ASHLAND “Bicycle! Bicycle! Bicycle! I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like.”
When Freddie Mercury sang those lyrics in Queen’s hit “Bicycle Race,” it’s hard to say what he was envisioning — was he thinking about tooling around town on a cruiser? A New Jersey boardwalk? Or pumping his legs on a road bike in the countryside of France?
No one will ever know — but what we do know is for City Manager Mike Graese, Iowa is a fine place to ride his bike.
Not Des Moines or Cedar Rapids or Davenport — the entire Hawkeye State.
Last year, Graese and his wife, Francine, loaded up the bikes and pedaled the entire state of Iowa from Le Mars (near Sioux City at the Nebraska-South Dakota border) all the way to Clinton on the Mississippi River.
Called the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), the whopping 454-mile ride across Iowa is not only a feat of athleticism for those who complete it (Graese said they dip the front of their tire into the Mississippi upon finishing), but a “rolling festival.”
“You have mid-way stops throughout the route where there’s food trucks and bands and when you get to your final stop for the day, it’s just one big party,” Graese said. “I’ve heard it called ‘adult spring break,’ but I don’t know if that’s a good description of it. It’s just a really fun time.”
The event has been trucking along for the better part of 30 years, with the route changing from year to year. Over seven days, riders travel the corn fields and plains in stages, putting up in hotels, on spare couches or even camping on a gracious host’s front lawn at night.
Down shift back to 2014 and Graese is an officer in the U.S. Army. He and Francine were always an active couple, running and jogging a lot. However, Francine had a foot injury, so a commanding general on base suggested the two try bicycling for a change.
“He was a former Army tri-athelete and he rode a bike around the installation a lot,” Graese said. “We started talking to him and he talked about the benefits of the bicycle when you get older, because it reduces the pounding on the knees and all that.”
On the advice of the general — who told them not to buy low end, since it won’t perform up to snuff, nor to buy high-end since they might not like it — the couple bought a couple of middle-of-the-road bikes, racing style bikes one might see in the Tour de France.
At first, Graese said there was a bit of a learning curve — while the salesman at the store showed them how to shift the gears, it took some time to figure out how to adjust the bike so they wouldn’t take a spill heading uphill.
Then there was the matter of spandex. Prior to getting into biking, Graese said he had a laugh about the outfits. But after that first ride — a short 12 miles — Graese said he was sore for the next week. So he found wisdom in wearing some spandex pads on his bottom.
When Graese was transferred to serve in the Pentagon, he said bicycling “really blossomed into an active hobby.” With various rails-to-trails (bike trails converted from old rail road lines) and the Chesapeake and Ohio path and all sorts of bike lanes, it wasn’t anything to take a bicycle out on the weekend.
After moving to Ashland in 2017, Graese said at first he was a bit nervous about the roads around here, but after getting onto the blacktop, he found drivers for the most part don’t crowd riders and maintain safe distances.
“I think here in the community, there’s places where people are used to seeing riders. On (U.S.) 23, between Ashland and Catlettsburg, you see a lot of bikers heading over to the bridge to get to Kenova,” Graese said. “There’s a lot of riding going on over in Rush and the drivers out there seem very cognizant. Every once and a while there’s an aggressive driver, but the vast majority of people really give you space.”
One tip Graese said is important when riding around the area is to pack up with other riders. Graese and his wife like riding with other couples in the area on sparsely traveled roads such as the Industrial Parkway.
“I rarely go riding by myself,” he said. “I think there’s safety in numbers.”
Eventually, Graese got turned onto the Bourbon Trail Burn, a series of rides around the Lexington area that loops around the Kentucky Horse Park over a three day period. Along the way, riders can stop at various horse farms and distilleries, taking tours and even ordering bourbon to be shuttled back by “Sherpas” to the base camp.
“It’s flatter out there than it is here, but those rolling hills are constant,” he said. “The first day might be 80 miles, the second might be 60 miles and the third is usually a recovery-type day that’s 30 miles. People come from all over the country to do it — it’s really a success story. I think the first year they had several hundred riders and this year they’re on track for a thousand.”
