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RAGBRAI newbie? Take Morain's advice

  • 15 July, 2012
  • Michael Morain
Ragbrai Newbie advice from The Des Moines Register's Michael Morain

Register reporter Michael Morain fist-pumps his way into Dubuque during RAGBRAI 2010. As his sixth year on RAGBRAI nears, he shares survival tips for newbies. He thought this was a cool photo. He may have been mistaken. / Register File Photo

Here’s a book idea, free for the taking: “All I Really Need to Know About Iowa I Learned on RAGBRAI.”

I’d write it myself and fill it with heartwarming stories about small towns and pie, but I’d rather publish the spin-offs: “All I Really Need to Know About Heat Stroke …” or maybe “More Than I Ever Needed to Know About Sweat …” Hollywood bigwigs are already scrambling for the rights.

This year will be my sixth on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. That’s too few for any records — a few old-timers have survived them all — but it’s more than enough to brag about to newbies and non-riders (aka “cowards”) who choose to spend July in air-conditioned comfort.

So take my advice: All you really need to know to conquer RAGBRAI you can learn from this list.

It is not a race. That second “R” in RAGBRAI is for “ride,” people. There is absolutely no prize for waking up before dawn and sprinting to the next overnight town. The eager beavers who think so seem to have confused this with the Tour de France.

Which brings us to the next point: Eat the pie, even if you’re not hungry. Would you go to Paris and ignore the Eiffel Tower? Would you tour a Burgundy vineyard and not sample wine? Non! You would not.

Then why skip even one slice of our own national treasure?

I remember a country church in eastern Iowa. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but a secret staircase to the basement led to a cavernous fellowship hall, as big as an airport hangar with acres of folding tables and every kind of pie you could imagine. We’re talking Willy Wonka factory here, with cinnamon-rhubarb and gooseberry and pineapple meringue.

Was I hungry? No. Did that stop me from eating a slice of raisin pie that was basically a brick-sized Fig Newton? Not at all.

I waddled upstairs and heaved myself back onto my bike. My knees thumped my sagging belly each time I pedaled. But did I regret it? No, I did not.

Even so, pack an extra granola bar, just in case. As hard as it is to believe, there are places along the 471-mile route where homemade pastries are not within arm’s reach.

A few years ago the pedal-powered plague of locusts devoured every crumb of food in a town tucked in a remote valley, at least 12 miles from the next stop. The locals were completely overwhelmed. They’d boiled some corn on the cob, but when it was gone, riders mobbed the Casey’s, standing in Soviet-like bread lines for the last Hostess Ding-Dong.

So stuff a snack in your shorts and save it for later.

And speaking of shorts, embrace the Spandex fashion vortex. You’d be surprised how stylish a pudge-hugging, petroleum-based fabric can look when 10,000 people are wearing it. The one guy in khakis will look out of place.

But no matter how comfortable you may feel, remember: Later you will see photos of yourself. And they won’t be pretty.

Embrace the time vortex, too. Scientists have long tried to explain why RAGBRAI has its own traveling time zone, in which everything takes at least five times longer than it normally should. A quick trip for ice? 45 minutes. A shower? Two hours.

If you’re driving a support vehicle, I suggest you practice in rush-hour Los Angeles. Pop in the audio version of “War and Peace” and take some Rosetta Stone CDs so you can listen to it in the original Russian.

Learn the lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama.” You will hear it 3,472 times during the week. You will hear “Sweet Caroline” (buh, buh, buhhhhh!) even more.

Go wild — or don’t. There are rumors that RAGBRAI is a weeklong kegger, with a magic slip-n-slide leading straight to a drunken orgy. For some people, this is true.

But for the vast majority, the ride is a pleasant combination of pork chops, ice cream and naps. Last year the average rider’s age was 45.5 years old, with about 68 percent men and 32 percent women. Each year there are more kids and more retirees than ever.

Which brings us to this: Never underestimate the grannies. Those wiry old ladies will always beat you to the top of the hill. Always.


  1. Greg Nelson

    Excellent article!

