We arrived in Le Mars, Iowa ready to ride across the state as part of the RAGBRAI pre-ride crew. RAGBRAI — Register’s Annual Great Big Ride Across Iowa — is the longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event in the United States and this year’s ride will take place from July 25 - July 31, 2021. We were invited to join the RAGBRAI pre-ride, riding along the course to inspect the route for safety hazards, meet the organizers working hard to prepare for the big event in small towns across the state and get a small taste of the ride festivities planned for later this summer.
We got an early 7 a.m. start in Le Mars, the ice cream capital of Iowa and posed for a photo in front of a postcard-esque sign downtown before heading to Remsen, the first town on the course. The first day of the RAGBRAI course is the longest day of riding and one of the hardest days of climbing, coming in at 84 miles with 2,816 feet of elevation gain — get ready!
The ride from Le Mars to Remsen was a gentle start to the route. Most businesses on Remsen’s main street were closed so early on a Sunday morning, but we stopped for snacks and spent some time talking to each other. The RAGBRAI community is strong — people come back year after year, meet friends for life and look forward to seeing each other every year. After canceling last year’s RAGBRAI due to the pandemic, everyone was very excited to see each other again. We showed up without knowing anyone but quickly started making friends and hearing about everyone’s excitement for the ride.
Continuing on from Remsen, we rode through rolling rural landscapes — fields of corn and hay, grain silos, tractors, horses, barns. It was fun to talk to the group and learn everyone’s stories. We talked to Vern Wiley, whose relationship with RAGBRAI and bicycling is inspiring. After breaking his back in 1997 and being told he’d never walk again, he learned to use an adaptive hand-pedaled bicycle. Along with his partner Vicky, Vern has completed RAGBRAI more than 20 times (they stopped counting!), toured around the world, led their local bike club and advocated for better bike infrastructure in their town of Altoona, Iowa. Vicky and Vern organize an adaptive bicycling group every year at RAGBRAI and are an inspiration to everyone who meets them at RAGBRAI, around Iowa and across the country.
A speedy, steep descent into the town of Cherokee was one of the most thrilling moments of the ride. Everyone stopped for lunch at Carey’s Cafe. We enjoyed the old signs, historic buildings and cute storefronts downtown. After lunch, we continued east out of town over the Little Sioux River toward Aurelia, population 1,000. Check out the vending machine prices!
By late afternoon, everyone was getting tired and needed some time to rehydrate and regroup. Everyone was a big fan of Alta’s Buffalo Ridge Cafe. Their indoor air conditioning was a huge relief from the 97 degree heat. Members of Alta’s First Presbyterian Church greeted us on their lawn with popsicles. It was nice to get a taste of small town hospitality everywhere we went along the route. After chatting for a bit, we continued on to Early, where local organizers greeted everyone with homemade strawberry rhubarb pie. Yum!
To be completely honest, we rode the rest of the way to Sac City in the SAG wagon (support vehicles that help those that are lagging behind). 27-mph headwinds had us beat. We were traveling about 4 mph into the wind and it was the end of a long day, but there’s no shame in knowing your limits! It’s really lucky to participate in a supported tour like RAGBRAI where a crew offers this support when you do reach your limit. We freshened up at the hotel and headed to dinner with some of our new friends.