RAGBRAI L is probably my last. I had a few good moments but mostly it was a journey of survival: Heat, Hills, Headwinds and more cyclists than I have ever seen in my life.
People familiar with my participation in two RAGBRAI, including this year’s 50th anniversary event, ask if I’m going to do another one. I’m not. Here’s why.
It’s expensive. The registration fee – $225 – is only the tip of the iceberg. I have to get my bike, my luggage and myself to the start town. Airfare, plus one extra baggage fee. I bought a hard shell case for transporting my bike – $500. Must travel the day before which necessitates one night’s hotel charge. Then a charter to get my stuff from town to town. Meals and drinks, and any incidentals (had to replace my crankset).
I’m still working fulltime, so I have to use Paid Time Off (PTO in corporate lingo). Counting the travel day, that’s six days of PTO which pretty much depletes my PTO reserves.
It’s hard. RAGBRAI L was 500 miles of hills, heat, and headwinds. Some days distance was as high as 90 miles, with no rest days after. It was a test of my motivation to get up each morning after a fitful sleep in my tent to get back on my bike and ride over more hills. True, there’s a sense of accomplishment at the end of each day, but also a sense of dread that you’re going to repeat the act tomorrow.
It’s crowded. RAGBRAI L might be an exception since so many riders decided to participate. At my charter’s campsite the charging stations were overwhelmed, making it nearly impossible to refuel devices. Lines for the kybo’s were incredibly long. Lines for food in the pass-through towns were incredibly long.
Still, there’s a magical appeal to RAGBRAI. There’s no other event like it in the world. Iowa is beautiful and the citizens are wonderful. It’s a big deal to say you’ve done one, or many. But I’ll pass this time and save up my PTO for actual time off.
It’s been a few weeks since I completed RAGBRAI L, the 50th anniversary of the largest bike event of its kind, cycling from Sioux City to Davenport Iowa. I say “survived” because that’s how I felt at the end after experiencing mechanical failure, oppressive heat and humidity, headwinds and hills on the 500-mile route. I’m still glad I did it, and I’m proud of the accomplishment. And I urge any cyclist that hasn’t ridden RAGBRAI to do so. It’s a one-of-a-kind event.
Here are my quick observations on this year’s event.
The 50th anniversary of RAGBRAI was designed to hew closely to the original route in 1973. This meant the route would move in a generally southwestern direction, bring southeasterly winds into play. Combined with heat nearing 100 degrees and tons of hills, I found this route to be significantly more difficult than the one I rode in 2021.
There was no cap on registrations, which wreaked havoc with the organizers trying to fulfill registration packets. Many did not receive their packets in the mail ahead of the event and had to fetch them at the Expo on Saturday.
I don’t know the number of weeklong cyclists, but I’m confident there were thousands more than 2021. And I’m pretty sure the sheer number of cyclists overwhelmed the pass-through and overnight towns, and the charters.
The organizers predicted as many as 60,000 riders on the route from Ames to Des Moines, but I didn’t feel like it was any more crowded than the previous days.
It felt less crowded on the Des Moines to Tama-Toledo section. Rumors flew that thousands of cyclists had dropped after Des Moines, having struggled with heat, hills and headwinds on Days 1 and 2, and facing the prospect of more miles and more of the same on Days 5 and 6.
SAG and medical support personnel were busy as many riders dropped mid-ride and others needed to be treated for heat exhaustion. I learned later that one rider died. Unsure of cause but I don’t think that’s happened before.
Don’t know how the organizers calculated mileage because I exceeded the mileage each day just by the distance I needed to get to and from my campsite. For instance, official mileage from Des Moines to Tama-Toledo was listed at 82 miles. When I finally arrived at my campsite, my Garmin showed 90 miles. In Ames, after circling the inside of Jack Trice Stadium (Iowa State), I followed the crowd, which turned out to be the wrong direction. Once I figured that out, I had to backtrack, adding more miles on top of the official 83.
Campsites, at least mine, were miles from the entertainment centers of the overnight towns, and shuttle service was hit or miss. So I skipped the entertainment. However, in Tama-Toledo the band Foghat was playing only a few hundred yards away and serenaded me to sleep.
