The Chainlink

RAGBRAI 101

Photo by JustWill 

Even though it's friggin' freezing outside, now is "go time" for that annual summertime rolling party in the land of corn and pork. In other words, pre-reg for the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is officially open. We here at The Chainlink have done the ride a collective five times and feel it's something every cyclist should do at least once. This is the primer we ran last year, but updated with 2016 dates. If you're thinking this may be your year, go for it. Trust us, you'll be glad you did!  

 

By Brett Ratner

The last week in July may seem like an eternity away. And planning for a ride that far off probably sounds a little premature.

But, if you’ve ever considered doing the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI for short), now is actually the time to start thinking about if this is the year for you.


Volumes can be (and have been) written about RAGBRAI’s history, why it’s so popular, and what it takes to organize a fun and drama-free week of riding. What this article will instead try to accomplish is answer some basic questions and get you pointed in the right direction.

On a personal note, I completed the 2009, ‘10, ‘11 and ‘13 rides. I’ve always had an amazing time, and I can say my first RAGBRAI was downright magical. But it seemed like through the years, the route had been progressively watered down. In 2009, I enjoyed a true 500 mile, fun and challenging ride (Iowa actually has some pretty good hills, if you can believe it). Later iterations wound up being closer to 400, mostly flat and easy miles.


All-in-all, if RAGBRAI is on your cycling “bucket list,” 2016 might be a great year to check it off. Here’s your “RAGBRAI 101” primer. Helping us out is none other than RAGBRAI’s Director, T.J. Juskiewicz.

First off, what is RAGBRAI?
It’s a week-long, rolling party across Iowa, where you and about 13,000 people have nothing to do but pedal your bike, eat tasty food, drink beer, camp and hang out with friendly, like-minded cyclists of all types and age groups.

“RAGBRAI is truly a unique event,” Juskiewicz said. “The reason is simple: the people and the towns of Iowa welcome riders like no other place in the world. They roll out the red carpet for every rider that rolls into town and welcomes them into their community…into their homes, churches, restaurants, schools, parks and their downtowns.”

Personally, I’d have to agree. I’d even take it a step further. To me, it’s also a strange utopian experience. What do I mean? Well, for starters, the roadways are ruled by bikes and the few cars you encounter have to drive on the shoulder. You’re burning thousands of calories every day, so you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. Every town you roll through literally has a street festival going on, complete with entertainment, pork loin sandwiches as big as a frisbee, and pie...I mean LOTS of pie. If you like pie, you’re in Heaven. The beer is kinda meh, but there’s plenty of it. And if you want good beer, all you have to do is spot someone wearing a “Team Good Beer” jersey, pedal up next to that person and he or she will hand you a photocopied map of where you can find the good beer. Everyone politely stands in line and chats with you as if you’re old friends. When you get to wherever you’re going, you just lean your bike up against whatever...UNLOCKED...do whatever you need to do, come back and it’s right there where you left it.



Simply put, it’s a glimpse of what the world could be like if everyone was cool and nice to people. I can’t speak for the other 13,000 participants, but something tells me this is a big reason why people love RAGBRAI so much.



Who participates in RAGBRAI?
You see a wide range of cyclists on RAGBRAI. You’ll have families on one end of the spectrum and hard-core party types on the other. Who you encounter will largely depend on how early or late you push off. Racers and triathletes like to get on the route super early, so they can hammer away for miles and miles on empty roads. The bulk of participants seem to start pedaling between 7am and 8:30am. Ages range from kids to college students to people well into their eighties. In addition to a wide array of standard bicycles, you see people on penny farthings (dressed in wool knickers and sporting handlebar mustaches), rollerblades, unicycles, eliptical bikes, hand cycles, recumbent tandem trikes...you name it. There’s even a guy who does the whole thing on a bike with no saddle. The party people bring up the rear, stop at bars in every town, meet up in quasi-secretive “off-route” locations, and roll into the end town when most riders are settling into their tents.

“The reason RAGBRAI is special is that it is the most social ride anywhere,” Juskiewicz said. “There is as much fun off the bike as there is on the bike. Each town showcases their community when they host RAGBRAI. The food, the entertainment, the sights, the people...it all adds up to a great time for riders.”

The takeaway here is that depending on your mood and personal preferences, you can make your RAGBRAI whatever you want it to be...from a training opportunity to leisurely sightseeing to a rolling Mardi Gras.




