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Pedal your way across Iowa

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I am standing at a makeshift, outdoor food counter - boards supported by barrels - adjacent to a general store in Alta Vista, Iowa, population 246.

The sun is burning bright and hot in a cloudless July sky. I have consumed six ears of corn splashed with butter, and now I am washing it down with a root beer float. It is only 9 a.m., and this is my second breakfast of the day.In the dusty, gravel-covered parking lot next to me, a disc jockey has set up speakers on the back of a flatbed truck. He is playing the Village People's "YMCA" and about 50 sweaty, spandex-clad bicyclists, who, like me, have just pedaled 25 miles across hilly Iowa farmland are dancing to the blaring tune.

Welcome to RAGBRAI - the (Des Moines) Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa - or, as some affectionately call it, "the mother of all bike rides." This summer marks the 25th year for the world's longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event (it's not a race; there are no prizes).

Approximately 8,500 riders, plus 1,500 more support staffers and their vehicles, will gather on July 20 in Missouri Valley on the state's western border. (For information on entering - the deadline is April 1 - see the box.)

After dipping tires in the Missouri River, riders will pedal seven days, averaging 60 to 70 miles per day, and camp in six designated towns - all but one (Des Moines - the state capital) of which has a smaller population than the RAGBRAI nation.

They will rack up close to 470 miles before rolling into the final stop on the state's southeastern tip - Ft. Madison, where they will dip tires in the Mississippi River.

The routes, always on state and county highways, are changed every year; this summer's route includes Lucas County, in the south central part of the state - the last of Iowa's 99 counties to have RAGBRAI pass through it.

Bikers will go through "Bridges of Madison County" country this summer for the first time since the book and movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood popularized this picturesque part of south central Iowa.

Besides Des Moines, other camptowns - everyone stays in tents unless they somehow finagle space in a motel or a house - are in Bloomfield (in the heart of Amish country), Fairfield (home of Maharishi International University), Red Oak, Creston and Chariton.

The Register transports everyone's bags to the overnight communities. Bikers then pitch their tents in designated campgrounds - usually the local schoolgrounds, city parks or fairgrounds. Public showers are also provided.

Many prefer to ride with clubs, which provide their own support and typically make arrangements to camp in the yards of homes. This usually means access to private restroom facilities and a hot shower, one of RAGBRAI's most precious commodities.

Team Plunger, Team Cockroach, Team Drag (men in tutus and tights), Disgruntled Postal Workers (they carry squirt guns and blast away at other riders), Team Skin and Loin Cloth Man always draw stares from locals watching us pass through their towns. A personal favorite: Barbies Gone Bad - women in bikinis and wedding veils.

Team Gumby, Cheddarheads and Team Cucumber are no more. They've been expelled for this year's run after repeated warnings for misconduct.

On our first run in 1994, my wife, Diane, then 12-year-old-son Andy and a friend, Dick Marr, decided in late spring to do the ride and managed to latch on at the last minute with an Iowa club, Team Big.

We met them in eastern Iowa and rode across the state in a school bus with bad springs. The riders were young and fast, which we could handle, and stayed up late at night to party, which we couldn't.

My situation was made worse by being totally ill-equipped with a five-speed Schwinn mountain bike, akin to riding a Clydesdale in the Kentucky Derby.

The next year, outfitted with a new Trek hybrid 730 bicycle, my family and I joined Northwest Passage, the Illinois-based adventure company that has organized RAGBRAI groups for years.

There were approximately 60 people. We met at Dyche Stadium in Evanston, Ill., early on a Saturday morning and were transported in an air-conditioned, chartered bus to Onawa on Iowa's western border. Our support crew fed us breakfast and took down tents in the morning. We spent two nights in motels, and our group also included a professional masseuse.

It was as if we'd moved from Animal House to the Four Seasons.

Last year, led by Niles West High School athletic director Jerry Turry, several us splintered from Northwest Passage to form our own RAGBRAI group - the Chicago Urban Bicycle Society, or CUBS. Our motto: "Wait till next year."

Most of us were from Chicago, but we also had riders from Michigan, Texas, Ohio, Iowa and Washington, D.C. Lawyers outnumbered everyone else in CUBS. Our ranks also included stockbrokers, teachers, a Chicago cop, a circuit court judge, a construction company owner, accountants, journalists, students, a hat store owner, film producers, a school counselor and retirees.

We had a support crew that had food waiting for us when we pulled in at night, and breakfast when we left in the morning. Just as important, we had another masseuse.

It was the Four Seasons all over again, just as it promises to be this year for the CUBS' second RAGBRAI effort.

In fact, there is never a food shortage. Riders frequently complain that, despite expending all the energy it takes to go 470 miles, they gain weight on RAGBRAI. It is easy to justify pigging out on a Dove bar after you've put in a long, hot day on a bicycle.

In the many small towns that dot the routes, RAGBRAI is a financial bonanza for churches, booster clubs and fraternal organizations offering meals. On the road, regular concessionaires such as Pork Chop Man (you haven't lived until you've eaten a pork chop, without utensils, at 8 a.m.), Pancake Man, Pasta Boys and Tender Tom's Turkeys set up shop on each day's route.

The weather, though hot, has been dry and nearly ideal in recent years. Most vets cite Soggy Monday - Mapleton to Lake City in 1981 - as having RAGBRAI's worst conditions. It rained most of the day, temperatures never got above 50 degrees, and the wind was in your face.

