RAGBRAI is short for “Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.” Haven’t heard of it? Don’t feel bad. RAGBRAI is the oldest and largest long-distance bike ride in the United States, but it’s not exactly a household name.
I only found out about it because my wife is from Iowa and her family has a long history with RAGBRAI. Along with tens of thousands of others, they’ve done partial rides for years.
My wife and I finally did the whole of RAGBRAI – all seven days – in 2017. In this guide, I’ll draw heavily on our experience to give you a firsthand look at how to train for, prepare for, and successfully execute a complete RAGBRAI ride.
What Is RAGBRAI?
First, a fuller explanation of RAGBRAI is in order.
As the name suggests, RAGBRAI traverses the entirety of Iowa. It lasts seven days and nights, from Sunday to Saturday, in late July. The route varies each year, but always moves from west to east – anywhere from 400 to 450 miles, and sometimes more, depending on the route’s precise configuration.
Full-week riders must pay $175 per head to register. Non-riders, such as private support vehicle drivers and volunteer medical staff, must pay $35 per head and $40 to $50 to register a vehicle (depending on the vehicle type). You need to register at least a few weeks ahead of the ride – the earlier, the better. Registrants receive official ride materials, including tags for their bikes, in the mail in late spring or early summer.
RAGBRAI: Origins & Abbreviated History
RAGBRAI’s official website has a detailed look at the ride’s history. This is an adapted, abbreviated summary.
RAGBRAI began in 1973. The idea originated with John Karras, a writer for the Des Moines Register newspaper. He suggested to Don Kaul, a Washington, D.C.-based columnist for the Register, that Kaul ride his bike across Iowa and use the experience as fodder for his regular column. Kaul agreed, on the condition that Karras ride with him. The newspaper’s public relations director would also tag along. Six weeks ahead of the ride, the paper put out a call for readers to join the ride in solidarity.
The inaugural ride took place during the last week of August, crossing from Sioux City to Davenport. With limited publicity, only about 115 riders completed the entire route, but the seeds of a movement were nevertheless sown.
The Second Ride
Since it coincides with the ever-popular Iowa State Fair and the first week of school for many of the state’s school districts, the last week of August turned out not to be ideal. Register readers clamored for an encore during a different week the following year. The organizers obliged, moving the second annual ride’s start date to August 4th, 1974.
With higher public awareness and better promotion, the second annual RAGBRAI was much better attended. Nearly 3,000 riders showed up in Council Bluffs, the starting town. This established a pattern that would hold through the 1970s. The second annual ride was also much better organized, with support vehicles, baggage trucks, and “sag wagons” for struggling riders.
Growing Popularity & Where We Are Today
Soon enough, RAGBRAI’s organizers capped the number of registered weekly riders at 8,500. They continued to allow day riders in higher numbers. According to RAGBRAI’s website, the busiest single day in the ride’s history was in 2013, on a segment between Perry and Des Moines.
Over the years, RAGBRAI has overnighted in well over 100 towns, passed through nearly 800 communities (including 80% of the state’s incorporated towns and cities), touched all 99 of the state’s counties, and involved some 330,000 riders (and counting). RAGBRAI’s organizers claim that their model has inspired at least 200 other rides across the United States.
RAGBRAI is definitely a hot ticket for avid bicyclists. I’ve heard (though not confirmed) that riders come from all 50 states and more than a dozen countries. And RAGBRAI has wormed its way into the cultural discourse: Dozens of major media outlets, including national broadcast news and big-city newspapers, have sent correspondents or run in-depth stories on RAGBRAI.
How It Works: Route & Schedule
RAGBRAI lasts seven days and nights during the last week of July. The starting town is on or close to the Missouri or Big Sioux Rivers, which collectively comprise the vast majority of Iowa’s western border. The ending town is always on or within spitting distance of the Mississippi River, which comprises the entirety of Iowa’s eastern border.
The first riding day is Sunday, but RAGBRAI really begins on Saturday, when riders descend on the starting town. Many riders actually go to the ending town first, early on Saturday, to drop off their cars – in most cases, it’s easier to leave from the ending town than to arrange transportation back to the starting town on the last day. Depending on the route and traffic conditions, it takes at least four hours to drive between the starting and ending towns. (On our ride, the transfer took a little over five hours in a charter bus.)