Do I have to register?
Lots of people do the ride “bandit,” and RAGBRAI can’t legally prevent you from riding on a public road, but I strongly recommend registering.

For starters, if you happen to crash and need to be taken away in an ambulance, RAGBRAI will pick up your bike and reunite it with you (your registration includes a bike band). I actually know someone who lost her bike after a bad crash because she didn’t register. When the ambulance took her away, her bike was simply left on the side of the road.

Secondly, if you cannot complete the ride on a particular day (for example, you have a mechanical issue), your wristband gets you access to the SAG truck, which will take you and your bike to the end town.

Finally, on the less serious side of things, your wristband gets you free entry into all sorts of beer gardens and other events. Registering doesn’t really cost much and I believe it certainly pays for itself.

It’s also worth noting that you have the option of registering for the entire ride, or select days. In other words, if you only wanted to ride the final Saturday and Sunday, you can certainly do that.



How does this thing work, logistically speaking?
First off, you need to pre-register. This enters you in a lottery. Once you win the lottery, your credit card is charged and you’re issued a wristband, bike band and luggage tag. These arrive in the mail a few weeks later. The vast majority of the people who enter the lottery get to do the ride. In fact, I’ve never known anyone who didn’t get in. Here’s the registration link: http://ragbrai.com/registration/.

The very instant you’re in, you need to arrange transportation before it fills up. This is crucial. Here is also where it gets a little complicated.

Option #1 is to arrange charter bus transportation for you, your gear, and your bike. The RAGBRAI site has a list of official charter companies. Some offer transportation from Chicagoland to the start in Sioux City, and then transport from the end of the ride in Davenport back to Chicagoland. Another possibility is to reserve a parking spot in the long-term parking lot in the Davenport and then arrange a charter to Sioux City. When you pedal into Davenport, you load up your car and drive home. Here is a link to the official charter companies: http://ragbrai.com/about/charter-services/.

Option #2 is to ship everything, and then fly in.
Here is a link to the shipping services:
http://ragbrai.com/about/bike-shipping/
...and the airport shuttles: http://ragbrai.com/about/airport-shuttles/.

How does my gear get from town to town?
Here is a breakdown of your many options:

Option #1 is to do the ride unsupported. In other words, you’d carry your camping gear, clothing, etc. on your bike. You’d likely need a touring-type bike with at least a rear rack and large panniers (saddlebags). When you get to the “overnight town,” you simply find a spot in the designated camping areas (usually city parks, fairgrounds, and high school football/soccer fields) and set up your tent. Once situated you can generally clean up at a nearby YMCA, municipal pool, high school, or one of the mobile shower trucks. Generally expect to pay $5 for a shower.

Option #2 is to use RAGBRAI’s free gear transport. Each morning, you put all your gear in a big duffel bag (with your RAGBRAI luggage tag on it) and toss it on to the RAGBRAI baggage semi truck. When you get to the overnight town, find the truck, grab your gear and set up camp nearby. The plus side is it’s free. In addition, it’s a lot faster and more fun to ride a bike that’s not weighed down by 50lbs of gear. The downside is that it can take up to an hour to find your duffel amongst a sea of other duffels. As with the unsupported riders, you’d need to seek out a nearby YMCA, municipal pool, high school, or mobile shower truck to clean up.

Option #3 is to hire one of the charter companies haul your gear each day. The same companies you can use to get you and your stuff to the start town also offer full support during the week. Generally speaking, this will include gear transport, shower and bathroom facilities, breakfast, dinner and even beer. For an extra charge, you can use one of their tents. When you roll into town, it’ll be set up for you, with your gear placed inside. When you leave in the morning, they tear it down. This is a more expensive option, and they require you to roll out pretty early in the morning, but it’s one of the easiest.

Option #4 is to have your own support vehicle. This could be anything from an RV to a car. While this is convenient in many ways, there are some drawbacks. First off, you have to have someone drive it every day, or work out some system where you take turns driving it. Also, the vehicle must be issued a support vehicle pass to get access to the camping areas. To get a support vehicle pass, it needs to be associated with a group and that includes at least three people. So, what this means is that you and at least two of your friends need to register as a group and then apply for a support vehicle pass. Unless your support vehicle has a shower, you’ll need to seek out a nearby YMCA, municipal pool, high school, or mobile shower truck to clean up.

