IF YOU’RE FLYING somewhere north of the equator right now, you’re just beginning to enjoy warmer weather. The livin’ is easy, the outdoor grillin’ is good, and, if you’re lucky, you can parade around in your swimsuit without embarrassment. Then there are those of us who go nuts every June, preparing for some crazy athletic event or another.
It might be a seven-day bike race across Iowa, or a 100-mile pedal in 100-degree heat in Texas, or a race up Pikes Peak, defying snow (yes, in August) and possibly lightning. Or maybe you’re into punishing yourself on the hills of Tennessee, or you’ve always wanted to race/paddle 70 miles up a river in upstate New York. Getting in shape may be a killer, but isn’t that the point? Maybe not. I’ve heard about a race in Louisiana where the point is to eat Cajun food, dance to Cajun tunes and drink your way along the coast to New Orleans. What’s fun about these races is the camaraderie and the sense of family found along the road to aching muscles or sore posteriors.
The biggest party of all might be the seven-day RAGBRAI in July — the oldest, largest and longest bike tour in the world. RAGBRAI, sponsored by the Des Moines Register, stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Every day during the ride, 10,000 bikers roll out of their tents or sleeping bags, many of them hung over from too much fun the night before, and hit the road. “Everybody has the same goal: Let’s get across Iowa,” says Rob Stokes, who’s done the ride three times, twice on a two-person recumbent cycle with his wife. His marriage almost didn’t survive one of those rides. But I’ll let him tell you the story. (And, yeah, he can laugh about it now.)
“I’m not a competitive person. I am a social-exercise person,” says Rob, a Dallas computer whiz. “RAGBRAI is not a race. It’s thousands of people exercising,” he says. He loves pulling up next to another RAGBRAI biker and trading life stories. Rob and his wife, Serena Bernstein, ride a bike that is a mix of rickshaw, tandem bike and tricycle, with the two of them sitting and pedaling side by side — an arrangement created to stop her from getting angry when she fell behind. “Instead,” says Rob with a laugh, “we became equal fighters.”
One morning, they had two flat tires in the first hour and had managed less than 15 miles of the day’s 85-mile route. Grumpiness ensued. At noon, they stopped and bought a beer each to buoy their spirits. Down the road, however, their legs seized up. Groggy from the brew and too little sleep, they were pedaling so slow that their speedometer didn’t even register. Worse, the “sag wagon” (which picks up lagging bikers) had already passed them. They were on their own, in the middle of Iowa. “It’s funny now,” says Rob, “but we do keep asking ourselves why we make the trip.” Serena is doing it again this year. Rob? Not so sure.
In Texas, the insanity is called the Hotter’N Hell Hundred, with 10,000 foolhardy types climbing on bikes to pedal out from Wichita Falls, often in 100-degree heat. My husband, who’s done the 50-mile race, wants to do the 100-miler this August. I piddle along in the 25-miler, watching the colorful plumage go by: bike shorts of neon blue and neon green, jerseys in turquoise and hot pink and hot yellow — and that’s just the guys’ getups. There are reclining bikes, three-people-on-one-bike bikes and bikes where the person on the back is seated backward.
I saw Tony Marley and his two daughters, Rebecca and Heather, doing the shorter, 25-mile race on a three-seat tandem last year. This year, they are aiming for 100 kilometers (62 miles). Rebecca is now 8. Heather is 5. Tony says he got interested in doing the Hotter’N Hell while working in Nigeria. “I had heard about the Hotter’N Hell for years. It’s a world-famous ride,” he says. He’s an ExxonMobil security guy who worked at the State Department once upon a time, so not much scares him, including taking Rebecca and Heather, then 6 and 3, out for a bike ride in Lagos. When he moved to Houston, doing the 100 seemed natural.
Training is tricky. The crew has to be bribed to keep them pedaling. He recommends ice cream or doughnuts at the 90-minute mark. “I notice it on a hill when they are working and when they are not working,” he says. “The great thing about a tandem is you can take kids at a relatively young age. You’re controlling the turning and braking.” As they pedal, they talk about vacation plans, rehash old trips and bond. “I enjoy biking, and I do this partly to spend more time with the girls,” he says. College students and guys in Porsche Carreras stop to tell them how cool they look. “It’s just a lot of fun,” says Tony. And that is the point.