If you do decide to park in the ending town, you’ll need to pay a long-term parking fee. Most towns aren’t big enough to have their own parking garages or pay lots, so they set aside municipal lots and multipurpose fields instead. We paid $75 to park for the week in our ending town, Lansing (population: 900 and change). It was a relatively small price to pay for the convenience of a quick exit.
Most riders travel from the ending town to the beginning town by bus. RAGBRAI’s organizers make dozens of buses available to general admission riders. An all-week pass guarantees you a seat. If you’re using a charter service – more on that below – you’ll likely have a private bus.
Pro Tip: If you’re flying to Iowa, you’ll need to either rent a car at your arrival airport or reserve a spot on an airport shuttle to get to the starting or ending town. Unless you can get a great deal on a rental car, the airport shuttle option is probably a better financial bet, since you’ll be sharing space with lots of other riders. Shuttles run from as far away as Chicago and Omaha. Check RAGBRAI’s website for a list of sanctioned shuttle providers and some logistical tips.
The Route & Overnight Logistics
The ride itself lasts seven days and six nights. Daily segments generally range from 45 to 75 miles and pass through anywhere from three to nine communities along the way, depending on terrain and geography.
The organizers reveal the route during the winter, giving towns along the way plenty of time to prepare. Virtually every town throws open its doors to riders: food tents, beer gardens, performing artists, and vendor stalls are ubiquitous. Most have themes that play up their history or heritage.
There’s plenty to do between intermediate towns too. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of private citizens hawk food, water, clothing, and other stuff by the roadside. Hundreds of private homeowners throw open their acreages to shade-seeking riders, with or without the added draw of sanctioned food and beverage vendors. We were especially fond of Pastafari, a Jamaican-themed pasta vendor that appeared somewhere along the route each day but the last, and the Iowa Craft Beer Tent, a well-organized mobile craft beer bar that appeared two to three times each day.
At the end of each day, riders congregate in an overnight town. Camping is the default lodging option. Towns generally open up public parks and playing fields to campers, as do private organizations (like the YMCA) in larger communities, at no charge.
Many homeowners allow riders to camp in their backyards or bunk up in their spare bedrooms for a variable, reasonable fee. (Charter riders generally don’t pay anything out of pocket – it’s included in their charter payment.) However, unless you happen to know someone who lives in an overnight town, it takes some work to connect with private homeowners willing to put you up, and the process is pretty competitive. You need to apply for housing to the overnight town’s government by May 1. Applications are processed in the order they’re received and housing is not guaranteed. The larger the town, the likelier it is that you’ll get a spot.
If you’re camping out, you’ll need to find public showering and changing facilities close to the town’s main campgrounds. There are two types of shower facilities: public facilities like high schools and community centers, and private shower trucks. Both are pay-per-use – usually $5 to $6, plus $2 for a towel. Bring your own towel (just dry it in the sun after your shower) and save $14 for the week. Fees paid to public facilities stay in the community, so they’re a better bet for conscientious riders. Shower trucks come from as far away as Arkansas and Kentucky – not exactly local businesses.
Once you’re settled and showered, the rest of the afternoon and evening is yours. Without fail, overnight towns put on good parties – it’s definitely worth your while to head downtown and see what’s happening.
Riding Schedule & Timing
There’s no “right” way to ride RAGBRAI. Some serious riders treat the event like a seven-day race. They start before the crack of dawn and speed through intermediate towns in pursuit of new personal bests. Others take it really slow, stopping for food and drinks in every intermediate town, and taking breaks at acreages between towns to boot.
Serious riders average 15 to 18 miles per hour, maybe more, even with stops. Laid-back riders average 10 miles per hour or less. Riders who can’t or don’t want to ride the whole day under their own power can wait in intermediate towns for sag wagons – bike-bearing vans that transport tuckered-out riders to the ending town. Sag wagon service starts in the first town a few hours after the ride’s start and moves slowly toward the overnight town by nightfall.
Riding at night is frowned upon, for obvious reasons, but it’s also a good idea to get a head start as early as possible to avoid the worst of the afternoon heat. We tried to hit the road by 6:15am each day, which meant we were up by 5:30am. The road was already pretty crowded by then, though it seemed like the peak start time was slightly later – maybe 6:45am. We weren’t racing, but still managed to get to the overnight town by 2pm most days.
