Iowa: What The Heck is RAGBRAI?

If you had seven days of free time, would you spend it riding a bicycle across the entire state of Iowa in the dead of summer? No, neither would I, but 15,000 people feel otherwise. It’s RAGBRAI: Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa!

RAGBRAI is the oldest, largest, longest bike touring event in the world!

Oldest … 48 years running now! Largest … with 15,000 riders this year (although because of Covid, this number is down from most years’ averages of 20,000+). Riders come from around the U.S. and even from foreign countries, to stretch and flex and pedal all day for a week!

Longest … this year spanning 454.1 fun-filled miles, and 11,954 feet to climb, over 7 days. Each year, the route can be shorter or longer, flatter or hillier, depending on the route. This year’s route was slightly on the shorter side.

The first RAGBRAI was in 1973 when two feature writers with the Des Moines Register decided to ride their bikes across Iowa, interviewing locals along the way for human interest stories. They invited the public to join them, and 114 people did the entire route with them, among them an 83-year-old man who did the entire ride on a used ladies Schwinn wearing woolen long underwear and a silver pith helmet. And thus a tradition was born!

We made this pilgrimage with our frequent camping buddies, Ryan and Erin Weed, and their daughter, Kate. Boys rode bikes, girls provided support services (mostly sandwiches and useless commentary) and drove the RV’s from town to town, gathering each evening to share dinner and hear stories from the route.

This was Philip’s second RAGBRAI, having also done it in 2013, but Ryan’s first time. Most first-time riders write “VIRGIN” in big Sharpie letters down their right calf for the duration of the ride, but Ryan is classier than that and so he demurred. It was great to have Ryan along, and not just because he can change a flat tire in under two minutes …. but definitely a factor to prioritize when picking a ride partner.

If you missed Iowa Day during high school geography class, the state runs between the Missouri River on the western boundary, to the Mississippi River on the eastern boundary. Each year, riders dip their back tires into the Missouri, and 7 days later at the end of the ride, dip their front tires into the Mississippi. This year’s route started 20 miles inland, so a trough of (supposed) Missouri River water was thoughtfully provided for this tradition.

The riders are everything you can imagine: Lance Armstrong look-alikes on $20,000 bicycles, to looks-like-they-just-grabbed-their-first-bike-at-Walmart-yesterday. Lean and mean, to literally obese. Deadly serious, to just-here-for-the-party. Early teens, to this guy … 95 years young!

Or how about Roger? He’s from Tucson and 75 years old. He decided to ride his bike to RAGBRAI, in order to do RAGBRAI. Read that again. He rode his bike from Tucson, Arizona, to Iowa, in order to ride his bike across Iowa, and then to ride back to Tucson at the end, although he said he was thinking about riding up to Wisconsin first. Just because he could.

If old age doesn’t inspire you, how about the group that did the entire route on rollerblades? Or this guy?

This is an endurance test, but not a competitive race event. It’s the kind of sporting event where it’s easier to find beer than water. No, really. One booth advertised “Gin and Tonic, free – Margarita, free – Cold Water, $2.00.” One guy was riding around with hundreds of mini-bottles, giving out free shots of booze. These people brought their own beer cooler so they didn’t have to wait to get to an actual town for a brewski.

A 30+ team from the Air Force is on the route, appearing like magic specifically to assist riders with mechanical needs like broken chains and flat tires. Rumor has it that they fixed and donated over 1000 flats and spare tubes!

Certain traditions persist, such as decorating roadkill encountered along the route with Mardi Gras beads. Teams adorn themselves with matching custom jerseys, neon tutu’s, stuffed animals strapped to the bikes, huge corncobs on their helmets, or bunny ears, all to identify themselves as a team or group.

Past celebrity participants have included actor Tom Arnold, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, NASCAR drivers, NFL football players, and even Tour de France participants Lance Armstrong on multiple occasions. Truth be told, it’s really just a big rolling party with new friends like these.

This year was the hottest RAGBRAI event ever (helllllllo, global warming + itinerant heat dome) so starting the day early to get in your 32-115 miles (depending on the day) was paramount. One vendor with a breakfast burrito tent told us she arrived to start her shift at 5:15 AM and there were already 30 people lined up waiting.

Because of the high-90’s heat and excessive humidity (and especially if you were wearing a complete black Spandex batman costume), various cool-down options were offered, from kids with hoses, to slip and slides, to a belly-flop contest in a water pit made of hay bales with a big rubber lining.

Most of the route is on country roads through cornfields. Lots and lots and lots of cornfields. When you get to each small town, roughly 6-10 miles apart, you can’t just keep on a-rollin’ through, because 15,000 other bikers have also stopped in the town, blocking your speedy exit.

You need a place to park your bike, what can you do? You’ve got choices! Which do you prefer … Cornfield Bikerack, or a Line Between Two Tractors Bikerack …. ?

The towns along the route host a variety of activities to keep the riders entertained. One town attempted to set the Guiness World Record for largest session of goat yoga (but there was some scandal about the ages of the goats that prevented the win …?) Most of these are fundraisers for churches, 4-H clubs, Rotarys, school marching bands, etc. From dunk tanks, to axe throwing, to pictures with boys wearing prom dresses, to hay bale tossing competitions, to huge human foosball ……. they’ve got it all!

