Barb Rakel (79BSN, 88MA, 02PhD), professor and associate dean for research and scholarship, was working in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics cardiac surgery unit in 1982 when a fellow nurse suggested they participate in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). After that first ride, Rakel was hooked. This week’s RAGBRAI L marks the 28th year of riding for Rakel and her friend from graduate school, Mary Kanak (78BSN, 91MA, 07PhD).
“Mary and I did our first RAGBRAI in 1986,” Rakel recalls. “We both loved it and have been doing it together ever since. …There's something about riding across the state of Iowa. It’s beautiful to see the crops and the farmland. You notice so much more when you're on a bike. You realize it's not flat by any means, and it's just a beautiful countryside."
Other friends and family have joined the duo on RAGBRAI over the years. Some years Fred Haberect, who used to play center for Iowa basketball, was part of their group and they called themselves team Tall Corn, donning corn hats when they took their helmets off. In 2002, Rakel did the ride on a tandem bike with her brother. “That was really fun. My butt didn’t hurt as much because we weren’t on the bike that long because we went so fast,” she said.
When her kids were born, Rakel’s husband would drive the car and bring the kids to her so she could breastfeed them under a tree. “I was lucky to have a husband who was very supportive,” Rakel said. They started staying in hotels overnight at that point, and Rakel recalls her husband’s excitement when the route would come out in February and he could start calling to book accommodations. Rakel’s husband continues to travel RAGBRAI with her, and every year she buys him a shirt. “Everybody thinks he rides RAGBRAI,” she laughs. “He says, ‘well, I do ride RAGBRAI, it's just in a car.’”
Over the years, Rakel has learned the ins and outs of the ride, and tricks to make it more enjoyable. “The very first RAGBRAI, we would get up at six a.m. and we’d get into the last town at one p.m., in the heat of the day,” she recalls. “There was nothing going on and we had to set up our tent in the heat.” Her team learned quickly to take their time in the morning. “We used to ride with a urologist here in town and he would always have a bloody mary and smoke a cigarette and then we'd go ride. We’d start late and get in around dusk because that's when all the fun is in the towns.”
Rakel has also seen a lot of changes over the past 40 years. The towns have gotten better prepared, and the whole ride is more systematic and organized, she says, and there are amenities like portable showers. “In the beginning we were all going into the pools and trying to shower there. All the hair… it was just gross, but you’d do anything for a shower. The first RAGBRAI that I did with Roseanne we just went into the lake to wash off!” Time has also brought more riders and more crowding. Rakel finds that many riders don’t know the necessary communication for riding in a large group. For example, instead of calling out ‘stopping’ and moving off the road when they see a place they want to stop, “they just stop in the middle of the road, and that’s how accidents happen,” she notes.
In Rakel’s experience, RAGBRAI can be whatever a rider wants it to be. “There’s a RAGBRAI for the families, and when my kids did it that’s what we would do, go to the church dinners and that kind of stuff,” she says. “There’s a RAGBRAI for the people who like to party. There's a RAGBRAI for the people who want to get exercise and make it a race. There’s just a RAGBRAI for everybody.”
This year, Rakel and Kanak will be riding the last three days of RAGBRAI, July 27-29. Rakel is looking forward to passing the College of Nursing building as the ride travels down Newton Road in Iowa City and is excited to ride her E-bike this year. “I've been walking regularly so I'm hoping I’m in shape but if not, I'll just use my motor,” she says with a smile.