As the Tour de France winds up on July 21st, another tour, a different kind of tour, closer to home, will begin. The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, is an annual seven-day bike ride. It begins at the Missouri River or its tributary the Big Sioux River on Iowa’s western border and finishes at the Mississippi River on the state’s eastern border. (Despite whatever preconceptions you may have, Iowa is not a flat state, by the way.)
The ride had a humble beginning. The first ride was created as a sort of dare between two of the Des Moines Register newspaper’s employees and the public was invited to join them. Now RAGBRAI is the longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event in the world, attracting thousands of people to small rural Iowa towns that gladly welcome the riders for a week every July.
Tony Breitbach was a teenager living in Iowa when the RAGBRAI route passed just north of his hometown. He hopped in and joined the ride for about 16 miles. And he was hooked.
The following year, Tony and a group of about ten of his buddies did the entire RAGBRAI ride. In all, Tony would complete the route eleven times. The group of friends participating in the ride grew each year. And Tony’s experience with the ride changed throughout his participation.
Tony will be the first to tell you that RAGBRAI attracts all kinds. You’ll have the serious cyclists who head out first thing in the morning, to see how fast they can finish each day’s stage. Behind them, you’ll have the middle-of-the-packers. Then you’ll have the first timers and people who don’t ride regularly.
Rounding out the parade of riders, you’ll have the party crew, the ones who close out the bars in each town before moving on. And then, behind them, you have the real partiers, the ones who take all day to ride, making sure to visit each bar along the route, rolling in to the each host town in the wee hours of the morning, only hours before the serious cyclists set off again.
Tony’s own experience with RAGBRAI ran the gamut. Even his bike would change. Tony did his first RABRAI on a mountain bike. When his mountain bike was stolen in college, he used his dad’s Schwinn hybrid until that was stolen during RAGBRAI one year.
During a time in chiropractic college when Tony couldn’t afford to replace his stolen bike, he and a friend rode couple years on an ill-fitting 1950’s era Schwinn tandem. (He recalls taking advantage of the SAG support during those rides.) Ultimately, Tony realized that the only way to find a bike to fit his height – all seven feet of it – was to go custom. So, Tony’s first “real bike” was a Seven.
When he and his friends began their RABRAI experience, they used a support vehicle to carry their gear. By their sixth year, they were self-supported, carrying all the camping equipment, cycling gear and clothing they would need for the week on their own. Tony loved being self-contained and self-supported for these rides.
Sometime during high school, Tony got a crazy idea in his head. He thought it would be really cool to ride a bike across the country. And that idea was always in the back of his mind – until he spoke about it to a friend. While he was in chiropractic college, Tony sent a Facebook message about his crazy idea to a friend. What Tony hadn’t expected was for his friend to put plans into motion and turn his dream into reality.
While Tony, Dr. Tony now, had his own growing private chiropractic practice and patients to attend to, he understood that life is short. He had to follow his dream.
In February of 2010, Dr. Tony and his friend left the California coast – with all their supplies in tow – and headed for Florida, following a route from Adventure Cycling. At the time, they had no idea if the journey would take them 50 days or 80. The entire journey ended up taking them 49 days.
In that time, Dr. Tony learned that “there is no better way to see a country than by bicycle.” He explains:
“You’d never see a lot of what you see on a bike from inside of a car. Driving across country just isn’t the same. You experience small towns in a way that you never could from inside of a car.”
Dr. Tony describes touring by bike as a “rich experience.” And Tony feels richer for the experience. He’s met people, made friends and had adventures that were only possible by experiencing life from a bicycle.
He remembers the gas station owner they met at the beginning of their route. In addition to setting them up with provisions, the gentleman was really concerned that they had enough socks to get them through their journey.
Dr. Tony remembers a particularly grueling day, a really long day, the day they finally crossed the Mississippi. He remembers catching the last ferry, watching the sun going down, and being really beat. He and his buddy ended up in a pizza joint. “When you ride that much, you end up eating a lot of food.”
For dinner, they each ordered a large pizza. When they went to pay, they found that two women who, earlier, had been interested in hearing about their journey, had silently paid for their dinner tab before they left the restaurant.
Since you always have your bike and a whole lot of gear with you, Dr. Tony found that you’re never at a lack for conversation while touring cross-country. You have an automatic conversation piece. And everybody wants to know what you’re doing. And why.
Dr. Tony’s cycling partner wrote about an encounter in their journey blog. He describes waiting at an elevator with a couple of eight-year-old boys who were eyeballing their bikes and gear. “You guys traveling or something?” After learning about the pair’s bike ride across the continent, one boy said to the other, “We’re doing that someday!” Who knows? Perhaps Dr. Tony’s adventure lit that same spark that was ignited in him – and inspired his cross-country trip – many years ago.
On a trip of that magnitude, “you have great days and you have totally miserable days.” Dr. Tony recalls one awful day through Texas where they had 55mph headwinds all day. “I think we covered 54 miles and it took us over 14 hours.” But that day was followed up with three days of incredible tail winds.
They had a day in Texas where they had to carry all the water and food they would need for the day because they would pass absolutely nothing along their journey. They were already carrying 40-50 pounds of gear each day, carrying (most) everything they would need for camping, fixing their flats and repairing their bikes. (Dr. Tony did need a new bottom bracket on that ride. He let a bike shop handle that repair.)
After experiencing eleven flats in the first three or four days of his trip – and a single day in Arizona where he had nine flats – Dr. Tony learned that one of the best investments to make for a cycling tour is a good set of touring tires. Flats aside, carrying an extra 50 pounds on your bike goes a long way toward wearing down a tire quickly.
In packing for his various bike trips, Dr. Tony has learned that clothes aren’t important, but that tools to fix your bike are. “You don’t want to have that much stuff with you. You want to go as light as you can.” It’s the simplicity of bike touring that attracts Dr. Tony. “You get rid of all the crap. There’s no room for material possessions. It’s a stripped down lifestyle.”
While he concedes that it’s always nice to have a shower and a nice bed, especially on days when it’s hot, he wouldn’t trade the simplicity of a self-contained bicycle tour.
“You can get a hotel if you want. Or you can set up a tent. You can wake up and decide, ‘Do I want to ride 110 miles today?’ When you do it on your own, you’re on no one else’s time clock.”
Since that cross-country Tour, Dr. Tony has done more cycling tours with his buddies. They’ve ridden a trail from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh. They’ve even ridden in Chile. And they have dreamed up some big rides for the future – more here in the States and even some abroad.
For a recent trip from Vancouver to Portland, Dr. Tony decided to upgrade his touring bike – he now has five bikes, most of which are custom Seven Cycles. His touring bike now has a custom grill attached to the front – thanks to Fredo’s ingenuity – which makes impromptu BBQ-ing possible.
Talk about not being on anyone else’s time clock! Lunchtime is whenever you feel like pulling over.
In all his adventures, Dr. Tony has found that, “Everywhere we’ve ever toured, we’ve always run into other people touring. And everybody has an interesting story.”
If the simplicity of carrying everything you need with you, of being on your own time clock and of nothing but miles of open road and untold story appeals to you, perhaps it’s time to consider creating your own tales of the open road.
- To read about Dr. Tony’s cross-country adventure, check out the blog his friend kept.
- If you’re considering a bicycle tour of your own in the States, Dr. Tony recommends Adventure Cycling.
- While touring, one of the luxuries not to be underestimated is a warm shower. Check out this community for touring cyclists and hosts.
- Considering a touring bike? We can help!