I decided to write out some RAGBRAI tips for beginners. Before I started my first RAGBRAI I was searching online for some tips and didn’t find much info out there. At the time of this writing I have done seven RAGBRAIs. I have always wanted to get this typed out to help out RAGBRAI virgins.
The seven RAGBRAI’s I have been on have all been with a team and on a team bus. Some information regarding riding with the Des Moines Register or a charter bus is to the best of my knowledge since I’ve never ridden with them. I will correct info when needed, I want this to be accurate for beginners. I don’t know everything there is to know about RAGBRAI but I want to share what I do know. I do not work for RAGBRAI and this content is from my own experiences.
If this will be your first RAGBRAI then you are a virgin. That’s the RAGBRAI term for first time riders. You may see the word VIRGIN written down the back of someone’s leg. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, you should actually be proud. You’re doing RAGBRAI! This is a huge deal. Find someone with a black Sharpie and let them mark up your legs. Don’t worry, it will be gone in a couple days, it’s not permanent.
This word on your legs can also keep you safe. Not only are you bragging that this is your first RAGBRAI but it also tells other riders that you’re a virgin and might not know all the rules of the road. You are essentially an inexperienced RAGBRAI rider. When I pass a virgin I usually give them a bit more space than I normally do.
Personally I love virgins! I love riding with them and showing them all the fun things on RAGBRAI, they’ve never seen it before! I love hanging out with them and making sure they have a fun time.
THE RIDE ITSELF
When you first see the total miles of RAGBRAI, usually under 500 miles, and see the daily miles, usually 40-80 miles, you may be intimidated by it. Don’t be. What they don’t tell you is there are many towns along the way and they are usually 10-20 miles apart. If you can ride 10-20 miles at once and do that many times in the day then you can do RAGBRAI. Sometimes the stretch is 5 miles, sometimes its 25 miles. If you need a break during that stretch then you stop and have one. But sometimes it’s hard to find shade along the route and shade can be a real life saver.
Riding RAGBRAI is quite an accomplishment. You are riding across the state of Iowa in a week on a bike! Even with over 1000 miles in training it can still be difficult to do. But it’s not impossible. It really comes down to your mind and your body. Your mind might have every intention for riding every mile but your body might say no. It can be a real struggle but that’s what makes it worth it. But be sure to listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard. You want to finish this ride on your bike, not in an ambulance.
RAGBRAI DATES TO REMEMBER
RAGBRAI is always held the last full week of July. If July 31st is a Friday then RAGBRAI will be the week before. With that in mind here are some other important dates concerning RAGBRAI:
Mid-November: This is when RAGBRAI registration opens up for the upcoming year.
Mid-January: The RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party. Each year RAGBRAI puts on a big party and they announce the route and overnight towns for the upcoming RAGBRAI. The party is held in downtown Des Moines. If you can’t make it to the party they also do a live webcast so you can watch it from your computer. They have the details on their website http://www.ragbrai.com.
Mid-February: Deadline for registering via paper applications.
April 1st: This is the last day of week-long registration for RAGBRAI. It’s always this date every year.
May 1st: This is when they announce the results of the RAGBRAI lottery. If you registered by April 1st and are picked you will get all your registration info emailed to you on this day. It’s always this date every year.
Mid-May: Deadline to request a registration refund.
June 1st: Daily rider registration closes.
Early June: The RAGBRAI Route Inspection Pre-Ride takes place.
Mid-June: The BACooN Ride. This is a new yearly ride that RAGBRAI puts on. It is around the Raccoon River Valley Trail loop and they have bacon themed things at each stop. Tickets usually sell out quickly for this ride.
Last full week of July: RAGBRAI.
Riding RAGBRAI is quite a journey and you need to be ready for it. Over the years I’ve seen people who got a bike the week before RAGBRAI and have zero miles under their belt and they were able to ride the entire thing. I find that almost impossible to believe. I wasn’t like that and you probably won’t be either. You need to get the miles in before RAGBRAI so your body and mind are ready. RAGBRAI says to get in 1000 miles beforehand but you can get by with 500 miles. The more miles you get in before RAGBRAI the easier RAGBRAI will be for you. Doing those miles before RAGBRAI will help your body get used to being on a bike for long periods of time. It really comes down to your butt and your legs. Your butt will be sore from sitting on a bike seat for extended periods of time but the more you do it the more the pain goes away. Eventually there will be no pain in your butt from sitting on a bike seat for long periods. Your legs also need the training. Usually once you get past 300-400 miles that’s when you “get your legs”. Getting your legs means that you can continue to pedal even though your body is exhausted. Your body is tired but your legs won’t be. You can continue to ride on. This is very important. But you’ll know when you have your “legs”, you’ll be able to feel them working hard when the rest of your body doesn’t want to.
Some people say to get in a lot of hill training but I never really do it and I’m fine. I concentrate more on actual mileage. I mostly ride trails around the Des Moines area and occasionally do bigger rides that are on the highways. Those highway miles are more closely like RAGBRAI’s miles. When it comes to hills I just put it in the granny gear and take my time going up a hill. No need to push yourself too hard up a hill, they can really put a strain on you. This method has treated me well because I have never walked a hill on RAGBRAI. But if you do have to walk a hill don’t worry, you’ll most likely not be only one walking.