While biking culture has its diehards — the real extreme enthusiasts who are training for major races and events — there are also characters who are just out to have a good time on a bicycle.
“If you want that real intense aspect, it’s there. But then there’s people riding around on Pee Wee Herman-type bikes, just cruising along for fun,” he said. “You’ll find your niche in it.”
For instance, Graese recalled one team of bikers at the Bourbon Trail Burn who dressed in lederhosen-style biking outfits and brought their home brewed beer to share in the evenings. Then there was the “Godfather,” a 70-something-year-old man who could get out there and pump the pedals with the best of them.
In fact, Graese said after meeting the “Godfather” at the Bourbon Trail Burn, he ran into him again at the RAGBRAI.
Graese said Curt Carson, the VP of Human Resources at Unity Aluminum, got him interested last year in checking out the RAGBRAI. The Graeses and the Carsons rode a few times together around the area and that’s when the city manager heard about the RAGBRAI — Carson, according to Graese, is an Iowa native.
So they signed up with a team called the Lanterne Rouge, which is named after the last rider of the Tour de France. Traditionally, the Lanterne Rouge carries a red lantern on the back of his or her bike in the great race of the cycling world.
Cliquing into teams is a great way to go about a long-distance, staged race like the RAGBRAI, Graese said. Team captains work out the logistics of where riders can sleep upon completing a portion of the race and having refreshments available at halfway points.
And hydration is key, especially in hot, shadeless Iowa.
“I think they said it was the hottest RAGBRAI ever,” Graese said about the July race. “You’re out there in these cornfields and there is nothing else around. No shade. You think you’re not going to get somewhere, then you see a water tower and you know it’s a town. They’re like these little oases in Iowa, these beautiful, historic towns.”
While heat and shade were a challenge, one aspect of the ride was not — hills. Throughout the race, the riders only pedaled 12,000 feet in elevation — divided evenly, that works out to around 26 feet in elevation gain per mile.
Compared to cycling in Rush, Graese said it was nothing.
“There’s a hill coming up and we’d start to get spooked, then we’d go over this incline,” Graese said. “We started joking with other people, ‘that’s not a hill, that’s an incline.’”
Now, one would think preparing for a ride of that magnitude would require months of training, hitting the stationary bike five days a week and eating nothing but kale and smoothies. Graese said for him and Francine, there wasn’t that much concerted training involved.
“I ran a marathon once in 1996 and it was a four-month train up,” Graese said. “I’m sure for people who ride seriously, they do something along those lines, but I think you own a bike and you’ve tooled around on it a couple of summers, I think you could do (RAGBRAI), but you’d be hurting.”
For the most part, the couple attends the gym five days a week, taking in CrossFit classes, and keeps their riding to the weekends during the spring, summer and fall. He said keeping decent cardio shape is the key for a long distance ride.
Like any physical activity, Graese said safety is important to consider. Last year, he took a nasty spill while biking with his wife, son and daughter-in-law. He said he was riding along when he turned his head to look at something and hit a ditch. It sent him flying in the air, landing him in a hospital bed.
“I think I might have been laissez-faire on the safety aspect. I had the helmet, the mirrors and the reflective equipment, but that was because I was worried about other people. I wasn’t worried about myself — I am now. You got to be really aware,” Graese said.
While the wreck put the skids on Graese biking for a while, he said come spring he’ll be out on the roads again tooling along.
“My goal for the summer is get back to where I was a year and a half ago,” he said.
For those who might be thinking of getting into shape, Graese said bicycling is an excellent option for both young and old.
“I would say it’s a great option, especially if you think you’re past your athletic prime,” Graese said. “You still get the same joy when you’re riding a bike as you did when you were a kid. It’s very free. It’s so different than riding in a car. You can take in the scenery as you go by.”
For those thinking of getting into the hobby, he recommended checking out the Ashland Cycling Enthusiasts group, where there are some “really passionate people who are knowledgeable.”
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