Taking 'a Great Ride' at RAGBRAI, the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa

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Tucked under the shade of a small tree just off the main road in this small central Iowa town, they hid from the searing 90-degree midsummer heat, laughing about the day's adventure and tearing through a six-pack of Fat Tire beer.

The clock hadn't hit 11 a.m. yet, but they didn't care. For Doug Quelland and Lex Koestner of Phoenix, two longtime friends who were each other's best man in their weddings, the day's work was already done. They'd just ridden more than 70 miles from Carroll to Boone, the third stage in the world's oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event.

It's called the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa -- RAGBRAI, for short -- and for the 39th summer in a row cyclists are crossing the Hawkeye State, turning sleepy country towns into bustling hubs packed with sunburned bikers.

For Quelland, this is his 10th ride. For Koestner, his seventh. But as Lance Armstrong said in his book, it's not about the bike.

"We don't come here to race," Quelland said. "We don't come here to do 450 miles. We come here to see relatives."

"And it's one of the few places where you can get a breaded pork tenderloin," quipped Koestner.

It all started back in 1973 as a challenge between two writers for the Des Moines Register and a few readers to go see the state and write columns. Today, it's sprouted into a de-facto Tour de Iowa. The six-day trek takes riders from the western edge of Iowa eastward, covering nearly 500 miles of country roads -- over hills and straight-aways -- until they finally dip their tires into the mighty Mississippi River.

Here in Boone, what would usually have been a sleepy Tuesday in July suddenly had the feel of a country fair. Vendors lined the street. Signs welcoming the riders hung from most stores. And as noon crept closer, scores of cyclists streamed down Story St. into downtown Boone.

"It's painful, but exhilarating," Quelland said. "To see parts of Iowa that you've never seen before, but that you can only see from the back of a bicycle -- you'd never drive down there because it's county roads. You drive on the interstate and you see nothing in Iowa. You go 12 mph or 15 mph down a county road, you see everything. You're going through a cornfield and the farmer's out there waving at you. You don't find that in Arizona or New York. It's fantastic."

"You'll have people that are blind that are riding tandem -- the person on the front seat can see, but the person in the back can't," Koestner said. "They're out there. You'll have a guy that's on a multi-gear tricycle. He's out there.

"One year there was a guy who had just gotten out of the hospital after bypass surgery following a heart attack," he added. "He watched all his signs and if any of them went above where they should be, he'd get off the bike and rest."

Every rider had a story. Tom Killeen of Clive, Iowa, was riding his 26th RAGBRAI.

"It gets better every time," he said, as he rested against his bike on the side of the road. "It's hard to explain until you do it. The people, the camaraderie. You do a lot of reflecting. You meet a lot of people. It's great exercise -- and it's a lot of fun."

A short way down the street stood a couple who had come all the way from Munich, Germany. Eugene and Camille were having a blast, undeterred by his struggles with the heat and her bout with an eye problem.

"It's hot here, but it's been a great ride," he said. "The people are fantastic. They're so warm. It's really nice to meet people and have a good time with them."

Monday's ride from Carroll even included a celebrity cyclist: none other than Lance Armstrong, himself.

"We passed him a long time ago," joked Quelland. "It's too bad. I said, 'Lance, get a life.'"

While Armstrong was there in Boone, presidential hopefuls were not. Iowa, site of the nation's first caucus next winter, has been overrun in recent weeks by Republican presidential candidates. From Michele Bachmann to Tim Pawlenty, from Ron Paul to Herman Cain, the GOP candidates have been all over the Hawkeye State. But despite some anticipation that some of them might appear at RAGBRAI, they were nowhere to be found during the first half of this year's ride.

That didn't mean the state's status as a political hotbed was absent from the tour, as signs supporting one candidate or another lined the route.

"Every year, we're here we see election signs," said Quelland, who used to serve in the Arizona House of Representatives. "At least people are informed. They understand. Here in Iowa, they know what they're talking about."

"Politics just means there are more signs along the road while you're looking at the pretty wildflowers," added Koestner.

If endless cornfields, obsessive politics and tasty food were not enough to give riders a true Iowa experience, then local businesses were out in force to welcome this year's ride as it passed through one quiet small town after another. In some towns, the population more than doubles because of the massive influx of cyclists.

In Boone, the Gigglin Goat was offering $3 tall boys. Across the street, Boone Vision Center had set up a tent to hawk Oakley sunglasses to the riders.

"It's an opportunity, I guess, to do something new. To have an event with lots of people coming through town, it's fun," said Courtney Davidson, an employee at the store. "We have a lot of products here today that we wouldn't normally have. They said there would be 15,000 riders, so we're hoping they come here."

For Quelland, the hospitality of the locals served an additional purpose.

"We like to go to the local places in town and spend our money there -- and then suck up their air conditioning," he said.

For now, though, the shade offered by the small tree would have to do for him and Koestner. That and the refreshment of a rapidly-dwindling six-pack. After all, they had gotten the day's ride out of the way early for a reason.

"We left at about 5 o'clock in the morning," Quelland said. "The sooner you get here, the better. We got here -- I don't know when. When did we get here? What time is it, anyway?"