One of the most popular vendors in each pass-through town was the bike repair shop. I utilized bike repair several times – more to come later.
Cell service was spotty (ATT is my carrier). I completely lost my signal in Carroll and then again in Tama-Toledo. This concerned my wife who appreciated my nightly calls to recount the day and assure her I was fine and doing well. Fortunately, my Garmin stayed connected and so she and other family members could follow me with LiveTracking.
The charging stations at my charter campsite were overwhelmed. I was okay the first three nights because I had brough along two power banks. I used these to charge my phone, Apple Watch and Garmin. But eventually I drained both of them and couldn’t find an outlet to recharge. As my phone drained down, Garmin LiveTracking failed but the Garmin kept working right until the end, which was impressive to me.
This was my second RAGBRAI, having done the ride year before last. I decided I would make a few logistic changes in getting bike and baggage to the start town. Prior, I had shipped my bike to Kansas City where it was assembled at a local bike shop. Two college buddies drove me to the Le Mars, the start town. At the end I had to find Pork Belly Ventures, a charter that would handle shipping my bike and baggage back to Los Angeles.
This time I chose to check my bike as baggage along with my duffle that had my camping equipment and clothing for the week. My backpack had my tech and my GoPro. I had found a non-stop flight from LAX to OMA (Omaha Nebraska, across the river from Sioux City). I made arrangement with a second charter, my primary charter being Out of Staters (OOS). I needed the second charter to get me from Omaha to Sioux City. This turned out to be major mistake on my part and set a few things in motion that would impact the ride.
In the next posts, I’ll recount the journey day-by-day.
Ryan Van Duzer, Alee Denham and Russ Roca have a lot in common: they are absolute bicycle nerds – and that’s a good thing. They also share a love of bike travel – bike touring and bikepacking – and they all make a living riding a bike. They make superb videos of their travels and informational videos on bikes and accessories. They are total gear junkies. They shun racing bikes, spandex outfits and clip-in pedals. In short, they’re a lot like me. Individually and as a group, they have inspired me to explore the world on a bike, and they will inspire you as well.
Ryan Van Duzer is the most inspirational bike traveler in the world. Period. I first discovered Ryan perusing videos about RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride event in Iowa. I was planning to participate in my first RAGBRAI and learned there were a lot of helpful videos on YouTube, and there were. There was also a video from Ryan Van Duzer, where he rode his bike from Boulder CO and across Nebraska to get to the starting town of RAGBRAI in Iowa and stealth camped along the way!
Fun facts about Ryan:
He once rode a bicycle from Honduras to his home in Boulder CO, hauling a trailer with all his gear
He doesn’t own a car – he rides his bike everywhere – to the grocery store, the airport, the gym
He once rode a 3-speed bike across the country and finished the last 50 miles with only one pedal
He loves beans, especially when they’re in a burrito
When he rides through a tunnel he sings “Ole, ole, ole, ole!”
His mantra: “No whammies, no flatties, no crashies!”
His mission statement: “Get out there!”
The “Get out there!” mission statement seeks to inspire everyone to ride a bike. Ride one for fun, ride one to work, ride one across town, across the state, across the country. You don’t need a fancy bike – almost any bike will do (remember, he rode a 3-speed across the country) – just get out there. Fully energized from this message, I decided to “Get out there” and start doing a little adventure cycling and create my own videos.
If you’ve seen any of Ryan’s videos, you know what a great storyteller he is. Basically, “I’m going on a bike ride and I’m going to show you everything I’m seeing.” His drone shots are incredible. He puts a lot of thought, effort and time into framing his shots. He speaks directly to you, sharing his thoughts and emotions.
Van Duzer’s videos often don’t pull any punches. Anyone who’s done any bike travel knows there are good days and bad. Ryan shows them both. Riding in rain, sleet or wind? Check. Booting a tire after a nail puncture? Check. Hike-a-bike up steep hills, straining at every foot? Check. Busting a carbon belt drive? Check. Navigating his bike down a narrow stairway in his condo? Check. Pushing his bike-in-a-box through an airport? Check. There are really no behind-the-scenes in his video, because he’s telling the whole story – not just the glamor shots (plenty of those, he has a good eye).
