Confessions of a RAGBRAI addict
Warning: Bicycling across Iowa can be habit-forming.
Why Iowa? ... When Is It? ... What's Supported Camping?... Iowa Weather ... Roadside Entertainment ... The Lottery ... RAGBRAI On The Web
One July I tossed my bicycle into the back of my car and drove 1300 miles to Iowa for my summer vacation. Everyone back home in Vermont thought I was crazy. Iowa? Their eyes bulged, their jaws dropped, the misconceptions rolled off their tongues. "It's going to be 100 degrees!" "The whole state smells like pigs!" "They grow a lot of potatoes, right?" "Where you going? Ohio?" "Well, at least it's flat."

They were all wrong. It was such a great vacation that I've done it five more times. Why? Because of RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI is a week-long party on two wheels. The fact that you ride your bicycle across an entire state is incidental, because the total experience is much more than that. The carnival atmosphere in every town, the delicious home-cooked food, street dancing to live bands, the colorful sea of tents in the campgrounds, the hilarious cycling team costumes, thousands of tan and beautiful fellow cyclists to meet, and your hosts the people of Iowa, all join forces to make this bicycle tour an experience you'll remember for the rest of your life. No wonder RAGBRAI is addictive! Just ask some riders how many times they've done the tour. You'll get answers of 10, 20 or even 30 years.

Team Cheddarhead from Wisconsin:
Are those ANSI-approved helmets?
Why Iowa?

Why is the biggest and best bicycle tour in the world located in the state of Iowa? You might think it’s just an accident of history. But there are some really good reasons why a tour that started with 300 people in 1973 soared so rapidly into international prominence. These reasons include the scenery, the roads and most importantly the people.

First of all, Iowa is not flat. It may look flat when viewed through the windshield of a speeding car on Interstate 80, but when your legs are the engine, you feel every uphill and every downhill, and you move at a slow enough speed to appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

Iowa is the most agricultural state in the USA, with something like 98 percent of its land area under cultivation. This translates to quaint villages surrounded by oceans of corn and soybean fields. In late July, the corn is seven or eight feet tall, and you can quickly disappear from view by stepping just a few rows in. It’s almost like walking into a cool, shady forest. That’s why cornfields serve as impromptu restrooms on RAGBRAI.

Chicago's Witches on Wheels pause to re-hydrate
Second, Iowa has an outstanding network of paved back roads with very little traffic, allowing the RAGBRAI organizers to map out a completely new and different itinerary each year. The traffic is further minimized by the Iowa state police, who set up roadblocks at every major intersection to keep non-emergency vehicles off the bicycle route. The result is a solid mass of cyclists, 20 feet wide and 20 miles long, taking possession of the pavement and showing those smelly cars and trucks who’s the boss. This jubilant demonstration of pedal power rolls across the state for an entire week.

Lastly, it’s the people that make RAGBRAI a world-class event. It’s not just being surrounded by 10,000 fellow cyclists, many of them sporting unique costumes, all of them in a festive mood. It’s also the people who live along the route: warm and friendly people whose generosity is legendary. These are people who take the day off from work and join the army of volunteers in each town. They pull out all the stops to make you feel special. Iowa isn’t a tourist mecca like Vermont or California, so tourists are worshiped, not reviled.

At farmhouses and street corners along the route, you’ll find food stands serving up everything from grilled burgers, bratwurst, pork chops and turkey tenderloins, to fresh sweet corn, pasta salad, homemade pie and hand-cranked homemade ice cream. As you approach a town, if it’s a hot day, you’ll be greeted by lawn sprinklers aimed out into the road, and maybe a ride-through street shower set up by the fire department. In town, there’s often a street dance with a live band or DJ. And the municipal swimming pool usually offers a free swim and a hot shower. This is their way of saying, "Thanks for livening up our sleepy little town and pumping up the local economy!"

Pella shows off its Dutch heritage with a windmill on the town square
Needless to say, towns across the state compete each year to be chosen for next year’s RAGBRAI route. Each year in February when the official route is announced, there are celebrations in several dozen towns that made the route, and disappointment in all the others that will have to wait another year. But for the cyclists who participate year after year, the February route announcement begins five months of eager anticipation of another good time.

When Is It?

RAGBRAI always happens the last full week in July, starting on a Sunday and ending the following Saturday.
Next year's dates are July 25 through July 31.

