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By Register reporters Michael Morain and Todd Erzen
Plane and trains on Day 1. The capital city on Day 3. America’s “most unusual town” on Day 6. This summer’s RAGBRAI will roll south through the state, from Council Bluffs to the tire dip in Fort Madison, giving the hordes of riders a host of new towns to explore.
DAY 1: Council Bluffs to Harlan
Council Bluffs marks the site of this year’s traditional Missouri River tire dip/RAGBRAI launch. But that isn’t the only tradition worth partaking in before heading east.
You will probably wish you have wings at some point during your journey, so visit the Great Plains Wing Air Force Commemorative Museum for inspiration. It includes three World War II-era airplanes and roughly 2,000 other military artifacts. The facility is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.
That takes care of the planes. Now for the trains. A 56-foot- tall golden concrete spike sits at the intersection of South 21st Street and Ninth Avenue to mark the 1939 premiere of the film “Union Pacific.” The RailsWest (www.historicalsociety.org/depot) and the Union Pacific (www.uprrmuseum.org) railroad museums are other chugga-chugga choo-choo highlights.
Underwood city clerk Kelly Groskurth has fond memories of how her community helped riders fuel up when they last pedaled through town four years ago. The firefighters will make pancakes, and she’s hoping the Lutheran church spoons out egg casserole again, and the Optimists “always serve up something good.”
Overnight No. 1 will center around Harlan’s historic town square, said city manager Terry Cox, who is helping host the fifth RAGBRAI of his 36-year career.
“RAGBRAI is a lot of work, but the community has fun with it,” Cox said. “We don’t have a big ball of twine or anything. We just want to treat our guests like they’re at home.”
DAY 2: Harlan to Perry
Day two gets serious right off the bat with the 2013 version of the Karras loop, inspired by one of RAGBRAI’s founders and intended to make one day of the event stretch more than 100 miles. Choosing that option means a trip through the Danish villages of Elk Horn and Kimballton and taking in the windmill brought to the area from Denmark in 1948, as well as the accompanying Danish import shop — the largest of its kind in the entire United States. Also, Iowa’s No. 1-ranked tenderloin busts guts at Larsen’s Pub.
Moving on to Guthrie Center, where city clerk Laura Imerman said she imagines there will be the same beer garden as back in 2006 because of the “positive response” it got. A successful beer garden on RAGBRAI? You don’t say.
Perry checks in as the place to lay your head at this day’s end. If you want to book one of 40 themed rooms at the 100-year-old Hotel Pattee, better do it now. Call 515-465-3511. Worth a look just across the street at the Carnegie Library will be a historical celebration of one of Iowa’s other premier bicycling events: the February Bike Ride to Rippey, aka the 36-year-old “BRR” ride.
For a bit more cosmopolitan taste, take a gander at Albert Paley’s interpretation of Perry history via metal sculpture.
Made of farm equipment, mining tools, railroad items and used pieces of metal donated by local residents, the silver Reconfiguration Arches were welded together into four 16,000-pound pieces, complemented by a poem written by Ted Kooser, a former United States Poet Laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress and Pulitzer Prize winner.
DAY 3: Perry to Des Moines
Day 3 cycles through Dallas Center. RAGBRAI co-chair Jody Holmes said there are a lot of unknowns at this point about how her town will pull out the welcome wagon, but one thing’s certain: The bar is set high.
“We’re busy talking about the kind of impression we want to leave with the riders,” Holmes said. “We have a strong history of putting on family-fun celebrations in our community.”
Next, park your bikes at the baseball oasis of Van Meter, the birthplace of Hall of Famer Bob Feller and home to the museum built to honor him in 1995. Feller, who died in 2010 at the age of 92, spent 18 seasons with the Cleveland Indians after signing with them at the age of 17. He won 266 games, had a lifetime ERA of 3.25, threw three no-hitters and had 44 career shutouts.
Then it’s on to Iowa’s capital city for the first time in more than a decade and a half. Riders will first get a tour of West Des Moines before Railroad Ave., S.W. 63rd Street, Park Avenue and George Flagg Parkway steer them to the campsite at Waterworks Park. As for the route out of town the next morning, assistant to the city manager Kandi Reindl said little is known yet except that Vandalia Road will somehow be involved.
Shuttles will be available from Waterworks to downtown locations such as Brenton Skating Plaza and wherever the yet-to-be-determined band will be playing.
“We’re the largest city, so we hope to have the largest crowd and the best band,” Reindl said. “RAGBRAI hasn’t been here for 16 years and a lot has changed since then. I think a lot of people are going to want to come downtown to experience this.”
DAY 4: Des Moines to Knoxville
Depending on how early riders roll out of Des Moines, they can stop in Runnells for mimosas at the Rosey Acres Winery or something a little stronger at the town’s two bars. The winery’s tasting room is an 1890 bank, where co-owners Tom and Karen Diltz pour samples of Iowa-grown Paradise Mist (which goes in the mimosas), Rising Sun and a deceptively named red called Attitude.
“It’s sweet but not overly sweet, with some blueberry flavor on the front and a sweet grape finish and notes of cherry,” Tom Diltz said. “The name just popped into our heads one day when we were messing around.”
A roadblock might slow things down in Monroe, where a line will probably stretch for miles outside the Jersey Freeze. The stand’s soft-serve ice cream has a loyal following, including the folks at Thelma’s Treats, who pack the ice cream into the snickerdoodle and chocolate-chip cookie sandwiches sold throughout central Iowa.
