During my hiatus from blogging, I participated in arguably the greatest cycling tour in North America – RAGBRAI. Every year, 20,000 people start at the west end of Iowa and pedal across the state in what amounts to a week-long party on wheels. The ride was originally conducted by staffers of the Des Moines Register newspaper, which remains a sponsor. Since they started it, they got to name it, and thus we have the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
RAGBRAI chooses a new route every year, so it was with great fanfare that the 2016 route announcement was conducted. It was revealed that the ride would travel across the southern part of the state. At 419.9 miles, it would be the 3rd shortest route ever. At 18,488 feet of climbing, it was the 24th-steepest. So that meant a fair amount of climbing in one of the shortest rides ever. I’d be riding with my buddy, Dan, who grew up in Iowa and was in great physical condition but a complete novice to cycling. He was so new to this event that he had to buy a bicycle for the ride. So that’s pretty new, in my book.
There are a few options on how to participate in RAGBRAI. The basic way is to simply go as a weeklong individual rider, meaning you bring your own sleeping gear/tent, put it up, and tear it down each day. RAGBRAI hauls it to the next town for you. You can also go as part of a group and these groups often have support vehicles that move on parallel routes to meet you at each town. Not being part of any such group and not terribly interested in striking/pitching tents in the heat/rain/mud/wind/whatever, Dan and I selected the third option: a chartered trip. The charter we picked was Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers. For a fee, they provided us tents with air mattresses and plenty of snacks/goodies at each campsite. They picked sites that were usually close to a shower facility (not a given at RAGBRAI). They picked us up at the finishing town and drove us across the state to the starting town. They met us every day with snacks and were full of helpful advice and a willingness to solve problems.
There were about 50 people traveling with our charter. We would eventually become friends with many of them. This was a pleasant unexpected benefit of traveling with a charter. We’d gather at our little campsite each morning and each evening and swap stories of the road. Bubba (yes, the leader of the charter was called Bubba) would also be there with helpful news and updates.
It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to ride RAGBRAI. Imagine a river of cyclists moving on closed roads from town to town in an atmosphere similar to a county fair. There are always cyclists on the road. Always. There is no official start time for each day. Some folks are on the road before dawn, trying to get ahead of the horde. Others choose to sleep in, either because they’re late risers or perhaps they had a little too much fun at the previous night’s party. There are all manner of cyclists riding all manner of bikes. People watching was definitely one of my favorite RAGBRAI pastimes.
You’ll quickly find yourself entering small towns sprinkled along the route. These towns roll out the red carpet for RAGBRAI riders. Figuratively, that is. Literally rolling out a red carpet would be very unsafe. Each town is eager to show off its hospitality and reap the benefits of having thousands of hungry and thirsty cyclists pass through their town square. Food vendors are waiting with all the fried funnel cake, chili dogs, and ice cream you could ever want. There’s all manner of attractions to see, from prize hogs, to riding a bull, to improvised swimming pools, there’s something for everybody!
And as the river of cyclists approach these “Through Towns,” it should be no surprise that things can get a tad crowded.
For those that prefer a (slightly) less congested break, RAGBRAI thoughtfully provides scores of roadside vendors between the Through Towns. Some of these vendors are locally famous, such as the Amish ice cream stands and Mr. Pork Chop. Part of the fun of RAGBRAI is trying to decide how often and where to stop. There are certainly plenty of opportunities to eat, drink, and experience a little Americana. But be sure to bring cash. No vendors at RAGBRAI take credit.
Dan and I quickly settled into a routine. We’d wake up a few minutes before sunrise, pack up our belongings, and hit the road. There would already be hundreds of cyclists moving ahead of us and we’d simply join the stream flowing out of the Overnight Town. We would ride 60-90 minutes before stopping for breakfast. This helped to break up the day. 70 miles seems like a long ride (especially on Day 4 or 5), but four separate 17 mile rides seems much more reasonable.
