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Riding Home

Photos By: Caleb Schulze

Riding 462 miles, many things cross your mind;

sometimes one or two lines from a song constantly replay or sometimes a voice obsesses over a recent decision. During my recent completion of the 49th running of RAGBRAI, it was a single word that haunted me.  “Home”  

RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

It’s not a gnar-fest; there’s no high speeds or deep sends. What it is is a party on wheels, a great celebration rolling across my home state, and an ode to modern day bicycling content creation. The great ride across Iowa was founded in 1973 by John Karras, a writer and copy editor for the Des Moines Register, and Don Kaul, author of the Des Moines Register’s “Over the Coffee,” column. The motivation for the pair’s original journey was to convince their employer to let them ride across Iowa and write stories about the experience. Create a rad experience and tell stories about it? Nearly fifty years later this remains the holy grail of bicycle content.

My name is Tanner. I’m the Content Coordinator for Pivot Cycles, a native Iowan and most importantly, a father trying to create a home for his family.

Home is hard to define. The Oxford dictionary defines home as “the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household.” Personally, that definition falls short, and I was hoping to discover something during RAGBRAI…because Iowa has never felt like home.

First, About RAGBRAI

As mentioned before, RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, but that wasn’t always what it was called. Starting on August 26, 1973 “The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride,” began. Nearly 300 riders joined John and Don on their first trip, and since then over 300,000 riders have completed the river-to-river journey.

The route for RAGBRAI changes year to year,

alternating between the northern, central and southern parts of the state. The great ride has passed through every one of Iowa’s 99 counties and has made its way through 80% of its 947 incorporated towns.

The enduring sentiment I got from RAGBRAI veterans is “it’s NOT a race, it’s a ride.”

Because of this, it attracts a myriad of everyday cyclists, and an equal array of different bicycles you wouldn’t see in a normal race format; everything from tandems to unicycles make their way from one side of the state to the other. Anyone participating in RAGBRAI has the option of doing any number of single day rides or the entire seven days. The route meanders through a host of overnight cities with meeting towns sprinkled in halfway through each day. Riders make a point to stop at each of these towns to take in the finest Iowa pork chops, pie and craft beer every evening.

My Home State

Growing up in Iowa means you will be on the receiving end of a reasonably predictable string of questions for the rest of your life: What do you do for fun? Are your parents’ farmers? Is that the corn state or the potato state? I never really felt much of a connection to the place when I answered these questions; Iowa never quite felt like home, even though I could recognize every stop on this year’s very rural RAGBRAI route:
  • Day 1: Sargent Bluff to Ida Grove (53.2 miles)
  • Day 2: Ida Grove to Pocahontas (71.2 miles)
  • Day 3: Pocahontas to Emmetsburg (48 miles)
  • Day 4: Emmetsburg to Mason City (105 miles)
  • Day 5: Mason City to Charles City (47.9 miles)
  • Day 6: Charles City to West Union (63 miles)
  • Day 7: AND FINALLY West Union to Lansing (65.4 miles)

I started the journey from my hometown of New London. Arriving there, an unexpected feeling of nostalgia slapped me across the face. I was taken aback. The feeling was hard to place, but it kept me company the first few days biking across Iowa.

Ending day 3, I was in search of Wi-Fi in the throbbing megalopolis of Emmetsburg, IA, population 3,706, swelling to 21,706 as the RAGBRAI field straggled in. The digital infrastructure of these small towns is not made for an influx of 18,000+ people, and the closest thing I could find to a reliable signal for sending in my days’ ride report was at a locally owned Mexican restaurant. With a 2+ hour upload time for a single 2MB image, my laptop sat among a sea of cerveza bottles and chip crumbs as the day came to a close.

Riding It Out

Growing up in a place that didn’t feel like home put strain on the idea of the home I should provide for my young family (hundreds of miles away in Arizona), striving to provide shelter and security I had always believed a home to be but didn’t necessarily feel I had yet experienced. By this point, the Iowa countryside had been doing its work on me emotionally, but I was riding it out.

I was struck by the beauty of the Northern Iowa bluffs and river valleys.

Each night you camp in and around the host communities. Pulling up to camp on our first few days it was apparent the camp vibes are as free-spirited as the ride. The camps are first-come-first-served, so getting to town to secure a spot is important, if that matters to you. Sag drivers, charters, and self-supported riders all vie for premium spots. The Mexican restaurant wi-fi trend held, so I began favoring any spot where I could actually smell carne asada.

On the fourth day, fresh out of a bath in Willow Creek and sitting around our campfire after riding 105 miles,

I realized something about that nostalgia feeling that had hit me at the outset of the trip. This may sound silly, or it may sound familiar, but we all wrestle things in our life at different times and different places and the bike is a great place to wrestle with feelings. After 250+ miles, the bike had indeed brought me home, the irony being that home isn’t a place at all. For me, home is a feeling. It’s rooted in love and tethered to the past, but also reaching forward with no set pace. Iowa is my home. But so is the cycling community, and so is Arizona.

Pedaling Past Doubt

On the final day, between West Union and Lansing, I was missing home: the one in Arizona where my kids were waiting for me. My children are too young to understand how far I rode during RAGBRAI, or to understand that as a dad, it was something I had to do. Fatherhood can often be accompanied by low frequency doubt. I think it’s natural, as a parent, to doubt ourselves and wonder if we’re providing enough, but it’s nothing that 462 miles can’t handle. (I also realized that a young family is kind of a gnar-fest, and you are sending it every day). Riding across Iowa helped me see that creating a life for my family that is filled with love and security, no matter where that is, is enough to give them a sense of having a home. I think John and Don would have found that to be a bicycle experience worth writing about.

Photography: Caleb Schulze