A return to small-town Iowa is in store for more than 10,000 riders rolling across the state in RAGBRAI’s 42nd year.
The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — the world’s oldest, largest and longest tour of its kind — begins this year for the first time in Rock Valley and ends 418 miles later in Guttenberg. Along the way, riders will stop overnight in Okoboji, Emmetsburg, Forest City, Mason City, Waverly and Independence. This year’s ride is July 20 to 26 (riders camp in Rock Valley on July 19).
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz said the northern route goes back to RAGBRAI’s small-town roots after 2013 stops in Council Bluffs and Des Moines and a 2012 visit to Cedar Rapids.“There are no massive towns,” Juskiewicz said. “We’re getting back to smaller communities, which are the perfect size for RAGBRAI.”
Just one overnight town has a population over 10,000 — Mason City, which has only seen RAGBRAI come through once, 29 years ago. For those who remember the last time the ride rolled through town, in 1985, Mason City may look a bit different. “They’ve done a ton of downtown development, and they’re anxious to show it off,” Juskiewicz said.
The last stop, Guttenberg, is also the smallest, at 2.12 square miles and 1,919 residents. This is Guttenberg’s fifth time wrapping up RAGBRAI on the banks of the Mississippi.
The river-to-river ride also gives some love to two locales that have never housed riders overnight: starting point Rock Valley, which served as a pass-through town in 1985; and Okoboji. The Iowa Great Lakes and their surrounding towns are the collective stop-over for RAGBRAI this year. Only Milford has been a pass-through town, most recently in 2005. “Okoboji is one of the better known areas in the state, so to not go there in 42 rides has been amazing,” Juskiewicz said. “So this is the year.”
The overnight towns were announced one by one to a crowd of cyclists Saturday night at Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center. When Juskiewicz revealed the final name — Okoboji — a group in front of the room shot confetti into the air. “I’m so excited,” said Lyda Neuhaus of Okoboji, a part of that group. “We worked so hard to make sure the community comes together.”
With RAGBRAI coming through the resort area at the height of summer, Juskiewicz expects vacationers to make it a RAGBRAI weekend. “When the circus comes to town, it’s kind of exciting,” he said.
This year’s route is remarkable for its ease, length and pitch. At 418 miles and with 11,316 feet of climb, it is the third-shortest and second-flattest route in history. There has only been one route since RAGBRAI began in 1973 that was less difficult by those criteria. “It is a true northern Iowa route, and it’s very flat,” Juskiewicz said. “And when we’re up in that corner of northeast Iowa, the state is a little smaller.”
The last day’s ride into Guttenberg is the most challenging, with 3,073 feet of climb, twice the climb of the day before. The longest ride, 73 miles to Forest City, is bookended by two short days, of 41 and 36 miles. Juskiewicz hopes that makes it possible for more than the usual one-third of riders to tack on the Karras Loop on July 22 and make the longer ride a century, or 100 miles.
Though there might be some “grumbling” about the short days, Juskiewicz said, everybody wins those days.“People love some of the short days,” he said. “People get a chance to go out and enjoy those towns, and then there’s people that go to spend five hours in a bar.” Plus, less-experienced riders may be more inclined to take part on a short ride. “We have people who don’t have the ability to ride an 85-mile day with tons of hills, so that gives them an opportunity to experience RAGBRAI for the first time,” Juskiewicz said. “Anything that’s going to get people off the sofa and on a bicycle is good for our state.”
Here’s a day-to-day breakdown of this year’s route:
Rock Valley, Saturday, July 19
The northwest Iowa town of just 3,354 is based not on the Missouri River, but the Rock River — though the town center is only 10 miles from Iowa’s western border. Campsites abound at Rivers Bend, a 94-acre quarry-turned-recreation site that opened in 2009. RAGBRAI has never spent a night in this Sioux County town, though it rolled through once in 1985.
Okoboji/Iowa Great Lakes, Sunday, July 20
Climb: 1,771 feet
Iowa’s great lakes and their surrounding towns will welcome RAGBRAI overnighters for the first time, on their first stop of 2014. The town of Milford has served as a pass-through four times, most recently in 2005. The popular recreation area is no stranger to big sporting events: the fictitious University of Okoboji this weekend is holding its 34th Winter Games, which include boot hockey, brain freeze trivia and a snowball drop.
Emmetsburg, Monday, July 21
Climb: 1,078 feet
This town of 3,904 offers recreation for kayakers and campers, golfers and gamblers. It is home to Five Island Lake, Five Island Golf Course and Wild Rose Casino, as well as a few offbeat attractions, including a privately owned doll collection, an optometrist’s eyeglass collection, and a hand-built replica of the TV home from “Little House on the Prairie.” It’s the town’s first time hosting riders since 2002.
Forest City, Tuesday, July 22
Climb: 1,333 feet
Ride into Forest City, population 4,151, on two wheels and ride out with a few more. The Winnebago County seat is home to the camper factory of the same name. Tour Winnebago’s facility or the Mansion Museum, an 1899 banker’s home on the National Register of Historic Places. In nearby Pilot Knob State Park, take in a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps tower, and Iowa’s only floating bog of sphagnum, a type of moss. This will be Forest City’s fourth time as an overnight stop on RAGBRAI.
Mason City, Wednesday, July 23
Climb: 695 feet
The river to river ride’s midway point stops at the famed “River City,” Meredith Willson’s pseudonym for his hometown of Mason City. The largest city on the route, with a population of 28,097, celebrates Willson’s “Music Man” with a square modeled on the film’s set. Frank Lloyd Wright also made a mark on the town with his Stockman House. It’s only the second time Mason City appears on RAGBRAI’s route — the last time was 29 years ago, in 1985.
Waverly, Thursday, July 24
Climb: 1,743 feet
The home of Wartburg College invites cyclists to unwind for the first time in 15 years, and its third time overall. The “dairy spot of Iowa” was known for its creameries and condenseries, a source for Carnation condensed milk. Today, a historic trail takes visitors through Waverly’s past along an abandoned rail line.
Independence, Friday, July 25
Climb: 1,623 feet
Set in Amish Country, on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River, the town became known for its five-story flour mill, a kite-shaped racetrack and an opera house, all before the 20th century. Its renown for horse racing was surpassed in more recent years by auto racing; the 3⁄8-mile oval at Independence Motor Speedway has weekly late model and sprint car races. Independence last welcomed RAGBRAI in 2007.
Guttenberg, Saturday, July 26
Climb: 3,073 feet
It’s been nine years since Guttenberg’s 1,919 residents welcomed RAGBRAI to their banks of the Mississippi, in the northeastern quadrant of Iowa. At just 2.12 square miles, the town is the smallest on the route. It’s also the most challenging destination, with 3,073 feet of climb on the way from Independence. The town gets its name from the German inventor of the printing press. The community celebrates its heritage every fall at Guttenberg Germanfest. Guttenberg previously welcomed riders to its limestone bluffs in 1980, 1987, 1996 and 2005.