Van Duzer generally rides solo on some pretty intimidating routes. He’s done most of the Great Divide, the Baja Divide, the Colorado Trail and more by himself. Frequently his is joined by Canadian John Freeman, who bikes the world with his dog Mira, who has her own Instagram page.
Ryan is also an athlete, competing in marathons and just recently in the Leadville 100. Ran 100 miles and videoed the whole thing – the pain and the gain.
Van Duzer doesn’t hawk any merchandise, although I expect he will eventually. He promotes Priority Bicycles and helped design the off-road beast called the Priority 600X Adventure (I want one!) and rides the heck out of it. He favors certain bikepacking equipment brands – tents, panniers, frame bags. Some of the manufacturers are local Boulder companies. He’ll talk tires, rims, brakes, handlebars, racks, pedals with the best of them.
He also promotes local businesses. Recently he published a video of his trip to a market called Nude Foods where food is unpackaged, and shoppers use returnable glass jars to load up on the goods. Of course, he rode his bike outfitted with rear pannier bags, got his groceries, loaded them into the bags and pedaled his way back home.
Van Duzer has managed to create an enviable life based on a very simple lifestyle. In his own way, he’s made the world a better place. You cannot help but feel better after watching one of his videos. You can follow Ryan on Patreon, YouTube and Instagram.
Alee Denham is the world’s most prolific bike traveler. He has ridden across at least 5 continents and pedaled hundreds of thousands of miles. He is, in my opinion, the ultimate bikepacking expert on both bicycles and gear. Alee publishes an annual guide to the best bikepacking bikes, maybe the most thorough and objective of its kind. He’s Australian, so his analyses are more international in scope, so many of the bike brands he evaluates may be unknown to U.S. riders. He also does bikepacking reviews on YouTube and watching these inspired me to find and acquire a Surly Long Haul Trucker for my bike travel adventures.
In addition to the Bikepacker’s Buying Guide, Alee also publishes The Touring Buyer’s Guide and the How-to Travel By Bike. Order here.
Alee quit his job after socking away savings for over a year and selling unneeded possessions. He then combined his two greatest passions – cycling and traveling – and began to navigate the world by bike. He appears to earn a modest living from his content.
I would characterize Alee as more of an explorer than traveler. He goes wherever 7 or 8 hours of pedaling will take him. While I am super, super obsessive about turn-by-turn, Alee appears to focus more on the ride than the route, although he does use his smartphone for navigation.
What is most endearing about Alee is the mountain of knowledge he’s built up and his willingness to share with others so they too can have the same experience. You can follow Alee on Patreon, Instagram, YouTube and his website.
The Path Less Pedaled. Russ Roca and Laura Crawford, like Alee Denham, sold all their possessions to travel by bike and chronicle their adventures. Together they’ve logged about 15,000 miles in two countries and the mileage and list of countries is growing.
I discovered the Path Less Pedaled when I was researching cycling routes from San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles. One article featured a description of the route I eventually built in RideWithGPS and used, and the article credited PLP.
I identify with Russ and Laura because they dress and ride like me – no spandex – just regular outdoor clothing. Russ often wears Crocs or sneakers, maybe even sandals sometimes. PLP has come up with solid branding for their community of followers. First, there’s Party Pace, which champions riding for fun at a pace that suits you, and the Un-Serious Cyclist, which I definitely am.
In fact, you should watch Russ’ “un-serious” YouTube on five things he loves that serious cyclists hate. I identified with all five.
Russ and Laura are solid merchandisers, offering a variety of products such as stickers, patches, bandanas and hats. As you can see, I’m a consumer of their goods.
Projects of the Path Less Pedaled includes the Bicycle Tourism Advisor, which was started after seeing the positive impact bicycle touring has on small-town America. The BTA is intended to help guide communities and public agencies on how best to take advantage of bicycle touring. You can follow Russ and Laura on Patreon, YouTube, Instagram and on The Path Less Pedaled.
Summary. I’ve given my readers just a snapshot of the people I believe are the top influencers in bike travel. They have inspired me individually but also as a group. At the heart of all their messages is simple: your bike can take you around the block or around the world. Start your cycling adventure today, and we’re here to help you do it.