Option #5 is to join a team. There are dozens of decades-old RAGBRAI teams, as well as many newer ones. They are easy to spot because they usually travel in tricked-out, colorfully-painted school buses. A huge platform is typically welded to the top of the bus (for bike hauling), and some sort of shower contraption is built off the back. Teams are typically invite-only, so you need to know people to get on a team. If you don’t know anyone on a team but want to be on one, a good strategy is to befriend teams on this year’s ride in hopes to get invited for next year’s.

BONUS OPTION: If you are doing the ride unsupported or have your own support vehicle, it is possible to arrange for host families in some of the overnight towns. The way this works is that the RAGBRAI site posts contact information for all the “host communities.” If you write to these communities (they encourage you to include $3 with your letter) you can possibly pre-arrange to camp in a local resident’s yard and access their shower and possibly laundry. Occasionally, the host family will offer accommodations to sleep in the house, but this is rare. I’ve personally had amazing experiences with host families. Typically the host family has an awesome house with a huge yard (many are farms). In my experience they’ve always been generous and genuinely excited to have visitors. They usually host an evening cookout, hang out with your group, let you swim in their pool and chill out in their air-conditioned living room before you retire to your tents. In the morning, they greet you with coffee and friendly conversation. By the time you pedal off, you’ve made new friends. Availability of host families will vary from town to town. If you act quickly, you can expect to at least be able to stay with a host family 3-4 nights out of the week. If you do manage to stay with a host family, please do offer to pay them for everything, treat their house as if it were your own, and send them a thank you note when you return home (even better if it includes a gift card). The only downside to host families is that they sometimes aren’t located near the city center, so you might expect some extra miles if you want see what’s going on downtown. And if you are using RAGBRAI’s gear transport, you might have to haul your heavy duffel a long way to and from the semi truck. The 2016 host community list hasn’t been published, but here is the 2015 version for reference: http://ragbrai.com/routemaps/2015-host-communities/.



Any tips for a successful week?
Honestly, an entire article can be written about this. To keep things brief, I’d suggest thoroughly reading the RAGBRAI website (especially the FAQ). If you wind up hiring a charter company, thoroughly read all the materials they provide to you. On top of that, make sure your bike is tuned up and the tires/brakes/chain/cables are in good condition, make sure you put in a lot of bike miles in the weeks leading up to the event, and don’t make any last-minute changes to bike fit and bike gear (e.g. shoes, pedals, cleat position and saddle). Bring lots of cash for food. Pack plenty of sunscreen and chamois cream. Plan to have little-to-no cell phone coverage much of the time (the rural infrastructure is not built to handle a rolling city), so make a plan so everyone knows how to keep in touch with each other and knows where to go when they reach the overnight towns. Bring bike gear for weather conditions ranging from extremely hot and sunny to rainy and chilly. Bring comfy stuff to walk around in at night.

Juskiewicz said he encourages participants to smell the roses, so to speak.

“Some advice would be to slow down and enjoy the experience,” Juskiewicz said. “It is more import to meet 20 new people per hour than to ride 20 miles per hour. Take the time to visit and explore these small towns that is Americana at its best. If you fly by, you are missing out!”

In summary, I believe RAGBRAI is something every serious cyclist should experience at least once. If 2016 is your year, here’s where to get started:

http://ragbrai.com/

  • January 23, 2016 - RAGBRAI Route Announcement

  • February 15, 2016 – Deadline for registering via paper applications

  • April 1, 2016 – Deadline for weeklong rider registration (we must have all minor waivers and payments by this deadline for your entry to be complete and finalized)

  • May 1, 2016 – Lottery results are posted

  • May 15, 2016 – Deadline to request a registration refund

  • June 1, 2016 – 2016 Registration closes

  • July 23, 2015 – RAGBRAI XLIV Expo

  • July 24-30, 2015 – RAGBRAI XLIV

RAGBRAI Address:

RAGBRAI Fees
400 Locust Street, Suite 500
Des Moines, IA 50309


And don’t forget to join the RAGBRAI group on Chainlink! http://www.thechainlink.org/group/raagbai


Have you ridden RAGBRAI? Share your stories and pictures below.

 

About the Author
Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for Half Acre Cycling and The Bonebell. His goals for 2015 are to complete the Lumberjack 100 mountain bike race as well as a 600 kilometer brevet.

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Comment by Bill on February 19, 2015 at 8:04am

It is true that beer on RAGBRAI is hit-or-miss, but there are a couple of big hits.  First, one of the Iowa craft breweries (Back Pocket I think) follows the tour around with a beer truck during each day's ride and sells its own and beer from other Iowa craft breweries.  I've never had a bad one. On a good day, it is set up towards the end of the route, and on really good day, it will be next to another must-do -- Mr. Pork Chop.