Ride Options: Bandits, General Admission, and Charters
There are two official ways to ride RAGBRAI: With the general admission crowd, or with an organized charter. There’s also a third, unofficial way to ride: as a “bandit,” a rider who sneaks into the stream without registering or paying the entry fee. Bandits are frowned upon, for obvious reasons, and they’re not entitled to camp at sanctioned sites or use the sag wagons.
Full-week, general admission riders pay $175 to enter. The fee goes to RAGBRAI’s organizers. As a nonprofit event, RAGBRAI distributes excess fees to a slew of beneficiaries, including Iowa-based charities and community foundations serving the year’s overnight towns.
Daily ride passes cost $30 per person. Day passes entitle riders to all the same benefits as weekly passes, including baggage and sag wagon service, on the days for which they’re valid. Weekly and multiday riders camp in sanctioned campgrounds, or with private homeowners if they’ve made advance arrangements. General admission riders who don’t want to carry their own bags need to load their stuff on the baggage trucks by 8am each morning – no exceptions.
Pro Tip: Once the day’s ride starts, there’s no shuttle service back to the previous night’s overnight town. This means that day riders need to arrange their own transportation back to the previous overnight town or find someone to pick them and their bike up in the next overnight town.
Charters are super popular with RAGBRAI riders willing to spend a bit more for a more comfortable, convenient experience. If you go the charter route, you’ll still need to pay the RAGBRAI entry fee, plus a highly variable charter fee.
Full-service charters, which provide their own meals, snacks, entertainment, and showers in semiprivate camping areas, plus airport shuttle service at the beginning and end of the ride, cost several hundred dollars per person. Pork Belly Ventures, RAGBRAI’s biggest charter, charges $415 per rider for the full week and $65 per day. If you want to rent a tent and take advantage of Pork Belly’s set-up and take-down service, it’s another $460 per tent (double occupancy). Airport shuttles range from $45 to $145, depending on the airport. Assuming a double occupancy tent and low-end airport shuttle, that’s at least $865 per person, per week, including the RAGBRAI general admission fee.
Less fussy charters cost less. We spent $595 per person, including tent rental and set-up/take-down, with Bubba’s Pampered Pedalers. We did have to pay for our own showers, and we’d skip the tent rental (an extra $100 per person) if we did it again, but it was nice to know we paid less than many of our fellow riders.
Pro Tip: Maybe it’s not worth an extra $400-plus per person, but one of the strongest arguments for going with a charter is head-slappingly simple: Charter operators don’t unload bags in the rain.
Yes, it sounds crazy, but those general admission baggage trucks discharge their cargo as soon as they arrive in the overnight town, regardless of weather. On the one rainy day of our ride, my wife and I gawked in disbelief at a crew frantically unloading bags in a parking lot amid a torrential downpour. Said one passing RAGBRAI veteran: “The clothes you’re wearing will dry out. Those bags never will.”
How to Prepare for RAGBRAI: Training, What You’ll Need & Tips to Save
Completing RAGBRAI isn’t as challenging as, say, summiting Everest, but it’s nevertheless a serious undertaking that requires thorough, thoughtful preparation.
RAGBRAI preparations fall into two broad buckets: physical training and packing.
Physical Training for RAGBRAI
If you take just one piece of advice from this guide, let it be this: Take your RAGBRAI training seriously.
Don’t assume that conditioning from other types of physical activity will be enough to carry you through the entire week, either. One of our friends, a CrossFit enthusiast from Denver, figured she’d put in enough work at her high-altitude gym to skimp on bike training. Big mistake: By day two, her legs were screaming, and she consistently fell behind our group.
My wife and I used a modified version of this training guide, published by British outfitter Discover Adventure, to guide our workouts during the spring and early summer before RAGBRAI.
Everyone is different, so I won’t get too detailed on what your training program should look like. I encourage you to check out the training guide linked above, RAGBRAI’s own training blog, and additional resources as necessary to develop a customized training program that’s stringent enough for your purposes.
That said, your training program should bear these general tenets in mind:
- The Less You Bike, the Longer You’ll Need to Train. The less comfortable you are on a bike, the longer you’ll need to train, regardless of your underlying physical fitness. Cycling uses different muscle groups than running. If you’re already a regular cyclist fond of long weekend rides, you can get away with a shorter training period.
