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Summer Camp for Grown-Ups: Boomers, Bikes, Beer and Politics

3 years ago
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When a paceline of bicyclists passes you singing along to the Doobie Brothers' "Black Water" played from speakers attached to a bike, you know these riders aren't your children. They're us, the baby boom.

Last week, some 10,000 bicyclists rode across Iowa for seven days in the Register's Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI. The average age on the ride this year? Almost 44, with about 39 percent of the riders 50 or older, according to the sponsor, the Des Moines Register.

Two of the five members of my group will celebrate their 50th birthdays this year. Two of us are already beyond that. If you were looking for a boomer or Gen X guy ready to ride and party, this would be the place to find him, as 66 percent of the cyclists were men.

And on RAGBRAI, it's definitely one big party from town to town to town. In the morning, the search is on for pancakes. Bands play mostly '70s and '80s hits at beer gardens all along the way. In the evening, churches serve up spaghetti, lasagna and plenty of pie. Did I mention the beer gardens?

As a member of Team Zippy said to me one evening, "Summer camp for grown-ups."

Riding across Iowa on a bicycle gives one a great sense of the state -- the small towns; the stinky cow, pig and poultry feedlots; the corn and bean fields; the many flowing streams and rivers, most of them brimming over after a summer of rain.

There are plenty of signs for food (ham balls or walking tacos, anyone?) and beer gardens along the RAGBRAI route. But 2010 is a political year, so there were plenty of signs of these times, too:

Judicial retention: Large signs in many farms urged voters to vote against three Iowa Supreme Court justices who were in the majority of an April 2009 ruling that allowed gay marriage in the state. LuvIowa, an effort to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage, also had yard signs along roadways.Prevalent in conservative western Iowa, the signs were nonexistent in the final couple of days through the eastern part of the state.

The big races: Plenty of signs for Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, his GOP opponent former Gov. Terry Branstad and incumbent GOP Sen. Charles Grassley, as well as candidates all the way down the ticket. Unseen: any signs for Roxanne Conlin, Grassley's Democratic challenger.

Babies: Each day, seven banners featuring pictures of cute babies and clever quotes offered riders a subtle anti-abortion message from Lutheran Family Services.

Women voting: Thursday, we rode past the home of Julia Marie Guldager Thuesen, the first woman in Iowa (and maybe the nation) to vote on the day after the 19th Amendment was ratified (Grassley's mother was the fifth). According to her granddaughter, Marcia Michaelsen, "She was really anything but a women's activist. She was just a farm wife, showed up with her husband at the polling place and got to be first in line."

The bike ride also got me thinking about health issues, too.

It takes a decent level of fitness and stamina to ride 440-some miles, and to ride every day of the week (with or without beer). As we rode past farms and into towns, we were typically greeted by residents sitting in lawn chairs in their yards, waving and sipping their own cold ones. But they weren't riding.

In fact, less than half the riders are from Iowa -- 42 percent -- though 66 percent are from Iowa and surrounding states. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between a quarter and 29 percent of Iowans are obese. That's probably among the reasons representatives from the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports & Nutrition pedaled across the state, blogging along the way.

Those who tremble at the thought of undertaking such an endeavor for the first time need look no further than my teammates, the three Poppen sisters and Dr. Mel, a pediatric oncologist at Pennsylvania State University. There certainly were expressions of dread in the weeks leading up to the ride, but all these women had a great ride and a great time, meeting new friends and even running into old pals from home or college.

For Dr. Mel, the ride was truly a mission. She raised money for the Kyla Miller Foundation, a group that supports pediatric brain cancer research in memory of one of Mel's patients who died two days short of her 10th birthday. Her efforts may not have the impact of Team LiveStrong, with some 100 riders, but every little bit counts.

For me, the week was like summer camp. Lots of fun with worries left behind, and a refreshed return to the real world of Monday morning.

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