What can be more fun than riding along with 18,000 other bike riders at RAGBRAI? For some, that might sound like a horror story, but actually, it’s crazy fun.
There are riders wearing colorful jerseys and costumes, and either riding solo, in pairs, or in teams. Everyone is out for the joy of companionship and beautiful countryside for seven eventful days. Its an experience to be had by any road-loving biker.
And it’s not a race. The event is known as RAGBRAI, which stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.
This year (2022) we rode across Iowa on a northern route, starting in the hot and humid town of Sargeant Bluff located near the Missouri River. In seven days we would end in Lansing, Iowa, at the Mississippi River.
The ride out of the Missouri River valley had us climbing 2,545 feet for the first day. Normally that would not be a problem but my husband and I came from dry high desert country and we weren’t accustomed to the humidity. Once we travelled far enough out of the Missouri River valley, we left the high humidity behind us, and only had to deal with the last week of Iowa’s July temperatures.
We’ve ridden this event once before and during that year’s ride we experienced a day of cold weather and heavy rain. But not this year.
I tend to enjoy riding solo or just with my husband and prefer never on a group ride, yet I found it interesting how mixing with thousands of riders was actually highly entertaining to me. The distance biked ranged this year anywhere from a daily ride of 48 miles to 100 miles, and totaled 462 miles by the end.
Each year the distance varies, depending on the route chosen. Northern Iowa offered rolling hills throughout the week other than for one day in the middle of the week when we had a relatively flat, and relatively wind free day.
Wherever we were, the beauty of the countryside was breathtaking.
So Much Food
Not to worry about hydration nor food, as vendors and local farmers offer everything from smoothies, coffee, monster pork chops, homemade ice cream powered by antique hit and miss engines running ice cream churns, and just about any fare you can imagine. Even the Iowa Corn Association set up each day offering free hot butter dipped corn on the cob. Which was nice since we did ride through huge fields of corn most of the week.
We passed through small towns, being greeted by cheering local residents, by bands, and by a huge variety of food offered by churches, Veterans of Foreign War, you name it.
Being hungry was never an issue, and we ate small amounts of food all the time through the entire day. A highlight for me was all food along the route at farms, churches, booths set up along the roadside. It all tends to be a surprise as to what you will find.
Evening stop over towns are big enough to deal with the large number of riders with support vans, trucks, trailers, you name it. Those evening towns generally had the challenge of accommodating an estimated 30,000 people passing through for the night. And they always succeeded, and we always found food close by our camping spot, or take a free shuttle to the downtown street fair.
Everyone is friendly; generally extremely friendly. And people love to share their stories. Frequently I’d be riding along by myself and I would be joined by a friendly biker, male or female, it didn’t matter, and we’d bike together for a short distance, or perhaps for miles.
My husband and I would sometimes ride together but as we tend to bike at a different pace over so many days, we’d agree to watch for each other at the start of any small town. That technique worked best for us, and perhaps the reason I visited with so many riders throughout the day.
We also made new friends at the campground each night. We shared pizza, watermelon, snacks, stories and laughs with fellow campers. Everybody pitched our tents incredibly close as space was limited, so it would actually be a challenge not to make friends.
I also enjoyed seeing women who were doing this event with other women. And they were all different ages from young to seriously grey haired women. And women riding the event solo. Or pulling a child in a little trailer. It brought an awareness that women are a growing portion of the riders in RAGBRAI.
Jersey Theme Days
And team jerseys that were hilarious. Small boom boxes mounted on bikes so if you didn’t have your own music, you need not worry. Some playlists were good and energized you, or just so bad that you wanted to bike faster to escape. It was all over the board, and proved to be a distraction to a sore butt or tired legs.
All The Small Towns
One neat part of the ride is experiencing how many small towns there are in Iowa! Some had historical buildings that we could tour. And every meal, snack or drink you buy in these little towns will financially benefit that small town.
RAGBRAI has made a huge contribution to these towns throughout Iowa and they apply to get their town on the RAGBRAI route. We loved both the day towns to eat and recover in, and the larger night host towns for a larger venue experience.
Riding In A Large Group
One of this year’s highlights for me was catching behind a peloton that was cutting through heavy headwinds. We had big winds one day and everyone who could would catch a ride behind whomever was in front. What a blast when a large group went by and I caught the back.
I felt like I was in the Tour de France without the danger. It was a new experience for me.
We weren’t ones to drink and bike, but this offering was extremely popular. A punch card was purchased anywhere along the route and after a certain number of beer gardens visited during the week, a free beer was awarded. It looked like fun.
RAGBRAI is the reward for having ridden hours and long miles on your bike. It helps to have logged plenty of miles on your bike, if just to ensure you can handle continuous days of riding on your bike seat.
But I hadn’t ridden enough prior to the event this year, and even so, I did well and had a blast. You can be a fast rider, or a slow rider. It doesn’t matter. There is something there for every one of us.
All Types Of People
There are classic bikes, recumbent bikes, tandems and e-bikes. On some days I’d see someone rollerblading. Additionally, I assumed bikers choosing an event like this would be thin, fast and intimidating.
There were some of those, naturally, but on the whole, every age was involved, and varied sizes from thin to quite obese got on their bikes and joined in on the fun. RAGBRAI contains an all encompassing crowd of bikers who are just out there to enjoy the experience.
There is always the option of riding single days or multiple days. A daily wrist band sells for $30 plus tax if you choose not to ride the entire event.
In case this has made you excited to think about joining the RAGBRAI experience (there’s one every year), here are some notes on how this all plays out. Registration opened this year mid November and closed mid May.
The fee was $175.00 per person. 2023 will be the 50th year for RAGBRAI and the number of people wanting to get in will be higher than usual.
I don’t know whether they will cap it, but again, there is a cut-off date each year for registration. You will be mailed a wrist band and a bike tag.
RAGBRAI offers a free shuttle for your camping gear each day and a designated campground. For us, after registering for the event, we immediately registered with a private shuttle service which took us from the Mississippi River where we left our car for the week and we returned to it at the end of the week. They then bused us and our bikes back to the western start town on the Missouri River. A shuttle service then carries your bags and tent each day, and arranges for pre-assigned parks for you and your fellow shuttle campers.
Our service (Brancel Charters) arranged for port-a-potties and shower trucks. They even set up easy-ups for escaping the sun when we arrived each day, offered cold drinks for a small contribution, had snacks, a possible massage, a bike mechanic, and a shuttle car should you become sick, or truly just need a day off. They did a fabulous job.
I tended to wake up every morning as soon as I heard other campers rustling in their tents. I wanted to be early in the port-a-potty lines. Our charter service provided plenty, and they were always clean, but the lines in the morning could be brutal if you were in a hurry.
I also take a decent amount of time to fully get myself dressed and packed in the mornings. Coffee and simple muffins, etc. offered by our charter service helped immensely as general coffee lines along the route can be long. There are numerous charter services to choose from should you decide on that option.
I wish you the best, and hope you do it. It’s an experience worth having.
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About The Author
Darlene Bonkoski took up mountain biking at age 55 and started road biking soon thereafter. She has travelled and biked in Canada, throughout the United States, in Italy and Baja and is still riding strong at age 72. During RAGBRAI she rode a FELT Fit, a women’s specific bike. She feels biking is a vital contributor to her joy in life.