I pedaled my way across Iowa this summer but didn’t spend all my time on a bicycle seat.
At one point I found myself wedged behind seven bikes in the dusty bed of a pickup truck, rattling down a gravel road toward the start of that morning’s bicycle route in Charles City.
The night before I had slept at an Iowa farm south of town where a cattle feedlot had been transformed into a replica of Centre Court, Wimbledon—the All Iowa Lawn Tennis Club. My friends and I chose to veer out of town for the chance to visit such a quirky spectacle.
Let me pause and put this in plain terms before you stop reading: I spent seven days bicycling 468 miles across Iowa, visiting rural tourism curiosities along the way such as the finely manicured grass tennis “Court of Dreams.”
I’m not alone in my devotion to this annual affliction—I mean, tradition. I was among more than 18,000 bicyclists who joined yet another epic RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Founded in 1973 by a pair of Des Moines Register journalists, RAGBRAI in nearly 50 years has evolved into a cultural phenomenon in which thousands of people from around the globe swarm into Iowa to discover it isn’t as flat as advertised. But at least restrooms are as ample and convenient as the nearest cornfield.
What is RAGBRAI?
RAGBRAI is the world’s oldest, largest, and longest bicycle touring ride.
Each year’s route follows a different path from west to east, between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, although of course many towns and roads have been repeated since ’73. The overnight towns–the basic outline of that year’s route–are announced in January, followed a couple of months later by the more detailed path. Riders pay $175 for a weeklong registration (or $35 for a day pass) and receive an official wristband and another band for their bike. RAGBRAI caps the number of registrants (about 10,000 weeklong riders, for instance), so if you like the look of the route, go ahead and sign up early in the year. The ride is always held during the last full week in July.
Like so many events, RAGBRAI skipped 2020 at the height of the pandemic, thus 2023 will mark both its 50th ride and 50th anniversary.
The journalists with the brainstorm, the late John Karras and Donald Kaul, were self-described “wanna-be hippies” who simply schemed to get away with indulging their biking habit on the job. At the behest of pesky editors, they invited readers along for the ride. For their sins, Karras and Kaul became pioneers of the modern bicycling culture we now enjoy.
I fell in love with RAGBRAI and renewed my childhood love of bicycling as a Register journalist who reported on the ride, and I’ve kept pedaling since I left the newsroom in 2018. This was my 11th RAGBRAI on a bike.
Journalism: a mandate for reporters to impose on public officials and other sources of power on behalf of democracy.
RAGBRAI: an excuse for bicyclists to impose on small-town Iowans on behalf of homemade pie, a hot shower, and a corner in their cool basement to collapse on an air mattress. (Most riders camp in tents, but I’m among the vocal RAGBRAI minority adamant about sleeping indoors.)
Yes, the majestic European capitals are sublime. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a grain silo in the middle of an Iowa town draped in a banner several stories tall reading “BEER” with an arrow pointing the way to happy hour.
RAGBRAI is not a race or a group workout
RAGBRAI is a serendipitous summer freakshow—neither a race nor a group workout. Everybody more or less follows their own schedules, although there tends to be gluts of riders in the mornings, and RAGBRAI shuts down vendors from west to east throughout each day to encourage everybody to keep moving to the finish line. A given day may carry a specific theme–for instance, riders are encouraged to wear their college jersey.
“You need to train, but not for the reasons you might think,” was how my RAGBRAI teammate Tom Fudge put it.
He’s right. General aerobic fitness helps you enjoy a week on RAGBRAI, as does deft handling of a pie fork. But what your body probably needs most is resilience at key pressure points: neck, shoulders, back, knees, butt. Regular biking—and a professional bicycle fit—provide sound preparation.
Then again, everybody belongs on RAGBRAI. From newborns to nonagenarians. From svelte athletes wrapped in sleek Spandex to the guy pedaling along in a rumpled green Gumby costume. There are “sag wagons” for those who get exhausted on the road and want or need to be picked up.
RAGBRAI's cast of characters
RAGBRAI characters flock from all corners. By noon on my first day this year, all 50 states except West Virginia were represented in a pin-your-hometown map posted at the Mr. Pork Chop stand. (Yes, even the food vendors become hallowed icons on RAGBRAI.)
In the town of Galva I met a product designer from San Francisco slowly making his way to a new home in Boston via RAGBRAI. He already had spent 56 days bicycling to reach Iowa, marveling at the gorgeous vistas from atop the Rocky Mountains.
This was one of several conversations while I stood in a marathon breakfast line to purchase a ticket for a burrito, then stood in another line to exchange said ticket for the food.
I would’ve waited in a third line for coffee if not for my smiling RAGBRAI team captain, Bill Danforth, who appeared out of nowhere to hand me an extra cup of joe.
