Reflections on 500 Miles: After RAGBRAI Ride Across Iowa, Cyclists Look Back on 50Th Anniversary

You don't have to be fit as a fiddle to participate in the RAGBRAI.
Reflections on 500 Miles: After RAGBRAI Ride Across Iowa, Cyclists Look Back on 50Th Anniversary
A RAGBRAI cyclist crossing Iowa. (Judy Schnuelle/Dreamstime/TNS)
Tribune News Service
By Jake Sheridan From Chicago Tribune

DAVENPORT, Iowa—A week before Daniel Griffin planned to cycle across Iowa, he faced a challenge most bikers never consider: How would he stay strapped into the left pedal?

A brain tumor and six surgeries had left the 16-year-old with a drop foot incapable of moving up and down. His toes wouldn’t wiggle either. Weeks before the late-July trek, his appendix burst.

He had hundreds of miles of road ahead of him, and he wasn’t sure how he would get his bike to move. He feared he’d hold his friends back.

“I was just scared that I couldn’t do it,” Griffin said. “I didn’t know if I had the strength.”

But a few days before the weeklong bike tour, he found out his tumor had doubled in size. He wanted to spend time with the people he loved, including his mother, Torie Griffin.

“Time is flying by really fast,” he said. “I just want to take advantage of the time I do have and when I can do stuff.”

Organizers call the ride—the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI—the world’s largest and longest bike-touring event. Over 20,000 weeklong riders attended this year for its 50th anniversary, with tens of thousands more day riders, organizers said.

Along RAGBRAI’s hilly, crop-lined route, beer flows freely. Riders stop for homemade pie or muddy Slip ’N Slides. But while the marquee Midwestern event is in part a “rolling festival,” it is also a personal odyssey for many—a space to struggle through challenge, grieve lost loved ones or find new meaning buried between miles.

If it was the promise of new memories that pulled Griffin into his bike seat, the sweetness of old ones pushed Rick Paulos out onto his. The 67-year-old is one of three people who have ridden in every RAGBRAI over its half-century run.

To celebrate the anniversary, Paulos bought a 1972 Schwinn Varsity, the same bike model he used at the first RAGBRAI. It took days to prepare, even for the veteran bike mechanic, who runs a bike co-op in Cedar Rapids called NewBo Bike Collective.

He got the Schwinn painted gold, rebuilt its wheels with gold spokes and added gold cable housing and grips. The seat matched too.

“I wanted to get gold plating, but I couldn’t get anyone to do gold plating on anything this big,” he said.

Paulos’ decision to sign up for the race was as inevitable as the decision of vendors along its route to sell pork and corn. In total, he has missed eight days over 50 years’ worth of weeklong treks, he said.

One year, he made the trek just weeks after a heart attack, skipping rehab to ride with his new stents. For another, he put off herniated disc surgery for months, scheduling it for the day after RAGBRAI.

He’ll stop when he can’t ride anymore, he said.

“Whatever it takes. I’ll either be dead, or who knows,” Paulos said.

Midway to Des Moines on the ride’s fourth day, he pulled up to the work tent of fellow bike mechanic Greg Harper, who has also ridden in each RAGBRAI. Paulos showed off his 38-pound, all-gold bike.

Much had changed since he first rode such a Schwinn.

“So many of the people I used to ride with aren’t here anymore.” Paulos said.

There were bad knees and heart issues, bouts with cancer or fatal crashes and waned interest. At the 18th RAGBRAI, 70 every-year riders attended, Paulos said. They tracked the group down again eight years ago.

“There were eight of us at that point,” Paulos said. “And most of them have since died off, or are unable to ride.”

The miles before he found his friend were among RAGBRAI’s busiest ever. Organizers expected to unofficially break a world record for largest group bicycle ride. Paulos saw people stopped in foot traffic for a half-mile ahead of the first small-town stop.

The annual tour started as “nothing near the scope of what this is,” he said.

Back in the day, Paulos and his fellow bike racers had zipped from bar to bar along the route. Whoever came last had to pick up the tab. One year, friends did “DRAGBRAI,” biking in drag. One friend wore a Moses costume, tablets and all, prompting crowds to part when he rolled into town.

Paulos would tent outside with buddies. They rode together. They went fast.

“That had always been the fun,” he said.

Now, Paulos opts less for speed and more for the “comfort factor.” He slept inside more often, finding himself in church rooms with some 50 people, lots waking up at the crack of dawn. He didn’t know many of the people on his large team, he said.

But it wasn’t like he could stay at home.

“At this point, I’m not going to break the streak,” he said.

Ups and Hard Downs

When Griffin rode in RAGBRAI two years ago, he had to use an electric bike. After a passing cyclist called him a “cheater” for the medically needed boost, his story spread on social media.

He couldn’t ride last year because of his chemotherapy, but when he finally got back on the road this year, he found himself buoyed by the support of those who remembered him.

Ambulance teams following the riders split up a pack of Snickers bars for Griffin to grab when he passed. Police at intersections cheered him. Someone who had seen the Des Moines Register documentary he was featured in shouted, “Go, Daniel!”

“I don’t think I’m holding anybody back anymore,” he thought. “People are happy I’m here.”

On Tuesday, he woke at 4:30 a.m. The cyclist hordes weren’t on the road yet. Fog sat over passing cornfields. The sun rose beyond them. It was pink and orange and blue and yellow.

“This is why I came to Iowa,” he told himself.

He kept riding and stuck his hands out on downhills. He was flying, he recalled.

“I think I just felt really, really comfortable. Just so happy to be out there,” he said.

