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RAGBRAI Day 5: The biking bishop holds Mass, and riders continue on course for Iowa City

Terry Lowry of Poweshiek County fastens a flag Thursday to a bike decoration he made with 2-by-4s and two bales of hay. “I thought the people coming up the plateau would like it,” he said. The annual bike ride across Iowa arrives in Iowa City tonight. (Brian Morelli/The Gazette)
Terry Lowry of Poweshiek County fastens a flag Thursday to a bike decoration he made with 2-by-4s and two bales of hay. “I thought the people coming up the plateau would like it,” he said. The annual bike ride across Iowa arrives in Iowa City tonight. (Brian Morelli/The Gazette)
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NEWTON — You meet a lot of different people who are on RAGBRAI for many different reasons, but I don’t think I’ve ever ridden with a biking bishop.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula, who last year was named the 11th bishop for the Diocese of Davenport, which includes southeastern Iowa and Iowa City, has been riding all week to try to better connect himself and the Catholic Church to people.

“As we started planning, we realized this is a perfect thing to do,” Zinkula, 61, said while in Newton. “This helps humanize the church.”

Every day after riding in RAGBRAI 2018, Zinkula has been presiding over a 6 o’clock Mass at a local Catholic Church for a spandex-clad congregation as well as locals eager to meet the one of the highest ranking Catholics in the state.

“People are really committed to their faith,” he said.

About 150 people attended St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Denison on Sunday, and around 75 people have showed up each day this week for the evening Mass, he said.

On Friday night, Zinkula will celebrate Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Iowa City, the Friday overnight stop for the thousands of bicyclists. The church, part of the Diocese of Davenport, is at 228 E. Jefferson St.

Zinkula said he tries to work in a RAGBRAI twist to his homilies, such as talking about the bond people on RAGBRAI share and how that pales in comparison to the spiritual bonds of faith.

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Zinkula, a lifelong cyclist, said he is enjoying the RAGBRAI experience. He said he leaves the ride’s overnight stops between 6 and 7 a.m., arriving in the next overnight stop around noon. He then spends the afternoons reading and visiting with the local priest and church leaders.

HILLY DAY

On Thursday, RAGBRAI cyclists were in for what many viewed as the week’s most challenging day. Day 5 featured a 68.6 mile ride and 2,719 feet of climb, the hilliest day of the week.

After leaving Newton, riders passed through Reasnor, Sully, Lynnville, Montezuma, Deep River and Keswick before ending in Sigourney, the county seat of Keokuk County.

The optional 37-mile Karras loop — named after John Karras, one of the RAGBRAI founders — would give cyclists a “century” day, lingo for biking 100 miles in a day.

Along the way, people such as Terry Lowry, of Poweshiek County, got into the spirit of the ride. He built a bike sculpture out of 2-by-4s and hay bales in a farm field to create a visual treat. Cyclists heading into Montezuma stopped all day to pose for pictures with his creation.

“It was just for an eye-catcher,” he said. “I thought people coming up the plateau would enjoy it.”

THE PERIPHERY

But it was the idea of a biking bishop that captured my imagination. I pictured Zinkula riding in flowing robes, which, of course, is impractical.

Instead, Zinkula dons a traditional bike kit with a jersey, padded spandex shorts and a helmet.

Zinkula attended Cornell College in Mount Vernon and later the University of Iowa College of Law. He practiced law for a couple of years before getting the call of his faith.

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He served for several years in the Archdiocese of Dubuque, which includes the Catholic parishes in Linn County.

Zinkula, who rode RAGBRAI twice in the 1980s, said he was inspired to bike the state this year by Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis talks about the smell of the sheep and going out to the periphery,” he said. “It is important to be among the people. It doesn’t matter what we do in the world, RAGBRAI equalizes everyone.”

His diocese team of about 20 people call themselves “Pedaling to the Periphery.”

During the ride, he blends in with the crowd and focuses on getting from town to town. He doesn’t preach during the day, and he also doesn’t cast judgment on the party element of RAGBRAI.

OLDER BIKERS

The ride has changed a lot since he rode in the 1980s. Today, he said, it is much more organized and more attention is paid the riders as they pass through towns. On the flip side, he said he enjoyed the randomness and spontaneity of the early years.

He also noticed the bicycling crowd is much older these days. Together, we wondered why.

He offered a hypothesis that, similar to Facebook, when older people discovered it, the younger generation abandoned it. He said another person suggested it is harder for people to get the time off work.

I wonder, though, if a slow burn event like RAGBRAI simply can’t compete with the desire for immediacy in the digital age.

There’s likely a lot of reasons, but the team I ride with is pretty diverse age-wise, with more than a dozen in their 20s, a sprinkling of 30- and 40-year-olds and perhaps another 20 who are 50 and older.

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I also notice the crowd that rides later in the day — usually “baggers,” partyers and people who like to avoid the swarm found earlier in the day — tend to skew younger.

The ride continues to Iowa City on Friday and ends in Davenport on Saturday. The full route is 428 miles.

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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