Second, although the options can be pretty sparse in some of the smaller towns, Toppling Goliath can be found in larger towns, especially as you get closer to central and eastern Iowa. The guide you get from the Team Good Beer riders makes finding this world-class beer even easier.

Having said all that, be responsible and don't over do it, and be careful with dehydration.  

Comment by Gary Elfring on February 12, 2015 at 4:07pm

For long training rides sign up for one of the numerous century rides in the suburbs. There are a lot of them from May - July. You also need to train on some hills, and you won't find real hills in Chicago. Spend a Sat or Sun riding the Fox River trail. It's easy to ride virtually any distance you want. In Chicago I get up a bit early and do 2 loops of the entire Lake Front Trail. That's over 60 miles from my place. You should plan on having ridden at least 1,000 miles before Ragbrai starts. 

I've ridden Ragbrai 6 times. In addition to what the others have said, you do need cash for the ride, typically $40 a day covers food and showers. You eat 5 - 7 meals a day plus snacks, but the food is fairly inexpensive. If you drink a lot you need more cash.

It's easy to build your own team. Make up a team name and register with your friends. Your entire group either all gets in or gets rejected. My team parks in the finish town and uses a charter service. There are lots of advantages to using a charter service. It's way easier to find your gear, a place for your tent, and they have shade tents, chairs, cold drinks, and power for your electronics. One word of warning, do NOT expect your cell phone to be very reliable.

One word of warning, do NOT expect your cell phone to be very reliable. Last years northern Iowa route had terrible service. This year's central route should be better.

Comment by mweerd on February 12, 2015 at 3:26pm

How do you go about training? Can someone recommend a stretch around Chicago where you can ride 60 to 75 miles without getting run over?

Comment by Greg Borzo on February 12, 2015 at 1:20pm

Thanks for sharing this info...and your enthusiasm for the ride. I would agree that every serious cyclist (racer, recreational rider, commuter, fan, supporter, etc.) should do RAGBRAI at least once. It is a remarkable, unforgettable experience...Utopian, as you aptly put it.

Having ridden several RAGBRAIs (yes, 2009 was a rough year!) and written a book about it (RAGBRAI: America's Favorite Bicycle Ride), I'd like to add two things to your wonderful roundup:

1. You mentioned that Iowa is surprisingly hilly. TAKE IT SLOW GOING DOWN THESE HILLS. I've seen RAGBRAIers take these hills at 35+ mph -- "yeah ha" all the way -- until they wipe out. It's ugly. Road rash. Broken bones. Hospital stays. The downhills are dangerous, especially for those who have no experience on long steep hills or riding in packs. It only takes one pothole or discarded water bottle to make you wipe out. I always enjoy the uphill more than the downhill. It's more challenging, you see more along the way and you're safer.

2. Prepare for rain by buying WATERPROOF cases for your phones, wallets, camera, money, id, etc. Double, heavy-duty zip lock bags works, too, but don't let a rare downpour ruin your valuables.

That said, sign up, join a team, have a great time. Chicagoans are lucky to be so close to RAGBRAI while others come from ALL OVER THE WORLD to do this ride. Enjoy this wonderful experience!

Comment by Joe Yeoman on February 12, 2015 at 11:41am

Awesome breakdown. Thanks Brett.

I'm from Iowa, and I love riding RAGBRAI. My biggest suggestion is to join a team. If you are traveling to Iowa by yourself, it's the easiest to have a built in group of drinking buddies. Also, they sell RAGBRAI bands to teams first.

Other suggestion: do the Karras Loop! It makes the day 100 plus miles, and it's amazing. It sounds tough at first, but after that first century, you feel like you can tackle the world!

Random stuff:

1. You can pretty much drink anywhere at anytime. In some of the college towns, you have to watch out for the police. In the small towns, the police sometimes sell beer.

2. Pack light, and then pack lighter.

3. Wear something Chicago. There are tons of Chi-town folk there, and it's awesome to bond over some Windy City magic!

4. Bring cash. Lots of cash.

5. Expect none of your electronics to work. Especially cell phones.

6. Get ready to use a corn field as a bathroom.

If you'd like to talk RAGBRAI, let me know. I'll be riding with Team Curbside again this year. (I have registered already. Pretty much day one).

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