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Tales from the RAGBRAI Peloton by Rich Pink
 
By Janna Trevisanut
Date: 7/29/2002
Tales from the RAGBRAI Peloton by Rich Pink
 

30 years ago the Des Moines Register newspaper began an seemingly innocent small group ride across the state of Iowa basically for laughs, and for story material. They called it RAGBRAI (for Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). Some 3 decades later, the ride has exploded into a sometimes 25,000 strong peloton of all form of humans, seeking all forms of redemption from tackling the near 500 miles it takes to get across the state, west to east. Every year, along different routes, the last week of July is RAGBRAI week. Seven days, seven overnight towns, with many through-towns along the days route allow the opportunity to fuel up, or if one is so inclined, to drink an ungodly amount of cheap domestic beer. The Register (heretofore to be referred to as "they") has put the limit on registered riders at 8,500 but there are many others who simply jump on, and go along, bilking the register out of their entry fees, which have grown considerably since back in the day. I think my first one cost me $15, and the fees now are $95. After a one year "disillusionment break" I've refused to follow the growth curve and have since taken my guerilla team 'underground' as it were, in order to preserve the true meaning of this rolling festival across the undeniable beauty of Iowa, land of James Tiberius Kirk. The Register likes to see the front of the pack, where families ride together at an easy pace, everybody has helmets strapped on, and everybody keeps saying how good the pie was back in such-an-such town. The Register does NOT like to see the back of the pack where people walk around half naked, highly intoxicated, doing nude beer slides, and packing local bars by 9:00am. As one wise man once said, "you can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning". But it is, to this author, all in the approach.

Personally, I've done thirteen of these suckers starting as a teenager back in 1998. Long before the bike racing bug bit me, when I would borrow anything with two wheels to get across, if I chose to ride. I've watched the ride grow from an "all-for-one" mentality into class warfare, as it has grown, it has, like most things, become ridiculously commercial and consistently more expensive. People used to support their teams out of Volkswagens, now they are supported out of garishly painted school buses. Some teams have gone to corporate beer sponsorship, which turns my stomach to no end, but that's a personal matter. But underneath all of the hoopla, if you look in the right places, you can see the little Ma & Pa place RAGBRAI was intended to be, instead of the Wal-Mart it has become. I had formed my team in 1999 as an answer to the slogan-laden teams of the new century, as a rebuke to the fraternity style of riding. And lo & behold, I have re-installed my feeling of wonderment about the 'BRAI, and yes sports fans, I still cry like a little girl when I have to board the RV to go home. However, as much as I love it, the time has come for me to say farewell, maybe just for a little while, to this great thing and to this great team I created. So I write this for all of those that are not in the know, and for those who are, hopefully it will serve as a catharsis for me.

I started like all RAGBRAI virgins - wide eyed and stupid.....it is easy to liken it to being born. My first few were on my brother's fledgling teams, as he was into riding a lot, and he brought me on to be the support driver, following the ride on an alternate vehicle route stopping in certain meeting towns to refuel my riders, or pick up anyone who had had enough for the day. I gazed in wonder at the chaos that ensued in the beer gardens at night, at the pure unadulterated fun that was going on at all times. All laws were seemingly suspended as the towns relaxed their cops in order to accommodate the huge cash flow brought in by thousands of hungry, thirsty, endorphin-laden riders with loose pockets. It was truly amazing. My brother, who had gone to college and was a leader in a fraternity, started a 5-man team named "Quadrabong" which was basically a four-tubed, giant beer funnel that could hold and deliver a six pack of suds to one to four players in an amazingly short amount of time. It was an extremely collegiate approach. We were small but extremely popular, as any time we would load that monstrous contraption up, people would encircle us, cheer us on, and sometimes partake, even the locals. Locals like to stare at RAGBRAI riders like astronauts returning from the moon. Either that, or as arsonists running amok at a gas station. However, I will say that in all my travels, which have been fairly extensive for a man of my age, I have met no friendlier people than those of Iowa.

But as our team grew, we required a bus. Our numbers swelled to upwards of 35 as the years went on, and I saw Quadrabong growing for all the wrong reasons, akin to the way RAGBRAI itself was growing. The corporate beer teams (I can't bring myself to name them, sorry) began hosting all the big parties, with the same routines, for the same reasons. Parties complete with fences, I.D. checks, and more and more cops. And believe me, before I am burned at the stake for an elitist attitude, it certainly would be a fun place to be if it were my first or second ride...but after so many, different meanings are sought for different things. And having watched it grow like so many slimy corporate entities, it had left me with a vague sense of duty to fulfill. I like to do a fair amount of drinking on the ride, but I refuse to do it in an environment where I have to "social" and dance, for the umpteenth time to "Strokin'" or "You shook me all night long".

