RAGBRAI is trading villages for some big cities in its 41st year, including a stop midway through Iowa that will have more than 10,000 bicyclists rolling into the state capital.
The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — the world’s oldest, largest and longest two-wheeled recreational tour — kicks off July 21 in Council Bluffs and ends 406.6 miles later in Fort Madison.
Along the way, riders will overnight in Harlan, Perry, Des Moines, Knoxville, Oskaloosa and Fairfield. The Des Moines stop is the first there in 16 years.
The ride is July 21 to 27.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz described this year’s river-to-river ride as a chance to experience an eclectic sampling of Iowa that proves mutually beneficial to riders and hosts. “There are some great little spots — good-size towns, large communities and diverse towns that RAGBRAIers enjoy,” he said. “Plus, they like showing off what’s there to do. This is the biggest event they’ll host this year, and in some cases, in their history.”
Juskiewicz estimated the ride brings an average of $3 million in spending to each town, with more for bigger cities that can meet hotel demand.
The stop in Des Moines is significant because the city has transformed so much since RAGBRAI last visited in 1997, with major development in the East Village, Court Avenue District and along the riverfront. (Juskiewicz said camping will be “close to downtown.”) With 70 percent of participants coming from out of state, Des Moines could be a brand-new city to many riders. “When they see how far Des Moines has come, and how much has changed, they’re going to be pleasantly surprised,” Juskiewicz said.
After a sun-baked RAGBRAI in 2012 that had riders sweating across Iowa on some of the hottest days of the year, organizers are going easy on participants with the second-shortest route in history, at 406.6 miles, including four consecutive days with 52 miles or less. The route is also the 15th-flattest in RAGBRAI history. Only six RAGBRAIs since the ride began in 1973 were easier.
“Last year it was so difficult with the heat, even though on paper it was an easy route,” Juskiewicz said. “I think after last year, anyone that rode RAGBRAI deserves a break.”
But the ride won’t be all downhill. The stretch from Harlan to Perry is the hilliest with 4,239 feet of total climb. At 83 miles, it is also the longest.
Here’s a day-to-day breakdown of this year’s route:
Council Bluffs, July 20
The border city of 62,230 shares a pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River with Omaha at the base of which is the soon-to-open River’s Edge Park. RAGBRAI has come to the seat of Pottawattamie County five times before, most recently in 2009. The starting point of the historic Mormon Trail, Council Bluffs saw many settlers and explorers pass through its limits, including members of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The county’s pie-shaped revolving “squirrel cage” jail, located here, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Harlan, July 21
Just 5,106 residents will welcome riders to their first overnight stop in the least populous of this year’s RAGBRAI towns. Located along the West Nishnabotna River, Harlan is home to the Shelby County Speedway, where the Tiny Lund memorial races held each fall honor the town’s own Daytona 500 winner of 1963. And Harlan has more sports claims to fame: its high school has won 12 state championships in football. This is Harlan’s sixth RAGBRAI, and the first in five years.
Perry, July 22
At just 4.17 square miles, this bike-friendly town is the smallest on the route. A host of the annual BRR — Bike Ride to Rippey (coming up Feb. 2) — for die-hard winter cyclists, Perry pays tribute to another legendary ride at the historic Hotel Pattee. Themed rooms are devoted to topics as diverse as Central America, cream and eggs — and, of course, RAGBRAI. It’s the town’s first time hosting riders since 2001.
Des Moines, July 23
With some 70 percent of riders coming from out-of-state, Iowa’s capital will be new to many of this year’s participants; it’s the first time RAGBRAI is rolling through Des Moines in 16 years. With the Iowa Cubs in residence at Principal Park, cyclists can check out a home baseball game against the New Orleans Zephyrs.
Knoxville, July 24
This town of just 7,313 residents knows a thing or two about speed; the “dirt racin’ capital of the world” is home to the Knoxville Raceway and the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum. Side-trippers looking to get away from wheeled recreation can head six miles north to Lake Red Rock, the largest lake in Iowa. Though it was a pass-through town in 1988 and 1992, Knoxville has hosted RAGBRAI just twice before — last in 2000.
Oskaloosa, July 25
The home of William Penn University invites cyclists to unwind for the first time in 10 years, and its fourth time overall. The town was known for its coal-mining operations until an explosion in 1902 killed 20 workers. Today, it’s known for its summertime Sweet Corn Serenade, an acclaimed Christmas parade, and the Oskaloosa Municipal Band, which plays Thursdays in downtown’s city park.
Fairfield, July 26
Foodies can look forward to a night in this southeastern Iowa town, which claims to have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. (Granted, Fairfield is just over six square miles.) And art lovers will find something to gaze at in more than 25 galleries. Home to the Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield also features a sub-city devoted to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, teacher of transcendental meditation, where weary riders can “restore balance” at the Raj Maharishi Ayurveda Health Spa. Fairfield last welcomed RAGBRAI in 1997.
Fort Madison, July 27
It’s been 10 years since Fort Madison’s 10,980 residents welcomed RAGBRAI to their banks of the Mississippi, in the southeastern corner of Iowa. Fort Madison is known for its historic downtown, the oldest prison west of the Mississippi (although a new prison is being built), and the world’s longest double-deck swing-span bridge — the last remaining of its kind. But as much as it looks to the past, Fort Madison is also nodding to the future as the home of Siemens’ wind turbine blade manufacturing. The town previously wrapped up RAGBRAI in 1975, 1988, 1997 and 2003.