RAGBRAI 49 is now in the books, and as I begin to think about joining RAGBRAI 50, I’m reminiscing about riding in RAGBRAI 48. July 2021, I checked a box on my bucket list by participating in the Register’s Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). It was my first RAGBRAI, so I did as much research as possible, I made some mistakes and I did a lot of things right. Here are the things I did right, and some that I did wrong. Plus, first-timer observations.
Things I did right:
Booked with a charter. Had I not been monitoring a Facebook RAGBRAI Newbies group feed I would not have heard about the Out-of-Staters Charter (About Us (oosbicycleclub.com), run by Tim and Lynne Haeffner and staffed by family. OOS moved my stuff from overnight town to overnight town and even set up my tent. So when I arrived at the end of a long daily ride, my tent was ready and my luggage was right there. And many of the friends I made were when I socialized in the beer garden (drinking beer, of course, I’d earned it).
Involved some of my close friends. A couple of my college buddies wanted to witness what RAGBRAI was all about, so they offered to drive me up from Kansas City to the start town, Le Mars, IA. This enabled me to tire dip in the Missouri River in Sioux City, and at the end, in the Mississippi River. Le Mars was inland, so not everyone was able to take advantage of this as I did. Plus we got to spend the afternoon in Le Mars checking out the Expo, and drinking lots of cold beer to ward off the 90+ degree heat. The next day they saw me off for Day 1, giving me the confidence to finish the first-day 84-mile route.
I was a solo rider, so I tried to take in as much of the RAGBRAI experience as possible. I stopped in every pass-through town to replenish my water bottles and get some grub. Whenever possible I chatted up the locals and thanked them for their support. But mostly I tried to enjoy small-town America and the wonderful people that live for this event.
I took my time. 60–70–80 miles in 90+ degree heat takes a toll. The first day my face felt super hot, and I thought for a minute that I was getting badly sunburned. Turns out it was just that hot, and riding a bike in that kind of heat can do that. But there were plenty of rest stops along the way, plenty of pickle juice pop-ups manned by the locals, and always a welcoming local with a grassy front lawn and plenty of shade. Also, I went easy on beers during the ride, fearing dehydration, but never passed up on a few craft coldies at the end of the ride.
I talked with other riders while pedaling, especially if I saw someone struggling. Gave them encouragement and asked where they were from. Many riders pedal at the Party Pace (The Path Less Pedaled), like me, and it offers the opportunity to chat someone up and make a human connection. I especially enjoyed trash-talking with riders wearing Iowa State jerseys. I’m a diehard K-State fan, and ISU is a top rival.
Hydration. I was well-prepared. I have twin water bottle holders mounted on my handlebars and a water bottle cage on my down tube. I kept all three replenished and refilled at every pass-through town. And I avoided buying bottled water so as not to create plastic waste. (More about this later in Observations).
Power Blocks. The OOS charter provided a charging station, but I also brought power blocks as backup. I found a site Backroads Battery (Backroads Battery — Batteries, Bike, Battery Charger), and took advantage of their “rent-to-own” program for RAGBRAI. I picked up the power block in Le Mars at the expo. I charged my devices at night and then swapped for a fresh block on the ride the next day. Backroads Battery was always located in the same place as Mr. Pork Chop, so it was easy to find.
Dude Wipes (DUDE Wipes — DUDE Products). Biodegradable wipes for your bottom. Want to be clean down there before pulling on your chamois? Yeah.
Gave a loud shoutout to the law enforcement officers who managed the route traffic and made intersections safe for cyclists. Not one of them struck me as feeling like this job was a drudgery. They gave us thumbs up, returned our thank-You, and a few even blared classic rock tunes from their squad cars to motivate the riders. Without the support of law enforcement, you can’t have this kind of event.
Stealth laundry. I didn’t pack cycling and off-cycling outfits for every single day, so I washed my cycling clothes in the shower. It was always hot enough to drape my wet clothes over my tent and they dried almost instantly.
Things I didn’t do right, or could’ve done better:
I should have taken more time in each pass-through town. I rushed too much. I got caught up in the mass movement of cyclists. There simply is no hurry, but I somehow felt hurried, and I shouldn’t have. A second RAGBRAI would cure me of this.
