Summer 2007 Forward to a Friend

Mass Bike Rides

Text and photos by Dennis Coello


On these events all over the nation and throughout the year, cyclists clad in bright Lycra® swarm the countryside during the daytime and nest in fields covered with hundreds of colorful tents at night. At first glance, a “beehive” of bicyclists on the move can look something like Depression-era marathon dancing and the riders’ camps like a Renaissance fair. The number of rides has exploded from one that took place some 30-odd years ago to nearly 200 today. Why?

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The National Bicycle Tour Directors Association has great Web sites to begin your search for a mass ride to fit your schedule, geographic preference, and budget – It doesn’t offer all tours. For instance, it lacks the descriptively named Hotter’N Hell Hundred – a three-day, 12,000-rider event in Texas, held in August! But it does list most. It allows you to search by month or by region, and it also offers a master list.

Another excellent site is Look for “Guided Tours & Events.” Choose “Supported Tours,” and you’ll find offerings of cross-state and cross-country tours, on-road and off-road rides, and two events just for families.

Web sites for the rides mentioned in this article:

Bobby Wrenn has the answer. This almost-octogenarian Virginian has been conducting the 1,000-rider Great Peanut Tour for a quarter century. When I asked him what people find in it that makes them return year after year, he replied, “Fun.” Wrenn said it with assurance, as if he’d thought about it a long while and, with wisdom borne of age and experience, whittled all possible reasons down to that.

I had to laugh, thinking of my own attempts to understand the attraction of these gatherings. Even before joining, I’d developed theories on the motivations behind mass rides. I chalked it up to the atomization of the individual in today’s culture. I figured these cyclists were making a Herculean cry for camaraderie, a desperate attempt to create “family” for a week. Theirs was a leap into the abyss of the aggregate, a psychological escape from the ever-isolating self. I’d never considered that folks could be showing up just to have fun.

About a dozen years ago, I was sent to Iowa to shoot and pedal in the granddaddy of these events – RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). What a culture shock for this long-time solo bike tourer!

Named for the Des Moines Register newspaper whose reporters began it in 1973 by challenging one another to ride across Iowa in six days – and inviting all Iowans to bike along – RAGBRAI had grown from 300 cyclists that first year (only 114 completed the ride) to a whopping 7,500 when I attended.

Increasing popularity has forced RAGBRAI to cap its numbers, which means that now you tell them you want to come, your name is tossed into the hopper with a zillion others, and the first 8,500 pulled out are officially registered for the ride. But even this enormous figure is swelled by unregistered thousands more who join up to pedal along just for a day. The routes are all on public roads, after all, so while those whose names weren’t drawn and those who never applied for the drawing in the first place can’t camp with the lawfully registered, they can still ride along. I remember being astounded by the 10,000-rider tally one day during my week in Iowa. Still, our numbers paled compared to the 23,000 bikers who rode into Des Moines in 1988!

Of course, towns beg to be on the route, which changes every year. The ride starts somewhere on the state’s western border along the Missouri River and ends up at the Mississippi on the eastern side. There, a long line of proud and happy riders wait patiently and triumphantly to dip their front tires in the Big Muddy. The smiles were infectious, and I couldn’t keep from grinning as I photographed the scene. I was witnessing fun with a vengeance.

Three fellow riders said they’d ridden every RAGBRAI since the first. They loved being part of it all; it gave them something to look forward to each summer. There were fellow riders they’d met on early RAGBRAIs and whom they see only once a year, but they camp with them and catch up on what’s happened over the last 51 weeks. They said it’s fun to see that the ride had become a family affair for so many, with toddlers being packed along in carts until they’re able to pedal the miles themselves.

Kids held welcoming placards, while stand after stand offered homemade pies and giant bratwursts and every other manner of low-calorie, low-cholesterol health food imaginable.

Other cyclists explained that an annual ride was the goal that helped them stay in shape. That made me feel better, for it seemed to me that we were spending almost as much time eating. I kept imagining an aerial view of an army of voracious two-wheeled locusts munching its way along the rolling corn and soybean fields of Iowa.

