The Registers Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa – RAGBRAI
When a few friends got together for a casual bike ride across Iowa in 1973, no one imagined that a tradition would be born. Much less that it would become the longest, largest and oldest recreational bicycle touring event in the world. RAGBRAI is held the last full week of July. 10,000+ cycling enthusiast of all ages, fitness levels, and demographics convene to cycle across Iowa.
The routes vary each year, going from west to east. This allows riders to take advantage of the prevailing winds and to keep sun at their backs. The ride begins with a ceremonial back tire dip in the Missouri river and proceeds approximately 500 miles with a front tire dip in the Mississippi river at its conclusion.
The ride proceeds through many small towns along its daily predetermined route. Each town shows off its unique personality to the throngs of new visitors. These towns are proud of their agricultural heritage. They proudly show off the tools of their trade. On display, are vintage tractors and the latest state of the art farm equipment. Light poles and streetscapes are adorned with flags, flowers and numerous forms of art depicting cycling. Also prominently featured are displays of young livestock, giving city dwellers an opportunity to see farm animal up close and personal.
Despite being amongst thousands of other cyclist, I can help but feel like a VIP when rolling into town. Residents wave, ring cow bells, shout words of encouragement and cheerfully welcome you to their home town.
Each daily ride ranges from 50-80 miles with riders overnighting in a designated host town each night. The majority of riders camping in city parks, ball fields, school yards and industrial parks. Many charter services are available to move your camping gear from town to town so that you may cycle unencumbered. My particular favorite is Pork Belly Ventures. For a modest fee, they spot out camp sites, transport your gear and provide morning coffee and evening dinner.
A large part of the allure of RAGBAI is the guilt free over indulgence of regional cuisine. The towns’ schools, civic organizations and churches find opportunity to raise money by catering to the ravenous appetites of hoards of hungry cyclists. You can expect to find locally produced foods such as: pork, beef, buttery ambrosia sweet corn, cheese curds and just about anything that can be put on a stick.
Many of the communities give tribute to their European heritages. I found the Norwegian
lefsa wrapped brats and Czechoslovakian kolaches to be unexpected treats. My absolute favorite stop of the day was Hostetler’s Amish pie and ice cream caravan. They offered traditional and fried fruit pies with vanilla ice cream churned on-site.
As if the hospitality and food weren’t enough, the locals go to all lengths to entertain the riders. Town themes ranges from Mayberry to the paranormal. Fun and games abound, including petting zoos, spinning couches on tractors, cow chip tossing, and Elvis impersonators just to name a few.
My favorite is a game of waterball played with a local fire department. The object of the game is to push an empty keg with the firehose past the opponents line. Kind of a reverse tug of war. Its wet, loud, and way too much fun.
The days of riding can be long, but the ever changing pastoral views go by too fast. I’m overtaken by the serene beauty of contrasting colors of green corn and soybean fields against the blue skies. The pops of color from barns, houses, and silos add to the awe inspiring landscape.
RAGBRAI is part sporting event, part county fair, part parade with a splash of Mardi gras. It represents all that is great about America: simple fun, community pride, and the joy that comes with being active and outdoors. All one needs to participate is a bike and a sense of adventure. While I would recommend doing the whole week, you can simply join in for a one day ride at any of the host towns.