No Boundaries on This Bike Ride
By Knute E. Hankins
The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is an annual seven-day bicycle ride across the state of Iowa averaging approximately 450-500 miles. RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest, and longest recreational bicycle touring event in the world. This rolling celebration of Iowa attracts participants from all 50 states and many foreign countries. As many as 10,000 riders embark on the journey every year, with as many as 20,000 riders on some days.
My wife, Anne, and I have been involved in this event since 2015. At that time, we purchased a unique tandem bike known as a Pino so we could adventure together. The Vermont bike shop we worked with was actively involved in selling and modifying bikes for people with disabilities. After numerous conversations, they recommended we contact a group called Adaptive Sports Iowa (ASI) and volunteer to ride with the team and support disabled riders participating in the RAGBRAI adventure.
ASI’s mission is to provide cyclists with physical and/or vision disabilities access to experience RAGBRAI. This unique opportunity is open to all disabled United States and International riders. The organization provides lodging, medical support, and the numerous general volunteers needed to make the annual ride happen. By eliminating some of the common stresses that would normally drive people away, these cyclists can now focus on participation. This combination of bike adventure and support service has served as the perfect combination for us and the other 60-80 disabled riders and volunteers we ride with annually.
RAGBRAI is a bicycle ride, not a race, managed by the Des Moines Register and held each year during the last full week in July. The route is not necessarily flat; wrong perception that Iowa is flat. It begins somewhere along Iowa’s western border on the Missouri River and ends along the eastern border on the Mississippi River. Each year the route changes and eight Iowa communities along the route serve as “host” communities for overnight stays. Almost all participants are supported as campers throughout the week. Many of the towns are small but do an incredible job hosting the huge crowds.
The people of Iowa truly make the event special by opening up homes on the route and their towns and communities to participants. Personally, Anne and I experienced the ultimate Iowa support in 2018 when our bike frame broke and we almost had to stop during one of the day rides. We happened to break down in front of a farmhouse. The farmer and his family came out and within an hour he repaired our bike well enough to finish out the week. As we prepared to leave, he teared up and his wife explained that his brother had passed away six months earlier in the farm tool shed. The parts he used were from that shed and he had not been in it until the day he helped us. Needless to say, we were humbled by this act of kindness.
The ride typically goes through 5-7 towns a day serving plenty of food and drink. Many towns use this as the key fundraiser for school activities and community projects. Also, along the route there are numerous vendors who have served the ride for years. They specialize in everything from breakfasts, to pork chops, to ice cream, and beer tents.
Another interesting aspect is the large Air Force riding team that travels back and forth amongst the riders providing repair and medical support for participants in need. They exemplify the service attitude of these great men and women. There are food and entertainment venues at each overnight town. All of this gives riders a great chance to meet many people from Iowa and all over the world.
Another factor of riding with ASI is it provides a great annual “refresh” for Anne and me. As volunteers, our main function is riding with cyclists who may need support as we go through crowded towns, helping get food and drinks, and generally lending a hand. We are also able to provide repair support and just general company.
Blind riders ride tandem bikes with the lead rider providing the sight. I have assisted blind riders in the past. It requires the sited rider to balance the challenge of describing the area as you ride, along with the physical responsibility of riding safely and keeping your legs moving at the same pace as your blind companion.
At night, due to medical needs, the team stays in an indoor facility. All beds are set up and most of the evening is spent eating, tuning bikes, and exchanging stories. These disabled riders annually provide us with a great appreciation for overcoming challenges from loss of limbs, illnesses that limit mobility, and blindness. As one rider stated, “It is truly an amazing week. We have all been told that we couldn’t do these types of activities, so there are tears of joy and pride of accomplishment the week of RAGBRAI.” As another ASI Team member said, “When I walk, I’m an amputee; when I ride, I’m normal.”
Another tremendous aspect of the ASI team is the response and reaction they have felt from the RAGBRAI community. During the event, team members become advocates. They meet people every day who share their stories about disability in their lives and ask questions like, “How can my daughter with CP do RAGBRAI?” or “My mother just lost her sight; what are some good tips to know when piloting her?”
Participating in RAGBRAI is a very fulfilling experience. ASI provides a great way to make it especially unique and special. If you have or know someone with a disability who might enjoy the challenge of riding in a great event, please email me at email@example.com and we will be glad to help answer your questions. You can also find additional information about this unique event at the website ragbrai.com.
Adaptive Cycling Iowa