An acronym for the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, RAGBRAI is reportedly the oldest, largest bike ride in the United States.

It started in 1973 as a friendly challenge between two reporters for the Des Moines Register newspaper. On relatively short notice they announced the ride and invited the public to come along. About 300 people started out in Sioux City on the Missouri River and 114 of them made it all the way to Davenport on the Mississippi River.

The ride has been going strong ever since, and getting bigger. Now there are 8,500 "official" riders, and enough hangers-on to bring the daily total at least 10,000. They ride every possible type of bicycle: mountain, road, recumbents, tandems, penny farthings to stuff I've never seen before. In 2000 there was one bike which was a custom built five-seater with a kiddie trailor on the back. It cost several thousand dollars, and was ridden by an entire family (Mom, Dad, 2 kids, an Uncle and a Cousin, or something like that). I can only imagine that it made for one heck of a lot of quality time.

In addition to the bikes, you see every sort of person on the ride. Many of whom gather together into distinctive teams. I, for example, am a proud member of Team TP. We always had a roll attached to our helmets and were ever prepared to give a sheet to our fellow riders. Team Dragbrai was made up entirely of guys dressed as, go figure, women. Team Bad Boy carries (one to a bike) a stereo, trunk, cooler, wet bar, and the proverbial kitchen sink. Team bikini was there, but I missed them. Team loin cloth I just wish I missed (wouldn't that chafe?)

Huge parties and massive beer consumption are the rule. School teachers flash just about any part of their body for a sticker. One of the best analogies is Mardi Gras on wheels. But this belies the fact that it demands a certain amount of fittness to ride a bicycle across the state. The average route is about 470 miles, going up and down and up and down, fighting head winds, sore butts, and the late July heat and humidity. But by no means is it a race. Arriving first usually means you missed all the best parts. In 1999 Team Italia rode as if it were a race, and couldn't understand what was the big deal. In 2000 they took their time, saw the sights, talked to folks, and had a great time. I ran into a couple of them at a town square party late one day, shared a beer, gave each other high fives, and to this day I don't think any of us understood a word the other said.

RAGBRAI is also a chance for all the little towns to show off their sunday best. The county spends all it's highway money repaving the route. The roads are swept clean. Little kids stand by the side of the road selling lemonade, homemade cookies, and fresh fruit.

Go. You'll love the scenery. You'll love the people. You'll hate the weather. You'll curse the wind. You'll be back next year.

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