The Chainlink

Must Love Hills: A RAGBRAI Virgin's Weeklong Love Affair With Iowa

By Liz Farina Markel

If Iowa had a dating profile, a top requirement would be a love of hills: long, steep climbs; fast and exhilarating descents; and gentle rollers that provide an opportunity to test your shifting abilities. A trek through southern Iowa's roads provides all of these opportunities in spades. It was the main feature of the 2016 RAGBRAI route, with almost 10,000 feet of climbing across 183 miles. And that's just the first three days. See the full route and elevation info here.


These hills can feel like punishment. They test your love with every pedal stroke. But if you stay committed and keep showing up in spite of the weather, in spite of the headwinds, and in spite of the pain you will undoubtedly feel in your quads and your undersides, Iowa will reward you ten thousand fold.


The reward is time spent with Iowans who genuinely, earnestly want nothing more than to share their beautiful state with you. And it is a beautiful state, with green farm fields lining almost every road and charming downtowns arranged around tree-filled squares that are the perfect place to take a break from the road and take in some calories and some local music. It is quintessential Midwest America, and for me, there is nothing more rejuvenating than to take a respite from city life and live simply for a week: ride my bike, eat LOTS of good food, meet new people and breathe deeply.


Interactions with Iowans are good for the soul. On our shuttle bus ride into town, we commented on the signs on local lawns: "Free camping! Free shade! Free WiFi!" In Chicago, when someone is this overtly generous, they usually want something in return. This journey required a re-calibration of trust in other people. That said, don't trust anyone who tells you that Iowa is flat. Those people standing on the side of the road at RAGBRAI yelling, "LAST HILL!" shouldn't be trusted either. They are all liars.


But back to the good people of Iowa, who were gracious and enthusiastic hosts: we received enthusiastic welcomes on our way into town--sometimes a high-five or two--and equally enthusiastic good wishes as we departed. Meeting these locals, learning about their lives, petting their dogs, shopping at their small businesses and donating to replace their fire trucks or fund their field trips were the highlights of this experience for me, and gave the ride a sense of purpose beyond the physical challenge and the revelry.


Iowa filled our spirits, and it also filled our stomachs. Every five to 15 miles we passed through a town offering foods ranging from ribs in raspberry chipotle barbeque sauce to freshly-blended fruit smoothies. Mr. Porkchop served up meat chunks the size of your palm out of a pink school bus painted to look like a pig. Churches, 4H clubs and local FFA chapters served up pie and bananas in abundance. Firehouses offered sandwiches, more grilled meats and opportunities to cool off. Between towns, local homes offered their front yards for the Boy Scouts to sell snacks, for the Amish to churn ice cream and make, "the best donut I've ever had" (according to my husband) and for the Iowa Craft Beer Tent to offer up more than 10 beers on tap. My personal favorites from the week were the peanut butter and jelly vendor offering gluten-free bread and homemade jams and the family selling gluten-free pie by the side of the road. Equipment note: Bike panniers are additional weight to carry, but they are exceptionally handy for transporting baked goods and homegrown tomatoes to your tent for a post-ride snack.


Our fellow riders--15,000-19,000 of them on any given day--were just as diverse as the food offerings. Among the various types of bikes, costumes and people riding, there were many things to be inspired by. The Adaptive Sports Iowa team brought more than 50 riders along, many of whom were much more mobile on two wheels than on two legs. The Navy and Air Force cycling team were out in full force, offering support to many riders with mechanical misfortunes. The father we met at Tuesday dinner who was riding with his 12 year old daughter got a high-five from me for his awesome definition of "quality time".  Batman even came along for the fun, and I hear there was some other dude named Lance who was causing a commotion.


Many of these inspiring riders brought me to tears. Somewhere around Day 2, a young man blew by me on a tandem with a skeleton riding behind him, wearing a bike jersey with FUCK CANCER emblazoned across the back. A sign on a gentleman's recumbent bike proclaimed his ALS diagnosis, followed by his slogan, "No bad days." On the evening of Day 1, I stood and watched riders come into Shenandoah in the early evening and saw a father-son team in a four-wheeled bike with a sign on the back: "This is our dad. He has Stage IV cancer. This is his first RAGBRAI." I also saw Clarence, a 90-year old veteran who happened to be my World Bicycle Relief jersey twin. As if riding 420 miles wasn't cool enough, he has excellent taste in nonprofits. Read more about Clarence in this great article from Cedar Rapids' The Gazette.