Speaking of gears, you should know about your bike. You need to know how to change a flat tire and how the gears work. My very first flat tire was on my first RAGBRAI and I had some guy give me some tips. Once you’ve done it a few times it’s a very easy thing to do. I can change a flat in about 5 minutes now. Flats happen. But if you get a lot of them and hate changing tires then I’d recommend buying Gatorskin tires. They have Kevlar in the tires and are almost flat-proof. I’ve been using them for years. They usually run about $50 a tire.
You need to know how your gears work on your bike as well. It’s takes a bit at first but then it will became second nature and you will shift without even thinking. Your left hand is for your “front” and right hand is for your “back”. The left brake controls the front brake, right brake controls the rear break. The left shifter controls your front gears (the ones by the pedals) and the right shifter controls the back gears (the ones on the back wheel). Most of the time you leave your front gears where they are, usually in the middle or the smaller gear depending if you have 2 or 3 gears there. But the back shifter is where you do most of the shifting. When the chain is all the way to the right on the smallest gear then it will be the one with most resistance. Use this one when you can really get on it and want to go fast. When the chain is all the way to the left on the biggest gear then it will be the one with the least resistance. Use this one when you want it easy and slower. When you have the front and back gears on their easiest setting, front on smallest, back on biggest, then you are in “Granny gear”. This is a great setting for going up steep hills.
TIPS FOR NOT GETTING LOST OR LOSING THINGS
I strongly recommend you ride with a friend or two, it makes it more fun. Riding solo can also be fun on its own too, you meet a good variety of people and even some new friends. Here’s some tips I’ve come up with over the years to not lose track of yourself or your things:
While riding on the rode stick together with your friends. Of course you won’t always ride the same speed and they may go ahead or back from you. Try to remember where you are compared to them. You don’t want to pull over and wait for them if they are in front of you somewhere. One tip we always do is that if you get separated stop somewhere before the next town starts. It’s almost impossible to ride into town and look for someone. This way you can find them before you all get into town. While in town put your bikes together. Make a rule if anyone gets lost you meet back at the bikes. Do not leave without everyone in your group. If the bikes are still there then your friends are still there.
Sticking together with your friends at the overnight town is a different story because you usually don’t have your bikes with you. I advise to find some type of landmark and make that your meeting place if you get lost. The other hard part about going out at night is finding your way back to your camp. You might leave your campsite while there’s still light out but come back after dark. It can be very difficult to find your place in the dark. Either pay special attention to street names when you leave or use GPS on your phone to find your way back. Make sure you have enough battery left on your phone!
Now for keeping track of your things. RAGBRAI does have a lost and found system. Anything that is lost can be turned over to their information booths. All the items they accumulate over the week are kept and after RAGBRAI is over they post a picture of all of the lost items they have. Helmets, gloves, wallets, phones…they get everything. My tip to keep track of your things is to put your name and phone number with any item that can get lost. For example if you carry a wallet turn a business card over, write your name and phone number and put it somewhere the finder will see it. For your cell phone make a picture of your name and a friend’s phone number and make that picture your background image so they can see it without having to unlock your phone. For a point and click camera type up your info on a computer and take a picture of it with the camera. Clear the memory card beforehand and make it your first picture so it’s the first picture the finder sees. Just find a way to get your name and phone number (or someone else’s phone number) with the item. If you are on a team put your team name on it. If the finder sees someone else on your team they will give it to them. People are really good about getting things back to people who lost them. Remember, everyone is your friend on RAGBRAI.
RAGBRAI came up with the Ride Right program. There are many different bullet points to the program but I want to concentrate on one of them. Riding Right. What that means is you always ride to the right side of the road when possible. If you are the only person out there then you should be next to the right white line. You go left when passing someone but then go back to the right. This keeps the road clear for other bikers and makes it easy for them to pass you. You never know what can come up from behind you. Before you know it there’s 2 lines of 50 bikers flying by you. When this happens you’ll be happy you’re on the right side of the road!
You can get hurt on RAGBRAI if you’re not careful. You can also die on RAGBRAI too. That unfortunately happens. But if you pay attention to what you are doing you should be OK. Here’s some rider tips:
Helmets: For the love of God wear a helmet! In fact if you don’t wear a helmet you’ll be the odd one out. When bikers see someone riding without a helmet it makes them look like an amateur. It can literally save your life. If you’ve fallen and it’s cracked then it’s time for a new helmet. Make sure the helmet fits your head and can’t slide off and don’t ride around with the chin strap undone, it won’t work when you fall! Also please don’t wear your helmet indoors, it makes you look dumb. Leave it on your bike.
Bike Gloves: This is something you’ll want to have. You can usually find these for under $20. Bike gloves have no fingertips to them and are padded. They can protect your hands if you fall. But most importantly they help your hands from falling asleep while riding. You put a lot of pressure on your hands while riding and gloves help to pad them. Just make sure you take them off before using the bathroom!
