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7/25/97 Midwestern president, student join popular bike ride in Iowa

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–If the spokes on the wheels of Mark Coppenger’s bike could speak, they would say emphatically the state of Iowa is not flat.
The 49-year-old Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president participated in the oldest, biggest and largest touring bicycle ride in the world July 20-26. The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is sponsored by the Des Moines Register newspaper and attracts cyclists from all 50 states and more than a dozen foreign countries.
“Some of the most wonderful places to see and things to do are in the Midwest and the Great Plains region,” said Coppenger, who went on the ride to further the seminary’s identification with the region in which the Kansas City, Mo., school is located.
“Our purpose is to educate God’s servants to biblically evangelize and congregationalize the Midwest/Great Plains region,” Coppenger said. “It is with this connection that we seek to identify with the people of the Great Plains” through events like RAGBRAI.
Coppenger applied for the opportunity to go the entire 464-mile route but didn’t win a spot in the computerized draw limited to 7,500 riders. Instead, he was granted the one-day pass to ride from Creston to Des Moines. Midwestern student Keith Jones of Crystal River, Fla., was tapped for a slot in the week-long ride and joined Coppenger for his leg of the trip.
For 24 years, cyclists participating in the annual ride have covered a total of 11,236 miles of hills, dales, highways and gravel roads across Iowa. More than 157,000 riders arrived in Iowa this year to spend the last full week of July pedaling the route with Des Moines Register columnists and hosts John Karras and Chuck “Iowa Boy” Offenburger. This year CBS-TV news correspondent Harry Smith joined the ride on the second and third day to do a story on RAGBRAI for his “Travels with Harry” feature on the July 25 edition of the “Evening News with Dan Rather.”
“Anyone who says Iowa is flat has not been through southern Iowa,” Coppenger laughed, upon returning to the seminary campus. “The hills were quite a workout.”
Both Coppenger and Jones trained extensively in advance for the ride. With previous years of experience in bicycle racing, Jones recounted in a July 23 telephone interview from Iowa that he rode between 15-20 miles a day, three times a week for the past two months. For his first such long-distance ride, Coppenger said he chalked up a total of 350 miles in preparation, riding as much as 60 miles in one day around Kansas City’s downtown airport.
Across the state of Iowa, there is a fair-like environment along the Norman Rockwell- and Hallmark card-flavored route. Lemonade stands dot the towns’ streets — along with signs for food, cotton candy and portable bathrooms. Cyclists ride over the bridge from the made-into-a- movie book “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Coppenger’s leg of the trip took him through the birthplace of John Wayne, where a city sign is decorated with cowboy boots and a hat. Balloons wave the riders on, while kids slap hands and old folks grin from their comfortable porch chairs.
The Midwest/Great Plains region is more than flat land and soybean fields — “extraordinarily beautiful” is how Coppenger often describes it to Midwestern’s faculty and students.
And, Coppenger reflected, “The seminary administration and teachers should be player/coaches. As we coach folks to look toward the new-work areas, we should ourselves identify with the new-work areas. This is one way to become more thoroughly connected as a Midwesterner.”
Jones has no problem understanding that concept. Wearing his seminary baseball cap with the seminary’s new “Prairie Fire” logo, he has already scoped out the area and said he had more than one motive in mind when he decided to go on the ride.
“Every town I stopped in there are churches looking for good pastors,” Jones observed. “This is pretty country up here and the people are real friendly.”
Coppenger said his accomplishment was small compared to Jones, who, after riding vigorously every day, is showering in school gyms and sleeping in campgrounds. He called Jones an example of a person who models fitness. “Ministers need to look to their physical fitness as much as their spiritual fitness,” Coppenger said.
He said he is hopeful Midwestern might one day have a team riding in the event. Finding people to connect with amongst the swarming mass of fenders, spokes and gears is made easy by the identification tags and “colors” the teams flew, Coppenger said. “It was like riding billboards,” he Coppenger. The U.S. Postal Service and Air Force and Promise Keepers were among the logos Coppenger remembered seeing.
Having focused conversations was a bit harder. “You’re so desperate climbing the hills, you’re not as conversational as you might be. If it would have been all flat land, it might have been more convenient,” he admitted.
But Coppenger’s not complaining. “Life is grand up here” and, despite the hills, he said it was wonderful to be a part of something so “festive and wholesome.”
“I felt relieved I hadn’t made a fool of myself by collapsing en route. I was just very satisfied that this 49-year-old body could negotiate 71 miles of hills,” Coppenger said.
“I was really grateful to God that so many things worked; my bike worked and I had the energy and the opportunity. My feeling is one of gratitude.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan