More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About RAGBRAI

After I returned from Iowa last month, several people I ride with wanted to know about RAGBRAI. The following is a summary of my answers.

First, the basics: RAGBRAI is a seven-day bike ride across Iowa held the last full week of July. The route changes each year, but it always starts near the Missouri River in western Iowa, and ends at the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. The route and overnight towns are announced at the end of January. The registration deadline is April 1. Most years, everyone who registers gets in. Some years, they have a lottery to cap the number of participants at 8,500 week-long riders. Results are posted the first of May, giving you three months to train and make travel plans.

Second, the disclaimers: RAGBRAI is a lot of fun, but if a week of riding in whatever weather Mother Nature provides, camping, porta-potties, and communal showers aren’t your thing, then you probably shouldn’t go. One of my favorite RAGBRAI team slogans is, “If you’re not having fun, lower your standards.”

Typical RAGBRAI accommodations.

How it works: The registration fee of $150 covers the overhead of putting on a week-long event. The Des Moines Register has been running RAGBRAI since 1973, and they are experts at route planning, traffic control, emergency services, and working with the many communities along the route to make sure things go as smoothly as possible. SAG wagons are available for those who need them, but it’s really not a supported ride. Also included in the registration fee is having your gear hauled by the RAGBRAI trucks. I haven’t used them for gear hauling because the first five times I rode, my family came along in a camping trailer, and this year I went with my friend Diane’s bike club in Muscatine, Iowa.

The advantage of paying extra to a bike club or charter service is that transportation is included to the starting town and back from the ending town, plus you get some extra support and services.

This year I flew round trip to the Quad Cities/Moline, IL, which is about 30 minutes from Muscatine. Friday afternoon, we took Diane’s boxed bike to the local bike shop where it was loaded on a U-Haul truck. My bike had been shipped and was already on the truck. The following morning, the group loaded ourselves and our gear onto two charter buses, and rode across Iowa to the starting town. As soon as we set up camp, we assembled our bikes and put the flattened boxes back on the U-Haul, in order to make room to load our gear in the morning. The procedure is reversed at the end of the ride, although some of us chose to ride to Muscatine instead of finishing in the Quad Cities, disassembling bikes, and taking the bus back to Muscatine.

Here we are, ready to leave Muscatine on one of the bike club's charter buses.

I enjoyed chartering with the bike club. Some of the people ride together weekly; others live elsewhere and just show up for RAGBRAI. The club had a wine and cheese party at the end of our first day; they also provided tire pumps, a generator and power strips for charging cell phones, and kept a supply of cold water, Gatorade, beer and soda available on the honor system at $1 each.

The route is supported from 6 am to 6 pm, although some people start earlier (before the sun is up in Iowa). Most days I started riding about 6:30, made lots of stops along the way, and finished by 4:00. Some people hurry to finish by 1:00 or 2:00, but there’s really no point to finishing early. You just have more time to sit around the campground.

Some people hit the road before the sun is up, but the route isn't supported until 6 a.m.

I’ve ridden six RAGBRAIs since 2000, and each year the weather was different. Some years, mornings were chilly and I didn’t want to get out of my sleeping bag.  Some years we had perfect days in the 80’s and maybe a few hot days that reached 90 in the afternoons. Most years, there is some rain once or twice during the week (hopefully at night), sometimes even severe storms. This year was just plain nasty all week. The afternoon temperatures were in the upper 90’s with humidity of 75 to 80%, and the nights were too hot for a sleeping bag.

That's me (in blue) and Diane, around 7 a.m. the first day. Can you see the sweat on my face already?

Waterproof sunscreen wasn’t. My clothes were damp all the time, whether being worn or in my duffle bag, my bike rusted in places, and my watch had so much condensation that it quit running.  I met several people from Arizona, and we all agreed that we prefer our dry heat!

