Cyclists hit the road for RAGBRAI: Follow along online - I'll do the pedalling

Illustration by Bob Patton
Illustration by Bob Patton

ONAWA — Thousands of cyclists shove off Sunday on one of Iowa’s best known and most daunting traditions, a border-to-border bicycle ride best known by its acronym — RAGBRAI.

I will be among them, riding along on behalf of The Gazette with daily dispatches from the road, photos and videos. Follow along all week on my Twitter account — @bmorelli — as well as the print and online editions of The Gazette and The Gazette’s Facebook page.

This year’s ride is significant for the Corridor because it is the first time in 42 years that Iowa City will host the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa overnight.

Planners have lined up a block party Friday night with musical acts Jayhawks, Blitzen Trapper, Elizabeth Moen and Kevin “B.F.” Burt.

Started on a whim in 1973 by two Des Moines Register journalists, RAGBRAI has grown into a state treasure showcasing the hidden gems of flyover country for people from every state in the country and nations around the world.

Organizers estimate about 18,000 riders per day participate, or roughly 126,000 people over the course of the week. Last year, 70 percent of riders had participated in the past, according to the RAGBRAI organization.

The ride, which moves from Western Iowa to Eastern Iowa over seven days the last full week of July, serves as an annual summer reunion for friends and families. A host of newcomers and spectators also enter the fold each year, getting introduced to the spectacle of pedaling, pie eating, beer drinking and music with the backdrop of row crops and hog lots in what some might consider a masochistic vacation.

The 46th installment of RAGBRAI begins in Onawa and ends Saturday in Davenport. Denison, Jefferson, Ames, Newton, Sigourney and Iowa City will serve as the overnight towns along the 428-mile route with 12,576 total feet of climb. Organizers call it the fourth easiest route ever.

Riders typically camp each night in local parks, school fields and people’s lawns, and eat a diverse menu of foods prepared by local charities and church groups as well as for-profit vendors, who have stands in towns and along the route.

This will be my 13th year participating in RAGBRAI and a bit of a reunion after missing the past two due to family schedule conflicts. I got involved shortly after moving to Iowa in 2002. It seemed like a notch in my belt sort of challenge, especially for someone who barely biked at the time.

I soon realized it wasn’t nearly as hard as I imagined — remember, it is not a race — and a lot more fun, too.

My goal this year is to pedal every mile, to meet interesting people and find compelling stories every day.

I’ll refrain from making a commitment to the 19-mile gravel loop to Moorehead or the 37-mile century loop to New Sharon. We’ll see how I’m feeling when it comes time to make the turn.

A few highlights to watch for this week include the 350-year-old authentic German Hausbarn in Manning on Monday morning, the Cyclone Loop when cyclists can ride inside Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on Tuesday afternoon, and a visit to Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine on Saturday.

One notable change is the elimination of Ledges State Park in Boone from the route. Flooding of the Des Moines River and high lake levels at Saylorville Reservoir are impacting parts of the route near the Ledges State Park, forcing planners reroute away from it, including a mile stretch on Highway 30.


Weather-wise the week is expected to be cooler than is typical for the end of July, with highs in the upper 70s to low 80s and lows in the low 60s. The forecast for the first half of the week call for sunshine, while chances of rain and scattered showers are predicted for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

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