Bike Clothes: Bike clothes consists of bike shorts and a jersey. These work great in keeping you cool and helping with perspiration. Bike shorts are like swimming trunks. Do not wear underwear while wearing bike shorts. I would also recommend a bike cap or a headband/bandanna to put on your head to keep the sweat out of your eyes.
Sunglasses: These are a must have for bike riding, especially during the day when the sun is bearing down on you. An optional accessory is a mirror that attaches to your sunglasses. This will allow you to see behind you without turning your head. It can be very helpful to keeping you safe.
Sunscreen: You will go through a lot of sunscreen while on RAGBRAI. Best to apply it before you really need it. You will also reapply a few times during the day. There’s 2 kinds of sunscreen out there; lotion and spray. Lotion is probably the best way to apply sunscreen but can be a little messy. Spray is quicker and easier but beware, it can stain clothes. I’ve noticed spray sunscreen can add a brown tint to white jerseys.
Touching tires: While riding behind someone have at least a foot of space between your front tire and their back tire and no matter what happens don’t touch tires! What can happen is that if you touch tires with the person in front of you it can do a weird thing with tire speeds and it can cause that rider to fly over their handlebars. You don’t want to hurt someone like that so be careful!
Center line: While riding on the highways be cautious of the center line. Sometimes there is a small gap between the left and right lanes and crossing across it can cause your tires to stick in between them. If it’s too narrow or too wide you should be fine, it’s only when it’s close to the size of your own tire that you should worry. In that case just stay to one side and cross when it’s safe. There was a guy going down a hill very fast and his front tire caught in the center line and he went over his handlebars directly onto his head. He was killed. Please be careful about the center line.
Eyes up: While riding you may see signs that say keep your head up. This is especially true while riding a road bike or a triathlon bike. Over time your neck will hurt and it feels better to keep your head down parallel with the ground. It also makes you more wind resistant. But you can’t ride like that on RAGBRAI. There’s 1000s of riders in front of you and you have no control over what they do. You need to have eyes on the road so you’re ready for anything.
Be predictable: You want others around you to feel safe while riding with you or when passing you. You don’t want to be swerving around on the lane or cutting people off. You need to ride right and be predictable. It helps everyone else feel at ease and feel safe while around you. No one wants to ride next to someone if that person can wipe them out.
Hygiene: Personal hygiene is very important on RAGBRAI because most of the time you are dirty. This is especially true when using kybos or cornfields as bathrooms. You may have ways to keep yourself clean but you can’t always clean your hands. My advice is to wash your hands whenever you get a chance because you won’t know the next time you have the opportunity. Try to wash your hands before eating but that’s not always possible. You can keep some hand sanitizer on your bike to help with germs but wash your hands whenever you can. Soap and warm water goes a long way. We usually carry one or two packs of baby wipes with us during the day. You use them as toilet paper and can also use them to clean your hands.
There’s a few things I strongly recommend having on your bike at all times. One of them is two water bottles, a computer to keep track of your miles/speed, and a small bike bag that fastens under the back of your seat.
Please have 2 water bottles and try to have at least one full at all times. There usually is a free water fountain at each town but not always. You may have to buy water in bottles to dump in your water bottles. You really don’t want to run out of water on the road. But don’t worry too much if you do, because there’s usually people that sell water on the route. They’ll have a pickup truck parked at some gravel road and usually sell water a dollar a bottle. Gatorade is usually $2-3 a bottle.
A bike computer can really help you out on the ride and also while training before RAGBRAI. They range from around $10 to $500 or more for the fancy GPS units. If you don’t have one yet go for a cheap one at first. In fact I would say to buy cheap everything the first time around. Some of these items you will not need later and you’ll be glad you didn’t drop a lot of money on it. Some of them will “grow” over time and you’ll buy many versions of the same thing and buy more expensive and nicer the next time around. A bike computer is essential for RAGBRAI because you can see how fast you are going and this will tell you if you need adjust your speed to how you normally ride. It will also keep track of your miles and that will help you determine how far away you are to the next town.
If you don’t have any other way to carry things then get a small bike bag that attaches to the back of your seat. Carry at least one spare tube as a minimum. It would be better to also carry a pair of tire levers (they help remove the tire from the wheel) and maybe also a way to inflate the tube (pump or CO2 cartridges). But you can borrow those and get help from someone if needed but you need to carry a tire with you at all times!
Every morning before you leave you should pump up your tires. You should already be in the habit to pump up your tires before every ride. If you ride a road bike I highly recommend you find out the max pressure of your tires, usually 110-120 psi, and fill your tires to their max. You can find that number on the side of your tires. While you have your tires at their max pressure you may experience a slightly bumpier ride (because the tires are firmer) but you will have less work to do pedaling (full tires mean less traction). Don’t worry about your tires popping from too much pressure, I’ve heard you’ve have to put 20-30 psi more over its max for them to pop (never tried it myself though).
There’s a whole other language that is spoken on RAGBRAI while riding. You need to know what it is and how to use it. But don’t worry, it’s pretty simple. While riding you may hear people yell out things, sometimes to other people, their party or to anyone in general. This is common and using it is good practice, it keeps you and others safe. Here’s a list of common things:
CAR UP! – When you hear this that means a car is approaching from the front, towards you. You should make sure you are riding on the right side of the road. You do not want to be in the left lane when a car is approaching.
