RAGBRAI: 'Where whiners fork more pork'
By Ron Cunningham, GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR's NOTE: Ron Cunningham is a Gainesville cyclist, Journalist, and Executive Director of Bike Florida. The Cycle Chronicler is in search of interesting, chain-link connected stories and today he is biking, eating his way across the iowa countryside.
The smoked turkey leg was approximately the size of Rhode Island.
Understand that normally I am very careful to obey the first law of aerodynamics. To wit: Never eat anything bigger than your head.
But in my defense, it was the second day of RAGBRAI, the famed bike ride across Iowa.
And it was the longest day of the weeklong tour, some 84 miles.
And the brutal July Iowa sun was sucking the very life force out of the 25,000-to 30,000 cyclists (nobody really knows the exact number for sure) who had come together to participate on this hallowed tour across a state whose name I had always assumed to be a Native American word meaning "flat" but which turned out to mean land of a thousand really long really steep really rolling hills.
I'm just saying that it was a tough day and I was hungry. And it was only 9 a.m., and I had many miles to go before I slept. And then I crested this very steep, especially rolling hill and I observed the object of my desire with lust in my heart and I thought:
What I really need to survive this day is a hunk of protein bigger than my head. Which is how I came to buy a smoked turkey drumstick the size of Rhode Island for $7 from Tender Tom's Turkey.
And it was wonderful. Heavenly. Crispy brown skin covered juicy garnet-tinged meat. Gnawing away like a demented beaver, I sat in soft green grass in the town of Sheldon while a local band played something resembling classic rock. The succulent juicy taste easily overwhelmed the guilt - after all, I wasn't one of those guys lining up for that first, or second Bud Light of the day.
And so I, well, I gobbled the turkey leg down.
Because that's the thing about RAGBRAI. It's pretty much a gastronomic bacchanalia. The world's longest buffet line.
Oh, you can go on, and on, and on about the scenic countryside and the friendly people and the charming small towns and the camaraderie of the cult of bicyclists and blah, blah, blah.
But the spirit of RAGBRAI can be pretty much summed up by two T-shirts I happened to spot on my first day at Council Bluffs, the jumping off place of this year's 400-plus mile tour.
One couple sported matching shirts that said: "We ride for the rhubarb pie." Another popular jersey proclaimed: "Whiners fork more pork."
Just as an army travels on its stomach, so too do the RAGBRAI faithful.
Can't help it, really. You burn thousands of calories rolling up and down those hills, and they need to be replaced, right?
Thus it was that the next day I succumbed to temptation again and stopped to visit Mr. Porkchop for a slab of pig the size of Connecticut.
Both Tender Tom's and Mr. Porkchop are RAGBRAI institutions. Mr. Porkchop positions his operation on the side of the road. You can see his pink, pig-faced bus and spot the thick white smoke of many chops sizzling on a giant grill from a mile away.
He is usually accompanied by the Sassy Lemon Slush Girls, who cheerfully hurl insults and taunts at you while scooping our their tart slush because....well, because they're supposed to be sassy aren't they?
I had been given to understand that as a matter of tradition, if one does RAGBRAI one must do Mr. Porkchop and his industrial-strength portion of that "other white meat." Who am I to defy tradition?
Then there's the Smoothie Guys. And the hamball concessions. And fried-balony-on-a-stick. And SOS (don't ask). And of course everybody and his sister sells ears of sweet corn. There are breakfast burritos and dill pickle stands and firehouse floats made with Dad's Root Beer.
And every church lady in Iowa is standing alongside the road somewhere peddling what are invariably billed as the world's best homemade pies--apple, strawberry, cherry, mixed berry, and, inevitably, rhubarb--at $2 a slice.
And talk about institutions! One cannot pass up Beckman's Ice Cream, churned right there on the spot by a gaggle of small gas engine-powered contraptions that look like the deformed offspring of a lawn mower and a margarita mix machine.
Listen, just outside Minden, we were greeted by a gaggle of young ladies holding signs that begged us cyclists not to force them to wear their mom's old prom dresses to their own high school proms. And they all were wearing long tacky gowns that suspiciously looked exactly like their mothers' prom dresses.
What? We were going to boycott their homemade cookies and lemonade and force them to undergo the most traumatic experience of their tender young lives?
I'm just saying that If riding and eating were an Olympic sport, RAGBRAI would be its qualifying event. There is even a long established "Team Gourmet" on the tour that turns out to be a very select fraternity indeed.
"You have to know somebody to get on the team," one TG jersey-clad woman assured me. "Otherwise we'd have a hundred members. Maybe a thousand."
And don't even get me started on the beer brigades. Most of the riders are already rolling shortly after dawn. By 7 a.m. there are roadside brewski opportunities for the hard-partiers. Honestly, it's a wonder some of them make it into camp by the end of the day.
On the morning of the last day, two guys in the tent next to me were discussing that final leg into Fort Madison.
"Somewhere in the next 63 miles I've got to lose that 10 pounds I promised my wife," one of them said.
He had a fighting chance. Mr. Porkchop was nowhere in sight that day.