- Leave Plenty of Time. Most RAGBRAI regulars I spoke with recommend starting your training at least three months ahead of the ride – that is, in mid- to late April. If the climate in your area permits comfortable riding before then, go for it.
- Build Slowly. By the end of your training period, you’ll need to be ready to ride 70 miles in a day, but you don’t have to get there all at once. Start with 10 to 15 mile daily rides and build from there.
- Take Time Off. Overuse injuries can strike anyone, regardless of age or physical condition. Rest days help prevent them – and give your muscles much-needed time to repair and build. Take one day off for every three days on.
- Lift Weights. Your core muscles do more for your biking posture and stamina than you realize. On your off days, and after some training rides, spend 30 to 60 minutes doing low- to moderate-impact upper-body strength training.
- Road Biking Is Better Than Gym Biking. As you’ll probably learn on RAGBRAI, not every day is a good day for road biking. But, unless the weather is truly horrible, do your best to follow through with planned road rides. Old-fashioned exercise bikes, and even more sophisticated spin cycles, just aren’t the same as the real thing.
- Taper Towards the End. Don’t push too hard during your last 10 days of training, and don’t ride at all during the last 48 hours. You want your legs to be as fresh as possible for the week.
- Eat Healthy and Take Care of Yourself. Cycling burns lots of calories. Believe me, it’s tempting to eat whatever you want during the training phase. And eating more is fine. You need the energy, after all. Just make sure you’re eating right. Get plenty of rest too – seven to eight hours a night is recommended.
Packing List: What to Bring
You’ll find all these items useful on your RAGBRAI adventure:
- Bike. RAGBRAI is a bring-your-own-bike event. Since the vast majority of riding takes place on paved roads in reasonably good condition, the ideal bike is a sturdy, lightweight road model. If you plan to complete the optional gravel loop, consider a hybrid bike. I didn’t do the gravel loop, but my hybrid still came in handy on the occasional side jaunt.
- Cash. Cash is king on RAGBRAI. This being Iowa, the route is largely rural, making LTE-connected point-of-sale systems unreliable at best. In towns, where 4G service is better, the crush of riders usually overwhelms and crashes the LTE network. And don’t bet on small-town ATMs – every other rider has the same idea, and they’re often out of money by the end of the day. Save yourself the trouble and bring enough cash to last through the week. RAGBRAI’s organizers recommend $35 per person, per day. In my experience, closer to $50 per person, per day is realistic.
- Helmet. Besides “don’t ride at night,” “wear a helmet” is pretty much the only obligatory safety proscription on RAGBRAI. I counted only two helmetless riders the entire week.
- Sun Protection. Iowa’s open, agricultural landscape is riven by the occasional forested river valley, but you’ll spend the vast majority of your riding time exposed to the beating midsummer sun. Bring plenty of sunblock and apply regularly – every two hours is a good rule of thumb.
- Rain Gear. If it rains while you’re on the road, you’re going to get wet. Still, a lightweight rain coat or poncho and waterproof booties could mean the difference between wet and completely soaked. (We were lucky – it only rained one day on our ride, and it wasn’t a soaker, so we’d dried off by the time we rolled into the overnight town.)
- Plenty of Water. Water filling stations abound on RAGBRAI. Every intermediate town hooks a multi-tap (or, in some cases, a PVC pipe with lots of holes punched in it) up to the water main. It takes just a minute or two to refill at these stations. But towns are sometimes 10 to 15 miles apart, and biking in the hot summer sun is hard work. (Our year was apparently on the mild side, and we still had to contend with highs in the low 90s the first two days. Highs approaching 100 degrees aren’t unheard of, especially in southern Iowa.) Bring at least two regular-sized water bottles, or a hydration pack, such as a CamelBak.
- Bike-Appropriate Clothing. Padded bike shorts are pretty much essential on RAGBRAI. Otherwise, lightweight, breathable, aerodynamic clothing is the rule. Don’t worry too much about convention – just dress in comfortable exercise clothing, at least one full change per day. (You don’t need one pair of bike shorts per day. We brought three pairs each and washed them in the shower each day, which sounds gross but was absolutely essential.)
