Cycling and Landscapes

By PLC Conservation Planner, Palmer McIntyre —

I have always loved to ride my bicycle and spent many miles in the saddle during my 20s, riding the length of Vermont, down the coast of California, commuting to work in Washington DC, across North Carolina and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. But since then life pulled me in other directions (jobs, graduate school, children) and the dust accumulated on my old Cannondale as it sat in my garage. As I approached my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something physically challenging, just to prove I still could. And I thought a long bike ride would be just the thing to get me back into shape. For years, I have wanted to ride RAGBRAI since I first heard about it from PLC friend and Guilford County collaborator, Roger Bardsley, who did it 12 times. RAGBRAI, if you have never heard of it, stands for the “The [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa”. Started in 1973, it’s the largest bike touring event in the world, attracting somewhere between 10,000-15,000 people from all across the country and world each year. My friend Hollis Oberlies and I pledged two years ago that we would do RAGBRAI together the summer of 2017. And so we did, the last week in July.

Over seven days, we all rode our bicycles together across 411 rolling miles past cornfields, through small towns, finally ending up at the Mississippi River in the small town of Lansing for the traditional celebratory “tire dip” to mark the end. As you think, no problem, riding across Iowa is easy because it’s so flat, you have to know that RAGBRAI started when two journalists for the Des Moines Register set out to prove that Iowa is not flat by bicycling across the state with friends. Within a few years, thousands of people were joining them.

I approached this trip as a physical challenge, but along the way I was reminded why I love bicycling so much. Apart from it being great exercise, bicycle touring is the perfect way to connect with the landscape around you. You feel the landscape under your bicycle (and feel you can, especially the hills!), you see it, and you become a part of it, traveling at a scale that allows you to interact with the landscape and the people of that landscape. This is a far different experience from driving in your car. On bicycle, you travel slowly enough to take it all in and travel quickly enough to cover a lot of ground. 

Rural Iowa is beautiful. I loved the rolling hills of corn especially in the early morning dappled sunlight. I loved being outside for seven straight days (we camped at night). I loved the picturesque old barns nestled in between fields, the small town hospitality, and I loved the determination of the huge crowd of all kinds and ages of people riding all manner of bicycle doing this day in and day out. Iowans are truly salt of the earth and they also make great pie!

I’ll keep up riding locally as a way to stay in shape after all that work, and will enjoy the beautiful rural roads in our region. PLC friend, native Iowan and RAGBRAI alumnus Moni Bates, helped me train and showed me many scenic routes in northern Guilford and Rockingham Counties. These local landscapes are the ones PLC works so hard to protect and seeing them from my bicycle will allow me to appreciate them all the more.

End note: Look for North Carolina’s version of RAGBRAI called Cycle NC (not nearly as large!) in early October. This year, the route includes a stop in Bethania, a historic town located to the northwest of Winston Salem where PLC has protected many parcels of land. Come out to view the cyclers and visit the PLC table while you are there to learn about our conservation work. To learn more about Cycle NC visit

The traditional celebratory “tire dip” in the Mississippi River in the small town of Lansing, to mark the end of a 411-mile ride!

Hollis Oberlies and Palmer McIntyre from Greensboro participated for the first time in RAGBRAI.

Great selfie RAGBRAI moment with cycling celebs Nelson Vailes and Lance Armstrong the day we ate at Mr. Pork Chop!

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