RAGBRAI UpdateAugust 11, 2019
Since this website seems to be turning into a means of keeping my family updated on my adventures, I thought I would include a copy of an email I wrote up after riding in RAGBRAI in July of 2019.
For the last two weeks I’ve been saying I would get an email together to tell you all about how RAGBRAI went; this is that email. My ideas are pretty scattered in here, and I left out a lot. To get a better idea of what the actual riding was like, I’d take a look at Nick’s blog post he wrote up about the ride.
To give a bit of a background, RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. It has been put on by the Des Moines register annually for the last 47 years, and gets a lot of attention in Iowa during the 7 days of the event. More than 15,000 people participate every day, more than 10,000 of which are riding the whole week like Nick and I did. It begins on the western border of Iowa somewhere along the Missouri River, where you would traditionally dip your bike in the water before riding to the eastern border at the Mississippi River, where you once again ceremonially dip your bike in the water.
Every year the route changes; this year we began directly across from Omaha, NE in Council Bluffs, and finished up in Keokuk, a small-ish town overlooking the river in south-eastern Iowa. This year, the official distance of the ride was 427 miles, although everyone we met with an odometer said that the daily estimates were about 5 miles short of the actual distance they rode. Here’s an overview of all of the stops we made, and if you are for some reason looking for more information on the route, you can find more maps here.
I think RAGBRAI is equal parts a bike ride, a social event, and as a couple guys we met waiting in line for free beer at 8am put it, “a rolling kegger.” For people who can ride faster than the average participant, it becomes less and less focused on biking and more focused on the other two areas. Nick and I figured this out as the event progressed, and began spending more time hanging out in the stop-over towns, listening to music, and eating too much food. RAGBRAI isn’t an event to lose weight or to help get yourself in shape considering the amount of pie and beer being pushed in your face at every stop.
Every road that is a part of the route is closed down, so you aren’t worried too much about cars along the way. It’s an entirely new experience riding a bike on a road that isn’t shared with cars, made even more unique by the overwhelming number of bicycles you are competing with. Never in the ride are you alone; every stretch is occupied by many other people whom you are overtaking, being overtaken by, or taking the time to chat with.
Surprisingly I was able to keep up pretty well even though I had never ridden more than 35 miles in a day. RAGBRAI doesn’t take too much training it turns out, since you have as much time as you want to get from one town to the next. I saw one man with a tag on his bike that said “93 years old and still riding RAGBRAI,” another man riding on an oversized unicycle, and a handful riding on ellipticals, hand-cycles and other contraptions I wouldn’t know how to describe in the scope of this email. Of course, it is a cycling event and a majority of the riders were in great shape, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a casual ride. Even though I was under-trained and Nick was riding on a fixed, single speed bike, we we were able to finish the ride in about 8 hours every day with a decent amount of stopping and chatting. We never seemed to lag behind the pack at all.
Nick was particularly impressive for riding on his fixie, and rightfully got a lot of attention for it. Despite what you might think, Iowa isn’t full of flat land, it’s full of many short, rolling hills. Although Nick’s bike wasn’t geared for the task of taking on hills, he figured out pretty quickly that he could at least coast down the hills by taking his feet off the pedals and placing them up on the frame, letting the pedals spin freely until catching them again with his feet at the bottom of the hill. At first it terrified me just to watch, but it became pretty normal after the first day or so.
With about 20 miles left on the longest day of the ride, we hit our only major mechanical failure of the trip: Nick got a flat tire. Nick luckily brought a spare inner tube and we managed to get the wheel in working order with the help of another rider, but then found out that the thread on his axle was stripped. We couldn’t get the wheel on securely on the right side, and Nick had to rely on his chain tensioner to keep that side secure for the next couple miles until we found a repair tent. Sadly, the only thing that they could think to do was help secure it with a couple zip ties. This ended up being the only helpful thing anyone could come up with, out of the many shops Nick went to during the ride. He ended up riding more than 200 miles with his wheel secured this way.
There are many more aspects to the ride that I don’t really know how to fit into this email. The RAGBRAI traditions are what I found most interesting, like how everyone would drop Mardi Gras beads on roadkill, and would occasionally stick empty beer cans between the arms of dead raccoons to make them look like they just had a rough night out on the town. I found the biker slang fascinating too, like the way people work together to stay alert by calling out for cars, bikers getting on the road, and so on. Every time a biker yells something, it gets parroted down the line until everyone is caught up. Once I saw two men on the side of the road calling out for another rider, yelling out “Julie!”, and pretty soon the whole line was yelling “Julie! Juuullliiieee! JULIE!”
That’s about all I can think to talk about for now. If you think anyone else might be interested in hearing about the ride, please forward this along for me. Also, give Nick’s blog post a look and leave a comment, it’s not easy implementing your own comment section from scratch.