CAR BACK! – This is like CAR UP but the opposite. A car is approaching from the rear, behind you. Again, make sure you are on the right side of the road. You may need to move over more to make room for other people too.
ON YOUR LEFT! – You will hear this the most, especially if it’s your first RAGBRAI! I barely got to say it on my first ride. When someone is passing you from the left they will say this so you won’t pull out in front of them. Good practice is to always try to pass someone on the left.
ON YOUR RIGHT! – Someone is passing you on your right side. If you hear this a lot then you probably need to move over to the right more. Usually slow riders are on the right and faster riders pass them on the left.
IN THE MIDDLE! – This means that someone is going to ride between you and someone else. This doesn’t happy very often unless there’s plenty of room between the two people. Only do this if needed, it’s better to pass on the left side.
STOPPING! – This usually means that people in front of you are stopping, usually for an intersection. State Patrol is at the major intersections and they usually direct traffic so you may have to stop every once in a while. This command is also used when a biker pulls off the road to the side.
SLOWING! – This is similar to STOPPING but it’s when bike traffic is slowing. Usually STOPPING comes next. Slow down so you don’t run into anyone in front of you.
RUMBLES! – Since most of RAGBRAI is on highways a lot of them have rumble strips before a stop sign at an intersection. These make the loud “ERRRHTT” noise when you drive over them in a car. They aren’t the best to ride over on a bike but you can. They don’t damage your bike and won’t give you a flat. Of course that could happen but most likely won’t. If you decide to go around them most people go to the left of rumbles but if you are stuck on the right sometimes you can safely pass the rumbles on the very right edge of the road. Usually there’s a half of a foot flat section of road to the right of the rumbles.
BIKER ON! – If you stop by the side of the road for whatever reason, food, water, bathroom break, then this is what you say when you want to get back on the road. First wait for a good spot in traffic to merge back onto the road and yell out BIKER ON so others know you are coming back on.
BIKER OFF! – This is what you say when you want to pull off the road. You don’t want someone to run into you from behind!
Here’s some other terms that aren’t yelled out like commands but things you may hear and not know what they are:
Virgin: A first time RAGBRAI rider.
Dark side: Each pass-through town has a “shut down” time. At a certain predetermined time everything is shut down and all bikers are encouraged to ride on to the next town. Usually the Iowa State Patrol shows up and helps shut everything down. They do this for our safety so bikers aren’t caught riding in the darkness of night. There are riders that do ride at night behind the wave of Iowa State Patrol. These people ride on the dark side.
Midtown or Lunch town: This is the half-way point of the day’s ride. At this town you’ll find food vendors, bike repair shops, etc. A lot of teams will have their buses there too. The team members can end the ride there and get on the bus or start the ride there and get off the bus.
Pass-through town: These are the little towns the route goes through during the day.
Overnight: Overnight is short for “overnight town”. This is usually the big town you stay at the end of the day. This is where you camp, get cleaned up, eat dinner and watch the main headline band.
Karras Loop: This optional loop is named after John Karras, one of the founders of RAGBRAI. It appears every year on one of the day’s ride. If you decide to ride it your total mileage for the day will be 100 miles or more. If you are a registered rider you will be given a Karras Loop patch but supplies can be limited. I’d recommend you try this at least once. Riding over a 100 miles on a bike in one day is certainly something to brag about!
Gravel Loop: This is a new loop that was added starting with RAGBRAI 2015. It is an optional loop that takes place on a gravel road. I heard you can do it with a road bike but you could get a flat tire. This is more for mountain bikes or fat tire bikes.
SAG: Sag, or sagging, means you aren’t riding for a portion or the whole day. Usually means you’ll be on the bus drinking all day. It’s nice to have a day off!
SAG Wagon: This is RAGBRAI’s official way to get off the route. If you are a registered rider and can’t complete the ride for the day you can get on the SAG wagon. You’ll recognize these as vans with a flat-bed trailer behind it full of bikes. If you aren’t a registered rider it will cost you $100 for a lift.
Line: A line is a long line of bikers riding in a row. They will stick out because they will pass you very quickly. This is the best way to move a lot of bikers quickly. It can be dangerous though, especially if someone goes down. RAGBRAI does not recommend riding in lines, use at your own risk.
Tandem: This is a bicycle built for two. With both people pedaling they can really move too. They are great for leading a line.
Recumbent: This is a bicycle where the driver sits down and often has their legs in front of them. They can be low to the ground or sit at the height of a road bike. A lot of older riders ride these because they aren’t as strenuous on their backs. But they are a lot of work because you can’t put your weight into pedaling, it’s all in your leg muscles.
Fat Tire Bike: You will know what this is when you see it. The tires on this type of bike are very big. The tire’s width is about this size of a softball. These have been gaining in popularity over the past few years.
Bagger: Someone who rides a “bag bike”. You will recognize them by the many bags hanging off their bike, usually on both sides of the front and rear wheel. This makes them slower but they are hardcore. Some of their bike weigh over 100lbs! If you are ever in need of something that isn’t too common, like a special tool, chances are a bagger might have it on them.
