Bicycling: 500-mile bike ride makes for memorable summer for Columbia teen

You could certainly characterize the kinship between Lawrence Robinson and Brett Bowie as a long-distance relationship.

Robinson and Bowie are separated by 40 years in age and more than 900 miles in distance, and the cousins twice removed — Lawrence's grandfather was Brett's great-great-grandfather — became closer, appropriately, during a nearly 500-mile bike ride this summer.

Robinson, an engineering manager at Rockwell Collins who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Bowie, an incoming freshman at Wilde Lake High School, completed The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI)July 30. The journey traditionally begins with participants dipping their rear wheel in the Missouri River (though that was not possible this year due to high water) and ends with them dipping their front wheel in the Mississippi River.

But the journey truly started last May when Robinson traveled to Columbia for a family reunion. Bowie's mother, Maurita, is Robinson's first cousin once removed. Brett Bowie's father, Everett, had passed away just a few years earlier.

Maurita Bowie, who also has two daughters, said that the greatest tragedy of her husband's passing was that "not only did Brett have a father, he had an awesome father."

Robinson, who has two grown daughters, did not set out to fill the gaping hole in Brett's family life, but could not help but reach out to the young man during their brief time together last spring.

"I thought it would be fun to rent some bicycles and ride around Columbia," said Robinson, who took up long-distance biking about the same time that Everett Bowie passed away. "When I mentioned the RAGBRAI, (Brett) seemed to perk up at the idea."

Throughout the year, Robinson and Brett kept in touch occasionally over the phone, but most of the preparations were coordinated between Robinson and Maurita Bowie.

Without a bicycle of his own, most of Brett's training for the ride consisted of playing basketball, his main sport of choice.

Then, on July 24, the big day arrived.

"I didn't know what to expect. I thought he could do it, but as it got closer, I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten him into? And what have I gotten myself into?' " Robinson said.

There was a safety net. RAGBRAI organizers provide a service known as the SAG wagon, which is a roving support vehicle that picks up and transports riders who are unable to complete the ride.

As it turns out, Robinson had nothing to worry about.

Brett's youthful legs and athletic background allowed him to complete the course with a flourish, even opting to take part in an extra "century loop" on Tuesday.

Brett averaged about 14 or 15 miles per hour on flat ground, according to Robinson, and traveled almost 70 miles per day on average.

"He rode every mile and he even rode extra miles on Tuesday," Robinson said. "And his times were actually pretty good. He was passing older, more experienced riders on more expensive bikes … He did extremely well.

"Everyone on our team was very impressed with how he did, and not just in terms of bicycling."

The group that Brett Bowie and Robinson rode with was a team of HAM radio enthusiasts. RAGBRAI teams are allowed a support vehicle that provides relief in predetermined host towns along the route, but bikers spend the night in tents. One of the famous features of the almost 40-year-old RAGBRAI is the variety of food vendors along the way.

Brett's bicycle was a 1980's-era Schwinn LeTour that Robinson had fixed up. The bike was steady and reliable, but its lack of a very good high gear made uphill climbs a particular challenge.

"One misconception people have is that Iowa is flat, but it's definitely not South Dakota," Robinson said.

Over the course of the ride, bikers climb a total of more than 20,000 feet.

One stretch on Day 3 near a town called Pilot Mound has riders roll down almost 225 feet on 'Twister Hill,' named so for its appearance in the 1996 film, then climb back up more than 300 feet of steep grade.

"I didn't use my brakes at all (on the downhill) because everyone else was going fast," Brett said. "But we had a lot of hills going up; I don't like riding up hills."

Still, Brett was clearly enjoying the experience.

"On Saturday morning he asked me if he could come again next year. I was very pleased with that," Robinson said. "It's fun to have some man time together for a week."

On Sunday afternoon, Robinson and Bowie completed the final leg of the journey. Robinson knew that it all meant something to his young cousin when he asked if he could get a picture taken at the end on his personal cell phone.

"He's not a very expressive kid, so you have to catch the subtleties," Robinson said.

And while he may not show it now, there's little doubt that Brett will remember the summer of 2011 for a long time.

"There were just a lot of people clapping and spraying us with water (at the end), and then we took our bikes to dip them in the Mississippi River," Brett said. "It was fun."

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