Bike Off, Iowa

My 2020 cycling season got off to a bum start when my beloved Felt Z100 bike was stolen from our apartment’s garage, where it had been locked and chained, but not beyond the capabilities of a good bolt cutter, apparently. USAA took good care of me, as they do, and I was able to acquire a new bike, Trusty Steed Mach V. He’s a Masi. Here’s what he looked like at his very first rest stop in April, 27 miles into our first ride together:

Yesterday, I did a 78 mile ride (my longest of the season), and on the day’s final pit stop, Trusty Steed looked like this:

My cycling computer tells me that I spent 75 hours and 18 minutes in the saddle over the course of 2020 to date, covering 1,018 miles. Not my heaviest mileage experience over a summer season, but not bad, all things considered, and under the weird circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2020. Normally I’d get a lot of road time in while Marcia was golfing or at yoga or otherwise engaged, but those seasons never reached a point where they felt COVID-safe for her, so we spent much more time walking together as a healthy, companionable approach instead. We’ve walked about 2,150 miles in 2020 thus far, and will probably do even more of that once we get to Arizona. No complaints there. It’s become a great part of our daily rituals.

Those cycling numbers, though, are actually going to hold up and go on the record books for the year as a whole, as I’ll be packing up Trusty Steed into his shipping box this week for storage while we house-hunt in Arizona. I doubt that I will have the bike back before the end of December, meaning that I’ve ridden my last ride of the year, and my last ride in Iowa, nearly nine years after my first one. I note that 405 of my 2020 riding miles (84 more than my original six-ride goal) were done as part of my Tour des Trees Rollin’ in Place fundraiser, which raised $2,365 for TREE Fund, my former employer. I reached my personal goal, but TREE Fund is still about $22,000 under its aggregate organizational goal for all of its volunteer fundraisers. The campaign runs through November 15, so you can still help out TREE Fund with a tax-deductible donation, even if my own physical contribution to the event is over. Click my final ride report summary image below if you’d like to do so:

I also have to note that I’m frankly not sorry to have ridden my last ride in Iowa. I’ve had a “pending post” for months titled “Iowa Cyclists: Can We Talk?” that I’ve never quite got around to finishing, but it seems apt to summarize the points I’d wanted to make there as I say farewell to corn field country.

At bottom line: Central Iowa has a terrible cycling culture. Not every rider is awful, mind, and off the cuff, I could cite half a dozen truly inspiring and great cyclists of my acquaintance, mostly from our time together on various Tours des Trees over the years. They are strong on their wheels, sure, but equally strong on safely embodying and living the rules of the road that should make riding a most healthy and enjoyable experience, but are so thinly understood and enacted hereabouts that I often feel safer and more comfortable riding on country roads in high speed automobile traffic than I do on the maze of regional trails with other people on their bikes.

My key beefs on this front would include:

  • The ridiculous ubiquity of bike boom-boxes. So incredibly annoying. And so unsafe, since being able to hear is a key part of riding safely and signalling to others to help them do the same. While not as obviously annoying, the number of folks cycling and walking with ear-buds in on trails is just as unsafe, as I’ve had numerous cases of calling out “coming up on your left” as I prepare to pass someone, only to have them not hear me and obliviously drift into my line.
  • Alcohol culture. Most of the trails around Des Moines have favorite cycling bars where casual cyclists can wobble outbound for 10 miles or less, get shit-faced and loud, and then really wobble back to town, putting anybody near them at risk, as they also put themselves in harm’s way. Day-time drinking is a thing here, and it doesn’t mix well with cycling, at all. But it’s standard practice for many of the people you find on two wheels hereabouts.
  • Monopolizing the trails. Yes, cycling can be a very companionable, social activity, but when a group of cyclists (often stoked up on beer and with their boomboxes blasting) feel like they need to ride three, four or five abreast so they can chit-chat more readily, the opportunities for disaster are high. And it’s incredibly irritating when a mob like that is coming your way and refusing to yield or shift, because they’re having fun and talking and you lonely person on your own clearly need to get out of their entitled way.
  • Trying to play Greg LeMond on the trails. For better or worse, all of the trails around here are mixed-use, so there are lots of walkers, strollers, dogs, geese, and God knows what else on them. Roaring along at 20+ miles per hour and expecting people and animals to quickly get out of your way is another recipe for disaster. If you want to be a serious hardcore road cyclist, get out on the roads. If you want to ride the trails, slow down, and share them respectfully.

I’ve been an active, engaged cyclist for my entire life, literally, and I was taught how to ride safely very early on, and I take that social contract seriously. So it’s an informed opinion that things in Central Iowa are inordinately, uniquely bad on the fronts mentioned above, among others. Why is this the case? I blame RAGBRAI, which is the annual rolling party that serves primarily to raise money for the State’s right-wing Gannett-owned newspaper, and to goose the Iowa tourism industry.

Seven days of riding, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. Thousands of participants every year, along a different route each time. Seemed like something I’d really want to do when I first moved here, but having witnessed a  Des Moines over-night stop in 2012, and how the riders were riding and behaving, I realized that, nuh uh, not my thing, nope. There are, of course, a lot of great, safe cyclists who participate in RAGBRAI. But there are likely many more local people who sign up for RAGBRAI as their first experience of long-distance and/or group cycling, where they learn to ride in big, wobbly, loud, drunken packs. Year after year. Which may (?) be fine during RAGBRAI itself, when “everyone is doing it,” but is most decidedly not fine for the rest of the cycling season.

And lest you just think I’m being an opinionated crank with an axe to grind here, Iowa at large and Des Moines in particular routinely place among the nation’s worst states and cities in terms of cycling safety. Here’s one of numerous articles on that front. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, I only had one significant cycling accident during my time here, caused by construction debris left in the road near our first house in Beaverdale. After I hit the pavement and was laying in the road bleeding, a guy at a patio bar on the adjacent corner shouted “Hey! Hey! HEY!” at me, then when I finally looked his way, he raised his beer toward me and told me it looked like I needed a drink, while his buddies laughed. Didn’t bother to ask if I was okay. Just equated cycling and drinking, because Iowa.

Good riddance on that front, though I’ll miss the friends here who ride right and respect the sport and the people who participate in it or use the trails that support it. Here’s hoping I find both a great cycling community in Arizona, and a culture that keeps us all reasonable safe and able to enjoy the sights and sounds and scenes without them being overwhelmed by some shitty Ted Nugent song cranking from the wobbly bike a quarter-mile up the road that you don’t want to get close enough to for a safe pass . . .

4 thoughts on “Bike Off, Iowa

  1. I hear you on bike etiquette. We live a few blocks from The Trestle Trail in Ankeny and the trail isn’t as safe as it once was. I still bike the trail during non busy times but I had to quit rollerblading it due to some bikers rudely not wanting to share the trail. It is really a shame.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, that’s a tough riding area, especially between Madrid (the trail-side bar there can get noxious) and Woodward. Did not go up there this summer for first time in years. Also, coming back south through Ankeny, the road construction is also a bit on the dangerous side at this point . . . another issue of note hereabouts, this year especially, with SO MANY roads and trails torn up in Polk County because of the tax initiative to do long-overdue deferred maintenance. I appreciate the concept and the need, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired!

      Liked by 1 person

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