Social Spokes

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There’s more lunch than Lycra in view when the Sunday Social crew pedals into sight on the byways and bike trails of Central Iowa. Members pictured, from left: Kim Francis, Kerry Graham, Ann Shuman, Doug Kuntz and John “LJ” Pollak.

Writer: Barbara Hall
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Bicycling across the Interurban Trail Bridge one sun-dappled afternoon in 2007, I came upon a lovely scene: a smattering of bikes and people with a lavish spread set on cloth-draped tables. One of the revelers called out to me by name. It was my friend Carl Voss! I pumped my brakes and turned around. He proffered a glass of wine and food from the gourmet spread.

“This group is called Bicycle Sunday School,” Voss told me. “It has nothing to do with church, but we meet on Sundays and celebrate the French trinity of wine, bread and cheese.” I accepted his wine, partook of the food and have been a regular participant ever since.

The group recently changed its name to Bike Sunday Social to avoid any confusion that it was a religious organization. It isn’t. But there is worship. Of good food. Of bikes. Of local trails and the outdoors. And, like church, there is fellowship.

Voss, who has been bicycling in Des Moines since the early 1970s, says the group started as a “simple ride up to Cottonwood (a recreation area along the Des Moines River below Saylorville Lake) where people brought sandwiches along, and it turned into wine and cheese with tablecloths.”

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A little wine, some cheese and crackers—plus a bit of flair with fresh flowers—and you have a paradise picnic for bicyclists, in whatever piece of paradise they choose to stop.

Mary Moore recalls that the first gathering was in 2005 in conjunction with the Mayor’s Ride for Trails. “It’s kind of a quirky social thing, just a gathering, something that’s unique in Des Moines,” she says. Moore has since left Des Moines but returns on occasion to check in on the cycling scene.

“The bike culture in Des Moines is much different from anywhere else,” she says. “It’s much more social.” In eastern Iowa and in Wisconsin, where Moore has lived in recent years, you don’t see people pull over on the side of the trail to talk, she says.

Voss’ name is often connected with biking and trail activities in the city. Co-founder of the Des Moines Bicycle Collective and a former RAGBRAI pie judge, he is known about town as “Mr. Bike.”

“I see an event like Bike Sunday Social as a chance to build a community,” he says. “We’re not biking hard, we’re not dressed in full Lycra. It’s about getting people together and getting a little exercise.”

Marty Schmidt of Des Moines saw the group listed on the Bike Iowa website (bikeiowa.com) and decided to check it out. Diagnosed with a heart ailment about six years ago, Schmidt says her doctor told her to find a physical activity
she enjoys. “I discovered that I love biking, but I come to this group for the social aspect, the friends I’ve made,” she says.

“It’s kind of neat to think that friendships can start with that group,” Moore says. “It’s also great to try different wines and the wonderful food people bring.”

From spring through fall, the group gathers at Gateway Market late in the afternoon on the first Sunday of the month. We stock up on provisions and pack them into our backpacks, baskets, panniers, coolers pulled on trailers—whatever means we can devise for carting the goods. Voss has a trailer on which he pulls a table as well as his usual culinary contribution: a loaf of bread from Gateway Market and wild rice salad. “I’ve made a lot of new friends over Ina Garten’s wild rice salad,” he says. (The recipe is in Garten’s “Back to Basics” Barefoot Contessa cookbook.)

“I’m always impressed with the things people are able to bring on their bikes, like pie,” says Kent Newman, a BSS regular who’s also a co-founder of the Bike Collective. Pie is a staple among bikers, though plenty of other enticing items have been hauled as well, including sushi, homemade spring rolls, root beer floats and a whole watermelon. Peggy Johnston, who discovered the group with her husband, Larry, on the Bike Iowa website, can be counted on to bring gourmet offerings, such as naan sandwiches, an onion and cabbage tart, roasted chicken, and fresh Ricotta served with flavored salts. One time she brought homemade violet jelly, concocted from 1,000 violets she picked in her yard.

“I like to experiment with recipes on this group—they will eat almost anything,” Johnston says. “One time I roasted peppers and heated meatballs on our BioLite stove. When we cook over a fire at the November meeting, I try to bring something that can go into those sandwich makers, like sausage, caramelized onions and hot pepper jelly.”

“It’s always better if Peggy’s there, because she brings amazing food plus the tablecloth, cutting boards, vases of flowers and the equipment for a picnic that some of us wouldn’t always remember,” Voss says.

The destination for each ride? In warmer months, it’s a nearby park. “Des Moines has great parks, and riding bikes to them is a great way to discover them,” Newman says. “Sometimes you find places you didn’t know were here.”

The last ride of the fall, usually in November, takes us to Beaverdale Park, where we roast sausages over a fire. In the winter, when only a few of us brave the trek on bikes, riders open their homes and offices to the group, or we gather at an establishment where potlucks are welcome. Confluence Brewery and Jasper Winery are favorites.

No matter what the location or culinary offerings, the camaraderie remains the primary draw. “Yes, there’s a little talk about bikes, but it’s really about the social aspect,” Voss says. “It’s important to connect with people.”

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