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Local bicyclist complete RAGBRAI tour in Iowa
September 01, 2011 Doug Harris   

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From left: Jim and Rose Zimmerman of Gering, Carolyn Nading, and WNCC President, Todd Holcomb, of Scottsbluff were among 20,000 cyclist in this year's Annual Great Bicycle Race Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) ride.

For local attorney Jim Zimmerman, riding the entire length of Iowa on a bicycle was ‘a lot of fun’ and ‘arduous.’ Zimmerman and his wife Rose, joined WNCC president Todd Holcomb and his friend Carolyn Nading for the annual RAGBRAI tour earlier this summer. RAGBRAI stands for Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a touring event sponsored by the Des Moines Register Newspaper. The annual bicycle trek runs an average of 472 miles and according to Zimmerman most of the journey seemed to be uphill. “I went on the tour last year and this year we had many more hills on the route,” Zimmerman said. “If anyone thinks Iowa is flat they need to tour more north of the Interstate. The hills just kept coming one after the other. It starts to wear on your psyche. It was a real work out but we had a great time.”

This year was the 39th annual run of the RAGBRAI tour. According to the Des Moines Register RAGBRAI is the oldest and longest bicycle tour event in the world. It has become a popular Iowa tradition that can draw as many as 20,000 bicyclists a day joining in on the state wide event. The tour route changes every year and small towns along the path vie for the chance to be included.

“Every little town was all set up for the bicyclists,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes up to 10,000 people converge on some little town and make a stop-over. The whole town is just packed with people. And the locals set everything up to accommodate the riders. Farmers come in and sell stuff like watermelon and cookies. Some of the towns have some pretty sophisticated stuff. Restaurants offer food specials and people sell BBQ on the side of the road. It is pretty crazy. Food vendors, bands and other entertainment are provided. Whole towns prepare to sell breakfast for up to 15,000 people. You can’t even ride your bike through the little towns because they are so packed with people. You literally walk through it. Some people take advantage of drink specials too. Alcohol is consumed on this but I can’t do that. I was drinking a ton of water. Fifteen bottles a day in a heat index of 103 to 108.”

Zimmerman said the ‘moving party’ continued across the state at a rate of about 65 miles a day. About half the riders officially sign up for the entire weeklong journey but many day riders show up at various points along the path. “We had up to 20,000 people a few times,” Zimmerman said. “People buy day passes but it is not uncommon for folks to just show up and ride for a day unregistered. I was asked to describe a typical rider and my wife said ‘you can’t’. They come in all shapes and sizes, all kinds. The people are big, little, old, young, and all have different styles. People showed up in costume or as full teams all in matching colors. I saw some wild outfits. A group of men all wearing feathered boas, a guy dressed in a banana outfit. I saw two guys on old fashioned bikes with the large front wheel. They were wearing period dress that looked like wool. I don’t know how they did it in that heat.”

This year’s seven day bicycle ride was from Glenwood to Davenport. “We weren’t able to dip our tires in the Missouri River which is tradition,” Zimmerman explained. “Last year we did that, but the flooding earlier this summer made that off limits. We did get to dip our tires in the Mississippi at the other end of the route.”

Zimmerman described the spectacle of that many bikes running down the highway as very festive and friendly. “We enjoyed meeting many people and also stayed in some nice guest houses along the way. We camped a few nights but it was great to link up with friends who put us up for a night along the route. The highways and roads are completely taken over by the bikes. The police and sheriffs all block off sections of the highway. The busiest day had around 21,500 cyclists. We had both lanes of the highway heading east. The only vehicles allowed on the route are law enforcement, a few ambulances and the ‘shag wagon.’”

The Shag Wagon, Zimmerman said was support vehicle there to help out whenever a cyclist breaks down, has any health concerns, or just plain quits. “This is harder than running a marathon,” he said. “A marathon is only one day. This is seven full days. The first couple of days were pretty hard but it got easier as we adjusted to it. After the fourth day you are surprised how much stronger you feel. But when a rider went past complaining there were only going to be 66 hills today I had to kind of prepare myself mentally for that.”

It seems understandable on a 500 mile bicycle journey to find ‘only’ 66 hills in one day more than adequate a challenge. But Zimmerman and his compatriots marshaled on and completed the entire route on schedule. Other than the hills and the diverse festive crowd, Zimmerman seemed to remember the food most vividly.

“They offered homemade ice cream in many places,” he said. “In Polk County the pork producers had specialty barbeque ribs. The line was too long to get any so I think I really missed out on that. But everywhere we went there was always some type of food. People sold breakfast burritos, corn-on-the-cob, and there were beer gardens in most towns. Some of the places were creative and offered some exotic items. We had walnut cinnamon toast for breakfast on one stop-over. The food was really good. It seems crazy on a 500 mile ride, but if you wanted to you could probably gain weight doing this.”
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Participated in the RAGBAI in 2003. Had someone told me I would take a week off from work, ride 500 miles across Iowa in the middle of the summer, I would have told them they were crazy! What a BLAST! Would love to do it again !
- AJ Legault [2011-09-10 10:58:43]