Fast forward: After coronavirus cancellation, RAGBRAI climbs back in the saddle with full 2021 route
Let’s try this again.
A year ago in late January, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa held its annual celebration to announce the route for RAGBRAI XLVIII. It was only a few days after the U.S. had confirmed its first case of COVID-19. None of the hundreds of people from throughout Iowa and the American biking community who gathered at the Iowa Events Center for the announcement party knew what was coming.
It wasn’t until late April, almost four months later, that RAGBRAI had to take an unthinkable step: canceling the weeklong ride for the first time since its inception in 1973.
This Saturday, RAGBRAI announced plans for bringing back the ride July 25-31. It will be the same Le Mars-to-Clinton route planned for 2020, with two notable changes: Sac City and DeWitt will replace Storm Lake and Maquoketa as overnight towns.
In addition, RAGBRAI, as part of the announcement, named the pass-through towns, something that doesn’t usually happen until March or April. The route will cover 426 miles and gain 11,481 feet of elevation.
Also different was the roll-out event, held at Iowa City’s Big Grove Brewery. Instead of the usual thronged affair, it was primarily held by video stream, with a handful of hosts and guests on site to provide the programming while maintaining appropriate social distance.
Riders who registered last year could opt for refunds or hold their registration over to this year — an option just over 3,100 riders exercised. RAGBRAI Director Dieter Drake said a lot fewer people requested refunds than anticipated.
People also are registering faster this year than they were last year, he said. The cost is $175 for weeklong registration; $35 for weeklong non-rider registration; and $30 for day rider passes.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for people getting outside and enjoying the outside, and RAGBRAI is no different,” Drake said. “People want to get outside, ride bikes and enjoy Iowa.”
RAGBRAI decisions to come
Time is the ride organizers’ biggest friend. Current estimates are that the U.S. should reach a “herd immunity” level of resistance to COVID-19 by summer, provided new President Joe Biden meets his goal of speeding up lagging vaccination rates and a vaccine-resistant strain of the virus doesn’t gain the upper hand.
But because so much is unknown about what conditions will be like in July, RAGBRAI has drafted alternatives to fit various scenarios.
For now, the plan is for a full-sized RAGBRAI — 15,000-20,000 riders per day — according to Anne Lawrie, the ride’s senior director of marketing. Registration opened in December, and daily passes went on sale Saturday.
“A whole lot can change between now and then,” Drake said. “We’re very confident seven months is enough time for us to prepare for that and any changes.”
Among potential changes would be a limit on the number of riders, according to the RAGBRAI website. Hours on the route could be extended to allow for greater space between riders, start times could be assigned, and riders could be required to get a negative COVID-19 test before the ride begins. A vaccination may also be required.
In addition, the site says portable toilet facilities may be expanded; hosted housing in overnight towns may be banned, with only camping and RVs allowed; extra vehicles may be added along the route for rider support; and there may be additional staff and medical support.
The goal is to create a mobile bubble, Drake said — possibly backed up with some daily testing.
“We haven’t thought through all of that, but that may be a voluntary program that we ask a certain percentage of riders to participate in,” Drake said.
Entertainment also could be scaled back, or the number of people at concerts in overnight towns could be limited. Several smaller acts at multiple venues could replace a single large act.
In addition, vendors along the route will have to follow special protocols and maintain a safe distance from one another.
Above all, for the ride to be successful, people will need to be feeling safe again, Drake said.
“People need to be more confident about getting together. Bikes or no bikes,” he said. “That’s the corner we all need to turn as a society.”
Other changes to RAGBRAI
The route gained six miles when Sac City and DeWitt became overnight towns. But it lost 825 feet of elevation gain.
Maquoketa dropped out because the city had large construction projects scheduled that it could not put off, Drake said. Storm Lake did not think it could get enough volunteers to be a host this year, he said.
As for the ride itself, this year’s optional gravel day may be the biggest change. It will day will take riders from Fort Dodge to Iowa Falls on a 70-mile journey July 27 — 50 of them off pavement.
It will run parallel to the regular route and connect with the meet-up town in Webster City. Cole Ledbetter, creator of the Iowa Gravel Project, a Facebook group of 1,500 gravel riders, tested the gravel day’s route last year.
“It won’t be one that’s going to be super difficult,” Ledbetter said. “It’s a pretty flat area.”
The 2021 ride: ‘Everybody is very excited’
With a wife who works as a nurse on the COVID-19 floor of a hospital, Drake, who joined RAGBRAI as director in 2019, knows the reality of the pandemic.
But he’s eager to lead his first ride, which will be a landmark in Iowa’s return to normal.
“Very optimistic,” Drake said of his outlook, “As is our entire staff and our company. Everybody is very excited about the possibility of finally getting outside in groups.”
Philip Joens, a Des Moines Register breaking news reporter, has ridden parts of 15 RAGBRAIs and completed the river-to-river trek four times. He can be reached at 515-443-3357 at email@example.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.