Granny gear: When you have the front and back gears on their easiest setting, front on smallest, back on biggest, then you are in “Granny gear”. This is a great gear setting for going up steep hills.
Upshift: Going “up” in gears, making it harder to pedal.
Downshift: Going “down” in gears, making it easier to pedal.
Kybo: Port-a-Potty, those blue plastic things with a white roof. Use them only when necessary, they smell awful especially on hot days. You can always go in the cornfields while on the road.
Zero out: This means to reset your trip mileage for the day. This is usually done in the morning before you start riding. Doing this will help you know where you are for mileage during the day.
Scrapies: Very tiny whiteheads that you can get on your face. You will notice these in the morning. You can usually just scrap them off with a fingernail and they are gone. They can be caused from the excessive sweating during the ride.
Biker Tattoo: You may notice a front gear print on your right calf that’s made with grease. This is called a biker tattoo. You get these all the time from touching the front gear with your leg. Just scrub extra hard on it while you’re in the shower to remove it.
Cell phone coverage is slowly getting better thanks to portable cell towers they set up in the overnight towns. But a cell phone isn’t entirely reliable on RAGBRAI. The reason why is because there are so many cell phones hitting up the towers that it makes them get overloaded and not work. On top of that your cell phone can do weird things. I’ve sent out a text message, watch it get sent and wait for a reply. Then ten minutes later I get a message saying it wasn’t sent. On top of the towers getting overloaded your phone may be in roaming mode a lot. There isn’t 100% coverage in Iowa especially when out in the country. Being in roaming mode will drain your battery faster.
Here’s my tips for a cell phone on RAGBRAI: keep your phone turned off to save the battery. If you insist on keeping it turned on then keep it in airplane mode and switch it back when you want to use it. This will allow you to get through the day without your battery dying. Also keep your cell phone in a small zip-lock bag to keep it waterproof from rain or sweat. If you need to make a phone call the small towns along the way aren’t the best place, too many cell phones overwhelming their tower. I would recommend riding out of town a ways then try it again. I’ve had better luck connecting phone calls when in between towns. But you could also be in roaming or have no signal. Ask around in your group, some phone carriers work better than others depending on where you are in the state of Iowa. So if you don’t have a signal your friend might.
I would also recommend picking up one of those USB rechargeable battery packs. They come in a variety of sizes and prices. If you cell phone is dead, or near dead, you can plug it into this battery pack and get some extra juice in your phone to make a call. It could save you from getting lost.
Personally, I carry my cell phone on me but I either leave it turned off or in airplane mode. I honestly like living “off the grid” for a week. Besides, do you really need to check your work email or update Facebook? Put all that aside for a week and just have fun. RAGBRAI only happens once a year.
I have always ridden with a team and I think that’s the best way to do RAGBRAI. Teams are usually 20 people or less and it’s great to be in a group that looks out for each other. First timers will be amazed at all the crazy team names. Some of them don’t make any sense but that’s kind of the point. A lot of them are a play on words and like to be silly. You won’t see names like Team Hardcore or Team Fast Bikes but silly names like Team Flamingo or Team Tall Dogs. A lot of these teams have a theme and will even wear silly outfits. There can be a little bit of “cultural shock” at first but you’ll be so used to it by the end of the week you won’t even notice it.
The other ways of doing RAGBRAI is having the Des Moines Register haul your stuff. But then you have to find it in mountains of bags and have to sleep next to hundreds of strangers. You could also have a friend haul your stuff for you but then it’s just you or the few people you ride with. A team is a great way to meet new friends and have fun as a group. If you are interested in joining a team I would recommend looking in RAGBRAI’s forums. There’s always teams looking for new members to add, you don’t even have to be in the same state as them. Just see what kind of team they are, how they ride and see if it is a good match for you.
I had to include a section about the people on RAGBRAI. I guess you can group them into categories; riders, locals, and support.
Riders. These are your fellow bike riders. They come in a variety of flavors from road bikers, to baggers, to the extreme triathlon types. Whichever you run across one thing is for certain, they are all your friends. Seriously, practically every biker out there is your friend. If you get stranded on the side of the road someone will stop and help. If you need directions, food, beer, whatever, someone will help you out. You can ask any biker for help and they will help you. It’s amazing.
Locals. These are the people that live in the areas we ride through. Their attitudes vary from being excited that RAGBRAI is coming to their town to being upset that RAGBRAI is coming to their town. For some of these small towns the day RAGBRAI comes through is their biggest day all year! Most locals are generally nice and willing to go out of their way to help out the bikers. Most of them can’t fathom how someone can ride a bike across the state of Iowa. A lot of them think we are all crazy.
Support. These are the people that help out the bikers. They can be the food vendors, bike repair shops or the team bus drivers. Did you know if you are in a bad spot and can’t finish the day that you could ask a bus driver nicely for a ride and most of the time they will give you a ride to the overnight town? A lot of them are cool like that. They are willing to help out other bikers even if it’s not their own.