While the weather can make it miserable, it’s the people that make it special. RAGBRAI is a rolling party with 10,000 guests. Towns on the route are typically 8-15 miles apart, and many have fewer than 1,000 population.  It’s not unusual to find DJ’s and high school bands playing music, local volunteers grilling burgers, people in all sorts of costumes and cycling attire, a beer garden, kids spraying you with a hose, and church ladies selling homemade pie – all at 9:30 on a weekday morning – and  in every town throughout the day, all week.

Overnight towns run shuttles from the campgrounds to downtown street parties. Cyclists come from every state and many countries to enjoy this atmosphere as much as to ride.  One group’s T-shirts said it best, “RAGBRAI is spring break for adults.”

RAGBRAI is a mix of spring break, Mardi Gras, and county fair disguised as a bike ride.

 

If you think Iowa is flat, you’ve never seen it from a bicycle.

One of the many hills on Day 2.

Here are the details of the 2011 route:

  • Sunday, July 24 – Glenwood to Atlantic, 59.5 miles, 4,298 feet of climb
  • Monday, July 25 – Atlantic to Carroll, 65.4 miles, 4,719 feet of climb
  • Tuesday, July 26 – Carroll to Boone, 70.9 miles, 1,787 feet of climb (plus optional century loop)
  • Wednesday, July 27 – Boone to Altoona, 56.1 miles, 1,147 feet of climb
  • Thursday, July 28 – Altoona to Grinnell, 57.5 miles, 3,202 feet of climb
  • Friday, July 29 – Grinnell to Coralville, 74.9 miles, 2,681 feet of climb
  • Saturday, July 30 – Coralville to Davenport, 65.6 miles, 2,363 feet of climb

Budget ($1200 – 1500):

Registration                                                     $150

Bike club charter                                              250

Bike pkg & shipping (Tribe/FedEx)                 90

Bike pkg & shipping (Harper’s/UPS)            106

Airfare (Allegiant Mesa to Moline)                 308

(includes 1 checked back ea trip)

Food & drinks ~ $30/day x 8                           240

Showers           $3-$5 ea. X6                            30

Extras: Jersey                                                    50

T-shirts and rain jacket                                      80

Massages                                                        120

Food costs vary, depending on how often you eat and how tempted you are by the smoothie and ice cream vendors along the route. You can save a little here and there by packing granola bars or sports/energy bars for breakfast and using tap water instead of bottled water. Many towns have free water filling stations with tap water that tastes better than Arizona tap water. The best bargains are usually church dinners for $7 or $8, but they often run out of food if you don’t get there early (5ish). Depending on where the group camps each night, you might be showering in a high school gym, community center, or portable outdoor showers. Sometimes a towel is included in the fee, but not always. If you camp near a public pool, you can pay the admission to swim and the shower is included.

Mr. Pork Chop is a RAGBRAI instituion, setting up the grill and selling pork every day along the route.

In Carroll, our group was assigned to camp on a church property. Kids handed us free bottled water as we rode in, and church members invited us inside for a free meal. They kept the building open all night, allowing us to use restrooms and sleep indoors, and then they served breakfast. They didn’t ask for anything in return, but the club took up a donation to send afterwards with our thanks.

If you plan ahead, you can sometimes arrange overnight stays in people’s homes. Obviously, this isn’t possible for large groups, and even if you apply early you may not get accommodations in every town. Most years, someone in my group has known someone in an overnight town who lets us sleep in their yard or basement, use their showers, and do laundry. Having those luxuries for even one night during the week makes everything easier. The complication with home stays is that you have to haul your gear to some other part of town, and then make arrangements to get it to a vehicle for transport the next day.

This year, a small group of us on the Muscatine charter stayed with friends of Diane’s in Boone and Coralville. The friends in Coralville even cooked dinner for us. As with previous years, I’ve been welcome and totally comfortable crashing in the home of a friend of a friend.

No camping the final night -- our group with our gracious hosts in Coralville.

Like the church members in Carroll, Iowans are very hospitable and seem to be impressed that we want to ride across their state. As one of the people in our group said at the end of the ride, “Once you ride RAGBRAI with someone, you become family.”

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