RAGBRAI LI Registration is Now Open!

Gravel day, virtual ride, fall ride highlight RAGBRAI calendar of events in 2021

  • 31 January, 2021
  • Philip Joens, Des Moines Register

An optional full day of gravel riding and Virtual RAGBRAI 2.0 will highlight the 2021 RAGBRAI calendar. Here are the details:

RAGBRAI gravel grows

The 2015 edition of the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa included an optional gravel loop for the first time. A modest 15 miles, it became a regular part of the ride as the popularity of gravel riding grew.

Now, for 2021 — with veteran pro gravel race director Dieter Drake as ride director — the gravel segment is taking a more serious turn. The 70-mile route includes 50 off-pavement miles during the Fort Dodge to Iowa Falls day of the ride, July 27. 

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The expanded gravel day will be "a little bit different and make things more exciting," said Drake, who became director in 2019 and is managing his first RAGBRAI after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 ride. 

"From a presentation and production standpoint I like to get as creative as I possibly can," Drake said. "I thought that would be a great new twist."

As he charted the gravel day, Drake consulted with Cole Ledbetter, creator of the Iowa Gravel Project, a 1,500-member Facebook group for gravel riders. Ledbetter also tested the route Drake charted. 

A six-time RAGBRAI rider who has traversed every gravel loop since the first, Ledbetter said he's been a RAGBRAI fan since the race came through Redfield when he was a kid. 

"That's actually my first memory of RAGBRAI," Ledbetter said. "They'd come sit in our yard under the shade."

He said the full gravel day option is recognition of the growing popularity of the genre. 

"It’s showing that there is more and more interest, for something as big as RAGBRAI to take notice and keep pushing it," he said. 

Day 3 of RAGBRAI XLVIII will be 54.9 miles from Fort Dodge to Iowa Falls. The day will also have an optional 70-mile gravel route.

Gravel riding started to take off in the U.S. in the early 2000s. Thirteen cyclists were killed in Iowa in 2020, 10 of whom were hit by cars, according to BIKEIOWA.com, and Ledbetter thinks gravel riding is becoming more popular because people can ride the often-lonely unpaved roads without as much risk. 

"You may do a 100-mile gravel ride and see a half-dozen cars," Ledbetter said. "On a road ride, you may get buzzed a half-dozen times during a day. It definitely feels safer."

Iowa Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Mark Wyatt said the idea is interesting and unique. 

"You see a lot more multisurface bikes on the market and people riding those and buying them," Wyatt said. "I think it’s a really interesting new tradition."

And with more than 66,000 miles of gravel roads, according to the state Department of Transportation, Iowa is prime territory for gravel riding.

Virtual RAGBRAI returns 

Last year's RAGBRAI cancellation gave rise to the first Virtual RAGBRAI. It took the form of a series of  daily mileage challenges matching what would have been the distances for each day of the ride. Prizes including jerseys and riding kits were awarded throughout what would have been the ride week.

The virtual ride was so popular that it will be back this year. But instead of occurring simultaneously with the July 25-31 ride, it will be spread out over seven weeks in April and May. Registration will open in March. RAGBRAI has yet to set the price.

"We did that obviously in place of RAGBRAI last year," Drake said. "We didn’t really know what to expect. We didn’t know how it would look. We didn’t know how it would be."

Fall RAGBRAI ride planned, too

After last year's cancellation, RAGBRAI planned the Great Iowa Fall Ride, hoping for an early end to the pandemic. Originally planned for Oct. 2-4, 2020, the ride was to showcase gravel and paved trails in central Iowa and give cyclists views of Iowa's fall colors.

Just like the main ride, it fell victim to the pandemic. But it's being planned again, with the appropriately named Iowa Falls, the fourth overnight town on the 2021 RAGBRAI route, as host. 

Great Iowa Fall Ride

Specific dates and the registration cost for this year's fall ride have not been announced yet, but Drake said it will be held in September. Organizers are planning for up to 3,000 riders. 

"Last year, we were going to have it the first full weekend in October," Drake said. "It's not optimal around the farming schedule, in terms of harvest." 

RAGBRAI takes to the road

The RAGBRAI Roadshows, a series of one-day rides on Saturdays, also will be back in 2021. Held last fall to generate interest in RAGBRAI, they will be held this spring concurrent with the virtual ride, Drake said.

The first Roadshow will take place April 17. A merchandise trailer, giveaways and — of course, beer — will be part of the free events. 

"Those were again fabulously successful for us," Drake said. "We were able to get out along trails across Iowa.

"That was the mission, to keep the spirit of RAGBRAI alive throughout the year."

RAGBRAI 2021 Highlights

  • RAGBRAI XLVIII July 25-31.
  • RAGBRAI Virtually the Best Bicycle Ride in the World 2021: April 17-May 29.
  • RAGBRAI Roadshows: April 17 -May 22. 
  • Great Iowa Fall Ride Date: TBD

Philip Joens, a 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 pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Gravel day, virtual ride, fall ride highlight RAGBRAI calendar of events in 2021

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