There’s a story I have to share about how nice people are on RAGBRAI. This was on my very first RAGBRAI. My legs were too stiff to ride so I sagged that day. The bus drove to Indianola, our overnight town, and to the house of our host. They lived in a cul-de-sac and it was pouring rain outside. Someone knocked on the host’s door but no one answered. The next door neighbor saw our bus and came over to talk to us. He told us that our host was downtown volunteering to help out and wasn’t home. He was getting ready to go downtown to do the same thing. He said in the meantime until the host gets home we can wait in his garage and use his bathroom as needed. Then he left. Somebody opened up their home for strangers to use and left. I’ve never seen that happen before this and it still blows my mind. We had a good time though, the garage door was open and we set our chairs in there and drank beer until the host got home.
FOOD & DRINK
Here’s something I was never told on my first ride and I wish I knew about it! You need to drink lots of liquids throughout the day. But whatever you do don’t drink only water or Gatorade. You need a good mix of both. Personally I don’t like to stain the inside of my water bottles red or orange from Gatorade so I only keep water in them. The guidelines I always stick to is drink water on the ride and grab a Gatorade when you get into a town. Sometimes they are in a bigger bottle and it might be too much to drink so share it with a friend! This will give you all the water you need and keep you stocked up with electrolytes. Sweating all day in the sun can really tax your body and you may suffer from dehydration. You don’t want to do that, trust me, I’ve been to the emergency room twice over it and it’s not fun.
Food on RAGBRAI is great! I like to call it “Fair food”. It’s food you normally eat while at the State Fair. Since you are riding so much on RAGBRAI you can almost eat whatever you want and not gain any weight, you burn so many calories during the day! When you ride it’s good to have many small portions of food. Do not eat too much at once, you will throw it up on the road! You can safely “stuff yourself” at night, in fact that’s what most people do to make sure they get enough food in them. You need that fuel to ride. Try to eat a good variety of food.
For breakfast the top two most popular vendors are Breakfast Delights and Farm Boys. They both have their pros and cons. I personally prefer Breakfast Delights over Farm Boys, but I can only eat Breakfast Delights once or twice, it’s almost too much. Their main item is French toast sticks along with scrambled eggs. The best way to have these is to get everything on them. The French toast sticks have pecans on them and you can add maple syrup and strawberries with a cream topping. The scrambled eggs have onions and green peppers in them and you can add sour cream and salsa to them. The thing is that the French toasts sticks and the scrambled eggs are in the same container so while you eat them the maple syrup/strawberries/salsa all get mixed together. I know, you’re probably thinking that sounds gross but it is simply amazing to taste! It can be very rich so I can only eat it once per week. Farm Boys on the other hand is a very large breakfast burrito. They put it together right in front of you. It can sometimes be too much food too so make sure not to eat too much. Lines for both of these places can be crazy long so plan accordingly. They are long for a reason, they’re very popular.
There are other food regulars on RAGBRAI that also must be eaten to get the “full RAGBRAI experience”. One is a pork chop from Mr. Pork Chop. You’ll often see a large pink bus sitting at the top of a hill at some farmer’s house in the country with a lot of smoke. When you get to it you’ll see dozens of thick pork chops cooking over corn husks. They smell amazing and taste amazing too! Their lines are usually crazy long but aren’t as bad as the week goes on. Be sure to try one at least once.
If you like ice cream then you’ll have to try Beekman’s Ice Cream. They are also usually located on the route out in the country at a farmer’s house. There’s no smoke to look for but you will hear the “putt-putt” sounds coming from their small steam engines that churn the ice cream. This is what homemade ice cream tastes like. It can be a lot and very cold so you might want to go in half with a friend.
Besides the “fair food” there are regular restaurants you can go to while at the overnight towns. It’s nice to get a group of friends together and go to a nice sit-down restaurant while in air conditioning. After a long hot day in the sun the A/C feels like luxury.
It’s going to be hot and you’re going to sweat. It is the middle of summer in July and you’re riding a bike outside along cornfields. You can feel the heat coming down from the sun and you can feel the heat coming up off the asphalt road. You will need to cool off. Not every day is like being at Death Valley, it always seems to rain at least one day every year. My favorite days are the overcast days, no sunscreen and no sunburn!
While riding you will get hot. Drink lots of water. If you drink too much you will go to the bathroom a lot, don’t worry, that’s a good thing. That means you have plenty of water in your body. It seems like your back and head will get the hottest while riding. Feel free to grab your water bottle and squirt some water on the top of your back. It will run down your back and cool you off really quick. If you are wearing a bike cap or a bandanna take it off can squirt cold water on it and put it back on, that also helps out a lot.
When you get in town shade is the key. Wherever it may be there’s probably someone already sitting in the shade so find it where you can. Even if you have to sit on a curb and eat lunch, if it’s in the shade it’s perfect.
Along the route there are occasional waterslides or water holes. These are a fun distraction and a great way to cool off. Sometimes there’s a big mud puddle at the bottom of a waterslide so you’ll have to watch out for that. Take off your jersey, if you can, and get on the slide or in the water. Don’t worry too much about having wet shorts. After you leave they’ll be dry within 30 minutes.
There is a lot of partying to do on RAGBRAI, if you chose to. But this all depends on how you feel during the day. If you feel tired or completely wiped out, then skip a beer garden. Sit in the shade and catch a quick nap. But if you want to party, there’s plenty of opportunities to do so.
