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Riders go rural route

What would you do if 10,000 guests from across the U.S. and around the world arrived on your doorstep for an hour or possibly overnight?

Iowa communities of all sizes met the challenge once again this summer when the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) swept through. Sponsored by The Des Moines Register, the weeklong event began with riders dipping their bike wheels in the Missouri River at the state's western border, riding 454 miles, and repeating the ritual in the Mississippi River to the east.

For the third time since the ride began 39 years ago, my adopted hometown of Pilot Mound got in on the action.

The route varies annually, and communities jockey to host overnight stays. Pilot Mound, population 199, isn't large enough to be an overnight host, but it was an official watering hole.

Many towns never make the cut. Pilot Mound might have an edge because of its eye-catching signs along the west edge of town: “Pilot Mound, Next 5 Exits” or “The Friendliest Town Around: Pilot Mound. Where Every Day's a Holler Day.”

More likely, though, geography is destiny. Pilot Mound's selling point is located 1.5 miles east of town – a hill that descends 225 feet to the Des Moines River and then ascends 300 feet.

Referred to as Twister Hill, it's named after the movie, Twister, filmed on location in 1996. Think Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton chasing a tornado up a hill while being pelted by a hailstorm.

It's a formidable hill. One informal estimate is that about half of the RAGBRAI riders walk to the top.

The last time RAGBRAI blew through was 1998. So, once again, volunteers from surrounding areas pitched in to make pies and serve food in the community building that was partially funded with 1991 RAGBRAI funds. Pilot Mound displayed its old jail, offering riders the experience of being locked up.

When riders refer to the four H's, they aren't talking about the 4-H pledge. It's hills, heat, humidity, and headwinds.

The heat index on the day they rode through topped 100°F. The average age of riders was 50 years, so Deck's convenience store/gas station did a booming business in analgesics.

Beyond the fun and fund-raising, RAGBRAI is a great way to showcase agriculture. Iowa-raised beef, pork, and dairy samples were given away along the route by Iowa Farmers Feed Us. Near Templeton, Iowa, Practical Farmers of Iowa also hosted a party and talked with bicyclists about sustainable agriculture, healthy food, and diverse farms.

Here today, gone now

On the day after RAGBRAI, it was quiet in towns like Pilot Mound, Paton, Churdan, and Lidderdale. But the conversation was lively with sightings of Lance Armstrong, who joined RAGBRAI that day. These stories will enrich the town folklore, along with the proceeds from this memorable event.

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