I registered for the lottery and then signed up for a charter after the fact. I had them in reverse order. I only needed to sign up for my charter first and then note that on my official registration. So I went into the lottery and didn’t need to. Rookie mistake.
I used Pork Belly Ventures (Pork Belly Ventures LLC — Ragbrai Charter Service 2022 (pkbelly.com) for shipping my bike back to and from LA. I could’ve worked out the same arrangement with OOS. I just didn’t know that at the time. In the end, I had to carry my bags and walk my bike to the Pork Belly Ventures site, from the OOS site, which was several blocks away in hot and humid conditions. Then I had to find my bike box ($150 Bike Flights) and my shipping box for my luggage. Pain in the arse. Lesson learned.
I didn’t shoot enough photos or videos. I had the equipment but again, I felt rushed to get to the overnight town. I missed a lot of photo ops and narratives. Again, way too much hurrying.
I rode straight to my charter’s campsite, avoiding the overnight town. At almost every overnight town there’s a spaghetti feed, usually sponsored by a church, for around $10-$15 bucks. I missed out on those, and the chance to support these organizations. And by skipping the overnight town, I didn’t get to witness firsthand the effort the townspeople had gone to welcome riders. I gave into that feeling that I had to get to the campsite. Won’t happen next time.
RAGBRAI is a one-of-a-kind cycling event, not to be passed up. Whether you do it once or multiple times, there’s nothing like it. I had RAGBRAI on my cycling bucket list for years, so it was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to finish the whole distance.
That said, RAGBRAI can be an expensive proposition for an out-of-stater. I spent close to $1,000 bucks before I even got to Le Mars. I had to buy a bike shipping box from Bike Flights, and then pay Bike Flights to ship my bike to a shop in Overland Park KS. I paid the bike shop a little over $100 to assemble my bike. Paid Pork Belly to return ship my bike and luggage. Registration fee and charter fee. Airfare and lodging. A lot of this expense can be attributed to my first-year inexperience. Next time, I’ll do better.
I observed every kind of human-powered vehicle imaginable. Steel bikes, carbon fiber bikes, full-suspension mountain bikes, tandems, recumbents, unicycles, and an elliptical setup. I saw Batman and Robin riding bikes and fighting crime. Parents and their kids. Many riders showed the spirit of RAGBRAI by wearing colorful headgear and outlandish outfits. Made me smile and give a shout-out.
Veterans know that RAGBRAI is not a race, but that doesn’t stop some groups from running pace lines. I get it. Because traffic is virtually non-existent on the routes, it presents an opportunity for pelotons to run pacing lines in the left lane. But what’s the point? Getting to the overnight town faster? Why? Plus, whenever a car appeared ahead, those pelotons had to merge right with the rest of the riders. Struck me as unnecessary and fun-killing.
Yes, bike safety and decorum are necessary. However, several times I was startled when a rider came up on my left and then shouted, at a volume close to a Space-X rocket liftoff, “on your left!”. Made me almost swerve right into other riders. Come on people, no need to scream out the fact you’re on my left.
At every pass-through town and at pop-ups along the way there is bottled water for sale. To me, this creates an unfathomable ocean of discarded plastic water bottles that could easily overwhelm our recycling infrastructure.
You don’t need to belong to a group to ride RAGBRAI. I did it solo, and I’m sure many others did as well. I made friends along the way — friends that I’m still in touch with.
Agribusiness is alive and well in Iowa. We’re talking about a galaxy of corn. Planted by GPS, perfect rows and the stalks are of equal height. Farmers feed America and the world. Iowa is leading the way.
I gained a renewed appreciation of small-town America. I was born and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, and riding RAGBRAI helped me reconnect with my roots. Interstate highways, while enabling travelers to cover great distances speedily in their cars, bypassed small communities, bankrupting family businesses and scattering populations. On a bike, you get to experience what it was like before interstate highways. As I rode through these small towns I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the residents. People sitting out front on their lawns applauding our efforts. Kids spraying us with cold water as we passed by. Whole communities working their butts off to support this effort. If you’re thinking of doing RAGBRAI because it’s a long-distance bike ride, forget it. It’s about the solid citizens of Iowa.