After a long stretch of biking between towns on hot day nothing tastes better than an ice cold beer and it goes down so well. I’m always on the lookout for tall boy beers and finding them for $3 each is always a goal. If you party while riding during the day my advice is don’t drink too much! You want to get a good buzz but not drunk. When you’re drunk you can’t ride straight and are a dangerous risk to yourself and others. Imagine being drunk and riding 45mph down a super steep hill. It won’t end pretty. So take it easy during the ride. But once you get to the overnight town, it’s a different story. Time to party up. Just make sure you can get back to your tent, or someone else’s, by the end of the night. Being drunk and lost in a strange town at night isn’t fun.
Another little known thing about RAGBRAI that virgins don’t know is that you drink so much water during the week that your body goes into “camel mode”. Usually by Tuesday or Wednesday you’ll start developing “cankles”. You will notice your ankles will be swollen and you can press on them with your finger. This is extra water stored in your body. Because of this you won’t get many hangovers because you won’t get dehydrated from drinking alcohol. This is great because drinking all night and getting up at 7am to ride can be tough enough already. A hangover would make it impossible.
Camping is the other part of RAGBRAI. I guess there are people out there who don’t like camping. That’s too bad, I enjoy it myself. You have to sleep somewhere! Some people will try to get a hotel/motel room at each overnight town. If you want to do this then you need to do it the night of the announcement party! (The RAGBRAI announcement party is in January of each year. They announce the overnight towns for that year’s ride along with total mileage/elevation.) The hotel/motel rooms go extremely quick. So quick it’s almost not worth trying to get one, unless the overnight town is a pretty large town.
If you are riding with a group the first thing you need to do is ask everyone in your group if they know anyone who lives at any of the overnight towns. Staying at a host house is great! Even sleeping in their backyard is a lot better than next to a busy road with 1000s of other people, especially if you are a light sleeper.
Some people sleep in an RV or their bus but most camp during RAGBRAI. Camping during RAGBRAI is pretty simple, set up your tent and make sure you pass out inside of it. You don’t need a campfire or other typical camping things. It can still be very hot at night so falling asleep is probably the hardest part of it. If you are camped next to a lot of people I would recommend bringing ear plugs to help with the noise. Here’s a tip: go to a sporting goods store and into the gun section to find the ear plugs. You can get a bunch of them for the same price as a couple pairs of “sleeping ear plugs” and they are the same thing! They are bright orange instead of light blue in color.
There are a few things I’d recommend you have while camping. One of them is an air mattress. These can normally be found for under $100. There are battery powered or AC powered or both. Some need an additional air pump for them. Of course you could pump it up by your breath but that’s a lot of work especially after riding all day! You will also need a flashlight or some kind of light to see while in the tent. I also usually bring a pillow, two sheets and one blanket. You put one sheet on top of the air mattress and sleep under the other one. It does get cold sometimes so a blanket will save you. I remember one Saturday morning waking up and it was so cold you could see your breath! That was a tough morning to wake up and get going. I also strongly recommend a rain tarp for your tent. This is simply a large tarp that you put down on the ground first then place your tent on top of it. If it rains during the night the water will soak up into your tent from the ground but that won’t happen with a rain tarp.
For all your clothes and other items I recommend bringing along a couple of large totes with lids. Make sure your name is on the totes. Get a lot of very large Zip-lock bags and store your clothes in the bags. You want to keep your clothes as dry as possible during the week. If you have wet clothes you can try to hang them outside all night to dry but most of the time they will still be damp in the morning because of the humidity. The totes might be too big to fit in your tent but you can keep them outside your tent. Just make sure the lids are on tight and they should be waterproof. (Someone told me that totes are not allowed on the Des Moines Register truck nor charter buses.)
Some people will recommend a portable fan to help with the heat but I don’t think they do too much. Even with your tent windows open or the rain top off the tent some nights there isn’t any air moving. Just cover yourself with a sheet when needed and sleep in your underwear. It will take a while but you will eventually cool down for the night.
After a night of drinking you may wake up in the middle of the night and have to go to the bathroom. My tent mate and I had an agreement that whoever woke up first to go pee would wake the other person to do so too. It’s better to go to the bathroom at night because you don’t have to walk too far from your tent, everyone is asleep and no one can see you! You do want to do it at night because once its morning out you’ll have to find a restroom, or kybo, and it could have a line of 50 people in it.
I also recommend having a plastic bag, the kind you get at a grocery store, and tying it over your bike seat at night. Even if it doesn’t rain your seat will be wet in the morning because of dew. Waking up and sitting on a wet bike seat is a bad way to start your day!
WHAT A TYPICAL RAGBRAI DAY IS LIKE
If you’ve never ridden RAGBRAI here is what a typical day is like for me (while riding on a team):
Wake up at 6 or 7am. Brush your teeth, slap on deodorant and change into your bike clothes. Start clearing out your tent and tearing it down. Get everything in your totes. Bring all your things to the back of the bus. Fill up your water bottles and air up your tires. Zero out your computer. Leave your campsite at 8am.
