The violent lightning and thunder storms that rolled through Iowa on Friday night would have been bad enough while safe inside a house, but eight of us were lurching through the storm in an RV headed for Sioux City for the start of the annual RAGBRAI. And we weren’t alone. 

This annual pilgrimage to the Missouri River by some 10,000 bicyclists will end seven days after it begins in Dubuque where the Mississippi River powerfully passes through in a wide swath. What began 38 years ago as a lark by two reporters for the Des Moines Register to ride across the state on bikes has become a ritual for the burgeoning bike culture that has swelled the event to the point where organizers have to pick participants by lottery.

On the eve of this 440 mile trek it is easy to be romantic about a ride that is dedicated to Midwestern folksiness and charm. There is no official charity attached to this event and no social cause it espouses. It is billed simply as an opportunity to meet the good people of Iowa who welcome riders into their homes, serve pie and turn their towns into one-day bazaars. On the eve before the start everyone gathered in downtown Sioux City across the river from Nebraska wearing skin tight lycra outfits and buying anything bike-related from rows of vendors.  My friend and fellow rider Bill remarked that no one looks good wearing this stuff, but that hardly matters when everyone wears it.

But now I must reconcile the fact that the first day ride of 68 miles is not the flat Iowa “slope” I had been led to believe, but a New Engandish 3,700 vertical climb in searing heat and humidity. I will be thinking not of the Mississippi but of the waters off Cape Cod where I will swim on my return, 440 road miles from now.

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