Eating Up The Road
To my left, cornfields. To my right, acres of soybeans. A hot yellow Iowa sun burns above. Around and mostly ahead of me are my fellow cyclists, a rolling city of some 10,000, on the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. We are all shapes and sizes, from bronzed and lean to pale and pudgy. There are grandfathers among us and small children, bankers and salesmen and carpenters, secretaries and doctors. There are people with prostheses on this ride; I've seen unicycles, ground-skimming reclining bikes, tandems, and a Scottish terrier in a tiny red helmet, observing the road from a front basket. Biking teams have pedaled past in their finery: Team Tutu, pink and yellow tulle billowing from helmets and waists; Team Spam, named for the cans of spongy pink meat glued to their helmets; Team Cheese, with wedges of Styrofoam swiss tacked to theirs. We all have a common goal, though—to ride roughly 500 miles in seven days. And we are all very, very hungry.
Luckily, the good people of Iowa provide. The route for this river of bikes changes every year, but its banks always sprout with food. Farmers set up card tables in their driveways and sell cookies, lemonade, rib-eye sandwiches, and roasted hog. Church ladies put on huge pasta dinners and bake thousands of pies. Towns—even towns so small that they're not much more than a grain elevator and a water tower—turn over their main streets to breakfast burritos, waffles, roasted corn, bratwurst, and that savory, crumbly Iowa twist on the hamburger called a loosemeats sandwich. Hand-lettered signs along the road announce the food up ahead: "Drink our floats⁄ Pet our goats"; "Grandma Murt didn't die⁄Half a mile to her pie".
This movable feast got its start in the summer of 1973, when John Karras and Donald Kaul, two writers for the Register, thought they'd tool across the state on their bikes in search of local color. They put an announcement in the paper inviting anyone who felt like it to come along, and to their amazement nearly 300 people showed up. RAGBRAI, as the ride is known, is now the largest multi-day bike ride in America, drawing half its riders from Iowa and the rest from all over the nation and 11 different countries—yet it's still so free in spirit that it has been called "Woodstock on Wheels" and "a marathon crossed with Mardi Gras".
Just past dawn on the first day, I set off from Sioux Center, near Iowa's northwestern border. I'm positively flying along. Those months of training have paid off! People are sitting out on their neat, pretty lawns, waving and cheering. Then bikers start passing me. Old people. Fat people. So many cyclists whiz by me that their wheels sound like rushing water. Oh, well, no matter. RAGBRAI is not a race. The whole point is to enjoy the ride—the scenery, the people, the food. In Orange City, a Dutch town 11 miles down the road, I breakfast on poffertjes, plump pancakes no bigger than a quarter. Outside Woudstra Meat Market, I eat slivers of spicy air-dried beef and chat with a local woman wearing a white lace cap with upturned tips. She says she's surprised by many bikers she's meeting. "You know, you think, 'Oh, big city.' But they're people, just like us!"
I linger so long in Orange City that by the time I reach the next town, Alton, only crumbs are left at the pie table. This is a shocking development. Baking is practically a competitive sport in the land of the Iowa State Fair, and I assumed I'd find lots of fine pie. Clearly speed is called for. I zip out of Alton and pedal furiously alongside Team Donner Party, whose jerseys read, "We eat the slow ones." Then, from the top of the hill ahead comes a gravelly, sirenlike cry: "PoooOOORK CHAAAaawp!" I pull over. Next to a pink schoolbus painted with a pig's face sits a ruddy, smiling man wearing an apron printed with the words "Mr. Pork Chop". A former Iowa Pork Producers Association president, Paul Bernhard has been selling chops to RAGBRAI riders for 20 years, setting up along the route every day. His two grandsons grill the chops over pits filled with smoldering corn cobs, but—drat!—it looks like they're cleaning up. "You still got chops?" a plump, bearded biker asks Bernhard, fishing limp dollars out of his pocket. "Yep." "I love ya," says the biker. "I'll take two." But first, he points his camera at Bernhard, who obligingly tucks in his chin and blasts out the call. Suddenly some bikers in line bellow back. "PoooOOORK CHAAAaawp!" Bikers passing on the road let loose, too. It's like elephants trumpeting on the veld. "I got thousands of pictures of me with my mouth open," says Bernhard. "Luckily, I got a good-lookin' mouth." As I sink my teeth into my own crusty-edged, juicy chop, Bernhard waggles his eyebrows at me and adds, "I got a pig tattooed on my rear, too, but you ain't seeing it."
Around mile 30, my bike saddle begins to bite me, and it's so hot that the asphalt is sticking to my tires. I stop in shady Granville (population 300), where exhausted bikers are flopped like boneless chickens on the lawns, and talk to an ancient farmer in a deck chair. In a papery voice, he tells me that he was born and raised in this town and grew corn and soybeans here for nearly 50 years. He was up at six to see the first biker go by, he says. Every time a rider passes, he lifts his hand and calls out, "Have a nice ride, now."