- Saddlebags or Handlebar Packs. As a registered rider, you don’t have to lug all your stuff from town to town, but you’ll still need room for on-the-road essentials, such as snacks, bike supplies, sun protection, and the like. Small, slender saddlebags or handlebar bags work well – you can find sturdy saddlebags for less than $50 and handlebar bags for less than $20. If you have one already, a backpack is a cheaper option, but it can get really sweaty over the course of the day.
- Basic Bike Repair Equipment & Supplies. Even if your bike is in great shape going into RAGBRAI, a lot can go wrong over 400-plus miles. Pack a repair bag that anticipates common issues, such as flat tires and dry chains. Include a spare tube, tire iron, chain grease, hex wrench, and possibly a spare chain. The whole kit shouldn’t set you back more than $20 to $30. Handy people abound on RAGBRAI, so help is never too far off, but you’ll save time and uncertainty with basic supplies and know-how.
- Cell Phone Chargers & Batteries. Don’t forget your cell phone charger! Overnight towns typically have gigantic, centrally located charging stations, but space is often at a premium here, especially late in the day. (Theft isn’t a major concern, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility either.) Bring an external battery for added security.
- Snacks. You’ll get hungry on your journey, so bring plenty of lightweight, high-calorie snacks to tide you over between meals. We personally preferred CLIF bars, but there’s no wrong answer here.
- Topical Creams & Oral Analgesics. Even with bike shorts, spending the better part of a day on a bike is not good for your butt. Do yourself a favor and purchase a tub of topical chamois cream, which is a lifesaver for cyclists beset by chafing and sores. It’s not cheap – expect to pay at least $10 for a small tub and $15 to $20 for a larger one – but it’ll spare you more serious injuries down the road. Bring your favorite oral analgesic too – aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen.
- Toiletries. Pack a toiletry bag before you leave. Bring whatever you’ll need for a week: toothbrush and toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant, moisturizer, shower soap, shampoo, and so on. Guys: Unless you’re a stickler for clean-shavenness, think twice before bringing your razor and shaving cream. The logistics of shaving on the road are surprisingly complicated, and it’s not like you need to impress colleagues or dating partners.
- Tissues and Toilet Paper. Every intermediate town has at least one bank of portable toilets. If you’re riding ahead of the pack, you probably won’t have to wait in line very long, but the story is very different for main-sequence riders. Fortunately, Iowa is covered with cornfields, and the crop is high enough by late July to provide excellent cover when nature calls.
On the Road: Control Your RAGBRAI Budget Without Compromising Your Experience
These tips draw heavily on my own personal experience. I’m confident they’ll reduce your RAGBRAI expenses, but I don’t mean to suggest that you need to follow all of them or that this is any sort of definitive guide to reducing the cost of your RAGBRAI adventure. Every long-distance bike ride is different.
- Register Early. If you want to ride the entire week, send in your RAGBRAI application as soon as possible after the route is announced. (Check RAGBRAI’s website for guidance on how to lodge your application – it’s pretty straightforward.) Demand for week-long passes is always high, and ridership is capped at 8,500, so this is very much a first-come, first-served situation. Plus, registration is nonrefundable after May 15. The earlier you register, the longer you’ll have to cancel if something comes up.
- Don’t Submit Housing Applications Before May 1. If you don’t want to camp out every night, you’ll need to submit applications for private housing after May 1 to each overnight town. (You can usually do this online, at the towns’ municipal websites.) RAGBRAI warns overeager riders not to contact the host towns before May 1. Those who do risk disqualification.
- Get Travel Insurance. Be prepared for the unexpected. Purchase travel insurance that reimburses your nonrefundable expenses in the unlikely event that you need to cancel or interrupt your RAGBRAI adventure for a covered reason, such as a medical emergency or change in employment status. This is especially important if you’re using a charter service – had we needed to cancel our charter after the May 20 deadline, we’d have been out more than $1,000 between the two of us.
- Get a Tune-Up Before the Ride. A week or two before you leave for RAGBRAI, find a local bike shop you trust and spend $50 or $70 for a comprehensive tune-up. It’s worth the investment: Your bike will run smoother, experience fewer mechanical problems, and increase your safety for the duration of the ride. A serious mechanical problem could cost much more to fix, and a problem that causes a crash could saddle you with expensive medical bills.
