Friday, August 2, 2013

What is RAGBRAI?

I realized after my last post that I hadn't quite defined what RAGBRAI is, so as we were making our way across Iowa, I decided that I would try and capture the experience for you.

Hundreds of parked bikes.  Meanwhile, owners hunt for something appetizing.
RAGBRAI is an acronym for: the Registrar's Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa.  The route is different every year. The ride starts on Iowa's western border and goes to the eastern border with a seven day itinerary during the last week in July.  The tradition goes that you dip your rear tire in the Missouri River to commence the ride, and end the ride by dipping the rear tire in the Mississippi.  There are other week long, across state rides, but RAGBRAI is the oldest, celebrating the 40th year this year; largest, bringing 20-30,000 people from all over the world; and longest, averaging 468 miles of rolling hills, touring event in the world.

The family at the Missouri River, about officially begin the ride.

I guess the obvious question is, "why would anyone want to bike 400+ miles across Iowa in July?"  Well, the obvious answer is RAGBRAI is a huge party; but it's more than that.  It's a place where cyclists can let go, wear lycra proudly (or kilts, or speedos, or...), and rule the road without the fear of becoming a hood ornament.

A support vehicle or S.A.G. wagon slowly making its way through the bikers.  If only this were a daily reality.

Oops, I don't want to be exclusive here by saying cyclists.  This year the first runners showed up to do RAGBRAI.  I saw 3 runners in total.  Their ambition was to do the entire thing, and I know two made it.

Ultra-runners bringing a positive feedback loop to RAGBRAI by inspiring cyclists with their dedication, and in turn being inspired by the constant cheering fans.

If you have never been to the mid-west, it can get hot.  Very hot.  And humid.  There can be ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, and other tiny pests.  The terrain also has miles and miles of large rolling hills and strong headwinds are a strong possibility.  It can also rain in July.  The difficulty level is a gamble, and part of the fun. But no matter the obstacles RAGBRAI brings, the important thing is that we are all in it together.

Christian broke a chain about a mile from the next town.  Within minutes, people were asking if we needed help.  Here are some passers by and Christian working together to get him rolling again.

The last two years were very hot, hitting highs of 102 F, multiple days in a row.  This year was absolutely beautiful in every way.  It rained a couple of nights, which cooled the days down to the low 80's.  The wind was at our backs, and the elevation wasn't too treacherous.  We hit the RAGBRAI jackpot.

Neva soaking her neck cooler at the free water station.


You see the gamete of cyclists (plus 3 runners) at RAGBRAI.  You have the early crowd that pretty much sprint to the end and get in at 9:30am.  Unless you're part of the early crowd, you probably won't see this elusive group.  They are typically seen wearing matching outfits, and speeding by you at 30 mph, drafting each other in 2 synchronous lines.

Everyone gets up early on the 80+ mile days.  The forecast showed highs at 93 F.  The scenery was misty and we were riding in and out of a fog cloud.  Lights on, sun rising, a beautiful start to a long day.

Then you have the CAT riders.  They're not quite racers or part of the early crowd, but they are willing to yell "on your left" quite loudly as they pass you; if you were unsure that they were passing from the blasting pop music coming up behind you. Then you've got the drunkies.  The people that stop and party every chance they get.  They might roll in at 2am, if they even make it to the sleeping town.  These guys are harmless most of the time, but be alert for them after 12pm.  Swerving and descents don't mix.

Every now and again, you'll hear the ambulance go by to assist a fallen cyclist.

Most of RAGBRAI is filled with the team-sters.  Whole teams of friends that have collaborated over the years and come up with cool catch phrases (usually including a sexual innuendo) and a colorful bus.  They wear bright colors or costumes, and will usually stop and chat for a little bit before rolling by.

Team Roadkill adorns the unfortunate pavement fauna with mardi gras beads.
In 2012, we stayed with our friend Deborah in Cherokee.  She was hosting Team Groucho.

They are a colorful bunch, jam packed with talent and stories.  A father/daughter combo, a winemaker, a youth triathlon teacher, and the man who wrote the book (literally) on scouts' wilderness survival.

Robert Birkby and Bill Danforth, holding their own creations.

Who can argue with Groucho? "I'd never join any club that would have someone like me as a member."

I think we fit in quite well...

Groucho Megan

The crowd we fall into are the self-contained.  The people who carry all of their gear.

This is a tandem bike with an Xtracycle long tail kit attached to it.  That's a lot of stuff!

Other people that keep our pace are families, recumbent trikes, and uni-cyclists.

And this guy...

Say hello to Mathias.

Meet Mathias, and his bike.  I have dubbed him the RAGBRAI Jesus.  He bikes RAGBRAI only carrying bike repair gear, ready to stop and help any cyclist in need.  His name also rhymes with Jesus  :  Mu-Tee-Us.  Oh, did I mention he is in his 70's, rides a mountain bike with no seat, and runs marathons.

And Mathias' bike, seat not included.

Even Batman made an appearance this year.  He rode the whole way.  Do you know Batman's bike of choice?  A grocery getter trike with a basket in back.

Nananananananana, nananananananana, Trike Man!
And let's not forget the Iowans!  The people who tolerate their city jam-packed with cyclists, who show us hospitality and smiles throughout the week.  Sometimes we're lucky and get a nice warm-showers place to stay.  This year, we met Don through warm showers.  He has ridden 25 RAGBRAI's and recognized us from our email correspondence.  How surprised was I to hear my name called out amidst the masses of bikers!

