I was a first-timer, a “virgin rider” about to participate in RAGBRAI, the oldest and largest recreational bicycle touring event in the world. Seven days, 400-plus miles and upwards of 15,000 cyclists. Biking about 60 miles each day, I would join cyclists in a ride across Iowa during the last week in July, stopping in towns to be greeted, feted and fed by locals.
I was nervous. I had only given myself about seven weeks to prepare and wasn’t sure I’d be ready. Then, I tripped and fell on a nighttime run and bruised my ribs, which took me off my bike for three miserable weeks. Adding to my anxiety, I heard that someone dies at RAGBRAI every year. Not a comforting thought. (I later learned that 30 people have died in the 45 years the ride has been held. However, only a handful of deaths resulted from injuries sustained while actually riding on bicycles; heart attacks have been the most common cause.)
Despite my apprehensions, I decided to go for it. The stories of fun and adventure outweighed the risks in my mind. RAGBRAI is known for outrageous costumes, dogs-in-backpacks (I saw only one dog in a backpack, but one was enough, poor thing), oddities like an entire team wearing helmets topped with miniature outhouses, Lance Armstrong sightings (he rides a day or two every year and brings along celebrity friends; this year it was NASCAR guys including Jimmie Johnson) and music of all genres (from Lil Wayne to Beethoven) blasting from little speakers mounted on bikes or big ones pulled in carts.
It’s a spectacle — a beer-guzzling spring break redo for middle-aged cyclists that also manages to cater to families and seniors. And college students, of course. Did I mention there’s beer? More on that later.
Preparing to Ride
RAGBRAI officials recommend training for the ride for several months, gradually building up your stamina and strength. That didn’t exactly work for me, what with my late decision to do the ride (June 1) and my bruised ribs. But I had done several long rides in May, so I was building some muscle and confidence.
As the July departure date got closer, I bought a new set of tires and a chain for my 2011 road bike, got a nice tune-up at the Alpine Shop and swapped out my pretty white saddle for a split-seat style that everyone told me I needed. Note to self: Never buy a new seat right before a long ride! I was sore for the first five days of the seven-day ride. Aleve helped, but not much.
I watched YouTube videos and learned how to change a flat tire. I bought a spare tube and tools, added a second bottle holder and got a bike lock (turns out I didn’t need it; no one wants your bike because everyone already has one!).
So, I was prepared. Still, a quiet voice whispered in the back of my head: You’re not in good enough shape for this ride. You’ll never make it!
To combat these thoughts, I reminded myself that if I couldn’t finish the route on a particular day, I would simply hop on the support truck and take a ride into the overnight town. Embarrassing, yes. But doable.
With that backup plan firmly in place, I packed my bags and headed out to meet my ride: a tour bus full of St. Louis Backstoppers team members. We would all be camping together using the services of Padre’s Cycle Inn. It’s camping without the work — no setting up tents, inflating your air mattress or even lugging your bags to the campsite. The Padre’s staff does it all for you, arriving in the host town well before the riders get there each afternoon.
The Party Bus
My friend, Aparna, was to be my tent-mate, and we sat together on the bus. I knew a few people on the Backstoppers team, but not very well.
The Padre’s staff said the bus would depart promptly at 6 a.m., and it did. I planned to catch up on some sleep, but as soon as the wheels started rolling, the atmosphere changed. Beer cans popped open, a flask of Fireball whiskey was passed around and the fun began.
Cindy, who I had met a few times on group rides, was cajoled into laying face-down in the aisle so that her friend Stacey could tattoo the backs of her legs with a set of colored grade-school markers. Stacey had ridden RAGBRAI a number of times in the past, and was indoctrinating Cindy into the RAGBRAI culture with the traditional “VIRGIN” written in all caps on her left calf and “RIDER” on the right.
Eventually, it was my turn and, feeling like a college co-ed for the first time in many years, I obliged and laid down for the tattoo.
