Growing up in Galesburg, Illinois, I can remember annual coverage during the last week of July of RAGBRAI from the Davenport and Moline television stations. Each year, thousands of bicyclists pedaling across the state of Iowa for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This year marked the 46th annual trip, which starts in Western Iowa on Sunday and continues eastward through Saturday. Purists will dip the back tire of their bike in the Missouri River before setting out on Sunday, and conclude the ride with a dip of their front tire in the Mississippi River on Saturday.
The ride was established to give people the chance to see what Iowa is really like, visiting various towns by changing the route year after year. So, as this year’s ride concluded this past weekend, organizers are looking ahead to where the riders will go for the final week of July 2019. This year’s route kicked off in Onawa, then proceeded to Denison, Jefferson, Ames, Newton, Sigourney, Iowa City, and ended in Davenport.
I remember sitting at home one Saturday night this past February, with my IPad watching the route announcement party from Des Moines. As the overnight towns were announced, semi randomly, Onawa was first, then Jefferson, then Newton. Then Davenport was announced,, and I knew if there was ever a year that I should try RAGBRAI, this was it as I have relatives living in both Newton and Davenport. I set out to ride my first RAGBRAI.
RAGBRAI riders can choose to ride all week or individual days. Looking ahead at that point in February, I wasn’t certain as to whether or not I would get enough vacation time to get the whole week off. So my co-riders, my parents, whom rode the Wabash River Ride last year, and RAGBRAIs in previous years, and I set out to plan how we would accomplish this year’s ride. We determined it would be best to ride from Wednesday through Saturday (Ames to Davenport). To be able to do that we reached out to our relatives in Newton to see if we could use that as a base of operations for a few nights. With those nights secured, it was on to securing our registrations, which is through a lottery process.
Obtaining our registrations, it was time to start training, looking at the overnight towns, and a map, my parents were able to get an idea of where the ride might be going between the overnight towns. With that information, we could run the route through Google Maps to look at elevation information for the route. There is only so much you can do to actually train for a week long, 400 plus mile ride. Sure you can train your body for the distance and the hills, but you never know what kind of weather you will get, this year we lucked out with very pleasant weather, the hottest day was 84 (of the days that we rode) and we had no rain during our days which we rode, although there was a small storm on Wednesday night. I did what I could to train and prepare for the worst of conditions that I could encounter.
The best way I can describe it is kind of like Sturgis for bicycles, which slowly rolls across Iowa for the last week of July.
Setting out on my first morning, after a 45 minute car ride from Newton to Ames, I knew this wasn’t a typical club ride. There is no separation between rider speeds. So all the riders set out on their own and ride at their own pace from town to town with the knowledge that support closes down in each town at predetermined times, as with most other rides. As we set out for Nevada from Ames, there were some butterflies, but these quickly passed. As we pulled into Nevada, the Mayor was greeting riders. This being the first town I rode into on RAGBRAI,, the atmosphere was very friendly and appreciative, both from the riders and the locals. The best way I can describe it is kind of like Sturgis for bicycles, which slowly rolls across Iowa for the last week of July. When you pull into a small town along the route, there are usually a couple of large farm tractors parked in the middle of the road with a metal cable strung between them, on which you will find the handlebars of road bikes resting upon. Along the sides, the vendors trailers, canopies and stands sell smoothies, coffee, beer, lemonades, gatorades, water, and various food items. Along with repair stands, you can find pies, apparel, and even spots to pet animals, including dogs, cows, goats, and horses.. Most of the towns will also have some sort of “fun” activity to go along with everything else in town. A few that I remember include sand volleyball, human foosball, and a giant slip and slide. As you enter a town, Nevada, being approximately 7,000 people, you are forced to dismount and walk through. There are so many people and bikes it would be nearly impossible to ride through.
