RAGBRAI, July 25-31, 2021. Every cycling adventure I’d undertaken so far was really a prelude to my first RAGBRAI (Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa). After watching Ryan Van Duzer’s YouTube video on his RAGBRAI ride, I was inspired to participate in what is arguably the largest cycling event of its kind, anywhere. And while RAGBRAI is not technically a bike tour, it did involve nightly destinations and overnight camping. This would also mark the first long distance cycling I had done on my Surly LHT.
I started planning for RAGBRAI 2021 in 2019 but COVID forced the organizers to cancel the 2020 event for the first time in history. So as soon as registration for the 2020 running opened, I quickly signed up.
Logistically, participating in RAGBRAI posed some challenges. I live in Southern California, so I would need to get myself, my bike and all my gear to the starting town in Iowa, which in 2021 was Le Mars IA. Learning of my plan to ride in this event, my best friend in Kansas City volunteered to drive me and my gear to the start town. He wanted to see what RAGBRAI was all about.
My research led me to BikeFlights, a company that furnishes bike shipping boxes and shipping services. So I purchased my box and ordered shipping to a local Kansas City bike shop, where my Surly would be assembled and tuned. My friend and I would pick it up on Thursday before heading to Le Mars on Saturday. I checked my one duffel at LAX on Thursday and headed to KC.
Being a RAGBRAI newbie, I followed the guidelines that allow rides just one large bag. However, after seeing a post in Facebook by the Out of Staters charter, I signed up for weeklong service. Getting my tent and clothing into the one duffel was extremely limiting. I found out later that OOS would have allowed more than one bag, including camping equipment. Mental note for my next RAGBRAI.
Another college friend volunteered to ride with us to Le Mars, and the three of us headed out early Saturday morning. One advantage to driving to the start town is that we were able to stop in Sioux City IA so I could tire dip in the Missouri River, because Le mars is inland from the Missouri.
Further logistics. Conducting all the logistical planning meant that I was researching without any prior experience. BikeFlights offered shipping to and from RAGBRAI through an association with Pork Belly Ventures, another stalwart RAGBRAI charter service. I could have gone exclusively with Pork Belly, but I had already signed up with OOS. Since I had used BikeFlights to ship my bike to KC, I would need to utilize Pork Belly to return my bike and equipment to LA. This meant when my friends and I reached Le Mars, the first order of business was to locate Pork Belly and give them my bike box and another box to return bike and gear. Pork Belly, I discovered, was its own city of riders and staff, so locating the right person to talk with was an adventure in and of itself. But mission accomplished.
We spent the rest of the afternoon taking in the RAGBRAI expo, sampling beers and food in the almost 90-degree heat. It was quite a scene, and my friends, though not participating in the event, really felt like they had gotten a real taste of what RAGBRAI was about. We headed off to find the OOS campsite so I could get situated there, after which my friends would head off to a hotel they had booked in Orange City, a few miles north of Le Mars. They were staying overnight so they could see me off the next morning for the first day of RAGBRAI.
Saturday July 25 dawned hot and sunny. My friends came to see me off before heading back to KC. I really appreciated their support. It was great having friends who were there really for no other reason than providing support. After taking pictures and shooting a few videos, they took off and I followed bike traffic out of Le Mars, heading to Sac City, the first overnight town.
Right away I learned that RAGBRAI is a pretty straightforward event. You ride your bike across Iowa over seven days, stopping in the various towns along the way and then camping in the overnight towns. Yet it is the sheer number of riders in the event that is staggering for newcomers, and maybe even veterans, as well as the variety of cyclists and types of bikes.
I saw road bikes, touring bikes, touring bikes fully racked and packed, tandems, tandem recumbents, unicycles and ellipticals. Speedy riders, slow riders, old people and young people. Friendly riders and focused riders.
RAGBRAI is a financial boon for the state, the individual towns, and the citizens, who show up en masse to support cyclists as they pass through. Kids spraying cold water on hot riders. Popups in front yards and driveways offering water, Gatorade, protein bars, and of course, pickles and pickle shots. Folks just sitting out in their front yards waving to riders as they pass by.
Each town does its best to put on a show for the participants. There’s always food, cold beer, and music. Bars and restaurants experience a surge of food and drinks served. Residents dress up in costumes. There’s always pie and ice cream, and a Casey’s nearby if you’re seeking something fast-foodish.
As a solo rider without any affiliations to any groups, I found that registering with a charter was a smart move. Each evening after the day’s ride I joined others under the outdoor tents to enjoy beer and make new friends. RAGBRAI is the kind of event where the participants all have something in common, no matter where they’re from. RAGBRAI is a one-of-a-kind of event, and that’s why it draws so many newcomers and veterans.
I’ve written in detail about my first RAGBRAI experience and you can read about it here.