- Pack Smart. RAGBRAI’s organizers limit general registrants to one 50-pound bag each. Some charters are more lenient, but all impose some baggage limits. Know yours ahead of time and pack accordingly. Avoid bringing unnecessary clothing, electronics, games, liquids (including beer and wine – you can buy that stuff on the road), and the like.
- Bring Your Own Tent. Even if you ride with a charter service, bring your own tent and camping supplies. Had we used our own tent, my wife and I would have spent $200 less between the two of us and been only marginally less comfortable. Sure, it was nice to have our tent set up for us after a long day of riding, but next time we’d definitely bring our own.
- Self-Ship Your Bike Home. If you’re flying to Iowa, you’ll need to bone up on RAGBRAI’s bike shipping guide. (We drove from Minneapolis with our bikes on our car, so I can’t claim firsthand knowledge here.) Shipping a bike is definitely expensive, but you can save an easy $50 if you take advantage of RAGBRAI’s free assembly/disassembly services and self-ship your bike afterward. Otherwise, you’re basically paying someone to put the disassembled bike in the box for you.
- Learn to Love Protein Bars. Part of the fun of RAGBRAI is pigging out on guilt-free, quintessentially Midwestern fare like pork-chop sandwiches and corn on the cob. Still, all that eating – three full meals per day, and then some – gets expensive. My advice: Keep your tank full, and your wallet fat, by replacing one meal per day with protein bars. You’ll need two or three to do the trick. Minimize the investment by stocking up at Costco (or your favorite warehouse club) ahead of time – we paid $1 per CLIF bar ahead of our ride at Costco and saved about $50 per person on food throughout the week.
- Flash Your Tag for Discounts. Many RAGBRAI vendors, especially merchandise sellers and bike shops, offer discounts to registered riders. So do some local businesses, such as restaurants and bars in intermediate and overnight towns. Get in the habit of flashing your tags whenever you’re ready to buy something – worst case, the vendor simply doesn’t offer a discount.
- Remember to Stretch. Stretching reduces your risk of musculoskeletal injury, which reduces your exposure to potentially ruinous medical bills. Take an extra 10 minutes to stretch immediately before and after each day’s ride.
- Ride Safely. Riding safely reduces your risk of injury as well. Big no-nos include drafting, weaving, and failure to use verbal commands. Beyond that, a healthy dose of common sense is in order. My sole RAGBRAI accident was the result of a split-second, completely knuckleheaded decision to try to grab a bottle of water from a child handing them out for free on the side of a gravel road without breaking my stride. I lost control on the loose gravel and went flying over the handlebars. The kid’s parents were mortified, but luckily I escaped with only bruises and my bike was fine. You’ll encounter dozens of opportunities per day to make similarly ill-advised decisions. Don’t take them.
- Know How to Get Help on the Road. If your bike experiences a mechanical issue that’s beyond your ability to fix, be prepared to flag down someone who can help. Get well off onto the shoulder and turn your bike upside down, with the wheels pointing up. RAGBRAI works with 10 official bike-shop partners, and the U.S. Air Force cycling team doubles as a mobile repair squad, so someone will see you eventually.
- Promptly Pick Up Your Bags Each Afternoon. I mentioned earlier that theft isn’t a huge issue at RAGBRAI, but there’s no sense tempting fate. The RAGBRAI crew unloads general registrants’ baggage trucks at the overnight town’s central campground around 1pm each day and supervises them until 6pm. If you haven’t picked your luggage up by then, you’re on your own. Get in the habit of grabbing your things as soon as you roll into town, lest they disappear before you arrive.
Based on my own personal experience on the road in 2017, I can unequivocally say that RAGBRAI is an awesome time. If you’re an avid cyclist willing to put in sufficient training time and able to take a week off work during July, I can’t recommend RAGBRAI highly enough. It’s an experience you’ll remember for a long time to come.
After RAGBRAI, it’s natural to want to hang up your bike for a while. If you’re sick of riding around on two wheels, but enamored with the idea of exploring the world under your own power, a long-distance hike might be the perfect change of pace. Check out our post on the best long-distance hiking trails to escape civilization for ideas in your neck of the woods.
Have you ever done RAGBRAI? What do you wish you’d done differently?