On July 23, thousands of bicyclists will descend upon the small city of Glenwood, Iowa, temporarily swelling its population of 5,300 to over 20,000. Scores of bikes and drive-along vehicles will crowd the roads.
The following day, with dripping tires freshly dipped in the waters of the Missouri River, rowdy caravans of brightly colored, spandex-clad cyclists will speed eastward across Iowa toward their final destination: the Mississippi.
This is the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—RAGBRAI. The weeklong ride—not race—is an Iowa tradition going into its 44th year, and the oldest, largest, and longest event of its kind in the world. It attracts riders from New York to California and a number of foreign countries every year, many donning crazy costumes and riding in themed teams.
“It’s a spectacle,” said Shannon Erb, vice president of the Leon Chamber of Commerce. Leon is one of this year’s eight overnight cities along the route and will host RAGBRAI riders as they make their way across the state.
Erb grew up in Jesup, Iowa, which had served as an overnight city for RAGBRAI several times.
“My most vivid memory is just sitting on a curb and watching bikes go past,” she said. “And I’m not talking a group of five bikes. I’m talking a group of 2,000 bikes riding past, and it taking 20 minutes. It’s kind of like watching a parade.”
This year’s ride will go through southern Iowa, stretching from Glenwood on the western border to Muscatine in the east. Participants can choose to bike the entire route or hop in for specific sections, but those who stick it out to the end will cover a total of 420 miles, with a climb of 18,488 feet.
The biking itself, however, is only half the fun.
Just as integral to RAGBRAI are the cities along the way, which swing open their doors to welcome thousands of complete strangers, and send them off smiling with hearty meals and high fives.
While the bikers are training for the long trek, the residents are busy preparing for their arrival. Planning for the ride began as early as the end of January, when a RAGBRAI announcement party in Des Moines named the overnight cities chosen for the year’s route.
“Each community rolls out the red carpet when they come,” said Abby Kisling, executive director of the Ottumwa Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We want to make sure they have a great experience. We want them to go back and tell everyone what a great time they had.”
With a population of just over 25,000, Ottumwa is RAGBRAI 2016’s largest overnight city. It officially began preparations three weeks after the announcement, holding bimonthly meetings with RAGBRAI officials along with meetings within the city’s own 20 planning committees.
RAGBRAI provides each city with a handbook, full of instructions perfected over the years to steer them in the right direction, but the specifics are up to the communities themselves. This means lining up entertainment, organizing beverage gardens and housing accommodations, and working out the remaining logistics of getting thousands of people smoothly in and out.
For Leon, this year’s smallest overnight city, the task is even more complicated.
With a population of 1,900 and a total of three restaurants—only one of which offers dinner—Leon will have to rely heavily on out-of-town vendors, along with local churches and organizations, to accommodate the incoming cyclists. For housing, another formidable hurdle, the city is using any flat, green space it can find, including its county park and school grounds—even the inside of a school building.
Nevertheless, there is strength in Leon’s small numbers: it’s a tight-knit community with a seasoned volunteer base, accustomed to pulling together for community events. The planning committees work closely with a team of over 200 volunteers to transform their city for the ride.
“In a small community, there’s really kind of an overall sense of, ‘We need to all pull together to make it the best community that it can be,'” said Erb. “A lot of people come to us and say, ‘You know, I really can’t give 10 hours a week, but I can give an hour here or there. What can I do to help?'”
It’s this special sense of community and Iowan hospitality that makes RAGBRAI so memorable for many.
Chris Balducci, a 16-time rider and the current leader of the Escape from New York team, marveled at the hospitality. One year, upon arriving at a house where he and his team were to spend the night, he was greeted by a note from the house’s resident, who wasn’t home.
“The front door’s open, you’re more than welcome to crash inside,” it read.
“These are people you’ve never met,” Balducci emphasized. “They really could not be more accommodating.”
“When you’re there, you’re part of them,” he said.
And once the riders are there, the atmosphere can be summed up in a word: high-energy. Months of intense planning and preparation culminate in a week of summertime revelry, as riders and residents alike join in on the celebrations.
Many riders try to give back to the communities, whether by participating in local fundraisers or, as one rider plans to do in Leon, planting a tree, to lend a hand to the people who worked so tirelessly to welcome them so openly.
“The people in Iowa are unbelievable,” Balducci remarked. “I think it’s one of the reasons why a lot of other places can’t really pull off a ride like this, because the people of Iowa—they’re kind of special people when it comes to that.”
For more information, see RAGBRAI.com
Over the course of New York rider Chris Balducci’s 16 rides, the restaurants he’s eaten in have all blurred together. But he remembers the many times he’s stayed and eaten at firehouses.
“They have big plots of land and we’ll camp out on their lawns. Sometimes they’ll cook for us, and I’ll tell you, some of these guys that cook are actually unbelievable,” he said.