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Ragbrai – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly {Part I}

July 29, 2010

I recently participated in the great bike event that is Ragbrai. In short, Ragbrai is a week-long bike ride across the state of Iowa. It is the longest and largest bike ride in the world. Officially, 10,000 cyclists participate. Unofficially, it’s something closer to 15,000 riders that take to the road, averaging around 60-70 miles per day.

My husband and I joined the cyclists for one day, rode just under 70 miles, and promptly decided that we must do the week-long adventure next time. In case you’re a cyclist in the US or you simply feel like setting out to visit Iowa – by bike – from across the ocean, here is my recap of this amazing event. I’ll start with the Good, and the Bad and the Ugly will follow in future post.

The Good

There is a lot of good to tell of. This event is currently in its 38th year and so it is very well organized and all of Iowa seems to come out to greet the cyclists as they pass through each town. Everything from the festive atmosphere, to the cheers from locals as we rode past, to the town parties at the end of each day’s ride ensures that this event is pretty fun. Rather than bore you with too much narrative, I’ll let a few choice pictures tell this tale:

Early morning start

We set out VERY early to get to the town of our starting point. As we approached, the sun was rising and cyclists were already to be seen riding off in the distance.

Ragbrai 2010

We met up with a few friends and our roommate L. (left). For a number of reasons, L. needed a last minute bike so I gave her my Schwinn Le Tour GS that I had just gotten for Ragbrai and ended up using a loaner bike myself. The loaner bike was much too large for L. but only a bit out of my size range, so we made that swap to all be able to ride. I rode a vintage Takara and T. rode his Specialized Allez Epic. Our friend R. (far right) is riding his Trek all week – he’s in it for the long haul. Way to go, R.!



Water Slide

The majority of the ride was flat and on paved roads. The day was gorgeous; sunny with bright blue skies. We saw iconic Iowa landscapes – cornfields, windmills, rustic red barns, and many many signs lining the route telling riders of upcoming attractions, pit stops, and food options. Many signs boasted of home baked pies and cookies, iced lemonade, and Iowa sweet corn. Locals set up tables in their front lawns offering home-made goodies and water at low costs, often even treating riders to a refreshing shower of water from their garden hose. With the day’s highs hovering around 96 F, nothing beat riding through that squirt of cold water every so often.

T. does Ragbrai

S. does Ragbrai

Not only did so many friendly Iowans set up food shops, some even provided very convenient bathroom options al fresco.

When the need arises

Bathroom al Fresco

Between long stretches of fields, we would ride through a town. There, welcomed with signs, food, music, and makeshift water fountains, we would stretch our legs and take a short break.

L. does Ragbrai

Windmills in Iowa

Ragbrai Stop

 Impromptu Water Fountain

Our last stop was in Clear Lake, Iowa, where the cyclists set up tents and reached their sleeping accommodations for the night. Clear Lake’s downtown was packed with food and drink vendors and stages were being set up for live music to come. As soon as we got some food and water, however, we set out straight for the lake. Cycling clothes still on, we dove right in. After eight hours of being on the road, near 100 degree weather and sun, and 68 miles behind us, that lake swim felt like the best swim of my life.


Clear Lake Beach

Feet in the Sand


T. and I and our roomie L. had to leave Clear Lake that night and still make a long drive home. As exhausted as I was, I would have loved to be part of the cyclists setting up tents, awaiting the fireworks show, and enjoying a beer as the sun was setting – all the while knowing that the next day would bring another long bike ride and more new sights and adventures.

The day long ride was so much fun. While exhausting and at times daunting – when facing a hill with strong head winds and unmitigated sun glaring down on you – the ride nonetheless retained that aura of fun and adventure as most cyclists seemed to be in it for the enjoyment of it. Only a few raced by without as much as a nod – the majority smiled, said hello, rode with radios emitting music from their bikes, and paused for pictures along the way. Some wore costumes and rode off-beat contraptions. One couple pedaled in synch as the lovely notes of Miles Davis’ music filled the air around them. Some shared the work on tandem bikes, others hauled kids in trailers. The day felt like one huge (cycling) party.