Speaking of my team, I ride with a pair of teams: Groucho (as in Marx) and No Pie Refused (as in a coalition of National Public Radio journalists) whose members stretch from coast to coast. Many people ride RAGBRAI alone or with immediate family. Some join a large charter. But the vast variety of teams (Butt Ice, Cow, Wimpy, Barking Spiders, Dead Bird, etc.) lends RAGBRAI much of its weirdo charm. Many teams still are hauled to RAGBRAI inside massive custom-painted jalopy school buses outfitted with roof racks.
The day-to-day of the ride
RAGBRAI really is a series of short rides; stopping often is the point. Each day features “pass-through towns” where fire departments, churches, 4-H clubs, American Legions and all manner of community organizations shovel out mountains of calories to hungry riders.
On the eve of this year’s ride, the elementary school in Sergeant Bluff in northwest Iowa offered showers on one side of the building, spaghetti dinner on the other.
“I’m trying to say I’m the ‘shower girl’ without it sounding pervy,” said a woman stationed at an entrance, offering directions.
On Edith Blanchard’s farm south of Mason City, one of my teammates received a pair of raspberry plants that she and our captain strapped to their bikes for the rest of the day. A young black goat bleated nearby in a makeshift petting zoo as part of a 4-H fundraiser. His name: Johnny Cash, the kid in blaaaack.
Speaking of bleating animals, RAGBRAI also comes with its own cacophonous soundtrack that blares from Bluetooth devices on bikes, DJs in beer gardens, and Iowa State Patrol troopers stationed at intersections with giant speakers powered by their car batteries. Imagine the last 50 years of popular music tossed in a blender, heavy on the ‘70s. You might hear AC/DC a block down the street from where a community band toots an instrumental rendition of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”
This year there was even a mobile karaoke team: One biker hauled a large P.A. on the back of his bike, while all team members wore headsets and took turns warbling songs. I was thoroughly impressed they had enough breath to sing—even badly—while panting uphill.
The current default musical grandfather of RAGBRAI is Grant Shipley, a 67-year-old retired civil engineer from Spokane, Washington, who pedals 300 pounds of a heavy-duty Schwinn American and custom stereo trailer. He also stays fit as an avid Alpine skier.
“I will take anything from the heart, and you know it when you hear it,” Shipley said of his eclectic, blues-based playlist.
Towns this year featured all kinds of attractions. Pocahontas staged Impact Pro Wrestling with a villain, the Candy Man, who spewed sugary snacks from his mouth as he yelled at kids in the front row.
In West Bend, riders climbed the stairs of the Grotto of the Redemption, an elaborate Christian shrine pieced together from quartz, petrified wood, and other materials starting in 1912 by a German immigrant priest. At the top I remarked to a friend that I was “hoping” to complete my first-century bike ride (at least 100 miles) the following day.
“Hoping?” a woman nearby retorted, overhearing me. “Either you do it, or you don’t!”
I thanked her, adding that I was in the right spot for a friendly reminder to have a little more faith.
My day of biking 107 miles did feel enabled by divine intervention. I credit the spirit of co-founder Karras, who died in November 2021 in Des Moines—so this was our first RAGBRAI without him. It felt as if his breath blessed us with a steady tailwind throughout the week, especially on the longest day of pedaling.
On RAGBRAI’s last day, our bodies were ready for the week to end, but not our souls. Northeast Iowa typically boasts the steepest hills, and Saturday’s first climb didn’t disappoint. The flip side is the chance to speed downhill. In this case, the occasional stray feather from Team Pink Flamingo’s boas grazed my cheek as they fluttered by. Alas, the homemade pie sold out 20 minutes before we arrived at West Paint Creek Lutheran Church east of Waukon. I didn’t say the week was perfect—just nearly so.
We hit the Mississippi River at 1:49 p.m., feeling euphoric and triumphant. The official mileage for this year’s route was 454, but one of the first things you learn is that there are as many different varieties of RAGBRAI as there are riders.
Perhaps because RAGBRAI was founded on a whim, it effortlessly embraces successive generations of riders and their evolving whims—as long as it’s from the heart.
You know it when you experience it.
7 top tips for RAGBRAI newbies
- Try to ride at least 500 miles in the months leading up to RAGBRAI, to help condition your body and willpower.
- Ride with friends or a team; it’s more fun.
- Despite biking all week, you may gain weight–especially if you have a taste for homemade pie.
- You’ll still need to bring cash; you can’t purchase all your roadside Kool-Aid and bananas with credit cards or apps.
- If you love to camp outdoors, you’ll have plenty of options. But I always recommend setting up accommodations in Iowans’ homes along the route. This fellowship is a big part of the RAGBRAI magic.
- There will be plenty of bike mechanics available on the route.
- There’s a RAGBRAI Newbies Facebook group.
The best, must-have gear for RAGBRAI
- helmet, gloves
- a few pairs of bike shorts, different jerseys
- air mattress and sleeping bag
- chain lube and cleaning cloth
- tire pump
- spare tube (unless you ride tubeless)
- small fold-up rain poncho
- extra external battery (if you worry about keeping your phone charged)
- Velcro straps (handy for strapping shirts, etc., to the top tube of your bike)