I was never near the front of this army, but even when I pulled into Emmetsburg, Osage, and other whistle-stops along the way to Dubuque, townspeople lined the road. Kids held welcoming placards, while stand after stand offered homemade pies and giant bratwursts and every other manner of low-calorie, low-cholesterol health food imaginable. Just an hour earlier, well-stocked rest stops had provided snacks and drinks.

A couple years later, Cycle Oregon hired me to shoot its week-long tour. Even with a mere 2,000 or so riders, there was plenty to photograph among the northwest’s mountains, lakes, and broad green and tan valleys. Always held in September, Cycle Oregon’s weather is far more forgiving than the heat and humidity of Iowa in July.

I met a number of people for whom the cooler weather was a primary consideration. Some also commented that the smaller number of cyclists meant fewer of the logistical headaches of a larger ride.

Bike riders

And then there was the young guy I photographed at a rest stop who had ridden Cycle Oregon several times and RAGBRAI once. I kept up with him for all of 60 seconds. “You’ll find more serious riders on this one,” he said over his shoulder as he pulled away. “Iowa’s a week-long party.”

I enjoyed the Plains the next year when covering BRAN (Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska) for a magazine article. It seemed the most family-oriented of the few rides I’d experienced.

Next came a three-day taste of the northeast on the Trek Across Maine, a ride staged by the American Lung Association and my introduction to “cause” tours. I met a good-hearted

Bike rider
“Besides, these events are the cyclist’s equivalent of going to a rock concert. And who doesn’t have a good time there?”
Maine inhabitant named Sam Kline, who told me he liked to bike as much as he liked supporting good causes. “So this is a perfect fit,” he told me, as I focused my lens on a lady in her mid-60s. She waved to us as she crested the hill and blew right past where we’d stopped to catch our breath. “And then there’s the safety factor,” Sam continued. “It’s only on mass rides that we bicyclists rule the road!”

Although I’ve photographed and participated in other tours, I don’t have the experience of Susan Weaver. She’s a life-long biker, author, and development and communications manager for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC). Weaver happily participates as a rider in at least one mass tour a year for her annual bike-event article in Adventure Cyclist magazine, for which she wears the helmet of ride organizer for the Conservancy. RTC is dedicated to turning “unused rail corridors” into trails, and Weaver’s Northeast office conducts a “Greenway Sojourn” tour each year on such restored routes. There, bikers (500 of them in 2007) deal with jogger and walker traffic instead of cars and tractor-trailers.

I asked Susan Weaver if she’d met up with many mudheads – the grouchy riders who can ruin things for all. I asked because in all the tours I’d attended, I had expected to encounter them, but hadn’t.

Weaver laughed. “Pretty much anybody who is willing to ride a bike and camp for a week isn’t hard to get along with,” she said. “Besides, these events are the cyclist’s equivalent of going to a rock concert. And who doesn’t have a good time there?”

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1. Be in shape: You don’t just want to be in good enough shape to pedal the daily mileage. You want to be able to pedal all the miles and still have enough energy to enjoy the evenings in camp or the walk around whatever town you’re near. Many sites offer suggestions on getting in shape for their particular rides, and most stress that riding day after day for a week is very different from pedaling a single long route on a Saturday and then not hitting the trail again until the following weekend. Back-to-back rides before the tour will also let you deal with being saddle sore at home, not in camp around hundreds of other people. Increase your mileage gradually through your training period and your bottom will thank you, as will those other “contact points” of hands and feet.

2. Choose from camping options: Many rides offer a motel option, or you can opt for tent-and-towel services available on some big rides. A tent is supplied and is already erected when you pedal into camp, and a freshly laundered towel is waiting. Talk about luxury!

3. Practice sleeping in a tent: If you choose to camp, be sure to know how to put up your tent before the trip. Know if you can get a good night’s rest on the ground pad/sleeping bag combination you’ve chosen. Take a bag that fits the temperature of the ride you’ve selected. And pack a pair of earplugs! Crowded campgrounds are seldom silent. Plus, they’re seldom mosquito-free, so take along your preferred brand of repellent.