In each of the pass-through and end-of-day towns, decorations and celebrations were abundant to make the riders feel welcome.

Towns are eager to share that which makes them special. LeMars, Iowa, for instance, is known as the “Ice Cream Capital of the World,” with more ice cream produced here by a single company (Blue Bunny) than in any other city in the world! The town is littered with painted cones, and Philip leaned on the Jesus Cone for divine inspiration to get this job done, and the Hy-Vee Fuel Saver Cone to bring gas prices down this summer (the RV only gets 7 miles to the gallon, after all).

Other towns had to commemorate less cheerful things. On May 25, 2008, an EF-5 tornado ripped through Parkersburg with 205 mph winds, leaving 9 dead, 70 injured, and the town substantially flattened.

Anamosa, Iowa, is proud of their native son, Grant Woods, the artist who did the famous painting, “American Gothic,” one of the most familiar paintings of the 20th century (although the woman mistakenly believed to be his wife, is actually meant to be his daughter). An enormous statue of the sullen farm couple stands proudly over the city.

This had enormous interest to me, because our daughter Sarah had a college assignment to recreate famous artwork while getting her degree in photography from Arizona State University. Way back in 2007, she posed Philip and me as such! Ha!

Even the local coffee shop and bicyclists show their pride in Grant Woods!

If your small town is on the route but doesn’t have much going for it, never fear … you just need a little marketing savvy.

It’s not just products being offered … there are plenty of services too, and we don’t just mean bike repair!

Truthfully, for many riders it’s more about the food than anything else. Certain foods have obtained cult status over decades of RAGBRAI’s. This would include breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches where the pork is way-bigger than the bun …

… church-lady and Amish-made slices of pie …

… and Beekman’s, where freshly churned ice cream is created by fresh-from-the-farm small tractor engines. The lines are always long for this one!

If you’re not quite ready for ice cream at 7 am, how about wood-fired pizza from the back of an actual fire truck?

Mr. Pork Chop is probably the most famous vendor. Although his son runs the business now since the original Mr. Pork Chop passed away, he was well known for crying out “Pooooork Chooooooooooop!” while selling over 2,500 butter-basted chops at a time, from his pink school bus (partially hidden here behind all the charcoal grill smoke).  

Many of the riders are members of teams with clever names and converted school buses outfitted to each support 30+ riders and all their gear, not to mention the all-important interior bathroom and a rockin’ stereo system. Bikes go up top! Team Love Shack, Live Strong Pirates, Team HotNSweaty, Honey Badgers, Team Flamingo, Bitch-N-Moaners, The Cyclepaths, and more! Team Fly proudly pronounces themselves “Riding in the upright and locked position since 1990!”

Most of the thousands of riders camp in little pop-up tents, which means every available grassy surface at fairgrounds, high schools, parks, and town residents’ front lawns in the overnight towns are covered in nylon. Semi trucks filled with duffels bags of participants’ belongings roll from town to town, unceremoniously dumping everything out onto an enormous tarp upon arrival. “Go Fetch” is then the name of the game as everyone tries to find their stuff.

The more luxurious settlements have stand-up showers where you can hang a gravity-powered bag of lukewarm water. Many riders simply jump in farm ponds along the route and “wash” their biking clothes in murky gray buckets of community-shared water, hoping they are somewhat dry by morning when they go back on.

On the final triumphant day of the ride, Philip and Ryan celebrated their accomplishments with the traditional tire dip in the Mississippi River at Clinton, Iowa, and toasted a darn good time together this week!

Along the way, we enjoyed beautiful sunsets, idyllic camping, massive vegetables straight from the farm fields for 50 cents, and one of the friendliest, hardest working, shirtless camp hosts we’ve ever encountered. Bob Gehrke, we’ll never forget you!

After a hard day “in the saddle,” participants get out of their tight biking shoes and wander around town, enjoying the nightly concerts, camaraderie of fellow road warriors, and whatever fun activities are provided in the town square, before crawling into tents to get up and do it all again tomorrow … and the next day … and the next day …

RAGBRAI is one of those bucket-list items that draws bicyclists from across the country like a siren song, while the rest of us just shake our heads and think … “Are you CRAZY?” But the pride in finishing RAGBRAI far outweighs the struggle in doing 60 miles … then getting up the next day to do another 80 … then the next day another 65 … repeat and repeat and repeat for seven days of sore muscles, and exhaustion, and heat! But they did it!

RAGBRAI is a fun experience not just for riders, but also for the family members and spectators. Meeting up with your “people” and getting some love and encouragement (and ice cold watermelon, or grilled cheese sandwiches, or “walking tacos” – basically a taco salad created inside a small Doritos bag!) in the small towns along the route is a great time for everyone.

Philip says perhaps he’ll even consider doing it for a third time someday … and in the meantime he’ll continue training hard for the eating and drinking portions of the event.

CONGRATULATIONS TO TEAM MILLWEED!

Leaving Iowa, we’ll now be spending the entire month of August rolling through the great state of Wisconsin, hiking and kayaking and meeting up with friends and family throughout. Fresh cheese curds and Spotted Cow beer, anyone?

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