The annual bike ride across Iowa known as RAGBRAI is kicking off its 49th tour.
They say one can sum up the RAGBRAI experience in two words: Iowa nice.
It’s the open air, the corn fields and above all the small communities and their uniquely midwestern hospitality along the way.
For roughly 20,000 participants, it’s an epic 450-mile adventure stretching for eight days, from one side of Iowa to the other.
This year is the ride’s 49th edition, and it starts in Sergeant Bluff.
Teams of riders often come with a truck so a designated driver can transport the gear from one overnight town to the next.
Tom Kurth is a 77-year-old RAGBRAI veteran.
“You got to have a system to this,” Kurth said. “This is the 36th in a row. Every day, every mile, every hill.”
The route changes ever year, so nearly all of Iowa has participated.
“My son made this up, and it shows every route that I’ve been on, 35 of them,” Kurth said.
RAGBRAI is steeped in tradition. For some, that includes playing drinking games along the way.
“I like to drink the beers, and I like to enjoy my friends,” Tyrone Nichols said. “I know so many people from Iowa now since I’ve been here so many times.”
For 15 years, Nichols has been coming to RAGBRAI from Tulsa, Oklahoma. This year he brought in his girlfriend, a rookie.
“He’s promised to change all my flat tires,” Nancy Fairchild said.
One stop, called a meeting town, is located right in the middle of the route. Anthon, Iowa — with a population of 545 — has been preparing for months to host one of the largest crowds it’s ever seen as a selected RAGBRAI meeting town. It’s where 20,000 people are regrouping and enjoying food and drinks from local vendors.
Anthon city clerk Jeni Umbach is in charge of the day’s events.
“We want people to see what our little town can do, even though we’re few but mighty,” Umbach said.
She has been working day and night to set everything up, including a display of her town’s ultimate pride. Anthon was once home to the world’s tallest man and the man with the longest hiccups.
“When you look around and see everybody laughing, holding a beverage, eating a sandwich, you know, not leaving,” RAGBRAI director Matt Phippen said. “You know you’ve done it right.”
Each year in January, RAGBRAI selects a few overnight towns from a pool of applicants.
From there, other towns along the way, like Anthon, are added to the route.
It all started in 1973 with two Des Moines-registered journalists who decided to bike across the state and invite readers along.
It’s now a massive event. But Phippen says the focus remains the same: the people of Iowa.
That includes state troopers, like Sergeant Alex Dinkla, who help guide the riders and turn up the beat.
Dinkla says it’s the same troopers who follow RAGBRAI for eight days, so they feel like part of the community.
“We see different people that we’ve met year after year. They recognize us. They come up and hang out with us under our tents, talk to us for a while. And so that that means a lot and it makes our day go by much faster,” Dinkla said.
After 53 miles on the road and many glorious stops, riders finally reached day one’s final destination: Ida Grove.
Now here in Ida Grove, you get the ultimate RAGBRAI experience. It’s one of eight overnight towns where locals and riders come together for one giant open air party.
When the party is over, riders can sleep at a nearby campground or in residents’ homes and backyards.
Karen Maricle and Dan Knop welcome 70 riders into their home, garage and yard — and they’re cooking for everyone.
“We decided we’d open up our backyards and let whoever needed a spot,” Knop said.
In typical midwestern fashion, they also keep it humble.
“They’re the ones paddling, and we don’t have to do anything,” Knop said.
Tomorrow morning the riders will be gone and back on the road.
They’ll create so many memories over eight days, they’ll lose count.
But one thing they’ll never forget: the people of Iowa and their boundless hospitality.