Ride for about 30 minutes to an hour until you get to a breakfast stop or the first town. Stop and get breakfast. Find a Bloody Mary if possible, best way to start the day! Kick off of that stop after about an hour, continue riding.
There will be a few towns to stop at before the mid-town. Depending on the time you may stop or go through the town and not stop. You want to be at the mid-town around noon so plan accordingly. I always stop for waterslides and free beer.
Around noon I’ll roll into the mid-town and find the team bus. This is the first big break for the day. We’ll be here for an hour or two. While here we’ll get lunch and some beers too.
Once we kick off from lunch it becomes the hottest part of the day. This part of the day can really bear down on you. We’ll stay cool with waterslides and cold beers as needed. We’ll go town to town watching the time and staying in front of the Dark Side. We usually take our time on this part of the day but try to get to the overnight town by 6pm.
Around 6pm we’ll roll into the overnight town. It can be tricky finding our host address while in a new town. Once there we put our name on the shower list and set up camp. Get our tents up and our beds made. It’ll be dark when we use them. We’ll get a shower and change into our street clothes. Once your group is ready you’ll then head into downtown.
We’ll get into downtown before dark. We set up a meeting place if we get lost. We have dinner at any of the various vendors or eat at a restaurant. After that we either head down to the main attraction or hit up a bar. We’ll have fun and party for the night.
Usually about 10 or 11pm we’ll head back to our campsite. Once you fall asleep the day is done.
This is the usual pattern of things during the week. Only differences is that there’s no shower the night we first drive to the starting town and Friday nights can get a bit crazy. Friday nights are the last night of RAGBRAI so we usually close down the bars that night. It’s the best way to end a week of RAGBRAI!
POST RAGBRAI SYMPTOMS
Over the years of riding RAGBRAI I’ve noticed strange things that happen to your body over a week of riding. At first these caught me off guard but I realized they are perfectly normal and usually go away within a week afterwards. These things can happen but all won’t necessarily happen, just depends on the person I guess.
- Pimples on head/neck, from bicycle helmet straps
- Pimples on face (scrapies)
- Loss of your voice
- Dry/scratchy throat
- Persistent cough/hack
- Swollen tonsils
- Weird rashes on skin (arms/fingers)
- Poison ivy, very easy to catch on RAGBRAI
- Dirty fingernails, from lack of hand washing
- Shaky hands, perfectly normal while doing this ride
- Rash on butt, caused by bugs biting you from sitting in the grass
- Sore legs/butt, even with training they still get sore
- Stinky feet
SAMPLE PACKING LIST
I’ve made up a packing list and I use it every year. It will slightly change from year to year but the basics are always the same. I thought this could come in handy for virgins to help give them an idea of what to bring on their first RAGBRAI. The less you bring the better! You have to pack up this stuff every day, don’t bring anything you don’t need and don’t bring anything you don’t want to lose or get ruined by rain (cell phone excluded). If you camp with a group and forget something then someone else will probably have it so don’t worry too much about having everything with you. I like to be prepared so my list is pretty extensive.
Camelbak or 2 water bottles
(2) Spare tubes
Bike Tools & Tire Levers/Pump
Electrical Tape/Zip Ties
RAGBRAI Emergency Contact Card
RAGBRAI Bike Band (put on bike)
Headlight/rear lights (charge it)
Tent + Tarp
Air Mattress (with batteries)
Clothes Pins (to hang clothes out at night)
Bike Shoes/Bike Sandals
(7) Bike Socks
(4) Biking shorts
(3-4) Shorts + Belt
(1) Blue Jeans
(2) Baby Wipes (for bike)
(4) Big towels
(4) Wash clothes
Sunblock (for bike)
Band-Aids (for bike)
Lip Balm (for bike)
Hand Sanitizer (for bike)
Eye drops (for bike)
Safety Pin (for blisters)
Snore Strips/Ear Plugs
Kleenex (small-for bike)
Kleenex (large-for tent)
2 large totes
Extra Batt for air matt. – (4) D
Extra Batt for camera – (2) AA
External Batt for cell phone
Extra Plastic Bags – Large & Small
Cell Phone + waterproof bag
Phone Chargers (USB/AC/Car Adapters)
Small paper pad/Pen/Sharpie
Coozies (on bike)
ID (driver’s license)
Health Insurance Card
$500 Cash (in $20 bills)
“If lost” card in wallet
“If lost” pic on phone
“If lost” pic on camera
RAGBRAI patch certificate
RAGBRAI Wrist Band (put it on your wrist)
Daily Maps (on bike)
RAGBRAI is what you want to make it. If you want to have nice quiet days of leisurely riding, you can do that. If you want to party hard all day, go for it. If you want to sleep in till noon and get to the next overnight town on the Dark Side, you can do that, but I wouldn’t recommend it! You can take your whole family on RAGBRAI and you can make this your yearly meeting with your drinking buddies. It’s for a wide range of interests.
If you have even the slightest interest in RAGBRAI then I suggest you find a way to ride it. If it is your first time I recommend riding every day, every mile, Karras loop optional. Why every mile? Because after it’s over and you tell someone that you rode RAGBRAI for the first time the next question out of their mouth will be “did you ride every mile?” You’ll want to be able to say “Hell yes I did!”