by John Yoder
The Des Moines Register’s Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), now in its 46th year, is the oldest and largest cross-state bike ride in the U.S. For a week, 10,000 cyclists pedal past cornfields, eat huge quantities of pancakes and pork chops and enjoy the hospitality of Iowa’s small towns. I’ve ridden RAGBRAI six times, and I believe every semi-serious cyclist should ride it at least once — just as all NASCAR enthusiasts should attend the Daytona 500 once, all art lovers should visit Florence once, all lovers of horse racing should attend the Kentucky Derby once, all basketball enthusiasts should attend a Final Four game, and all Muslims should go to Mecca once. Yes, it’s that special.
The RAGBRAI dates this year are July 22-28, and registration for the ride is now open (www. http://ragbrai.com/). The registration deadline is April 1.
What made me keep returning to this ride was experiencing seven days where bicycles rule the road. The police don’t close the RAGBRAI route to motor vehicles. There’s no need for that, because with so many cyclists on the road, cars avoid the RAGBRAI route. Think about it. If the travel lane is filled with cyclists, a car can’t go any faster than the cyclists. If that car attempts to pass the cyclists by moving into the passing lane, the chances are good that it won’t be able to pull back into the driving lanefurther up the road because it’s also full of cyclists. So, a car that attempts to pass the bikers will more than likely get stuck in the passing lane and is, therefore, in danger of a head-on collision with cars coming from the other direction. A few cars do go west as the bikers go east on the same road, but they also go slowly, knowing that riders frequently veer into the passing lane to pass other riders. Iowa drivers know about this dilemma and voluntarily avoid the RAGBRAI route.
In short, bicycles govern the speed of everything that moves on the road. Its cyclist empowerment like nothing I’ve ever experienced before or since, as if society had flipped its transportation priorities and now bicycles were in charge of the highways, and the cars had to fit in somehow, instead of the other way around.
Another joy is the hospitality of the small towns. The pass-through towns and the overnight towns knock themselves out to provide food and entertainment like square dancing on tractors (I’ve seen it), chicken-poop bingo, jugglers, stunt bike riders, unique bicycle sculptures, numerous music groups and a designated beer garden. Local churches, schools and non-profits of all kind sell food and drinks along the route and in the overnight towns. My favorite treat: freshly squeezed, cold lemonade served up at the top of hill on a hot day after battling headwinds. No one should give a moment’s thought to finding food on this ride. It’s everywhere.
With so many cyclists from all over the country and the world, it’s a great place to discover new gear and accessories by seeing what others are using. And a number of bike shops set up in the pass-through and overnight towns and provide all manner of equipment and service for your bike.
Each year the route is different, except for the fact that it starts somewhere along the Missouri River and ends somewhere along the Mississippi River. Tire dipping, putting your rear tire in the Missouri and your front tire in the Mississippi, is a RAGBRAI ritual. They even have a photographer on hand to record the event at the end.
The 2018 ride covers 434 miles with 13,221 feet of climb. Riders will spend their overnights in Onawa, Denison, Jefferson, Ames, Newton, Sigourney, Iowa City before ending in Davenport.
Sure, there are other cross-state rides, but RAGBRAI is by far the oldest and largest ride of its kind and is the standard by which all others are judged. RAGBRAI is limited to 8,500 week-long riders and 1,500 daily riders, but in my experience, “bandits,” people who ride but don’t register, easily swell that number by several thousand.
The ride costs $175 per person, which includes wristbands, route marking signage, baggage transportation, camping accommodations, discounts, SAG wagon services, emergency medical services, traffic control, souvenir patch, daily route maps, and entries into drawing for free prizes for riders and other prizes for support vehicle drivers.
Is there a downside? Of course, 10,000 cyclists can make for congestion that results in collisions (I never had one), but I avoided the crowds by staring at sunrise. Not all riders have the cycling manners you’d hope for, but that’s the exception. Overnight camping is the norm, and not everyone likes to camp. And the campsites are often large and noisy, so getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult. Many riders bring RVs to sleep in and have someone drive them from one over-night town to the next, thus avoiding the hard ground and noise. With 10,000 people in a small town, you can’t avoid using porta potties (called Kybos in Iowa), unless you visit the cornfields – a popular option.
Your registration covers having the Des Moines Register semi transport your gear from town to town, but finding your bags in the huge pile unloaded from the truck can be difficult, so private companies have stepped in to haul gear for a fee. Finally, an on-road annoyance is the occasional grooved rumble strips across the road at intersections, If you don’t see them in time, they can make you lose control of your bicycle.
Obviously, riders need some way get to the start of the ride after leaving their cars where the ride ends. Fortunately, there are a number of private companies that provide a shuttle service for riders and bikes. Some people are overwhelmed with the sheer number of people on the road. My advice is to get up early and be on the road by 6:30 a.m.
The RAGBRAI web site (www.ragbrai.com) has all the details on the ride. I recommend it as a unique cycling experience. Iowa and Iowans do not disappoint.
John D. Yoder is a recreational cyclist, former cycling commuter and League of American Bicyclists cycling instructor. He has been active for over 25 years establishing the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, a rails-to-trails project connecting Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana, Indiana (www.pumpkinvine.org).