Another bicycling season is upon us. Well-upon us, actually. I was telling somebody the other day how, with the mild winter we had, I was able to ride my bicycle 14 or 15 days in January, and totaled a couple hundred miles. There was only one other year I ever rode that many miles in January, and that was back in 1995 when we were getting ready to do a ride across the U.S. that summer.
While thinking about that, I started wondering just how many years I've been riding. I had to count it on my fingers to confirm it, and what ho! This is my 30th year of bicycling as an adult!
I was so amazed I asked my wife, Carla Offenburger, to count her years of bicycling, and this is her 27th. It was in my eighth year of riding, Carla's sixth, when we first met each other – riding bikes on the Raccoon River Valley Trail. That's the same trail that runs by the farmhouse where we now live.
We both owe our lives to the sport. Cycling has kept us in reasonably good physical condition, and that's been really important these last three years when both of us have undergone extensive treatment for cancer. Cycling has sure helped us bounce back from chemotherapy, surgeries and radiation. All the relaxation, adventures and thrills we've shared on bicycles have made us want to stay healthy, stay alive and have even more fun than we've already had.
If you haven't started riding already, I encourage you all to do so. With the great recreational trails and peaceful country roads we've got all over KMAland and just beyond, this is an ideal place to bicycle. It's a sport you can do with your kids. And it's a sport that a couple decades later, your grandkids can do with you. It's relatively inexpensive. And you'll be improving your physical and mental health while you're out there enjoying yourself.
I think back on how it started for me, and I can't help but laugh. Just two weeks before the 1983 edition of RAGBRAI, Jim Gannon, then the editor of the Des Moines Register, called me into his office. He told me that another Register columnist Donald Kaul had decided to give up RAGBRAI, the bike ride across the state that the newspaper had started in 1973. Kaul had been co-host of the event with John Karras from the beginning. "Karras is still going to ride, but I think we need somebody else out there helping him write all the stories," Gannon said. "You write about Iowa all the time in your columns, so the bike ride actually happens out there on your turf. I think it'd be good for you to go ride it and write about it, too."
Fine, I told the boss, except for one problem.
"What's that?" Gannon said.
"I don't have a bicycle," I said. "And I'm broke."
No problem, Gannon said, "We'll buy you one."
Karras told me to go see Forrest Ridgway, the young owner of the Bike World store in Des Moines. Ridgway fitted me on a brand new Trek. He pointed out it had 18 gears and said, "This bicycle is a better man than you are. And it's got gears so low you can ride it up your garage walls if you want to. You'll have a great time on it."
Hard to believe, but I rode that same Trek bicycle nearly 20 years and more than 50,000 miles before I finally bought a new one about a decade ago.
When I rode my first RAGBRAI in 1983, it was a real eye-opener for me. I had been traveling Iowa for 12 years for the Register at that point, driving more than 40,000 miles in a car every year, always getting to all 99 counties. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the state really looked like, and how it operated. But what I discovered was that things look and feel very different when you're pedaling along at 12 miles per hour than when you're whizzing past at 55 mph or more. And I listened as RAGBRAI riders from all 50 states and a dozen or more other countries were telling me just how "cool" Iowa was – even in the last full week of July. I came to a whole new level of appreciation for how beautiful Iowa is, how hospitable the people are, and how well the state works compared to a lot of other places.
I think I've now ridden all or part of 27 RAGBRAIs.
And there was that big ride across the U.S. back in '95. Carla and I and 306 other people rode a meandering 5,048-mile route, promoting the Iowa Sesquicentennial celebration that was to be held a year later. That ride took us across 15 states, from Long Beach in southern California to the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. We rode over the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Rockies, the Big Horn Mountains and the Appalachians. We rode across desert and plains. We rode from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It was the biggest adventure Carla and I ever had. And it was probably the finest thing we ever did, to organize the ride so that many other people could share in it. It may sound crazy, but when you experience America like we did that summer, you have a new understanding of our nation's greatness.
In the years since then, Carla and I have joined bike tours across Virginia, Ohio and Montana. We've also ridden together across or around Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
These experiences get more precious the older I get. Our pal Christie Vilsack, the former First Lady of Iowa who is now running for the U.S. House in Iowa's Fourth District, has talked about bicycling being the same for her as it is for us. When she was the guest speaker in February, 2011, at our Raccoon River Valley Trail Association's annual banquet, Vilsack said she is amazed as she reflects on how much cycling in Iowa has changed in her lifetime.
"When I was growing up in Mount Pleasant, I can't remember a single adult around me who rode a bicycle," she said. When she purchased the first bicycle of adulthood, she "started riding it all over town, for errands and for fun, and I've been doing that same thing ever since." She's now a veteran of several RAGBRAIs and many Iowa trails.
What is it about bicycle riding that all us cyclists love so much? Vilsack had a pretty good answer for that in her speech.
"I think each of us bikers love going out to reprise what Walt Whitman called 'The song of the open road,'" she said.
Ride on! Approaching 65 years old, I'll say it again – ride on!
This column was first published in the May 4 KMAland Advantage Club Newsletter, published every other Friday by KMA radio in Chuck's hometown of Shenandoah. To recieve the newsletter, visit KMA’s website, www.kmaland.com.
You can reach columnist Chuck Offenburger at email@example.com.