RAGBRAI is going back to where it all started.
The route for the July 23-29 50th anniversary edition of the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, announced Saturday night at the Iowa Events Center, will include five of the seven key towns on the original route.
Just as in 1973, the starting point will be Sioux City, on the Missouri River, and the ending point will be Davenport, on the Mississippi. Overnight towns from the original route will be Storm Lake, Ames and, of course, Des Moines, where as many as 100,000 riders are expected in an attempt to set a world record for the largest single-day bike ride.
The longstanding expansion to seven days from the original route’s six, as well as logistical considerations, required some additions and alterations, said Ride Director Matt Phippen. Carroll will stand in on Day 3 for Fort Dodge, which was on the route just two years ago. And instead of trying to cover the distance from Des Moines to Davenport in just two days with a stop in tiny Williamsburg, riders will overnight in Tama-Toledo on Day 5 and Coralville on Day 6.
“To start and finish up, I’m a big fan of history, what it means,” said Phippen, who was working on the golden anniversary route even before he hosted his inaugural RAGBRAI as ride director last year. “We could’ve easily copied it town by town, but we had to throw some curveballs in there to make it work.”
Along the way riders will be treated to a generous serving of Iowa hospitality, with 42 pass-through and meet-up towns adding up to a total of 50 communities visited, as compared to 38 on the 2022 ride. It’s a town for every year of the ride.
The full route of the 50th ride — RAGBRAI L, by the tradition of using Roman numerals — will be announced March 13. Ride registration opened Nov. 15 and closes May 15.
Start training now, Phippen said. At 500 miles — are you starting to detect a theme? — this year’s RAGBRAI will be the longest since 2001 and only the sixth of 500 miles or more. It also has the sixth-most elevation gain of any RAGBRAI.
Right out of the gate, riders will face a challenging 77-mile pedal from Sioux City to Storm Lake among western Iowa’s roller-coaster Loess Hills, with over 3,500 feet of climb. Phippen said he wants to dispel the myth that Iowa is flat by taking riders over some of Iowa’s most demanding, but beautiful, scenery.
Prospective riders should know they will be signing up for a bike ride, and “a bicycle ride comes with mileage,” Phippen said.
“There’s going to be sometimes where your heart is going to want to bop out of your chest,” Phippen said. “Every bike has the right gear. If you spin in that gear, the bike will get you there.”
Building on a foundation laid in 1973
The tens of thousands of riders who leave Sioux City this year will be following in the tire tracks of the 300 or so people who showed up for the sweltering initial day of the Aug. 26, 1973, Great Six Day Bike Trip. It started as an idea by Des Moines Register features writer and copy editor John Karras and Washington columnist Donald Kaul to ride across Iowa and write stories along the way. Register Managing Editor Ed Heins had the journalistic impulse to invite readers along.
No one at the Register thought there would be a second ride across Iowa, Karras wrote in 1992 before the 20th RAGBRAI. “What we had envisioned was a rather modest bicycle ride,” he recalled.
But readers across Iowa were enthralled by the tales of their epic journey, published daily in the Register. Residents of the towns they visited displayed down-home Iowa hospitality, offering the riders cookies, sandwiches and encouragement. Most ride participants, having made no formal lodging arrangements, camped in front of the hotels where Kaul and Karras stayed, according to Greg Borzo’s 2013 book “RAGBRAI: America’s Favorite Bicycle Ride.”
Perhaps the most appealing character in the story of the inaugural ride was Clarence Pickard, an 83-year-old retired farmer from Indianola. Karras and Kaul thought that Pickard would not make it past the Sioux City limits on the used, women’s 10-speed bicycle he showed up with. Pickard did not even know how to shift the gears until Karras showed him at the end of the third day. During the fifth day from Des Moines to Williamsburg, Pickard missed a turn and wandered onto Interstate 80. But he showed what was possible to the generations who would follow, finishing with the hardiest of the riders in Davenport.
The adventures of Kaul and Karras proved so popular among Iowans that in 1974, the pair hosted a second bike trip, then a third in 1975. By then, it was dubbed RAGBRAI, and, aside from the State Fair, was on its way to becoming Iowa’s most popular annual event and the largest yearly bike ride in the world.
RAGBRAI L aims to set world record
Iowa Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Mark Wyatt remembers when SAGBRAI — The Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — rolled through his hometown of Hudson when he was 4 years old. He said that since then, RAGBRAI has influenced American bicycle touring more than any other event, and Karras is likely the person that put more “people on bicycles than anybody else.”
“RAGBRAI changed cycling in the United States,” he said. “There are so many people over the past 50 years that have bought a bike all over the United States because they want to come to Iowa and ride across it.”