  2. Sarah C.

    Yes Yes YES!! I love this :) It’s so true! Although I might add “Don’t be ashamed to use the corn fields” and “Butt Butter is king” ;)

    This will be my 6th RAGBRAI as well, but for my boyfriend (his first year on RAGBRAI), it’s a little difficult to believe all that I tell him (which you listed here ;) )

    Thanks!! :D

  3. Ron C.

    I believe the above is right — and wrong. Without some serious thought to the physical challenges of RAGBRAI, the ride can NOT be fun, pastries and pies will be left behind for car ride back home around mid-week. The fun is when you KNOW what your getting into. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “never again” on RAGBRAI. And I can tell you why. Many people show up having read ONLY articles like this one. They become angry (and surprised) with the level of difficulty, quit about half way through, etc. In summary, show up to have FUN, but be prepared for the effort. THEN the magic of RAGBRAI will be EXACTLY as Mr. Morain describes … :)

  4. mootsman

    People who leave early aren’t kidding themselves that RAGBRAI is a race, unless you count trying to beat the heat. They want to finish riding before the days high temps hit.

  5. Patrick

    I’m doing my first and only RAGBRAI this year, simply to celebrate my 50th year on this planet. I have a hybrid bike and will be taking lots of photos, on slide film, because, well, I’m old, and I like slides.

    I intend to sample the pie and ride as much as I can before noon, then mosey the rest of the way.

    I really don’t know if I can do this thing. May the gods favor the foolish :)

  6. Tom S

    Patrick, yes you can do it. And no, don’t predict at this point that this will be your only Ragbrai. Pace yourself. You can ALWAYS find someone to ride along at your same pace. Don’t think you ever have to keep up with the young bucks. Take a lot of pictures and keep a journal about the people you visit with and the sights you enjoy… and about the pain that you endure. It’s worth it! The miles really do sail along when you have someone to visit with. Remember, it’s all about the wonderful people of Iowa – we just happen to show up and be on bikes for a week.

  7. startedIn94

    It’s all retaliative. I’m pretty certain I’d never ridden much over 25 miles my first RAGBRAI, and I survived. It was rougher than it had to be, but now the training is time to think about all the fun I’ll be having as the suffering fades and the party begins. The more you rode, the more fun you’ll have. If you haven’t ridden much, it’s too late now, so just relax this week and enjoy A/C, beds and showers. Start early, be careful what you drink, don’t forget to eat and remember, “you only have to make it to the next water tower.”

  8. Patrick

    It’s great to hear encouraging words! I’m no couch potato; I ran ten miles a week or so before switching to biking as my focus in prep for Ragbrai. My longest ride to date is 64 miles and I did 51 the day after that, so I’m as ready as I can be.

    I’ll be the sweaty guy with the camera strapped to his chest… say hi and I’ll snap your picture! :)

  9. Frannie N.

    Patrick, I’m in a similar boat as you…. not saying that I’ll never do RAGBRAI again after this but it’s one of those ‘bucket list’ things I just want to do. I’ve been training as much as I can as a single mom with 2 little ones, HOPING it’ll be enough. Thank you for making me laugh with your comment: “I really don’t know if I can do this thing. May the gods favor the foolish.” because that is exactly how I feel. I’ve decided that there is no shame in taking my time, leaving at 6 a.m. to make it to the next overnight town by 6 p.m. (LOL), stopping a lot, taking breaks especially when I look at next week’s weather forecast….. 90’s all week so far, UGH! WE CAN DO THIS THING!!! (and live to tell about it)

  10. Momma Vic

    Our youngest and 19-year-old-only-son, Matt, is taking his newbie trip this year, alone…

    Reading your article softened some concerns about the tenor of this crowd. The fact that he’ll be riding with a group who I now know are a fair piece older than we are is reassuring. How tough can a bunch of bike riding people be anyway?!?

    Matt is an encourager, and I pray many on this trip are of the same type. So if you see a skinny blonde kid on a silver Trek Kaitai, give him a smile and a nod…

  11. Ken Gallant

    What? You call this a survival guide? I agree with “eat the pic”, but, for newbies:

    No advice to ride in the early morning and the evening, when temps will be over 90 every day?
    No advice on how to stay hydrated?
    No temperature so hot that you will actually think about calling this off?

  12. Mike

    Patrick & Frannie, enjoy your first RAGBRAI! I think you will really enjoy the experience. However, I must warn you about saying it is a once in a life time experience. I did RAGBRAI in 2010 as a bucket list item. And now I’m looking to do it again in 2013. Riding in the morning to beat the heat was my strategy, but next time I’ll eat more pie! And I can tell you sweet corn and root beer floats at 9:00 am is a great breakfast! Enjoy your vacation. If you do it right it can change how you view “normal” life.

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