I am so happy to have gotten to partake in one day of it and would love to do the entire week ride at some point in the future. I also think it’s a shame that more people outside of the Midwest don’t seem to have heard of this awesome event. Sure, you can trade facts about the Tour de France, but next time you want to impress your friends with your off-beat bike knowledge, let them know about Ragbrai and think about joining in yourself!

Cyclists on Break

Ragbrai Riders with Flair

Tall Ragbrai Rider
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21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2010 14:01

    I have been feeling very unmotivated about training for my century at the end of August, but my brief vacation + this post have made me want to get back on my bike, stat. Thanks for the inspiration! Can’t wait to read part two. :)

    • July 29, 2010 22:29

      Yay, glad to hear that. Can’t wait to hear about your ride, I now have added a century ride to my to-do list and can’t wait for the opportunity to partake in one.

  2. sara permalink
    July 29, 2010 14:03

    Gorgeous photos! I think it’s incredible that you’re doing this ride – so motivational and inspirational! Looking forward to part two, too!

    • July 29, 2010 22:29

      Thanks, Sara! It’s so nice of you to stop by here and support my bike site, I really appreciate that!

  3. Janni permalink
    July 29, 2010 17:21

    Einfach toll – da wäre ich gerne dabei gewesen! Schöne Bilder von einem hier in Deutschland tatsächlich völlig unbekannten Event!

    Ich bin ganz gespannt auf Part 2!!

    • July 29, 2010 22:30

      Danke! Es war wirklich super! Janni, warst du schon mal in den Staaten?

  4. July 29, 2010 19:15

    Your pictures make me want to be there. Fabulous photos. Any tips for riding that far for the first time? I am off next week on a bicycle tour, and would appreciate any suggestions you have to offer.

    • July 29, 2010 22:13

      Maureen – I would suggest taking breaks to rehydrate and replenish your glycemic levels with food every so often. Especially if it’s hot out. My legs were pretty ok with that sustained level of exercise because of the running I’ve done in the past, but I still made sure to eat a granola bar or some fruit every 10-15 miles and to drink plenty of water. That kept me from ever really ‘crashing’. And just go your pace, don’t go all out at the beginning which might cause you to burn out quickly and have no energy at the end.

      How long of a ride are you doing? Hope you have a fabulous bike tour! Good luck and have fun!

  5. July 30, 2010 03:28

    These photos are great. I love the details like the toilet paper rolls. Looks like an amazing experience, although 96 degrees in the direct sun sounds tough. You and your road bike look great.

  6. July 30, 2010 19:27

    Oh my, that is super impressive!
    So how was cycling with drop bars? Looks like you had no trouble at all!

    (And I love the Iowa countryside scenery.)

  7. July 31, 2010 20:09

    100 foot water slide!!

    • August 1, 2010 03:42

      I did not try it out! (It sounds as much scary as it may sound fun, and I’m not sure I’d have the guts to slide on one) :)

  8. August 1, 2010 10:39

    This looks like a great event, but the 70 miles would be a big challenge for me…someday.

    Two things: I am new to your site, but really enjoy it. I like how you get my mind into the pure fun of cycling. It has helped to get me back on my bike after a recent absence.

    Secondly, I just did a post as well using the Good, Bad & The Ugly. I didn’t notice it on your’s, but it is a cool coincidence.

    Again, great blog.

  9. August 15, 2010 18:58

    I’m so happy you enjoyed RAGBARI, because there is so much to love. I did my first one in the late 80’s then several more in the early and mid-90’s. I was able to do my first RAGBRAI in 13 years two summers ago and it was amazing. I didn’t wipe the smile off my face the entire week.

    • August 15, 2010 21:35

      Maria – I loved it! I’m definitely doing it again, hopefully the entire week-long ride the next time!


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