After breakfast, the rest of the day’s itinerary came down to the location of the Through Towns and our level of energy. We’d usually wrap things up around 3:00pm, which gave us plenty of time to relax at Bubba’s snack tent, plug our phones into Bubba’s cell phone charger, and find a shower before eating dinner at one of the dozens of food vendors. Alcohol was usually available at this point, along with the occasional bit of entertainment. We were treated to a Rick Springfield concert – which far exceeded my expectations!
Below we see another example of a Through Town, complete with a long line for food, porta potties, and scores of bikes laying on their sides. This line moved surprisingly fast, and if your main goal is to simply take a break, it’s very tolerable.
By Day 6, both Dan and I were extremely ready to be done pedaling. No individual day was particularly challenging (as a new cyclist, Dan would probably argue that point) but the daily grind wore me down. It was increasingly difficult to find a comfortable position to ride in, no matter how much aspirin or chamois cream I used. I was extremely glad to not have any saddle sores, but despite not having an official ailment, my saddle was most definitely sore. We were tired of sleeping in hot tents, never really being clean, and the vendor food had long ago lost its charm. I scanned the horizon for the Mississippi River, the eastern boundary of Iowa and the traditional end point of RAGBRAI.
You’ll be happy (but probably not surprised) to learn that Dan and I found the Mississippi in fine form. We paused to dip our wheels in the river and take some celebratory photos. Then we slowly pedaled our way a couple of miles to where we had left our car a week ago. It was time to go home.
RAGBRAI was a fantastic event – definitely a bucket
Tips For First Timers
(Again, your mileage may vary)
How Much To Train. A great deal has been written on this topic and a google search will quickly prove my point. To me, the amount of training necessary comes down to your pain threshold. I saw seriously out of shape cyclists on Day 1 and imagined them quitting by lunchtime. I saw many of those same cyclists much later in the week, still chugging away. We they slow? Certainly. We they in pain? Definitely. But they finished and I am sure they are justifiably proud of their accomplishment.
Most sites recommend getting at least 1,000 miles of training in prior to RAGBRAI. That seems like a good number to me. Equally important is learning to ride on consecutive days. Being able to ride a century is helpful, but that is one type of fitness. Being able to ride 70 miles and repeat for multiple days is slightly different. Train for that, at least in shorter distances, and your butt will thank you.
What To Bring. This is probably the biggest question. RAGBRAI has weight limits on baggage, and so will your charter if you go that route. If you have your own support vehicle, then the sky is the limit. For the majority of riders, carefully picking your baggage will either help you immensely or make you miserable.
I had enough cycling kit to have a different outfit for each day. I put each day’s outfit in a large ziplock bag. This made getting my day’s clothes while in a dark tent a relatively easy chore each morning. The plastic bags also add a layer of waterproofing should the weather turn bad. I bought a tent fan, which I hung from the ceiling of the tent to ease the oppressive heat each evening – an excellent buy. For puttering around town, I recommend bringing as little as possible and to focus on quick-dry clothing that can be worn more than once. It’s not a fashion show each evening, so just get a few comfortable light weight outfits. Of course you’ll need to be ready for rain, both on the bike and off it.
Much effort was made keeping our phones charged. I recommend bringing one (or more) cell phone rechargers. Of course, you’ll want some aspirin or other pain reliever and plenty of cash. You might want to bring a bike lock, but the vast majority of people didn’t bother with them. You’d think RAGBRAI would be a prime hunting ground for bike thieves, but that just didn’t seem to be the case.
For most everything else, there are enough convenient stores along the way to take care of any incidentals that come up. My sunglasses broke on Day 3 and I easily found a pair at a nearby 7-11 to get me through the rest of the trip.
Are Charters Worth The Money? Yes! Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers took care of many small problems for us. They provided bus service from the end point (where you park your car) to the start point on the other side of the state. They handled tent set up and tear down. They found good places to set up camp. They provided drinks, snacks, and a phone charging station. All of these things can be managed on your own, but using the charter meant we didn’t need to worry and could focus on simply having a good time. Some folks might want to enjoy a “pure” RAGBRAI experience and fend for themselves. These people always seem to have a great time as well. My advice is if you can afford it, spend the money on a charter.