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Riding In Iowa's Greatest of American Bicycle Tours
Photos and text By Zander Kaufman
Editor Note: As our writer/rider finds out, RAGBRAI is still going strong after more than three decades.
On the day that Lance Armstrong ended his career and journey, another journey started a world away. Nearly 10,000 cyclists gathered in northern Iowa, the breadbasket of America, to make a nearly 500-mile journey across the state of Iowa.
This event is called RAGBRAI, which stands for Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. RAGBRAI has been given many pronunciations over the years. To the majority of riders it doesn’t matter how you pronounce it as long as you have fun, but to the dedicated rider, it should always be pronounced "RAG-brye."
The ride was started in 1973 when two reporters from Iowa biggest newspaper (Des Moines Register) challenged some of their readers to join them on a ride across Iowa. It was evident in years to follow that the challenge was a springboard to make RAGBARI the world's largest and longest running bicycle touring event. The early years of RAGBRAI drew in as many as 23,000 riders in one day. For safety reasons officials have made a 8,500 rider limit rule; however, many first timers and townspeople choose to ride for a day or until they get tired.
The event, which is attempting to make its way through every Iowa town in coming years, started this year in LeMars, Iowa, home to Blue Bunny and the "Ice Cream Capitol of the World." This year RAGBRAI traveled through many towns and had a total of eight overnight stops where riders could rest, relax and eat the best of what Iowa has to offer.
The ride started at dawn on Sunday, July 24th. Riders woke, assembled and took off across Iowa, the wind at their backs and the cool mid-summer air filling their lungs with the fresh aroma of newly tasseled corn.
After pedaling away from Le Mars I witnessed the older part of Iowa, where towns are sparse and still have the old country flair, as in Germantown and Orange City. It's towns like these where stores like Wal-Mart have yet to take over the landscape. For just a moment, you feel that if you were placed here unwittingly, you'd think you were in the countries of the original settlers of these towns. For instance, when moving slowly up the hill of Orange City, you can take a long look at the Dutch windmill in the center of town.
Many local people set up tables alongside the road to sell homemade cookies, Czech pastries, energy bars, lemonade and other goods. You will also find kindhearted people who will say, “Come lay in my yard, sit in the shade, drink some free ice water.” However, be warned: the huge piece of watermelon will cost you a buck. Another aspect that draws in riders are the roads. Except for an uncommon detour, you find roads in great condition and very little road debris, which is a good thing when you just have to snap that picture of the-most-amazing-thing-you-have-seen-in-the-entire-trip just over the top of (every) hill. These are some of the reasons why people from coast to coast travel thousands of miles to be a part of this ride.
In places where traffic consists mostly of beat up pickup trucks and tractors, the sight of nearly 10,000 cyclists moving past the majestic ten-foot-high fields of corn catches many local residents off guard. When I walked into a small roadside convenience store, I heard an old women say that she had no idea how big RAGBRAI was and thought only to expect a few hundred bikes.
In fact lots of people were still taken by surprise by RAGBRAI. Someone nearby a highway intersection outside Orange City yelled, “What happened? Did Sturgis go low tech this year?” Some could say that Sturgis, a giant motorcycle tour and rally, has a lot in common with RAGBRAI, minus the loud sound of loud bikes and leather. It shares the same sentiment. People come here to do their own thing. Riders with radios cranked up to the max, people dressed up in different costumes--even an old man doing a comedy skit with a portable public address system strapped onto his bike.
Thanks to the help of the Iowa State Patrol, who man intersections and maneuver traffic, the ride is safe for all two-wheeled travelers. Official riders enjoy the benefits of roadside assistance and SAG coaches, which move riders' luggage between towns. Internet access is also available in select overnight towns.
For those who want to experience RAGBRAI, registration opens November 15th and is limited to 8,500 riders, but early registration does not guarantee you a spot. Because RAGBRAI is so popular, everyone who signs up before the annual deadline (May 1st) will have his or her name put into a lottery.
Before the 2005 tour, 223,650 riders had ridden in RAGBRAI tours, which had covered 14,560 miles since the tour's inception. If you are a first time rider, this might seem a bit intimidating, and it might be a good choice to find a team to ride with along the way. Teams vary in size from less then five to well over 50 people. With team names like Die Hard, Bar Dogs and Flying Monkeys, you will be sure you fit in somewhere. Or do your own thing if you so choose.
As the ride ended this year in Guttenberg, Iowa, I was sure of this: You'll almost always find the wind at your back, and almost certainly find a few good friends along the way.
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