One of the things I love the most about RAGBRAI is that it shows the best of Iowa and Iowans. The people in the overnight towns are so friendly and helpful – they welcome the riders with open arms. People from all over the United States and even the world, get to see how genuine and generous Iowans really are. Townspeople open up their homes (for free!) to complete strangers, to people like me who are too lazy to camp.

The pass-through towns also go all out to welcome riders. Besides producing mountains of food to feed this onslaught of bikers (which must seem like a plague of helmeted locusts), many communities really get into the spirit. They have theme celebrations with free (or dirt cheap) entertainment, and many even sell T-shirts to commemorate the event. For instance, Tipton is literally “Rolling out the Red Carpet,” nearby Eldridge is sporting the theme “Happy Days in Eldridge,” and the final stop in LeClaire hopes their “Spokes and Ropes” theme will encourage visitors to come back for the Tug Fest in August.

The townspeople are also very tolerant. Try to imagine in a small town suddenly supporting a population 4 to 5 times its usual size. Don’t get me wrong – RAGBRAI is a great fundraiser and many towns lobby for several years to host it, but I have to believe that we bikers must leave a bit of a mess!

And finally, as anyone who’s ever ridden on RAGBRAI can attest, Iowa is NOT flat and boring! In fact, it is lush and green, with gently rolling hills which provide colorful, scenic vistas. It is, in short, beautiful!

For an affectionate look at our great state, check out the videorecording Iowa: an American Portrait, narrated by Tom Brokaw with historic and current images of Iowa.

1) Garbage Bags. Forget your rain poncho? Grab a garbage bag (bigger is better), tear 3 holes in it – a big one for your head and two smaller ones on the sides for your arms – and you’re good to go! No, they don’t work very well if it’s windy, but it does keep you a little bit dryer. Don’t laugh – I actually worn this item, and was grateful to the guy who was handing them out!

2) Little lycra shorts. Everyone wears them, so who cares what you look liek? They actually are more comforatable. Plus, they come with secret padding and they air dry very quickly.

3) Helmet mirrors. Some people just can’t get used to them, but these little magnetic attachments can be a real life saver. Inexperienced riders tend to turn their whole bike (and possibly into oncoming traffic) when they move their head to look back. There are just too many bicycles (10,000 plus) on the road, so the only safe direction is straight ahead. Mirrors really help, even when you have no makeup to check…

For other tips on bicycles and gear, check out these titles:

The Ultimate Ride: Get Fit, Get Fast and Start Winning by Chris Carmichael

Bicycling by Peter Oliver

From personal experience, the three H’s (Hard Parts) of RAGBRAI are:

1. Hills. This year’s route is the 11th hilliest out of all the RAGBRAI’s since 1973. Most hills really are doable – you just need to remember to use all your gears, especially that granny gear. Plus, there’s extra motivation when most everyone else is also huffing and puffing (although for some reason, there’s also some who seem to zoom by me!) Mainly, I just don’t want to be humiliated by having to stop and walk up a hill! The good part is that, in most cases, what goes up must come down. The speed and the cool breeze that the downhill ride brings make it all worth the effort. Wheeeeeee!

2. Heat. Okay – it’s July in Iowa. It’s going to be hot – just plan on it. If you can go fast enough, you can create your own air conditioner. Also, if you get up early, it usually stays on the cool side until 8am or so.

3. Headwinds. In my opinion, these are the worst. There’s not much you can do, but just keep plugging along. It does seem to help to gear down a bit, and of course, pray that either the course or the wind changes directions – soon!

If you’re looking for bike routes – with hills or without – try these:

Biking Iowa: 50 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides by Bob Morgan

Biking Illinois: 60 Great Road Trips and Trail Rides by David Johnsen

Once again it’s time for the Des Moines Register’s RAGBRAI, held this week July 20-26th. Notice that the acronym stands for RIDE not RACE, thereby allowing old-lady librarians like me to participate. Fortunately, everyone is welcome and we can all go at our own pace.

RAGBRAI started in 1973, so this year will be the 36th year. Bikers will start on Sunday by dipping the back tire of their bike in the Missouri River at Missouri Valley, Iowa. Overnight stops this year are Harlan, Jefferson, Ames, Tama/Toledo, North Liberty and Tipton. The final destination is nearby LeClaire on Saturday, July 26 where the bicyclists finish by dipping their front tires in the Mississippi River. With the Bix 7 Road Race going on the same day in Davenport as well as the Bix Jazz Festival, there’ll be lots of visitors to enjoy our Quad City hospitality!

To read more about RAGBRAI check out River to River, Year after Year: RAGBRAI Through the Lens of Register Photographers and RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong by John Karas.