Don made us omelettes for breakfast.  Here is the egg-man at work...coo coo ca choo. 

Other times, locals will open up their home to us to keep up out of the storm.  Hail was in the forecast early in the week when we rolled into Perry, Iowa.  Just as we started getting pelted with ice, Maria ran out and offered us a room in her house.  Maria and her family are originally from Mexico and fed us homemade stuffed tortas with fresh salsa verde.

There was also a new Siberian husky puppy that Neva befriended.

Neva and Azul riding a burro, um, kind of.

And many times we will be invited by blasts from RAGBRAI past.  I met David the first year that I did RAGBRAI.  He runs a Pedi-cab business in Des Moines.  David and Loren put us up in their home and we had lots of food, fun and laughs.

David telling a compelling story at dinner.

We bumped into them again at a meeting town.

Enjoying a grapes and a salad for lunch.

They are fully loaded too, but this couple cruises.  They were pacing at 23 mph for a while before we met up with them.  What a strong pair!

David and Loren looking over their map and contemplating their next move.


In addition to meeting new friends in an insta-bike community, you learn a lot about Iowa.  Did you know there is an Amish community in Iowa?  And they're selling their baked goods.  The cinnamon rolls are delicious.  I am not sure what they do to make the cinnamon rolls so moist, but it must have something to do with their pie-ousness.

There are also some Dutch founded towns.  In the 19th century, 700+Dutch middle class families that were part of an Emigrant Association, settled in various places in Iowa.  We stopped in Pella and enjoyed the hints of Holland.

A young shop keep wearing a delicate Dutch hat and lace garment.

You can't have a Dutch theme without windmills.  Lots and lots of windmills.  Giant windmills, windmill floats, windmills made from bikes.  Neva liked the information windmill which had large wooden shoes in front.

If you'd like your own wooden shoes, you can ask this guy to make some for you.

There is also corn there.


And then there's the food.  It's not usually very healthy food, or cheap.  They cater to quick, cold and full of carbs, but sometimes the vegetarian will get lucky... and sometimes, not so much.

The first host town was Harlan.  There was literally not one restaurant in town that offered vegetarian food.  Christian got this walking taco which is Doritos covered in cheese, ground beef, sour cream, and salsa.  I finally settled for a bean and cheese burrito from a RAGBRAI vendor.

The firefighters usually have booths with unlimited pancakes for breakfast and wood fired pizza for lunch, using a retired, converted fire truck for the oven.

A hungry biker has his plate at the ready.

If you're pining for a sweet treat, don't worry, there are plenty of opportunities.  The most famous and sought after is Beekman's Ice Cream.  They serve homemade ice cream, and make floats, in the middle of cornfield Iowa.  The bright pink signs that say BEEKMAN'S in black bold letters will pop up a mile before you see them, usually when you're cruising toward the host town of the evening.  You can hear the chugga-pop-pshhh-chugga before the colorful culinary creamery comes into view.

Beekman's better watch out though, the Amish are coming, and they too have ice cream.  Followed by David's Famous Gourmet which was yet another road side ice cream stand to show up in 2013.  They offered a wonderfully salty/sweet salted caramel option that had me wanting seconds.

David's ice cream machine isn't as colorful as Beekman's, but simplicity might be key with their simple yet savory sweet flavors.

And then there is my favorite go-to of all.  The place that saved me from heat exhaustion with their endless supply of free ice.  The place that has reasonable priced hand-made food served with a smile.  The place that is a RAGBRAI heaven.

They humbly post their specialties with one word on each side of their name.
The pizza is made with fresh dough, no frozen stuff here.  They are best known for their breakfast pizzas which have eggs, cheese, sausage, green peppers and onions.  Casey's does not discriminate either and won't hesitate to make a fresh pizza, meat free for the veggie lovers out there, or anyone who has a special pizza request.

Neva hording pizza.
The doughnuts are also made with fresh dough, daily in the store.  They remind me of homemade doughnuts that my grandmother used to make, except these are smothered in maple icing.

A common question is, "How does Neva do?"  Well, a picture is worth a thousand words, so I'll give you a few.

Then there's the unspoken good-byes.  Dipping your tire in the Mississippi ends the week of orchestrated chaos.

I decided to join in the ritual, and dip my tires.  Easier said than done... Maybe...

Then you pack it all up and head back home.  Back to a life of normalcy.  A life less dependent on how far away the next town, and more dependent on regular showers.

Packing up the charter bus with our bikes and gear, waiting to be taken to our car in Omaha.

The experience is very similar every year summed up with "it's RAGBRAI", but you keep going back each year for the instant community and cycle-centric mentality.

I heard the statistic this year from Don, and I think it says a lot - RAGBRAI is the 23rd largest city in Iowa.  RAGBRAI inspires art, cycling as transportation and community.  I think I'll continue to visit my city in Iowa, with the hopes that Neva might start pulling her own weight.


  1. I enjoyed the journey vicariously from my easy-chair. Good photos; excellent commentary.

  2. Hello Justin Hurt!

    I'm so glad you found the site and are enjoying the pictures (of you) and the posts. I hope to see you around next year. This was the first year we missed since Neva was 1 years old because we were on a tour in Colorado, but we plan to make it 2015, with Neva on a trail-a-bike! We're the touring type, so chances are you will see us with all of our gear.