31 July 2021 Des Moines Register::
New director looks back on a successful first ride as RAGBRAI 2021 rolls into history
Dieter Drake’s first year as director of RAGBRAI was a bit like the route he chose: a little hilly but indisputably beautiful. There were moments as easy as a downhill tailwind — like watching the sun rising over corn in Le Mars with thousands of bikes ahead of and behind him.
He also got to experience his first-ever yoga class accompanied by more than 50 goats in Lytton, where he enjoyed a slice or two of strawberry rhubarb pie. “I was a kid in a candy store seeing all these people come out and put in all this dedication over the last 18 months now getting this done,” he said. “For some of these pass-through towns, it’s really just four to five hours, but they put a year’s worth of work into it, so it’s an amazing inspiration to be a part of.”
Then there were the uphill climbs: The heat peaked Wednesday in the mid-90s and hovered not far under that for most of the week. There also was the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of what was supposed to be Drake’s first Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa in 2020. It also forced some shuffling of overnight towns, which meant some extra miles, especially on Day 1, when Sac City substituted for Storm Lake. It complicated fundraising, too, and some towns struggled to find enough volunteers. RAGBRAI stepped up its share of support to help the roughly 60 municipalities involved. The daily meeting towns got $10,000 apiece, a contribution that hadn’t been made in years past, Drake said. Overnight towns each received $32,000, with about $15,000 of that dedicated to charities of the town’s choosing. “We really wanted to make sure they came out ahead and at least take the edge off their finances. That was really important for us to do that this year,” Drake said. “Absent that, I think a lot of these towns couldn’t have pulled it off this year.” He said he plans in the next few years to maintain and increase that assistance.
There was nothing either Drake or RAGBRAI could do about the heat, but he said he heard from town planning committees that they put in extra work to make sure riders were hydrated, including setting up free water stations and mist tents. Many riders said the Wednesday ride, which had seemed ominous because of an excessive heat watch from the National Weather Service, turned out to be one of the best of the week. Drake wasn’t able to spend much time among the riders this year, but that’s about the only thing he didn’t do. Running on little sleep, at least at the beginning of the ride, he said, he spent his days driving straight to overnight towns to meet with public safety officials and coordinate the support-and-gear vans, better known as Sag Wagons. “My focus was public safety on the ride because if we didn’t get that right, we couldn’t do anything else,” he said.
When he stopped for a meal, he found a favorite in longtime RAGBRAI vendor Mr. Pork Chop, which daily served hundreds of riders its thick-cut, Iowa-style chops. During his time in the towns, he would often be stopped for interviews or chats with locals and riders alike, fielding one question above all others: After this year’s northerly Le Mars-to-Clinton trek, what’s in store for next year? Drake’s keeping that a secret, though he and his team already are planning out the next two to three years, including RAGBRAI L — the 50th — in 2023. “No hints,” he said. “There will be pie, there will be bikes, there will be a little bit of humidity.”
For now, he’s taking a brief break to go home to Colorado and relax after more than a year and a half of work has come to a successful conclusion. And after being surrounded by thousands of bikes for a week straight, he may finally be able to get on one himself, he said. As prepared as he was for the ride, Drake said he was still caught a bit off guard by the natural beauty of Iowa’s landscape. “Iowa’s just an incredible place to ride a bicycle,” he said. “That wasn’t a surprise, but I think it was probably a surprise to some of the new folks who came to RAGBRAI.” It was to Kevin Nielsen, who finished his first RAGBRAI on Saturday in Clinton by joining his 15,000-plus companions in the annual ritual of dipping their bike tires in the Mississippi River. Nielsen couldn’t talk his friends or family back in Oxford, Nebraska, into joining him this year, but he hopes to have some takers next year. “It was a little emotional coming down the last stretch,” he said. “It feels like an accomplishment. It feels like you really did something.” Like Drake, he said it’s the people who make RAGBRAI special. Nielsen said he enjoyed meeting new friends among the other cyclists, and that he never got tired of being welcomed by the residents in town after town. “It’s a state fair for bikers,” he said. “It’s been a blast.”
Also ending his first RAGBRAI, Tony Scudiero of Eagan, Minnesota, was grateful not to be spending any more nights in a tent, and for the people he met along the way. “I met more people than I can remember their names,” he said. Though she’s ridden 10 RAGBRAIs, for Christine Chinhema of Des Moines, dipping her tire never gets old. She said the ride allows her to prove to herself that she is capable of more than she believes she is. “It’s emotional,” she said. “Like, I really survived it. When you look on paper, you’re like, 400 miles — how am I going to do that? But it’s chunk by chunk, and I really did it. It’s a testament to the fact that we can do more than we think we can.”