He rode close to his mother, who runs a cycling-focused motel in Colorado Springs called the Buffalo Lodge Bicycle Resort. Torie Griffin had fiercely defended her son when he was chided as a cheater at his last RAGBRAI. She had dreamed of him riding again.

Suddenly, on one fast slope, they got too close.

Their handlebars knocked together. They looked at one another as they started to fall. Daniel closed his eyes.

He opened them and saw concrete sliding beneath his helmet. He blinked, and his heavy e-bike was on top of his foot.

His mother popped up fast to check on him. Miraculously, they weren’t seriously hurt. They started to laugh.

“That was pretty cool, that that just happened and we didn’t hurt anybody else, we didn’t hurt ourselves,” she later recalled saying.

They went to the emergency room in an ambulance. Despite intact appendages, Griffin worried the crash would mark the end of his ride. He had been harshly scraped at three spots on his face, knee and arm.

His mother feared she had hurt her shoulder and stayed off the bike the next day. But Griffin had something to prove. On Wednesday, he got back on the bike.

In Tandem

Paulos had someone to ride with when he woke up in Tama for an 80-mile, high-elevation ride on the trip’s second-to-last day.

Temperatures were expected to rise just shy of 100 degrees. Humidity would make it feel much hotter. Paulos, however, was in no rush. After many teammates had already biked away, he finally pedaled out from the parking lot next to his wife, Lisa Paulos.

The two spent much of the morning using the road’s left side to pass thick packs of riders filling a two-lane highway. They had met as bike racers before riding in RAGBRAI together.

“That’s when everybody went to every race, every weekend,” said Rick Paulos, who spent 13 years as the state’s cycle racing director and helps run medical studies for work.

But RAGBRAI was where they fell in love, Lisa Paulos said. One year, they used a tandem bike to cross the state, a challenge. Despite broken spokes, chains and gears, he never panicked as he navigated it, she said.

“He’s just easy on the bike,” Lisa Paulos said.

For 10 years, they rode a four-person tandem bike, taking different guests each day. On one ride, they were joined by RAGBRAI founder John Karras and Rick Paulos’ mother, who used to take her eight kids on Sunday bike rides as other families went to church.

They celebrated their honeymoon night at a place they first found on a RAGBRAI ride, added Lisa Paulos, who has ridden nearly every year since the tour’s eighth occurrence.

The sport of cycling has changed since then, she noted. People didn’t wear helmets and wore wool outfits instead of tight polyester. Cycling has even become cool, she added.

The race has changed too. People don’t seem to take as much pride in riding every mile, she said. Their bikes are packed with electronic cords. Riders used to be fine without that link to technology.

“Fifty years of age makes the experience different too,” she added.

By the time the couple arrived in the day’s first town, Chelsea, Rick had fallen behind. Lisa walked her bike with the flow of the crowd. Suddenly, she spotted her husband biking on the sidewalk.

“I didn’t come to walk across Iowa,” he’d say later.

But Lisa had a stop to make. She went straight on as the crowd turned right, pedaling a few hundred yards to stop at the Lincoln Highway. She was the only rider there.

They had teamed up again when they paused at a gas station an hour later. There, Lisa ordered a vanilla soft serve ice cream for breakfast. Rick got a Gatorade.

Halfway through the day, they peeled off the route to visit a friend in a nursing home.

Wet Tires

Lisa had to leave for the last day of RAGBRAI, but Paulos’ brother flew in from California to ride.

Their mother, now 92, tried to bike from her home a few miles from the finish line, but took a spill on a gravel stretch and was unable to complete the ride.

RAGBRAI riders start their journey by dipping their front tires into the Missouri River, and cap it off by putting their front tire into the Mississippi River on the other side of the state. When Paulos got to the official dip site in Davenport, he saw some 3,000 people. He kept biking. When he got to another boat ramp, there were three people there, he said.

He put his front wheel in the water and held up a five-zero with his hands. It felt special, he said.

“I think I was really trying to suppress the emotions,” he said. “I don’t do RAGBRAI to cry. I do it because it’s fun.”

Daniel Griffin dunked his tire with his mom. The spot where the water lapped onto the concrete was beautiful, but Torie Griffin was sad.

“I don’t know if he’ll do it again,” she said as they packed their group’s trucks and RVs under the shade of a tall, leafless tree. “This is probably his last one.”

Her son agreed. He was sunburned. He was tired. The wounds from his crash on his left knee, face and right arm had scabbed over. His thoughts had turned to getting home and getting into bed, he said.

“All of the mental stress about it, the physical stress about it is all gone,” Griffin said.

He had fallen twice more, once at an unexpected stop light when he couldn’t get his foot down in time, and again when a car slowed in front of him on an uphill. But despite the soreness and stumbles, he kept biking.

Torie fought tears as she remembered her son deciding to bike ahead of her alone. The friend who joined him for the trip had taken a day off, and Griffin had grown impatient waiting for his slower-moving, stop-loving mother and grandmother.

“Can I just go?” he asked.

She wondered how he would get his foot out of the strap. His friend had helped him get on and off his bike, lifting his foot into place—one of many people who the teen said reminded him he wasn’t alone. Ultimately, she trusted he could take care of himself.

By the end of the week, Griffin had completed almost 300 miles.

“I didn’t think I was going to be able to do what I did. And I did,” he said.

Back home, he’d need to consider new treatment options amid his five-year battle with aggressive brain cancer. He has since scheduled a surgery—his seventh—for early October.

However, before the tough decisions, he flew past soybean and cornfields. He got a leg up from his friends and family. He met caring first responders and kind strangers who reminded him of “how precious life is,” he said.

But his favorite part, he said, was the sunrise before he crashed.

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