From Nevada, we continued to Colo (named after a dog), and then to State Center (the geographic center of Iowa) which was also the meeting town for the day. Meeting towns will typically have a few more vendors, repair booths, and other support to help you continue through the day. From State Center it was on to Melbourne, then to Baxter, and finally Newton. Elevations generally increased over the first part of the day to State Center, and overall decreased to Newton, but a series of hills starting in Melbourne led us into Newton, one after another, after another. Having done most of my rides in the flat lands of west central Indiana and west central Illinois, I had never experienced anything like it. As I got to the apex of the hill I was one, I would look out to find another just like it. This seemed to go on for about ten miles or so. There were a couple big enough, that I had to walk, along with quite a few others. After 49.9 miles of a 56 mile day, with quite a few big hills still to go to get into Newton, I called it a day. We went back to our relative’s house, cleaned up and headed downtown for a bit for some live music and food from the vendors, I had a BBQ chicken nacho basket and a lemonade. We didn’t stay downtown long, as I was beat, I was out like a light by 9:30 that night. Scheduled mileage for the day was 59.1 miles with 1,777 feet of climb for the day, I ended up with the 49.9 at 5 hours 11 minutes 10 seconds and 1,788 feet of climb.
The next morning, we woke up, had some breakfast, got dressed, and headed out early, as the ride was scheduled for 68.6 miles, with double the amount of climb from the previous day, about 2,719 feet of climb. We left Newton to head to go to Reasnor, then Sully, Lynville, then there was optional century loop to New Sharon, Montezuma the meeting town for the day, Deep River, Keswick, and finally Sigourney. The ride out of Newton started out just as hilly as the day before. As we continued on, the middle portion of the day leveled out a little more, but the roads were a little more difficult. The expansion joints between the concrete slabs were very uneven, so we took a lot of vibration. For Thursday’s ride, I logged a total of 58.4 miles in 5 hours 32 minutes 41 seconds with 2,769 feet of climb. Even with only 9.6 miles left on the day, it was late enough in the day, and the climbs again were tough that my mother and I called to be picked up in Deep River, my father, who decided on the century loop, finished his 103 miles for the day close to thirty minutes after mom and I decided to stop.
Friday was scheduled as a shorter ride, about 57.6 miles with about 1,413 feet of climb. From Sigourney, we went to Harper, then Keota, Wellman, Kalona the meeting town, Riverside, Hills, and finally Iowa City. There were a couple of big hills early on in the day, then relatively flat until exiting Riverside, where there were about three good hills, the first of these being the worst (I ended up walking my final hill for the week, had to walk 2 on Wednesday, and 1 on Thursday). Riverside was one of the highlights for me, as it is the future birthplace for one James T. Kirk, of Star Trek fame. The main park in town features a statue to commemorate the future birthplace. The route turned to the North outside of Riverside, right into a strengthening head wind. Once again, to my disappointment, I had to call it short, this time from Hills, 49.8 miles into the day, 4 hours 42 minutes 23 seconds of ride time with 1,597 feet of climb.
Riverside was one of the highlights for me, as it is the future birthplace for one James T. Kirk, of Star Trek fame.
Saturday was a little different, my 8 year old niece is really excited to cycle with my father. She looks for any opportunity to get a ride in. So we wanted to give her a chance to ride RAGBRAI. The ride was scheduled to go 68.9 miles from Iowa City through West Liberty, Atalissa, Moscow, Wilton the meeting town, to Wild Cat Den State Park, Montpelier, Blue Grass, and finally Davenport. Since my niece has only done short rides around the neighborhood at my parents’ house, we decided to start out in Blue Grass and ride in all together, my niece, mother, father and I. A relatively short 10 mile ride which was generally downhill to the Mississippi after a couple rides up overpasses. The other riders gave my niece a lot of encouragement and praise, as roadside spectators urged us on. My niece didn’t want to dip her tire to signify that we were done, but we talked her into it, then followed it up with a ride around the infield warning track at Modern Woodman Field at John O’Donell Stadium and a ride in the Ferris Wheel at the park.
I kept telling my parents that it seems like everything aligned perfectly for a very memorable experience. A very good route with amazing weather and a great support team. I did get a little sunburnt, not as bad as it could have been; and am still a little sore from the overall mileage and amount of climb in such a short amount of time. But I am extremely grateful that I was able to have such a good ride and spend it with family.