Of all of these riders, there's one I want to be like when I grow up: every morning I said hello to Lucy, a Washington, Iowa native, whose bike tag proclaimed, "89 and doing fine." She started doing RAGBRAI because she loved riding her bicycle and the route was going through her hometown, so "I did it." Many rides later, she was still pedaling and having a blast. Her persistence impressed me just as much as her age, knowing that our culture has not always been supportive of women's participation in sports.


Are you ready to fall in love in 2017? There are as many ways to do this ride as there are riders, but a good place to start would be the RAGBRAI website as well as the RAGBRAI Group on The Chainlink. Some additional important things you should consider as you prepare to dive off the deep end:

  • Plan to put in some serious miles before the ride. You'll want to achieve the fitness level required to handle 400+ miles over seven days, but you also need to get your butt and shoulders accustomed to being on the bike. The RAGBRAI site offers training and safety tips if you need somewhere to start.
  • Love and respect the hills. For a more enjoyable riding experience, build the strength to ride them without walking, and learn how to descend safely at 30+mph. Appropriate gear ratios for your bike will also give you an advantage.
  • Look at the various charters offering services that may include baggage hauling, showers, tent rentals, shuttles to/from the start/finish, meals, massage therapists, etc., and figure out what you need in order to have the best physical and psychological experience with respect to the things you can control. We went with Pork Belly Ventures this year. Friends have traveled with C.U.B.S.--Chicago Urban Bicycling Society and Riverbend Bicycle Club. Others do it self-supported with a tent or rent a camper and trade off riding/driving days. There are advantages to each approach.
  • Purchase a good air mattress and an awesome camp pillow. A hole-free, leak-free tent is also an excellent investment.
  • Be prepared to ride alone, and be prepared to ride with others. I came with a group of friends and probably spent 10% of my weekly miles with them. The rest of the ride, I either slogged along solo or found new riding buddies for two or 25 miles. Attaching something to your bike that will be a conversation starter, such as your college's logo, a cute stuffed animal or a sign stating your reason for riding, will help make those connections. Playing fun music also helps.
  • Ride strategically. No, this is not a race, but strategy is still required. My priorities were to explore the ride with my camera and to avoid the heat and crowds as much as possible. This required a 6am rollout time, which also required a 10pm (or earlier) bedtime. If your priorities lean more towards the beer and concerts, your timetable will look different. Plan for your priorities, but be flexible.


RAGBRAI's 420 miles certainly left their mark on my tender undersides. And yet, I can't stop thinking about Iowa and how warm and fuzzy she made me feel. I'm already on a countdown to July 23, 2017 when I can see her again.

See more of my photos in the RAGBRAI album on The Chainlink.


Liz Farina Markel is a people-focused photographer, and the creative force behind Tipping Point Photography. She has been running since high school, but rediscovered bicycling when she moved to Chicago and has been an active commuter and cyclocross racer ever since. Find her photos--of bikes, travels and her crazy adorable dog Buster--on Instagram, Facebook and her website.



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Comment by Jilian Millares on April 17, 2017 at 6:25pm

Looks like you had so much fun.

Comment by Liz on August 20, 2016 at 8:02pm

Jasmin - Come join us in 2017! :-D

Steven - You're welcome!

Kathy - I did notice one or two pups on the ride. :-) Buster will get an opportunity to try a trailer this fall. He's not one to sit still very easily, so I don't think he'll be joining us for the ride, but who knows? He does like adventures! Hope you are doing well.

Comment by Jasmin on August 19, 2016 at 2:17pm

Great post :) I'd really like to do ragbrai next summer - or any other bike tour really!

Comment by Steven E Gross on August 19, 2016 at 11:28am

This was to be my first year for RAGBRI but an injury sidelined the trip.  After looking at these images I can't wait for 2017... I'll be there! Thanks Liz for sharing

Comment by Kathy Schubert 'n Suzy Schnauzer on August 18, 2016 at 8:59pm

As a veteran of 17 RAGBRAIS I can say this is a terrific article with terrific photos.  The only thing missing is a mention of the 3 schnauzers, the huge dog on a cargo bike and probably a few other 4 legged riders that I missed.  Where was Buster during all this?  Why don't you bring him along in a basket or a trailer?  Sincerely, Kathy 'n Suzy

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