The ride into Knoxville isn’t hilly, exactly. But it’s definitely “bluffy,” according to Dylan Morse and Larissa Van Donselaar. They’re two of the local committee chairs who will help Knoxville prepare for RAGBRAI in between the Lake Red Rock Balloon Fest (July 12-14), Marion County Fair (July 12-18) and Knoxville Sprint Car Nationals (Aug. 7-10).
They talked up the town square, where bikers can gobble up barbecue, wash it down with local beer from the Peace Tree Brewing Co., and hitch a shuttle to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and Museum.
For something quieter, stop by the historic home of Dixie Gebhardt, who designed Iowa’s state flag.
Day 5: Knoxville to Oskaloosa
Before he became a soldier, buffalo hunter, bouncer, miner, boxing referee and sharpshooter, Wyatt Earp was just one of the neighborhood kids in Pella. His boyhood home is part of the Pella Historical Village near the town square.
The town’s famous Dutch tulips will be long gone by July, but its other Dutch goodies are available year-round. Bikers can munch on Dutch letters from the Jaarsma Bakery, Gouda cheese and Pella bologna from Ulrich’s Meat Market, and crispy-gooey caramel-filled stroopwafels, made fresh on waffle irons at curbside stands. Stick around to see the clockwork figurines mark the hour in the Klokkenspel, and then hit the road.
Bussey’s claim to fame is a two-story mural that local artist Todd Spaur completed last year to thank the town for helping him recover from a near-fatal car accident. He was featured last summer on the “Today” show, and in a Des Moines Sunday Register feature, and he’ll be on site to greet RAGBRAI riders as they roll by.
The sound of the Oskaloosa city band will welcome visitors to town, just like it has for more than a century. The paid musicians are carrying on a local tradition that started in the 1860s and never stopped. Their “new” bandstand was built in 1912.
Bookworms can visit the well-stocked Book Vault shop in a former bank. Real worms can make themselves useful on fishing hooks in nearby Lake Keomah. And history buffs can pay their respects to Becky and Jennie, the mule pair that rest in peace at the Nelson Pioneer Farm Museum. They pulled cannons during the Civil War before returning to the 1844 Nelson homestead, where they died years later at the ripe old ages of 34 and 42.
“They’re each buried with their head lying on a satin pillow,” said Kelly Halbert, the museum’s administrator and curator. She plans to display a collection of old bikes, including an early chainless model, along with the museum’s permanent showcase of antique farming equipment.
Day 6: Oskaloosa to Fairfield
The road out of “Osky” winds through some of the smaller towns on this year’s route, starting with unincorporated Cedar and then on to Fremont (pop. 743), Hedrick (764), Martinsburg (112) and Packwood (204). Bikers won’t spot many shopping malls or skyscrapers, but they can count on the essentials: decent food, cold drinks and a grassy patch to stretch out on and nap. Billy Ray’s Smokehouse & Grill in Fremont is the place to go for a good burger or pork tenderloin, said Jill Schmidt, who works at the local elementary school.
Over in Hedrick, visitors can swing by the veterans’ museum to see uniforms and other military memorabilia dating back to World War I.
Then there’s Fairfield, the Jefferson County seat that Oprah Winfrey called “America’s most unusual town” recently. Over the past decade or so, both the Maharishi School of Management and the neighboring community of Maharishi Vedic City — named for an Indian guru — have drawn thousands of folks to the area to practice transcendental meditation and sustainable living.
Fairfield is a mix of small-town Iowa and the world. There are more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, and at last count, they represented cuisines from more than 10 different cultures.
The local arts group that organizes the popular monthly First Friday Art Walks, will kick it into high gear with a summer-long installation called “Wheels, Gears & Pedals.” Look for bike-themed sculptures in two dozen sites on Main Street and the town square.
Day 7: Fairfield to Fort Madison
The final dash toward the Mississippi rolls through the three Bs — Birmingham, Bentonsport and Bonaparte — with stops in Keosauqua and West Point along the way.
Riders can see the 19 mounds where woodland Indians buried their dead in a patch of land that overlooks the Des Moines River in what is now Lacey-Keosauqua State Park. The park was originally named Big Bend, for the curve in the river, but was renamed to honor the Iowa congressman John Lacey, who campaigned for conservation decades before Teddy Roosevelt took up the charge. (“Keosauqua” is a Native American term for a snowy or slushy stream.)
Bonaparte, like its namesake, is small but mighty. The riverfront district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989, and locals have preserved many of the old red-brick buildings. The Meek Pants Factory is now a B&B. The old grist mill is now Bonaparte Retreat, a restaurant that could feed a French army.
Save room for some sweet corn in West Point, which hosts one of the state’s largest sweet corn festivals every August. Last year volunteers shucked 17 tons of the stuff at Shuckfest, a party in its own right on the day before the official to-do.
The 406-mile ride ends in Fort Madison, where bikers can dip their tires at “one of the most beautiful and accessible riverfronts in Iowa,” Fort Madison Chamber coordinator Sarah Cantrell said.
Afterward, bikers can pedal their wet tires over to the city’s namesake fort, a replica of the original 1809 building. The museum nearby tells the story of the city’s history on the river and the railroad, which still carries more than 100 trains through town each day.
Visitors can eat at the Wild Whisk Bistro (featured in Midwest Living) and the Ivy Bake Shoppe (featured in Time). They can play the Midwest’s only 36-hole disc golf course, gawk at giant wind-turbine blades produced at the Siemens factory, or just hang out at the party on the riverfront.
“I’m like a kid at Christmas,” Cantrell said. “I can’t wait.”