Travelin' heavy: Team Bad Boy's gear includes bike-mounted cooler and charcoal grill
What's a Supported Camping Tour?
For most cyclists, RAGBRAI is a "supported camping tour." That means you stuff a tent, sleeping bag and some clothes into a duffel bag, which you load on a truck or van each morning. On a typical day you ride 60 to 70 miles, passing through several small towns along the way. At the end of the day, you follow signs into your campground, where you’ll find your gear and set up your tent again. This allows you to travel light and carry only a water bottle, a bathingsuit, a camera and some money. By the way, bring a cell phone if you have one; finding an unoccupied phone booth can be a real hassle.
Puffing up Piffer Hill: Iowa is definitely NOT flat
If you don’t like camping, you can try to find host families in the overnight towns. This you do by sending a written request and one dollar to the Chamber of Commerce in each town. If you want to sleep indoors, definitely request it in writing; but if they run out of beds you'll be asked politely to pitch your tent in the back yard. Either way, it’s fun to meet a local family, and you stand a good chance of being invited into their house for supper and/or breakfast, and a shower too. Personally, I prefer camping in the back yard, as it’s often cooler than sleeping indoors (and I hate air conditioning!) You can also rent an RV and sleep on board, surrounded by dozens of other RVs with their engines running all night. No thanks. A small minority of cyclists stay in motels – but they’re expensive, and they’re booked up within a few days after the route is announced in February. Again, not for me.

Eating isn't a problem; it’s one of the joys of RAGBRAI. There is food everywhere, it’s home-cooked, delicious and inexpensive compared to the East or West Coast. Plan on $3 or $4 for an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast, a similar amount for lunch on the road, and $5 or $6 for an all-you-can-eat spaghetti, lasagna or chicken supper. The best food is served by churches and civic groups; I’m religious about attending the church suppers. They’re a great way to meet people. You sit at long tables, and you might end up sitting across from someone from your home state, or someone from halfway around the world. Just don’t worry about gaining weight. After cycling all day, you can eat as much as you want. It's been said that the average RAGBRAI participant gains about five pounds during the week, but everyone ends up tanner and slimmer! The physiological explanation is that you’ve converted flabby fat into dense muscle tissue.

A prominent feature of RAGBRAI is the bicycle clubs and the teams. These groups charter buses and rent trucks to get you, your gear and your bicycle to and from the ride. They also carry your gear all week long from one campground to the next.

Who could resist homemade pie and ice cream?

The author on a hot date
The Rainbow Cyclists bike club, based in Waterloo, offers all that plus more, on a non-profit basis, and charges about $150 for the week (which includes the $90 RAGBRAI registration fee). Rainbow’s truck drivers have developed the campground setup procedure into an art form. First they erect a 20-by-30-foot tent canopy. Then they pull out a stack of lawn chairs and set them up under the canopy. Then they bring out an array of coolers and fill them with soda (called "pop" in the Midwest), juice and ice. The final steps in making the campground "homey" are setting up the portable shower enclosures, and laying everyone’s shower bags out in the sun to heat up. These rugged plastic bags hold up to five gallons of water, which is more than enough to shower with. The plastic is clear on one side and black on the other. If you fill it with cold water and lay it black side down in the sun, the water quickly heats up to 100 degrees or more. Then you hang it on a hook in the shower enclosure, open the nozzle, and you’re in business.
Team Gumby's converted school bus has a rooftop observation deck
There are always lots of alternatives for showering – schools, college dorms, swimming pools, etc. – but showering right in the campground is hard to beat, unless you’re staying with a host family. Another well-run club is Team Moore-On, based in Sacramento, California. They travel with two RVs to carry gear, and stay with a host family every night.

The biggest challenge is getting to Iowa if you don’t already live there. (About half the riders come from out of state, and they represent all 50 states plus a couple dozen foreign countries.) If you fly out, charter buses will pick you up at the Omaha or Des Moines airport and drive you to the starting point of the ride. The same buses will collect you at the finish and drop you off at the nearest airport. There’s a long list of charter bus operators, and the best advice is to sign up with one of them before making your plane reservations. Most cyclists arrive at RAGBRAI's starting point on Saturday, camp overnight and they're ready to roll out at dawn on Sunday. But consider doing all your traveling a day early on Friday. Then on Saturday you can take a short warmup ride in the morning, and spend the afternoon relaxing and watching the convoys of buses roll into town and disgorge crowds of anxious cyclists searching frantically for campsites. This makes RAGBRAI a nine- or ten-day vacation.

Iowa Weather

The weather in Iowa only makes the news if it’s severe. Usually it’s not. Daytime high temperatures are typically in the 80s, sometimes with low humidity, sometimes high. Lows are in the 60s. It usually doesn't cool off at night in Iowa the way it does in Vermont, but there are exceptions. In five RAGBRAIs, I've seen it a chilly 50 degrees in the morning, and a steamy 95 degrees in the afternoon (but not both in the same day). Most days are sunny, and there have been RAGBRAIs where not a drop of rain fell except at night. (Make sure not to pitch your tent in a low spot!) The wind is usually at your back, because RAGBRAI always travels west to east like the prevailing wind. Severe weather, if there is any, usually hits late in the day, which provides a strong incentive to get up early and finish early. The most popular riding schedule is to start between 6 and 7 AM and finish around 2 or 3 PM, which allows plenty of time to join in the festivities in each town along the way.