Nine hours and a few beers later we arrived in Orange City, Iowa, the first host city. I felt like a kid arriving at summer camp, a feeling of excitement and awe mixed in with a dose of uncertainty and anxiety.
From the bus windows we saw camping tents set up everywhere — in front yards of homes and on municipal baseball and soccer fields. We saw signs for a spaghetti dinner at a church hall, old school buses spray-painted and transformed into team support vehicles outfitted with rooftop bike racks, and throngs of people on bike and on foot.
We arrived at our campsite, then headed to the town center for a bike expo featuring the latest gear and attire; there was also a band, a beer tent or two, and a dozen food vendors. It was time to let the good times roll!
Iowa Loves RAGBRAI
Iowans gear up for this annual ride with great enthusiasm. Towns vie for the chance to be a host city, or at least a city on the route. The dollars pour in with every water, Gatorade, bratwurst and egg burrito purchased, funding local PTAs, firehouses, softball teams, scouting troops and more. Each host town also gets money from the RAGBRAI organization to cover costs to welcome hordes of cyclists for a day or an overnight.
The route always goes from west to east across the state, alternating between northern, central and southern routes each year. RAGBRAI draws riders from all over. We met people from Hawaii, Colorado, New Jersey, Florida and Ireland.
Every day was a new adventure, with new sights to see and new people to meet. Each town welcomed us with its own creative bicycle art. My favorites were an archway we rode through that was constructed of 50 or more bikes, and a happy face on the side of a building crafted with two old wheels for the eyes, a bike seat for the nose and halved bike wheels for the smile. Homeowners showed their RAGBRAI spirit by stringing up bikes in trees and wrapping them in Christmas lights. Kids rode their trikes and bikes on sidewalks while adults sat on lawn chairs waving at us.
We saw numerous tandems, a couple of double tandems (yes, four people — usually Dad in front followed by Mom and two kids), and a fair number of recumbents and trikes. Adaptive Sports Iowa has organized a team every year since 2011, allowing cyclists with physical disabilities or visual impairments to participate using hand-propelled recumbent bikes.
The ride was long and challenging, but with a town about every 10 to 15 miles on the route, respite was never far away. The first four days, the route was fairly flat, but a decent headwind from the east added a significant challenge. The rest was very hilly; eastern Iowa has some major elevations and in three days we racked up close to 8,000 of the 13,000 feet we climbed over seven days.
No One Goes Thirsty
Cyclists can find craft beers every few miles at roadside stops and in the towns along the way. Michelob and other AB products were also readily available. Beer-drinking or not, all cyclists will enjoy the many attractions this ride offers: live concerts in the overnight towns, rope swings over ponds to cool off, friendly townspeople and riders, and an abundance of good food.
Everyone raves about the Amish pies at roadside stops, church lady pies in towns, cold watermelon wedges and homemade ice cream. And RAGBRAI is not complete without a taste of Mr. Pork Chop’s thick, seasoned, just-grilled chop handed to you on a napkin. Eight bucks. Just look for the pink school bus emblazoned with a cartoon pig.
RAGBRAI has become so popular that organizers now limit the number of rider passes. You can buy a day pass for $30, or a week-long pass for $175. And you should really get a pass if you go. If you don’t have one, they won’t pick you up if you break down. Plus, it’s the right thing to do. Someone has to pay for all those Iowa state troopers along the route, not to mention emergency services and support vehicles and staff.
If you go on RAGBRAI, you should know that it can become a dangerous addiction. We met people who’ve done the ride 10 or 15 times. And we read stories of people who have done it 40 times. That’s a lot of vacation time spent in the cornfields of Iowa; spouses and children back home might not appreciate their cyclist’s seeming obsession with RAGBRAI.
With that warning in mind, I will say that RAGBRAI was definitely worth the trip. It was at times inspiring, frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting. But I did the whole thing (no support truck), and it felt great.
I just might have to do it again.
Author: Terri Waters is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She enjoys exploring hiking and biking trails and likes the camaraderie of organized rides as well.