Quadrabong, or "QB" as it was known, began to falter as my brothers and my disillusionment grew. My bro had his sweet Klein ripped off, and that pretty much sealed it for his captaincy, he wasn't going if he couldn't ride. The group had grown so large, with so many different agendas, and the team under our regime imploded back in '96, splintering into factions. I still see QB on the rides these days, their ranks full of young, unrecognizable faces. I even entertained the idea of schooling them on who their founder was, but decided against it, as it would have been useless. It's funny, one neo-founding member has gone batty with his alter ego, and drives a beer truck around the route dressed in a loincloth. He is known as Chickenman. Another has formed the spin-off "quadra-bike" which is (you guessed it) a 4-rider bike, complete with golf cart-esque canopy. My brother has since come back as a support driver for other teams.

So, after my aforementioned break from RAGBRAI (where I spent the last week of July with tears in my eyes for not being in Iowa), I decided to come back. All those things that were on the surface of RAGBRAI were not going to deter me from the true, underlying, essential meaning that the ride held for me. I had an epiphany of sorts one night while lying in bed in January, 1999. "Those bastards," I thought. "They're evil. I'll show them evil." And so the next day I plunked out a silly oval graphic with just the word EVIL scrawled across it. That would be our name, our mission, and our sticker. You see, stickers are a huge part of RAGBRAI, everybody has them. You put them everywhere in sort of a ritualistic marking of territory, or marking of people for that matter, usually scantily clad farmer's daughter's who come out at night to observe all the nice legs. The problem, I had come to see, was that more and more teams were using half-assed slogans, usually centered around a fraternity type beer drinking approach, which is all fine and good if clever enough, but a complete train wreck if too overt. So, for my team, there would be no "team." And no slogans. And no color. Black and white, EVIL. That's it.

The "Year of Evil" was '99. We were born. I rounded up some of my friends, all of whom, save one, were RAGBRAI virgins, so I could see a team with a different ideal start untainted by the RAGBRAI doctrines. I enlisted the support help of my friend Carter, who was captain of a 1973 Dodge Golden West RV known affectionately as "The Millennium Falcon". It could sleep the five of us, albeit a bit cramped and a lot smelly. We dressed in all black, even though we started in just sleeveless T-shirts. (we now have full-on all-black race kits). We wore numbers on our backs, not names. We didn't have names. We were evil. We took every opportunity to correct anyone who would think we got the team name from an Austin Powers movie. If they thought that, they had missed the point, and need to be educated. We rode o.k. back in that first year, nothing like the speed train of black we've become in the last two years. More on that in the next article.

The way we used to do accommodations was the "RAGBRAI way". We'd register each rider, get wristbands, sending forwarding letters to the overnight towns chambers of commerce, and ask the locals to set us up with floor space and showers. The alternative (again, in the RAGBRAI way) is to pile into the high school lots, or college lots, and set up in what is known as "Tent City". This is how it was intended to be, but folks, when you sleep among thousands of other riders, all using the same toilets and showers, and day-in day-out showering with 50 other naked dudes in ice cold water, it begins to wear thin on ones soul. So we did the 'accommodations' route. Which worked out well. Of course, in an effort to further hoodwink the Register, I would list us as a Lutheran church group of riders, which I later found out appealed to the wrong kind of hosts. We'd get accepted by some family and they would be expecting some nice church type group of folks, and here we rolled up with a stinky old RV with the word "EVIL" emblazoned on the side, followed shortly thereafter by the all black riders. Eeeessh, made for some sticky situations, but we were never thrown out, or asked to leave. Everything could be handled by some succinct politics. And if worse came to worse, we'd say our team name was derived from the spelling of "Live" backwards. Anything to placate Reverend De Groot so we could use his showers and ogle his daughter.

Nowadays, we're what's known as 'stowaways'. We don't register. We don't pay. We don't get a stupid vehicle pass. We don't get wristbands. Some would say we're the reason RAGBRAI has become so expensive but I beg to differ. I liken it to a toll way snafu. State cries 'we have no money!' while those in charge line their pockets. We still pump tons of money into local economies, which is what it is about, not pumping cash into a newspaper's coffers. Besides, they fill the allotted 8,500 registered spots every year, which makes me think they've budgeted, which in turn makes me think they are still making tons of money.

Now, that's the background of myself, and my team. Next article, I will encapsulate this year's ride, with many moments of hilarity.

Rich Pink
electricrhino@hotmail.com
www.groundhogcycling.com
www.hotelaccomodations.com


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