When the official route is announced, you’ll find out a lot about what’s in store. There’s a three-year cycle: central Iowa (2001), northern (2002), and southern (2003). So the 2004 route should cross central Iowa, as the cycle repeats. The hilliest parts of Iowa are the southwest and northeast corners. Northwest and north-central Iowa are the flattest, and they also have the coolest, driest climate. But whatever the route, it always starts by the banks of the Missouri River on the west, and finishes on the Mississippi River front on the east. By tradition, riders dip their rear tires in the Missouri on the first day, and dip their front tires in the Mississippi on the last. Some over-exuberant participants actually ride their bikes into the river until they tip over and start to float away. Warning: 20-year-old bikes don’t appreciate that kind of treatment.

Roadside Entertainment

Regardless of the weather, you’ll find plenty of entertainment, some of it stationary, some on two wheels and some on four. In the first category are the ubiquitous bicycle sculptures, made with anything from hay bales to welded-together junk bikes. In the two-wheeled category are the team costumes, ranging from custom headgear to implausible items attached to the rear ends of bicycles. Then there are the T-shirts. Some of the memorable ones: "Witches On Wheels." "Team Mosquito. We Really Suck." "PMS Express. We Go With The Flow." "Tall Dog Bike Club. A Leg Up On The Rest." Other T-shirt designs rely more heavily on graphics than on slogans. Finally, there are the T-shirts that commemorate the trials and tribulations of less-than-perfect RAGBRAIs in years past. "Rain, Wind, Hills, Heat – My Kind of Vacation." "Drink Enough, You’ll Forget It’s Iowa." And here's one that's particularly appealing: "If You’re Not Having Fun, Lower Your Standards." And don’t forget the four-wheeled attractions: the team buses, old school buses which have been repainted, creatively emblazoned with colorful graphics, outfitted with rooftop observation decks, and which tend to show up in the late afternoon wherever the music is loud.

A wholesome way to get a quick spurt of energy is to visit the local swimming pool, preferably around lunchtime. You can always get a good hot shower there, either before or after your swim (or both). Make sure your hair's still damp when you climb back on your bike, and it will keep you cool for miles as it slowly air-dries.

Sag wagons and bike repair vans patrol the official route during the day. In the evening, the bike mechanics team up with T-shirt vendors to set up a bustling shopping arcade in the main campground. Nearly everyone buys at least one commemorative T-shirt with a route map printed on the back, a custom dating back to the 1974 tour. If you want a T-shirt, plan to get one early in the week, or your favorite design will probably be sold out. The same goes for RAGBRAI postcards, buttons, stickers and other paraphernalia.

Over the years, RAGBRAIers have even created their own language. Aside from regionalisms like "pop" (soda) and "sack" (bag), you’ll certainly encounter the word "kybo", which means portable toilet, a common fixture in the campgrounds. Another essential term to grasp is "beer slide", a bizarre competition in which contestants launch themselves on their bellies and slide across a well-lubricated bar room floor. Not recommended on wood floors due to the risk of splinters.

The Lottery

Admission to RAGBRAI is by lottery, and if you’re chosen it costs $90 to register. Some years RAGBRAI doesn’t fill up, but usually it does, and it helps to plan ahead. The main drawing takes place in April; request an entry form from the Des Moines Register beginning the last Sunday in February, and mail it in before March 31. Most of the Iowa bike clubs, such as Rainbow Cyclists, get a special allocation of RAGBRAI passes, and the clubs hold their own drawings in January. Fortunately, membership in these clubs is open to out-of-staters. But to enter a club drawing, you must join the club no later than November, and you will receive an entry form in the club newsletter, which you typically must postmark on January 2nd in order to have a chance. If you lose out in the club drawing, you have a second chance in the main lottery. Look below for links to other Iowa bicycle clubs.


There has been an explosion of RAGBRAI-related material on the Internet. Search on the keyword "ragbrai" and you will get thousands of "hits". The first to visit is the official Des Moines Register’s RAGBRAI site. One of the best unofficial sites is Dave’s Ragbrai Pages. This site is maintained by a veteran RAGBRAIer who uploads an "almost-live" report every evening from his digital camera and laptop computer to his site.

Several Iowa bicycle clubs and numerous RAGBRAI "teams" have their own web sites.
Here are some club sites: Bicyclists of Iowa City, Dubuque Bicycle Club, Quad Cities Bicycle Club and Rainbow Cyclists.
Some team sites, in no particular order: Cheddarheads, Vermont-Iowa Pedalers, Flying Monkeys, Team Martini, Team Perl Jam, Team RADPAN, Team Scream and Team S.N.I.F.F.

In case you're curious, RAGBRAI is an acronym for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
All text and photos are Copyright © 1992-2003 by Jamieson L. Hess. All rights reserved worldwide.
Portions of this story appeared in print in the Valley News, a daily newspaper, West Lebanon, NH.
RAGBRAI ® is a registered trademark of The Des Moines Register.