|Two wheels, 471 miles, 51 Iowa towns and more pie than a grown man should ever eat in 7 days.
Outside of the Great State of Iowa, casually mention "Rag" and "Bry" as one word and you'll often be met with the
same kind of blank stare as you'd get by asking George Bush to conjugate a verb. RAGBRAI is well known to serious road
bicyclists and to Iowans who've lived there for more than a couple corn harvests, but most others wouldn't have a clue.
Even though I'm neither a serious "roadie" nor an Iowan, I'd heard of this annual week-long bicycle ride across Iowa
through many business trips to Iowa. As for riding it, I never gave it a thought. It's a road ride, totally unacceptable to
this off-roader. Roads are boring. Pavement....yech. I'd been told it was a rolling 7-day party, but so what? No reason
to travel to Iowa just for that, right?
I never gave RABGBRAI any serious thought until St. Louis buddy Larry Baerveldt asked me to join the group he'd be
riding with this year. The more I learned, the more I decided I needed to participate. Make no mistake, RAGBRAI is
roughing it. You ride your bike all day. Forget about 5-star hotels, gourmet meals and towel service. If you're lucky,
you'll get indoor plumbing and floor space inside a host family's house. It's July in Iowa. Heat, humidity and
thunderstorms are as common as pig farms.
So what is RAGBRAI, and why do so many people participate in it year after year? What it is, that's fairly easy to
answer. Why people do it is a bit more complex. We'll start with the easy part first.
Every year since 1973, the [Des Moines] Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa
has traversed the state from west to east, starting on or near the Missouri River and
finishing at the Mississippi River. The ride always takes place during the last full week of
July, beginning on Sunday and ending the following Saturday. Riders show up at the
starting town on Saturday night and spend the next 7 days riding to a series of overnight
towns. A typical RAGBRAI route will take riders through 50 or more communities along
the way, most of which are small towns primarily focused on local agriculture. The route
changes every year and has traveled through all of Iowa's 99 counties during its 36
The first RAGBRAI was organized by the Des Moines Register newspaper and attracted
130 riders. The ride quickly gained cult status within the road bicycling community and
participation grew rapidly. Today, the Des Moines Register still organizes the event and
limits entries to 10,000 riders. To put that in perspective, consider Tipton, the final
overnight stay during the 2008 version of RAGBRAI. Its population, according to the
2000 U.S. Census, was 3,155. When RAGBRAI rolled into town, it brought its 10,000
registered bike riders and probably another 5,000 support people, food/merchandise
vendors and "unofficial" riders and hangers-on who join in the fun without registering for
the ride. Very few communities of this size will ever have another single-day event that
brings so many people - and their wallets - to their town. While being awarded an
overnight location is a coveted honor, any town which finds itself on the RAGBRAI route
map gladly rolls out the red carpet.
Logistically, it's a minor miracle the event ever happens at all. Camping is the name of
the game, so each overnight town must provide adequate space for thousands of tents.
|Riders on the "regular" RAGBRAI
program must put all their gear in a
bag, leave it with a cargo truck in the
morning, and then sort through piles to
find their bags at the end of the day.
We rented an RV and had our gear
waiting for us (along with cold
beverages) at the end of each day.
Athletic fields can only handle a portion of the tent
traffic, so riders arriving late often have to be a little
creative in locating camping spots. It's not uncommon to
see tents scattered all throughout town - in front of
libraries, next to fire stations, in back yards, and
wherever else can be found. The RABGRAI entry fee
entitles riders to a gear hauling service, where you put all
your stuff in a bag in the morning and leave it with one of
several gear hauling trucks, which then transport it to
the next overnight town. While many participants do this,
a large number of riders sign up as teams and have their
own support vehicles. Many of these vehicles are retired
school buses which are converted into bike and gear
haulers. Other support vehicles are motor homes of one sort or another. Whichever way a rider gets his or her stuff to
the next town, it all takes a lot of space once everyone arrives - a land grab, if you will. The overnight towns must plan
in advance for where they're going to put all the people.
When riders arrive in overnight towns in the afternoon, the first thing on their minds is usually a shower. Or maybe a
beer, some pie, and then a shower. Riders on the "regular" RAGBRAI program (i.e. tent camping without their own
support vehicle) will find some interesting shower options. Sometimes it's a high school locker room, or a car wash with a
few bays converted into mass showers. There's even mobile showers like this one:
After you've cleaned up and set up your tent, usually you're all sweaty again, and mostly hungry. The overnight towns
rally to feed the riders. Churches, Boy Scouts, Pork Producers, fire departments, and independent vendors are set up
like county fairs, usually centered around town squares. It's not exactly Morton's Steakhouse, or even TGI Friday's,
but it's food and there's plenty of it.
After eating, it's Miller Time. Even though it's a bit of a gamble to partake in the evening festivities and have to ride
70 miles the next day, there's entertainment in every overnight town. Bands, beer gardens, and bars are the name of
the game. This is where the locals join in the fun, often coming out in full force to mingle with the RAGBRAI'ers. The
evening entertainment often continues well into the night.
The next morning, riders wake up early, pack up their belongings and begin riding to the next town. By 9:00 a.m., most
towns are clear of tents and riders, and the cleanup begins. Even though it's only a one-day event for the towns, the
economic impact is huge. I probably spent $50 in every town we slept in, so multiply by that by about 15,000 and you
get an idea of what it means to the communities. Not especially large by city standards, but very significant for towns
like Jefferson, Harlan, Tipton and Tama/Toledo, each of which have populations of less than 6,000.
So what's it take to get yourself a RAGBRAI ride? Read on......
Preparing for RAGBRAI