Love on two wheels: RAGBRAI edition

By: Nikki Javurek

RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is the oldest, longest and largest bike ride in the world. Now in its 45th year, this six-day, more than four-hundred-mile event is also deeply steeped in legend and folklore. There’s just something about pedaling past cornfields with 20,000 of your closest friends that lends itself to tall tales, traditions, rumors and embellishments, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Rolling along, you often hear people say things like, “I heard there’s a guy riding the entire route on a pennyfarthing!” or, “did you hear that there’s a team that pulls kegs behind their bikes every day?" Or my personal favorite, “someone told me a couple got married on RAGBRAI!”

Let this be the official record on this oft-repeated RAGBRAI rumor: it’s true. 

How it all started

Meet Brian and Gretchen Denney from Springfield, Illinois, who changed their wedding plans last-minute to get hitched doing what they love doing together: riding bikes. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because here’s the part that will make you think hashtag relationship goals: their whole love story has been about bikes from the very beginning. 

Brian rode his first RAGBRAI as a newbie to cycling in 2011. That following winter, he met Gretchen one night while out with some friends. She told him she planned to ride RAGBRAI the next summer and he offered to show her the ropes. They scheduled a 60-mile training ride one weekend and she showed up in workout gear, which he promptly corrected, going as far as stopping at a local bike shop off the trail to get her clipless pedals. While he may have hooked her up with the right gear, his navigational skills were a bit questionable. “We got lost and didn’t get back until after dark," Brian says, "but we ended up kissing, so I think it worked out okay.”

That spring, they ended up riding a lot of miles together to prepare for Iowa, but didn’t start officially dating until a few months later. “He always introduced me as his ‘cycling friend’ until about a month before RAGBRAI,” says Gretchen. After that things heated up fast, both literally and figuratively. During one of the hottest years in recent RAGBRAI memory Brian also told Gretchen he loved her for the first time. 

Making plans

Fast-forward to early 2014, after two years and a few more week-long bicycle tours together, Brian proposed. They began fleshing out some plans to get married in Colorado or Italy, but as summer began and RAGBRAI drew closer, a new idea emerged. “It was a couple weeks out from RAGBRAI and everybody kept asking us when we were going to get married and if it was going to be a big wedding, which neither of us wanted, so I said, ‘You know, let’s just get married on RAGBRAI. This is what we love doing, this is how we met, so let’s do it'," Gretchen explains.

With the help of the RAGBRAI organizers they chose Clear Lake, Iowa as their wedding destination, found a photographer and ordered a white veil and tutu and a top hat online. The only thing left was to make it official. Brian’s best friend and former college roommate, Chris Hickersberger, went online and became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church. “It was really complicated,” jokes Chris. “They ask you three questions: what is your name, what is your credit card number and the really hard question, what are the three numbers on the back.” And with that, they were ready to roll. 

The big day and beyond

On Wednesday, July 23, 2014, the shortest day on the route and, coincidentally, the first-ever PeopleForBikes Day on RAGBRAI, Brian and Gretchen took to the road decked out in the red and white striped jerseys of their team, Team Waldo. After about 20 miles they arrived in Clear Lake where both of their families were waiting and, to their surprise, hundreds of people had gathered, having heard that two fellow riders were going to tie the knot.

“There were two ladies from the local flower shop that walked over and brought us flowers to wear. Our teammates went to the local grocery store and bought cupcakes and filled up a shopping cart with cases of beer and ice and that was it for refreshments,” says Gretchen. Brian noted that the whole wedding cost them $180.

The ceremony was simple, with a few readings and their exchange of vows. They then hopped back on their bikes with their team and embarked on their honeymoon: three more blissful days riding across Iowa. That night they celebrated with a Bret Michaels concert in the overnight town of Mason City and received free showers (usually around $5) from Joe’s Wet Shack as a wedding gift. 

In the years since that RAGBRAI, Brian and Gretchen have ridden thousands of miles together and they credit bikes for a lot of the happiness in their lives. “Without cycling, I never would have met my wife and it’s dramatically changed my life for the positive,” Brian says.

This love story is one for the ages and will live on in RAGBRAI folklore for years to come. It will also live on in their daughter, Lily, who, at 11 months old, just went on her own first bike ride.

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