Seven days. 480 miles. Two wheels.
Though occasionally on three wheels. And sometimes even one, if you really want a challenge.
That’s what it takes to complete a recreational bike ride across the entire state of Iowa.
Of course months of training, lots of sunscreen and a penchant for adventure make the travel much more enjoyable. But what would compel someone to complete what’s touted as the longest, largest and oldest recreational bicycle touring event in the world?
Allow this novice to explain.
The ride is known as RAGBRAI, which is an acronym for The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
It began as a leisurely way for two avid cyclists/Des Moines Register columnists to venture out from the city and take in the state’s rural sights.
John Karras and Donald Kaul wrote about their perspectives along the way and later their managing editor came onboard with the idea of pedaling “river to river.”
There was just one condition: make it public.
With only six weeks’ notice, nearly 300 riders joined the writers in Sioux City for what was informally called “The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride” on August 26, 1973.
And so the journey began.
A lot has changed since the start, aside from the name.
The ride now lasts for seven days, with the route alternating between northern, central and southern Iowa each year. RAGBRAI has passed through all of Iowa’s 99 counties and at least 80% of its incorporated towns.
Sports Illustrated named it one of the 25 Summer Essentials, a bucket list of sorts to finish before Labor Day.
Since its inception, more than 326,650 people have pedaled at least some part of the route. It’s become so popular, in fact, that officials now limit the number of weeklong riders to mitigate injuries and general chaos.
Nearly 25,000 daylong and weeklong participants ride each year. They come from across the globe, some with impressive resumes (Tour de France champs Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, former Oakland Raiders defensive end Ben Davidson and comedian Tom Arnold have all participated).
This year, 113 international riders came in representing 12 countries, including Finland, Spain and Venezuela.
Democratic presidential candidates John Hickenlooper and John Delaney even clocked in a few miles along the route.
An election campaign is certainly not a prerequisite for touring the Iowa countryside.
Many go for the week, others for the day. Either way, RAGBRAI riders also get a chance to eat, drink and camp their way through the state.
This writer, who was new to cycling as of February, learned a lot about all of it.
Anywhere you look you’d see a colorful assortment of team jerseys, tan lines, tricked-out school buses and pedaling powerhouses.
Tandem bikes. Recumbent bikes. Tandem recumbent bikes. That’s not all.
Rollerblades. Elliptical bikes. A few triplet bikes. Yes, even unicycles and a runner.
Those who rode as part of a team did so in groups ranging between the silly and the serious.
Team Cycle Paths, Team Mega-sore-ass, Team Whiners and Team Stop-A-Lot were among the self-explanatory names. Others took it a step further, such as Team Flamingo who touted their team with hot pink feather boas.
A personal favorite was the team that memorialized former party animals with Mardi Gras beads and crushed beer cans: Team Roadkill.
The route parades through a series of towns set up between overnight cities with a meeting town about halfway in.
Riders come and go as they please through each of the stops, taking in the finest offerings from local vendors along the way.
Save room for dessert because there’s always a vendor with tables of handmade pie ready to refuel if you’ve hit the wall. Or, you know, just because.
Come for the water, stay for the pie!
Have you tried eggs on a stick?
Cast your vote in the cookie caucus!
Beer – pickle your liver!
Though RAGBRAI is a lot of fun, it’s also a challenging experience that comes with its own dangers. Thanks to the quick actions of first responders riding this year, one lucky cyclist survived a heart attack during an uphill climb.
The US Air Force Cycling Team also rides along, offering everything from mechanical to medical assistance to bikers in need.
Why they ride
While many bike for the experience, there are plenty who are pedaling for a purpose.
Some teams drew awareness to fights against cancer, Alzheimer’s or MS.
Parkinson’s Awareness Day, which fell on Day 3, emphasized how to live well with Parkinson’s disease as it was during RAGBRAI where a doctor discovered that the simple act of pedaling a bike can reduce the symptoms.
Davis Phinney, an Olympic Bronze medalist and Tour de France stage winner, established the Davis Phinney Foundation to help people live well with the disease and fund research projects.
Honoring loved and lost family members brought many bikers out as well.
The route on Day 1 also featured a Mile of Silence to remember fellow lost riders.
For the communities along the route, RAGBRAI means so much more than a swarm of cyclists coming to town.
It means opportunities to raise funds for a new park playground or sending the local rugby team to camp.
The Iowa tradition also presents opportunities for education in fields such as agriculture, pollination and clean energy.
Some cities see their populations triple in a day when the party starts.
Of course that also means traffic jams and planning logistics for feed shipments to farms. Despite the inconveniences, there is a considerable economic benefit to being featured along the route.
Beyond that, the immense hospitality and kindness shown by local spectators was simply unparalleled.
Team Wasted Potential hadn’t secured a location for one overnight stay, but that didn’t really matter. No sooner did their bus driver roll into town that Francis, a Vietnam veteran, happily volunteered his front lawn, showers and power outlets to a group of strangers.
The sunburn and sore saddles may not last long, but the memories from completing a physically demanding journey through America’s beautiful countryside will.
And that’s why this novice rode.