Then, there was Saggy Thursday - Tama to Sigourney in 1995.

On that day, temperatures were in the 90s with winds gusting from the south at 20 to 25 miles per hour. The last 15 miles were extremely hilly and straight into those withering winds. At times, the hot gusts were so strong riders had to pedal to get down hills. It was a lot like riding into a blowtorch.

Register officials later estimated half that day's participants ended up "sagging" (grabbing a ride) with a support vehicle. "Saggy Thursday" commemorative T-shirts were made up by the newspaper for those of us who made it through the day.

The first RAGBRAI occurred in 1973 after a series of Register columns in which Donald Kaul and John Karras challenged each other to ride their bikes together across Iowa. They invited readers to join them.

About 300 people showed up in Sioux City. That number swelled to 500 during the weeklong trip before 115 of the original riders finished with Kaul and Karras in Davenport. Their daily accounts in the statewide newspaper captured readers' attention.

The Register's Chuck Offenburger, who writes the popular Iowa Boy column four times a week, became a RAGBRAI host in 1982. Every year he can be seen pedaling his way among participants and grabbing stories for his column, which has become the ride's voice.

Offenburger is so enthusiastic about biking that last year he was part of a coast-to-coast biking group celebrating the Iowa Sesquicentennial.

Those bikers linked with RAGBRAI on the Missouri River in Sioux Center and, after the Iowa portion ended in Guttenberg, continued to the Atlantic Ocean.

Karras retired from the paper in '84 but has continued his relationship with the ride. In '91, Jim Green, another Register employee, became the full-time coordinator.

A little more than half the ride's participants are non-Iowans. Most out-of-staters are from Illinois, Wisconsin and California.

A Register survey further indicates nearly 65 percent of all riders are professionals in the work force. Sixty-eight percent are college graduates and nearly 40 percent live in households with incomes of $50,000 or more. The average age: 37 for women, 40 for men.

No one has done a survey to determine how many single riders have met their eventual spouse on RAGBRAI. I know of at least three couples who became Mr. and Mrs. after meeting on the ride. Last year, a marriage ceremony also took place on the trip. No one can recall any births.

Although the rolling hills can offer a stiff challenge, it is the hundreds of small towns, churches and grange halls that dot the countryside that provide perfect stops for rest and refreshment. Townspeople - though usually overwhelmed by thousands of bikers clogging their main street - get into the spirit.

In Vail, it was possible to have your picture taken with skis at the city limits. The Singing Nuns - a quintet of women in habits who definitely are not sisters in the Catholic Church - materialize every summer at several stops.

In Spillville, we learned famous Czech composer Anton Dvorak spent the summer of 1893 there playing the organ in St. Wenceslaus Church. In Lidderdale, the town was so small that the mayor was elected by getting three votes - all write-ins.

Clinton County has produced three astronauts, and the city of Clinton was the hometown of famed actress Lillian Gish, who, as fate would have it, rode a bike.

Polka and country-and-western tend to be the music of choice, but at night, in stopover towns, local rock bands come out to play for riders not too tired to party. These communities take on a carnival atmosphere. They also become a bazaar for camp-followers selling bike products.

Last summer, actor Tom Arnold, an Iowa native, rode in his first RAGBRAI with a group of hometown buddies who've remained close friends. They called themselves the Massive-Fergusons, not to be confused with Massey-Ferguson tractors popular in farm country.

Arnold struggled like all rookies in the first few days. He stayed in houses his team rented. But he soon got into the rhythm - always helped after calluses develop in appropriate places - and in the last few days was spotted in saloons along the route, entertaining riders with Roseanne stories.

Former Oakland Raider - and Miller Lite star - Ben Davidson, a truly massive biker at 6-foot-8, is hooked. He has ridden nine of the last 10 RAGBRAI's.

Said Davidson: "I love it. When I get back to California, I tell people about it and they look at me like I'm nuts. They'll say, `You do WHAT across Iowa?' That's OK. I know what a good time it really is.

"I've tried to analyze it. For someone living near the big city (San Francisco) like me, I think it's the goodness of the Iowans. I mean, you can just walk away from your bicycle, return an hour later and your bike is still there. That's an amazing phenomenon."

Last year, Tom Zahorik, a rider with CUBS who lives in Washington, D.C., lost his wallet on the fifth day. Everyone chipped in to help, but when it never showed up at the Register's lost-and-found table, Zahorik wrote it off and made adjustments for his return trip to the big city.

Two weeks later, his wallet arrived in the mail. It was sent by a farmer who found it in his yard and, apparently, checked the driver's license to learn Tom's address. Nothing was missing. "Unbelievable," said Zahorik.

Of course, you can't bring together 8,500 cyclists - the numbers have swollen to 12,000 and more late in the week when local riders jump in for a day or so - without injuries. The Iowa Highway Patrol and ambulances are on hand to respond.

In 1995, Madeleo Blake, a spindly octogenarian who was a RAGBRAI regular, died in his sleep after pedaling 100 miles on an especially hot day. His widow told the Register that no one should feel sorry. Her husband went just the way he wanted: After doing a "century," he laid down and never got up again.

Madeleo's bike was carried on by biking pals to the final stop - that year, Muscatine - and the tires dipped in the Mississippi.