Bob Molsberry was a student when he first took a look at the recreational bike ride, which organizers say is now the longest, largest and oldest in the country. It was 1973, and there were only a few hundred riders at RAGBRAI (the registry’s annual grand bike tour of Iowa).
The following year, he and his wife joined the project, starting a family tradition. This year, the ride celebrated its 50th anniversary in July, with between 30,000 and 60,000 riders taking part each day.
Molsberry, a retired United Church of Christ minister who was paralyzed 26 years ago after being hit by a car while driving, loves meeting people from all walks of life on the annual Iowa hike. The camaraderie built over seven days and 500 miles, often through achingly rolling hills and sweltering late summer heat, feels irreplaceable.
He also likes that thousands of cyclists in a deeply divided country can leave their attitudes, beliefs and pent-up fears at home and prove that people who share a common interest like cycling can still get along.
“A few years ago I was riding handbikes with the Adaptive Sports team and a few other guys,” he said. “We arrived and pulled into Burlington on the last day and I made some comment about President Trump and it wasn’t positive. And this guy on his handcycle — I’ve been riding with him all week — turns around and says, “We’ve been riding all week, and now you’re talking about politics?”
“When you ride together,” Molsberry said, “well, you put that stuff aside for a while. As the year goes on I still have a hard time understanding it and I don’t really feel comfortable coming into contact with them, people like that.” I have such different opinions. But for a week in July, I’m still willing to join them.”
The polarization that has rocked America is perhaps the deepest it has been in decades. And those divisions are particularly evident now in Iowa, where the first statewide caucuses will be held in just six months. Democrats and Republicans have swapped the state’s electoral votes over the years.
However, none of this was seen on RAGBRAI where the discord seemed to be fading away.
If a driver had a puncture, someone would inevitably stop to help change the tire. When someone fell, complete strangers stopped driving to administer first aid or to wait for an ambulance. As temperatures rose, church groups, fire departments and even local political parties were on hand to distribute water.
One group’s tent at a Sioux City campground had a sign that read, “Let’s go, Brandon,” but most people walked by without thinking. Another group’s bus carried a rainbow flag in support of the LGBTQ+ community, but it was so small it was almost unnoticeable.
There’s a chance members of these two groups might have met at some point during the drive, perhaps over a beer, a leg of turkey, or a stalk of Iowa candy corn.
“There’s a lot of people here and there’s not a spark of division,” said Kyle Campbell, project manager at a biotech company, mid-ride.
“There’s an understanding that everyone made a sacrifice to be here and everyone wants to have a good time,” he said. “And immediately there’s something that everyone has in common, which is cycling, in contrast, I’m a Hawkeyes fan or I’m a Cyclones fan or a Republican or a Democrat.”
People prefer to talk about their bike’s frameset or which seat is the most comfortable for eight-hour days in the saddle.
“I think it’s because we all face each other, you know? “The disagreement comes from the fact that we’re all at home, on computers, and on social media, and not in person,” said Beth M. Howard, an author and documentary filmmaker who worked on a film about Iowans’ Curious Affinity to cake.
With so many cyclists riding through small towns, cell phone towers were often overloaded. Only when drivers reached larger cities could they send messages or find out about the latest news.
In the meantime, they were mostly forced to talk, and mostly it was about the nearest craft beer tent, or the ice cream around the corner, or the spaghetti dinner that awaited them at a church, VFW, or community center that night .
“I feel a lot more negative working from home day in and day out,” Howard said. “Then someone makes a random gesture of kindness and you’re like, ‘Oh, the world’s still a good place.'”
Dave Skretta is an AP sportswriter based in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in Iowa and has ridden with RAGBRAI many times. This year he delivered updates off the road. He cycled 579 miles from start to finish.