We kicked off the morning at the Coffee Attic & Book Cellar, sitting at some cute streetside tables and appreciating the character of small-town downtown Iowa Falls. On our way out of town, we checked out Estes Park, home to Iowa’s oldest running popcorn stand. The 13 miles into Ackley were some of the roughest roads we experienced on the RAGBRAI pre-ride. We were riding bikes with wider gravel tires, but people on skinnier road bikes were rattling over the potholes and cracks on the county highway. Keep your eyes on the road!
Ackley’s town RAGBRAI organizers greeted us just off their main street with pie, refreshments and best of all, air conditioning! Years earlier, the town discovered a cool mural of a bull after tearing down an older structure that you’ll see just off the road as you come into town. We were offered a tour of an old depot filled with old pianos, quilts, bibles, old leather postcards, antiques and other small town treasures. Ackely was the highest elevation point on the route for the day, so it was downhill from there (with a few rolling hills). We hurried past Austinville until we reached Aplington, 12 miles from Ackley. The road quality improved and we were happy to stop at Aplington’s Peppercorn Pantry for coffee, smoothies and snacks. We met Aplington’s Citizen of the Year, Mary Meyer, working behind the coffee bar. Mary is responsible for the beautiful garden space outside the shop, full of lush plants, succulents and shaded patio tables where we enjoyed our coffee and drinks.
We rode the next seven miles to Parkersburg, keeping our eyes out for the town’s water tower in the distance. Everyone looks for these water towers as markers of the next pit stop on RAGBRAI. We had lunch at Our Neighborhood Grill off main street and dipped our feet in nearby Beaver Creek. While riding across this route, it’s easy to forget you’re so close to water the whole time!
We met with Parkersburg’s Chief of Police to discuss the route out of town and made some changes to our route in line with his local expertise. We learned that Parkersburg recently endured several tragedies — a devastating F-5 tornado in 2008 and a shooting at the local high school that took the life of a beloved football coach. Another hardship faced by Parkersburg and other small towns across Iowa has been the pandemic. RAGBRAI was canceled for the first time since its inception in 1973 last year due to COVID-19. When RAGBRAI comes through small towns throughout the state, it helps elevate the stories of each small community and bolster local businesses by bringing upwards of 12,000+ people to town. As we talked to people in towns throughout the pre-ride, we heard how sorely RAGBRAI has been missed.
Nine miles down the road, we reached New Hartford, nicknamed the “City of Gardens.” The same F-5 tornado that hit Parkersburg ravaged New Hartford. The town was also hit with a flood that same year. In lieu of reconstructing the devastated building lots, New Hartford built nine new public gardens and public parks as part of a recovery effort. We rested at the Beaver Creek Bar & Grill.
The ride to Janesville was a lot of fun! The road rolls through forest, bog and riparian landscapes toward Black Hawk Park and the Cedar River. Getting close to town, we passed a group of local kids on bikes. We saw huge smiles on their faces as our group passed and they joined us as we rode into town. We gave them some PeopleForBikes stickers, RAGBRAI hats and listened to them talk about how much fun they have riding bikes.
The ride to Waterloo was 16 miles, one of the longest stretches of the day without a stop. We met up with Tavis Hall from Experience Waterloo, the town’s tourism board. He led us into downtown on a beautiful network of off-street paths that trace the Cedar River. This was a little deviation from the official RAGBRAI route to avoid stressful roads in town (that will be closed during RAGBRAI itself). We toasted to the long day of riding at SingleSpeed Brewing Co. and had dinner downtown to close out the night.