|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
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 on the "regular"
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 gearhaulers. 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
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
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.