4. Prepare your bag(s): Read all the material sent to you by your event organizer, and don’t wait until a couple weeks before the ride to do so. Pay special attention to tips on how to ride safely amidst a thousand other bikers and to the size and weight limitations of the (usually one) duffel bag that will hold your tent, clothes, toiletries, and everything else that you aren’t carrying on your bike. Restrictions on the number and weight of the bag(s) will be enforced.

5. Prepare your bike: For many riders, one of the attractions of mass rides is that someone is usually around to help if you have bike problems. Most riders, however, should be prepared to patch a tire if they have to, and many travel with the pump, tire levers, and patch kit or spare tube to put themselves back in the saddle quickly. That way, you won’t have to wait for help. A friend and I endured 25 flats during an around-the-world ride ages ago, and ever since I’ve been a believer in puncture-resistant tubes or tire liners. (Both work better, in my opinion, than do Kevlar-belted tires.) I’m also a believer in inspecting a bike closely for tire wear, worn cables, untrue wheels, a worn chain, etc., before a bike event. While watching the professional mechanics working on bikes in camp each evening is pleasurable, it’s even more pleasurable when the bikes they’re repairing are not yours.

6. Prepare for adverse weather: Most bike magazine and event Web site photographs would have you believe that the sky is always blue. But be prepared for clouds and rain. Two-piece rain suits are great when it’s cold, but wear one when it’s hot and you’ll be just as wet from perspiration as you would have been from the rain. If you pay a bundle for a space-age “breathable fabric” rain suit, you’ll be only half as wet inside. The answer to riding in the rain when it’s warm is a well-made, bright-yellow (to be seen easily) bike poncho – the nylon hooded type with thumb loops in front to hold it in place when your hands are on the handlebars. Air flows in from beneath the outstretched cape to keep you cool, while water runs down the long back of the poncho that’s tied around your middle with an elastic strap. You don’t stay completely dry, but mostly so. And you won’t melt from the heat.

Another thought about rainy days: If you wear glasses, like I do, you’ll want a helmet visor to keep the drops away.

7. Assemble a bike bag: Even though the event organizer will be transporting your camping gear and clothing, you’ll need a bike bag of some kind to carry such necessities as sunglasses, sunscreen, rain gear, windbreaker, tools, air pump, energy bar, etc. I have heavy-duty luggage racks over both my front and rear wheels, to which are attached huge bike bags (panniers) for my camera gear and other needs. But you can probably get by with just a handlebar bag or one of those nifty “rack trunks,” which attach either to a rear rack or to a piece that clamps to your seat post. Some of these slide into place and, like some (not all!) handlebar bags, are easy to attach and detach. You are going to be on and off your bike time and time again, and any bag that’s difficult and time-consuming to mount and dismount is going to drive you crazy.

8. Prepare a map/directions case: Although getting lost on these rides is not easy, given the number of other cyclists and support vehicles and the signs or arrows painted on the roads, many events have daily maps or “cue sheets” telling you where to go. Most handlebar bags have clear map cases to hold these so you can read them at a glance as you are pedaling, but there are many other map case/clip options that will perform the same function. What you absolutely do not want to do is hunt around in a jersey pocket or elsewhere for your directions and unfold them while you’re pedaling in a pack.

9. Choose comfortable clothing: I love to photograph bright, beautiful jerseys. However, I never wear them. Biking friends swear by their wick-ability and other attributes, but they’re too close-fitting for my tastes – and far too costly for my wallet. My preference is a short-sleeve collared shirt that can be partially unbuttoned when it’s warm to let the air flow through.

10. Avoid sunburn: Every time I pedal an event I see rider after rider on the second day of the tour with a thin strip of sunburned skin between their bike shorts and the bottom of their shirts or jerseys. The reason is that tops that fit just fine when you’re standing or sitting up straight can ride up a bit when you stretch out to the handlebars. This position can expose an inch of back to hours of unforgiving sun. It’s amazing how painful that strip of skin can be when you roll over in your sleeping bag. So remember to pull down your jersey, or tuck in your shirt, or buy longer tops to begin with. Or just ask some nearby soul to rub a bit of sunscreen across that part of your back, which you can’t reach so well. That’s what I love about mass rides – there’s always another friendly biker nearby.