Saturday’s Bike Ride to Rippey was cold, with highs of nine degrees and wind chills dipping to minus-10.
But it only ranks in the top 10 coldest rides for James “Rick” Hopson.
Hopson, of Iowa City, said the coldest ride he can remember was around 25 years ago. He recalls the temperature reading about minus-30 when he left his house to make the two-day trek to Perry for BRR, a 24-mile ride from Perry to Rippey and back.
“I was dressed like Neil Armstrong with full goggles and a little respirator and heating packs,” Hopson said. “I was on my bike and riding along and I made it about eight miles before the bike stopped working because all the little miniature bits inside were frozen solid.”
This was in the days before the cellphone, so he turned around and walked home. It was the only BRR event that Hopson has missed over the past 34 years.
The annual ride looked different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lobby and ballroom inside the Hotel Pattee in Perry were a lot quieter at 9 a.m. Normally, the hotel would be packed with riders chatting with friends while bikes lined Willis Avenue.
This year, masks were handed out to riders who didn’t have one when they walked into the hotel, and registration and BRR merchandise tables were spread out in the ballroom. There was also no mass start.
“Be safe out there guys, it’s slick, low visibility,” Perry Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lynsi Pasutti said to a small group of riders ready to leave Perry. “Be safe, enjoy!”
The chamber saw 494 people pre-register for the event. As of 1 p.m. Saturday, 26 more had registered for the ride and 304 had been counted along the route.
“It looks different, but we’re doing it. That’s kind of the big thing, keeping the tradition (going),” Pasutti said of the 44th annual ride.
Through all the changes, riders were happy to see BRR continue.
“You can’t kill the enjoyment because of that, right?” Sean Juett, of Omaha, said of COVID-19. “Find a way to get out, and the best place you can be is outside. They’ve done the best that they can. I’m just glad that they got it going. That’s the main thing.”
“The whole COVID culture, not as many people, more spread-out,” said Chris Bellcock, of Norwalk. “It’s different, but it’s nice to see that it’s almost still the same. As much stuff that’s been canceled and moved this year, it’s nice to see.”
Although a lot has changed this year, there has been one near-constant: Hopson.
For longtime BRR rider, Perry has ‘a special place in my heart’.
Hopson, 63, is a cardiologist at the University of Iowa. He grew up in Des Moines, graduating from Roosevelt High School before attending the University of Iowa for undergraduate and then medical school. During his fellowship in 1987, a cyclist friend said they should try BRR. Hopson didn’t know anything about the winter ride, which started in 1977, but the pair decided to participate.
“I said, ‘Who’s going to drive up?’ And his philosophy, and I adopted it as my own, was that you have to ride your bike to the ride,” Hopson said.
The pair made the 200-mile trip from Iowa City to Perry together for a few years before Hopson’s friend wasn’t able to ride anymore because of a bad neck.
Hopson continued to make the trek to Perry every year and has only missed one BRR in 34 years. The trip took two days for the first 30 years and has since shifted to three days as he has gotten older.
“My riding kind of moved into a whole different sphere, which was racing and competitive road racing and all kinds of licensed racing. I still kind of kept going on this little BRR thing. I just kind of kept it up, I had a little streak going,” he said. “I just kept, year after year, riding out from Iowa City through different routes up to Perry.”
Most years, Hopson has ridden by himself. The ride to Perry was usually an adventure as he had to deal with whatever the weather threw at him.
Although he was prepared with a tent, sleeping bags and more, he only had to camp once during a blizzard. A small group leaned a couple of picnic tables together and built a tent under them to ride out the storm.
Another year, Hopson and a small group rode their bikes in a blizzard from Grinnell to Altoona. By the time the group had left Newton for Altoona, there was already eight inches of snow on the ground and it was still coming down.
“There was a little of an adventure out there, just trying to figure out where the road was, blasting through drifts of snow,” Hopson said. “And going down to Colfax on the east side, there’s a pretty steep hill there and you’re basically just sledding your bike down that hill.”
Other trips required Hopson to get a lift from passing motorists for a few miles because he ran out of inner tubes or his fingers were too frozen to change a tire.
Though most people notice how much snow is on the ground, he said the most important thing when riding long distances in the winter is wind direction, speed and temperature. The wind and the cold played a bigger factor in this year’s ride.
Through it all, he said the destination was always worth the misery.
“You ride over 200 miles through the worst conditions you can possibly imagine, the only rescue is to make it to Perry, Iowa,” Hopson said. “Part of the reason that Perry is so important to me is that’s where I’ve been riding. That’s been this destination for all these years and it has a special place in my heart.”
Hopson typically rides up to Perry from Des Moines on Friday with a small group and they stay at the Hotel Pattee before participating in BRR on Saturday.
“Perry is just a great place. That it happens to host this bike ride is another wonderful thing,” Hopson said. “The hotel has been great. The town has been great. The bike ride is one of these crazy little one-off mid-winter rides that I think lends character to the state and the people who live here.”
BRR, he added, is basically a cycling oriented party for those looking to get out on their bikes and reconnect with their friends from RAGBRAI. The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa is set to return on July 25-31 after being called off last year due to COVID-19.
Hopson said the beauty of BRR is that the ride means something different to everyone.
For Juett, he was looking forward to the challenge of the cold weather after seeing mild conditions the last couple years.
“My goal was to watch the temperature and see how cold it was going to be,” he said. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the BRR Ride, right? I’ve got all my heated stuff on. And I’ve got goggles, that’s my newest thing I added on. It’s going to be fun.”
For Hopson, the reward is making it to Perry and seeing his friends.
“It’s a celebration of cycling and friendship. It brings people together,” he said of BRR. “We’re not doing that this year in the traditional manner. But to me, that’s what the ride is always about, to celebrate each other’s friendship.”