Besides building on the legacy of the original route, the itinerary is unusual because it will take participants to at least five of Iowa’s 10 largest cities: Des Moines, Davenport, Sioux City, Iowa City (Coralville’s larger neighbor, with whom it shares a metro area) and Ames.
The Day 4 ride, July 26 from Ames to Des Moines, will be the shortest and least hilly of the week at just 50 miles and 1,216 feet of climb. Phippen thinks 100,000 riders could show up, breaking RAGBRAI’s single-day attendance record of 40,000, set during a 2019 leg from Winterset to Indianola.
That would shatter the Guinness World Record for the largest single-day bicycle ride, set on June 11, 2000, when 48,615 people rode an 18.2-mile circuit around the city of Udine, Italy.
And it’s likely some of the other days will come close to, if not exceed, that record, as well. Phippen said each overnight town was selected with that in mind.
“All those communities can easily support the size of what RAGBRAI is,” he said. “You want a community that can easily house all the buses, all the people, all the fanfare that comes with RAGBRAI.”
And there are sure to be some other historic moments. In 2018, RAGBRAI riders rode on the track around the football field inside Iowa State’s Jack Trice Stadium. In 2023 Iowa State is observing the 100th year since Trice, the school’s first Black athlete, died of injuries sustained in a football game at the University of Minnesota. Ames officials said Saturday the riders will be invited to visit again.
Des Moines to host week’s biggest party
The following day, the destination will be Des Moines, an overnight town for the first time since 2013, when the ride turned 41.
“There’s so much history here with the Register and with the ride that I think people would lose their minds if we didn’t come to Des Moines and just skirted around it,” Phippen said.
In 2013 riders came from the overnight town of Perry and entered Polk County on Raccoon River Drive south of West Des Moines. Then they continued via Grand Avenue, Railroad Avenue and Park Avenue to the main campground at Water Works Park.
In nearby downtown Des Moines, stages, vendors and a bike expo occupied the Principal Riverwalk between the Court Avenue and Walnut Street bridges over the Des Moines River. Shuttles ferried riders between the campgrounds and the street party.
Des Moines oficials said Saturday they will again host the RAGBRAI campers at Water Works Park. Phippen noted that in April 2021, a statue of Kaul and Karras was dedicated there, and he wants the riders to be able to pay tribute to the founders, who died in 2018 and 2021, respectively.
Des Moines will hold the biggest party of the week, Phippen promised. RAGBRAI this year will book and pay for musical acts in overnight towns, a responsibility that usually falls to the towns. Without revealing who, he said RAGBRAI has spent “a significant amount of money” to book a nationally known performer to play in Des Moines.
‘It will change your life’
For better or worse, in scorching heat or bone-chilling rain, over mountain-like hills or glacial plains, RAGBRAI immerses people in a world with its own culture and food for a week, said the bicycle coalition’s Wyatt.
“There’s very few things that you can find that allow you to do that,” Wyatt said. “It’s a shared experience, but it’s such a different cultural experience. You don’t get to do that anyplace else.”
On Friday, the last day of the ride in 1973, the 114 riders who rode the entire stretch from Sioux City to Davenport lined up two and three abreast as they rode 10 blocks through downtown Davenport to the Mississippi.
Today, riding groups like Team Air Force and the Dream Team do the same as they mark the end of their journeys. And as the 50th anniversary ride comes to a close, riders once again will end their pilgrimages by zooming in formation through downtown Davenport as people hoot and holler, hug and kiss and cry.
“It will change your life,” Wyatt said.
And launch another 50 years of indelible memories.
“What RAGBRAI showed is that Iowa is not a flyover state,” Phippen said. “Once you land here and are a part of this event, it will suck you in for your lifetime.”
The RAGBRAI L route
- Sunday, July 23: Sioux City to Storm Lake, 77 miles, 3,504 feet of climb.
- Monday, July 24: Storm Lake to Carroll, 62 miles, 1,818 feet of climb.
- Tuesday, July 25: Carroll to Ames (Century Loop Day), 83 miles, 1,479 feet of climb.
- Wednesday, July 26: Ames to Des Moines (Guinness Book of World Records Day), 50 miles, 1,216 feet of climb.
- Thursday, July 27: Des Moines to Tama-Toledo, 82 miles, 3,652 feet of climb.
- Friday, July 28: Tama-Toledo to Coralville (College Jersey Day), 80 miles, 3,276 feet of climb.
- Saturday, July 29: Coralville to Davenport, 66 miles, 1,604 feet of climb.
Important RAGBRAI dates
- March 13: Full RAGBRAI L route, including pass-through and meet-up towns, announced.
- May 15: Registration closes.
- July 22: RAGBRAI L Expo noon-9 p.m. at starting town Sioux City.