Kolpack: An Iowa bicycle ride to rediscover the beauty of humanity – InForum

Kolpack: An Iowa bicycle ride to rediscover the beauty of humanity – InForum

ACROSS IOWA — The start just a kickoff from the Missouri River in Sioux City

ACROSS IOWA — The start just a kickoff from the Missouri River in Sioux City was a mixture of organized chaos and more bicycles than any of us had ever seen. The steep hills in the city had some people walking rather than riding.

It took only 20 minutes for the four of us from Fargo to ask a question: What the hell did we get ourselves into? It’s RAGBRAI, which stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa and it’s no small organizational undertaking.

Seven days, seven overnight towns that hosted at least 29,000 registered riders and a total distance of around 500 miles. A featured band every night like Hairball, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Foghat. Things smoothed out after the Sioux City start, of course, and it didn’t take long to realize that this event was much more than pedaling a bike.

It’s about friendships. It’s about culture, like the Team Wrong that accepted us into their group for one night in Coralville, Iowa, not far from the University of Iowa. Of the seven overnights, five were spent in tents and, thankfully, two in air-conditioned houses thanks to the business contacts of two in our group.

The first was halfway through in Des Moines provided by Nick Busch, a perfect time to wash clothes, regroup and refresh. The Coralville stop was the home of Drew and Ann Bossen, the parents of Team Wrong member Doug Bossen.


Team Wrong, a group made up of about 30 bicyclists, brought its own bus to RAGBRAI.

Jeff Kolpack / The Forum

Sometimes things work out. That was the night a severe thunderstorm had tornado sirens blaring forcing RAGBRAI tenters into emergency shelters like schools and City Hall. The Bush concert was canceled.

We were safe in a house, fortunate to hear more stories from Team Wrong, a group of around 30 men and women who interact like fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, providing each other with constant motivation and encouragement.

Like back-to-back days of at least 80 miles and elevation climbs of at least 3,200 feet each day. The hills. They. Didn’t. Stop. We were warned Iowa had some undulation to it and that proved true. Get to the top of one, survey the landscape and see a downhill followed by another climb. Over and over.

Add an elevated heat index to it and you get the picture. Yet …. nobody was complaining and smiles replaced pedaling at each overnight town.

This year was especially notable being the 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI, with the accompanying logo “One L of a Ride,” a double entendre of the Roman numeral 50 along with a reference to the phrase “One Hell of a Ride.” It got its start in 1973 when Des Moines Register newspaper writers John Karras and Donald Kaul rode across the state and wrote about their experience.

The growth from that is mind boggling. The Register estimated the number of riders on the route from Ames to Des Moines this year at 60,000, many riding just that one day.

The world is different off of the interstates. Just ask the bevy of small towns that hosted street fairs as bicyclists rode through their communities, armed with what seemed like more volunteers than residents. Quiet rural America turned into an all-day party; some towns so congested that the only way to get through was to walk your bike.

It’s a portable fundraiser for overnight towns like Storm Lake. Before the band The Spazmatics took the stage (please, somebody get these guys to Fargo), RAGBRAI director Matt Phippen, a former longtime Scheels manager in Iowa, presented the city with a check for $22,000. Total giving to towns added up to over $400,000.

It was the seventh time in 50 years Storm Lake was an overnight stop, putting immense pressure on the city’s water and sewer systems. Planning started in January and it’s an educated guess how many will end up for one night in town.

“When you have 12,000 people and all of a sudden you have 40,000 … it was like, whoa, this is going to be nuts,” said Storm Lake mayor Doug Porsch. “I was really proud of our city people, they really worked hard. Just everybody has to be on the same page and willing to open up the doors to everybody.”


Most riders in the RAGBRAI stay in tents, which turns overnight towns into virtual tent cities.

Jeff Kolpack / The Forum

Does that mean everybody was on the same page? Maybe, maybe not.

“You certainly have mixed views from your citizens,” Porsch said. “Some love it, some of them hate it.”

We, meanwhile, had consistent reminders of our RAGBRAI rookie status. Like from Tama-Toledo to Coralville, a Day 6 tradition for riders to wear a jersey of their college allegiance of choice. We looked like graduates from the University of JL Beers.

Meeting people was constant — from Alaska to Texas to the guy from Australia who helped fix my chain that dropped on a steep climb (thank you, ‘mate). There were people on tandem bikes and electric bikes, a couple women in-line skating the entire route and people of all ages and abilities.

RAGBRAI is more than a ride. It’s a traveling mind-clearing expose that makes you forget about the rest of the world. I didn’t turn on the TV and generally forgot about Twitter for seven days. Personal note: I underwent back surgery 17 months ago and made an inner promise to do something questy.

We left Fargo after one of our police officers was killed and three others wounded. The alleged gunman apparently targeted the Fargo Street Fair, a result that would have been horrific. Just awful stuff.

RAGBRAI makes you appreciate people. It gets you out of your day-to-day, work-a-day world comfort zone. It reinforces the belief that there is a lot of good in this world.

It’s about challenging yourself and your mental capabilities. It’s about four friends representing the Northside B Team Bicycle Club pedaling across a state creating one massive memorable experience.

That’s what we got ourselves the hell into.


Towns and cities along the RAGBRAI route turned into one-day street fairs.

Jeff Kolpack / The Forum

Jeff Kolpack

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he’s covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU’s Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: “Horns Up,” “North Dakota Tough” and “Covid Kids.” He is the radio host of “The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack” April through August.