Inside Iowa’s “Largest Bike Ride in the World”

2023 marked the 50th anniversary of Iowa’s RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), the oldest and largest recreational bike tour in the world, and riders are gearing up for 2024's event. What does it have that other cycling events do not, and what makes it distinctly “Iowan”? Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

In the spring of 1973, Des Moines Register columnists John Karras and Don Kaul conceived the idea of a modest bike ride across Iowa in an effort to promote the latter’s column in the Register. The two writer-cyclists considered the idea a “great lark” and, in a couple of stories and columns, invited their readers to join them. 

No one at the time thought there would be more than a single bike ride. But months later, in August, Karras and Kaul arrived in Sioux City to commence the ride and were astonished to find 250 riders eager to ride along with them.

“And they just made their way across the state. There was no organization, no plan, but that’s how it all started,” David Ertl, lifelong cyclist and coach for more than 20 years, said.

Decades later, in 2023, Iowa celebrated the 50th anniversary of this idea between friends; RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa), now officially coordinated and organized by the Register, is an event that brings riders to Iowa from across the country and around the globe.

“[It’s] the self-declared largest bike ride in the world,” Ertl said, “and I think it’s probably true, especially after this year where they probably had 70,000 [riders] on Wednesday [July 26]. There’s a number of multi-day tours across the country, a lot of states have them — Bike Across Michigan, Bike Across Missouri, Bike Across Kansas — there’s a bunch of those kinds of rides. Not too many of them are week-long, for one thing. None of them are this big, or well organized.”

As the oldest recreational biking event in the world, RAGBRAI has served as an inspiration for similar rides in other states. RAGBRAI continues to grow in popularity, with over 18,000 registered weeklong riders attending 2022’s event and around 20,000 registering for 2023’s — not to mention the 9,000 riders with day passes nor the multitude of unregistered participants that tag along for different legs of the trip.

“You can be out there riding anytime of the day, and there’s hundreds of riders in sight — just the sheer magnitude of the number of riders out there. You know, I’ve been on some rides where, after a while, it gets thinned out and you can hardly see anybody. But with RAGBRAI, people say, ‘Well, how do I find the route?’ ‘Well, you just follow the person in front of you,’” Ertl said. “Some of those roads are just solid bikes.”

The 32nd RAGBRAI in 2008. Image courtesy of Lisa Adamson via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the course of seven days, riders make their way across the state of Iowa, starting at the Missouri River and journeying east to the Mississippi River. The route for the annual event has always been determined beforehand, but varies in its pit stops. Iowans open up their cities, towns and homes to tired riders, giving them places to eat, hydrate and rest along their journey.

In its 50-year history, RAGBRAI’s routes have taken riders through 80% of Iowa’s incorporated cities and 780 towns. With each annual weeklong ride being between 370 and 550 miles in length, RAGBRAI has covered 19,542 miles in total since 1973. 2023’s 500-mile route commemorated the event’s 50th anniversary and was the sixth-longest on record; coupled with triple-digit temperatures, the ride’s length posed a particularly tough challenge to riders.

“Even if you’re [an] experienced racer, like me, riding 400 miles a week isn’t something I do all the time,” Ertl said. “It’s pretty rare to do that kind of mileage. So, you know, it’s an amazing feat for the riders.”

But according to Ertl, the difficulty only adds to the allure.

“I’ve now been [RAGBRAI’s] training blog writer for the last 15 years,” Ertl said. “There’s a lot of people that do RAGBRAI that are not what you call experienced or elite cyclists. They’re just everyday people that decide to do it as a challenge and a vacation. And even though riding 500 miles in a week is a lot, these people are, for the most part, able to do it despite 100-degree weather.”

In addition to the prospect of tackling and overcoming those 500 miles, RAGBRAI is characterized by another core element: the people of Iowa themselves.

“You think about Iowa and, well, that’s not a very exciting place to ride your bike across,” Ertl said. “But what makes up for the lack of mountains and oceans is the hospitality: these small towns that [RAGBRAI] goes through.”

For these small towns, the brief pit stops are a momentous event. 

“Some of these towns may only have 1,000 people living there, and you have 20,000 people riding their bikes through one day. [The citizens] go all out, roll out the red carpet, they just do everything they can to highlight their towns and to make the riders feel welcome and understand the pride that people have in their hometowns,” he said.

The overnight towns are cities that form the backbone of each year’s route, each one rallying volunteers, sponsors and vendors while organizing entertainment and housing for the riders stopping overnight. 

For the upcoming 2024 ride, which is set to take place July 20-27, the route will pass through more than 40 cities and towns, including the selected overnight towns of Glenwood, Red Oak, Atlantic, Winterset, Knoxville, Ottumwa, Mt. Pleasant and Burlington. 

“A lot of times, people may not have plans as to where they’re going to stay. They’ll just come along and they get to the overnight town, and they’ll see somebody out in their yard and just say ‘You mind if I fix my tent in your front yard?’ And more often than not, they say yes,” Ertl said. “This very hospitable experience is probably the number one selling point.”

RAGBRAI provides not only a statewide pathway from west to east, but also a connection point between host and rider, between Iowan culture and non-Iowans.

“It’s a perfect way for both the riders and the hosts to engage and interact,” Ertl said. “It’s kind of this symbiotic relationship between riders and host towns that make it what it is.”

Although some argued that some of the quaintness of the occasion has been overshadowed by RAGBRAI’s rise in popularity and the resultant commercialization of the event, the significance of the economic impact is undeniable.

In 2008, RAGBRAI generated nearly $25 million in direct spending, with as much as 70% of the participants being tourists and not locals; with the number of registered riders having increased over the years the economic impact is likely to be even larger. For 2023, RAGBRAI Gives Back (the organization’s charity) raised more than $400,000 to be donated to the pass-thru towns and communities.

Local businesses and vendors, particularly in the overnight towns, thrive in the massively increased activity spurred on by the event. Food and beverages are in high demand, with pie being an abundant commodity for hungry riders.

“It’s almost not as much about the bike ride as it is about the food, the drink, the entertainment,” Ertl said. “All the towns will bring in a band, and they’re getting bigger and bigger. We had Lynyrd Skynyrd in Des Moines, Foghat at one of the stops — name-brand bands coming in for the overnight towns. And you can imagine the economic impact this has.”

RAGBRAI is more than just a bike ride; it facilitates a relationship between rider and local that promotes both an awareness of and appreciation for Iowan values, including the camaraderie between friends that sparked the ride’s conception.

“You ride through towns, and you almost feel like a hero riding through, the way you’re greeted,” Ertl said. “I’ve never been on any other tour like this. Most tours, you ride along, and there’s nobody on the side of the streets. But RAGBRAI — it’s like a day-long parade coming through town.”

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