By Jim Hussey
I first completed RAGBRAI when it was SAGBRAI, the Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, so I have experience in accessible adventures.
Still, prior to the 46th such mass expedition, when I heard about Bishop Thomas Zinkula’s plan for “Pedaling to the Peripheries,” I thought to myself, “Huh?”
Davenport is close enough to the state line that when Illinoisans have a picnic and play their music loud, our diocesan leaders cannot only see the next state over, but hear it and smell it, too.
Meanwhile, here in Kalona, the farthest we can ever see is … Iowa. Exactly who is it that’s on the periphery?
Still, I applauded Bishop Zinkula’s efforts to heed the call of Pope Francis to leave behind the comforts of the cathedral and instead shepherd his flock. As our bishop noted after the first day’s ride, heeding the Holy Father’s call implies returning home from work each day smelling like the sheep. Even if the sheep have suffered through 70 miles of heat, hills and humidity.
Back when I was doing SAGBRAI and taking catechism classes, we were taught that a church is more than a building, it’s a community — and on RAGBRAI that point was driven home. Each evening at 6 p.m. — in Denison, Jefferson, Ames, Newton, Sigourney and Iowa City — led by Bishop Zinkula, the RAGBRAI religious would regroup, celebrate Mass and together reflect on what the readings, and the ride, had to tell us.
For those who only see the photos, RAGBRAI may seem like a traveling circus — but for about 400 of the 428 miles, the ride is mostly about silence. You’re on your bike about six hours a day, just thinking, and a lot of the thinking could as easily be done in a church pew as on a bicycle seat.
You think about the beauty around you — the verdant crops, the curious cows and even the caterwauling coyotes that woke me up at 1:40 a.m. outside Sigourney. RAGBRAI reminds us of God’s subtle-yet-spectacular gifts for which we are all responsible.
You think about life’s ups and downs. Literally. At times the road is flat and the cement is smooth. Those moments are even more precious after climbing a steep hill, rattling over “rumbles,” or mashing your bike through a headwind that just won’t quit.
You think about things that don’t change, but do. Take gravity (please). At the top of a hill it’s your best friend; at the bottom of a hill it’s your worst enemy. Gravity doesn’t change; it’s our perception of this cosmic constant that defines its value.
You think about divine intervention. In Manning, I stepped away from my bike for five minutes. I came back to a completely flat front tire. To me, that was the ultimate in good luck. Five miles later, a flat tire would have been a near-disaster. In town, it resulted in a slightly longer rest. God was looking out for me.
You think about suffering. About 25 miles from Newton, a rider pulled beside me and said my back tire looked low. Until then I thought only my backside was dragging. When I arrived in Newton I discovered I had 28 pounds of pressure in a tire designed to hold 115. I suffered, but survived.
You think about simplicity. If Jesus rode RAGBRAI he wouldn’t be chauffeured by limousine, but might pedal from town to town on a basic bike. (I’m thinking a three-speed.) He’d be tending to the sore and sunburned, celebrating Mass each evening — and sleeping each night in a simple tent, listening to the birds, crickets and occasional coyote.
RAGBRAI forces us to disconnect and gives us the opportunity to think, sweat and celebrate. Too often, those simple pleasures exist outside the periphery of our daily lives.
Perhaps like gravity, “periphery” is defined less by what’s inside the dictionary and more by what’s inside us. For the next 51 weeks, I hope to use some of what I relearned on RAGBRAI to re-examine the boundaries I’ve imposed upon myself.
And, if truth be told, I’ll also be praying for flat land and favorable winds during the year ahead — especially next summer.
(Jim Hussey lives in Kalona.)