Thursday, August 4, 2011

RAGBRAI Notes 3: Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance

A friend of mine, who is a staff member at Mount Mercy University, described her one-day (day 6) RAGBRAI ride as a “pilgrimage” in her excellent 2-part post about her ride.

Well, it was that, for me, too.

Before I rode my first RAGBRAI, I didn’t really ever intend to go on the bike ride. I was aware of RAGBRAI from the start—the early years when the name changed, and it was “FAGBRAI” and SAGBRAI” before it became RAGBRAI. As a kid, I was a regular reader of “Over the Coffee,” Donald Kaul’s Des Moines Register column.

But, by the time I bought my own 10-speed, RAGBRAI had grown into a giant, over 10,000-biker cross-state circus.

I’m not into noise and crowds, so, despite being an Iowa biker, I didn’t really ever plan to do a RAGBRAI.

Plans have a way of changing. In March, Audrey and I were visiting our son Jon, who lives in Seattle. He noted that he and some of his Microsoft pals were going to ride RAGBRAI this year, and he asked if I wanted to come along.

Now, the invitation came at a slightly painful time for me. My right knee was acting up horribly, and it hurt to walk about Seattle during our trip there. But walking is harder on the knees than biking is, and Audrey encouraged me to say yes. How could I pass up the invitation to be almost a college-age boy again, even if only for a week?

Well, I could not.

I’m not sure what I expected RAGBRAI to be. It was a giant, 20,000-biker traveling circus, but despite a strong “party” element—the riders who stop at every beer garden and dance to loud music every night—it was much more Joe friendly than I expected.

For one thing, I was more in the RAGBRAI demographic. A lot of retired people ride RAGBRAI, and the average age of riders is 52. Exactly CR Biker’s age.

Not that most bikers are like CR Biker—I was passed by all the young, lean bikers. I was passed by the young, pudgy bikers. I was passed by plenty of old lady bikers. Small children passed me.

I had to remind myself often that it’s a tour, not a race. You can’t lose, even if you go slowly. The goal is simply to finish.

And I accomplished that goal. I had lots of time to myself during RAGBRAI—I was alone among 20,000 bikers. For a person with a bit of a loner personality, that was pretty pleasant. But while I was alone, in the sense that I was riding only at my own pace, I was never lonely. I was always surrounded by other bikers, and 99 percent of them were caring, supportive and encouraging.

If any motorized vehicle approached RAGBRAI, the shouts of “car up” or “car back” would serve as a communal warning. Any person stopped by the side of the road was asked often if he or she was OK. You often saw groups helping someone with a flat or stuck chain, and I am sure not all of those groups were RAGBRAI teams. You had an odd sense of intimacy on RAGBRAI—sort of like airplane intimacy. You were having an intense shared experience with strangers, and it made it easy to strike up conversations.

I met a mom from Ida Grove who was doing RAGBRAI because here kids were getting old enough to fend for themselves for a while. I met a man from Oregon who rode his bike from Oregon to participate in RAGBRAI. I met a team from South Africa and saw some riders from Australia.

I wore a Mount Mercy shirt every day. The “Mount Mercy Football, Undefeated Since 1928” was a good one to wear, as it prompted questions—“really?” To which I could honestly reply “really,” since Mount Mercy University has never had a football team since its 1928 founding.

The best shirt I wore twice—on day 1 and (after it was in a load of laundry in Des Moines—thanks, Brigid and Eldon) and on day 6, college-pride day. It has a big MMU logo on the back, and on RAGBRAI, more people see your back. Several riders identified themselves as alums because I had on that particular shirt.

Well, I felt a bit renewed by the experience. It’s good to go on a spiritual journey now and then, and you feel in touch with yourself, your limits, your physical and mental reality when you bicycle more than 60 miles on a day when the hot sun beating down on the expanse of pavement means that you’re riding through triple-digit heat.

I did suffer some at the end of most days. The final hills were the hardest. I was not tempted to attempt the optional extra look that would turn one day into a 100-mile ride.

My personal goal was simply to do it—to ride all of RAGBRAI. My other goal was to enjoy some companionship with my son, who I see only two or three times a year.

A spiritual journey of self discovery? That was not my goal, but it was a bonus.

Jon already says he’s ready to do RAGBRAI again. So am I. It wasn’t so much a circus as a deeply satisfying long ride into Iowa and into myself.

It was very Zen.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post, Joe! I think the opportunity to be "by yourself" in a crowd of loosely affiliated others is underrated: you get to experience the self/others spiritual dichotomy in a whole new way, not to mention exploring your own limits in an environment weirdly supportive of that!