Thursday, January 24, 2008

Initial review: Overnights could make for a party year

From the Des Moines Register, here's the first review I've found of the overnight towns selected for RAGBRAI:

Mark Wyatt is psyched because, while pedaling is fun and all, the towns at day’s end make any bike trip.

The size and variety of cities selected as overnight stops for the 36th Register Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa could make it a party year.

“The hospitality will be second to none,” said the avid bicyclist from North Liberty, one of the eight overnight towns on seven-day bicycle tour July 20-26. This will be his seventh RAGBRAI.

The 471-mile route cuts through the guts of the state, traveling north of and roughly parallel to Interstate 80.

For riders, it won’t be as flat of a ride as last year’s pool-table-level pedal but certainly not in the top 10 for hills, climbing 22,500 feet.

If there is a theme, it could be overnight exuberance. Several towns are near large population centers, including Missouri Valley (near Omaha-Council Bluffs), the college town of Ames, North Liberty (near Iowa City) and LeClaire (near the Quad Cities).

Officials in those towns, in addition to Harlan, Jefferson, Tama-Toledo and Tipton, are exceedingly happy because the average time since last RAGBRAI overnights is 17 years.

LeClaire and North Liberty are overnight newcomers.

The benefits are obvious with 20,000 riders, support crews, hangers-on, merchandisers and visitors hitting town.

“We’ve seen towns that get 20,000 to 30,000 people,” said T.J. Juskiewicz, the ride’s director. “That’s a lot of dollars. The economic impact, some towns have told us, is $2 million.”

When he heard the route, Jeff Snyder lay awake all night.

“I rolled over and it was 5 a.m.,” said the executive director the Missouri Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I was thinking of what we had to do, if we had enough room, everything.”

Snyder had even convinced county fair officials to move the date of the fair so he could apply to be a RAGBRAI town.

By early Thursday, he said, the 220 motel rooms available in town were filling fast. The scenic village tucked among the Loess Hills also has 14 restaurants.

The scenery is a real draw on this year’s ride, says ride host Brian Duffy. The Missouri Valley-to-Harlan first day is a real up-and-downer among the wind-blown hills.

Other overnight towns offer variety:

-- Harlan has hosted four rides, the last in 2004, and riders will be happy with the ample green space for camping.

-- Jefferson is familiar with the bike crowd, situated at the northern end of the Raccoon River Valley Trail. “You try to work on tourism but an event like this really gets people to know us,” said Amy Milligan of the Jefferson Area Chamber of Commerce. Riders will see the 168-foot Mahanay Memorial Carillon Tower standing tall in the town square.

-- In Ames, where a beverage or two is tipped on occasion, expect the sizable university town to put on a time.

-- In the “twin cities” of Tama and Toledo, known for the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel, city officials say riders can expect top entertainment from a pair of cities that loves to entertain.

-- North Liberty looks similar to a large suburb to Iowa City but without a high school. RAGBRAI gives people a chance to come together as a community, says Wyatt, who directs the Iowa Bicycle Coalition.

-- RAGBRAI hasn’t stopped in Tipton since 1982. Hungry? Once named the “agriculture and livestock center of the world,” the town also boasts a Carnegie Library with a large collection of Grant Wood lithographs and an art deco theater showing top independent films.

-- LeClaire is the finale, a picturesque Mississippi River town known for it’s address at the corner of I-80 and the river. Here’s the bonus: The Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival is happening at the same time in nearby Davenport.

And, yes, Lance Armstrong is expected on the ride, although last year’s politicians are gone.

That didn’t stop Pam Ellis of the Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau from her own, very familiar sound bite:

“We’re fired up and ready to roll!,” she said.

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