis, 39, a pizza-parlor owner and RAGBRAI rider from Independence, Iowa. “It’s like reliving your childhood, when you could ride your bike all over town, all summer long, and you were totally carefree.”