A core group of organizers, accompanied on legs of the journey by groups from the towns along the way, will continue along the 454-mile route throughout this week, reaching Clinton on the Mississippi River on Saturday. The route is the same one planned for RAGBRAI in 2020, except that Sac City and DeWitt have replaced Storm Lake and Maquoketa as overnight towns.
Sunday’s ride took riders 84 miles to Sac City. Though they battled strong winds out of the southwest and temperatures near 90 degrees, the excitement and anticipation around the return of one of Iowa’s most-cherished annual events was the focus of the day.
“It’s just like RAGBRAI,” said Scott Matter, a Lytton native who owns a public relations firm in New York and splits his time between Iowa and the Big Apple. “When we were three miles back, that grain elevator came over the horizon, the water tower, it’s always a great feeling. It feels like things are back pre-corona.”
Matter was especially excited because the riders on Monday will visit Lytton, one of this year’s pass-through towns. When RAGBRAI comes through, it plans to mark the day by attempting to set a world record for the most people doing yoga with goats.
Scott Matter rides into Aurelia as cyclists make their way to Sac City on RAGBRAI route inspection ride Sunday, June 6, 2021, in Alta, Iowa. Brian Powers, The Register
Jennifer Lambert, of Orange City, also had something extra to celebrate as she rode with a team from Le Mars’ Blue Bunny Ice Cream.
Eight miles west of Cherokee she took a pit stop on a farm with the other riders and talked about how the thought of riding RAGBRAI had helped pull her through a tough year.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2020, she said she made getting well and participating in the ride her goal as she fought the disease.
“RAGBRAI is my carrot. I am going to do my radiation. I am going to get there so I can do RAGBRAI,” Lambert recalled telling herself.
When last year’s RAGBRAI was canceled, she and friends did a series of runs and small rides to keep her spirits up. Tuesday her doctors told her she had beat the cancer. She’ll be among the riders on RAGBRAI in July.
“YOLO!” Lambert said. “You only live once.”
Lambert wasn’t the only person on the pre-ride for whom RAGBRAI has represented a personal triumph. After breaking his back in a 1991 cycling accident, Vern Willey of Altoona began riding RAGBRAI using a custom-made, hand-powered cycle. Over the years, Willey, who was back on the road for the pre-ride Sunday with his wife Vicky, has inspired hundreds of other Iowans with disabilities to join in RAGBRAI.
As the Willeys prepared to leave the team hotel in Le Mars on Sunday morning, they said they had never imagined a year without RAGBRAI.
“We are so happy that bike riding was our hobby, our thing to do,” Vicky Willey said.
In Le Mars late Saturday, Iowa Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Mark Wyattreflected on how RAGBRAI is more than just a bicycle ride. He recalled the 2008 RAGBRAI bringing its festival atmosphere to Parkersburg after an EF5 tornado with 205 mph winds destroyed 280 homes and 22 businesses there.
“RAGBRAI tends to go to places that need healing,” Wyatt said.
This year, as a pandemic that has killed more than 6,000 Iowans wanes, “Maybe that’s the whole state this time,” he said.
Joanie Mousel, the daughter of longtime RAGBRAI director Jim Green, who died in June 2019 at age 79, shared Wyatt’s sentiment.
“It’s been such a weird year. This feels right,” said Mousel, who was driving a support truck during the pre-ride. “It feels like it’s where it’s meant to be and what it’s meant to do and all is good in the world.”
RAGBRAI is returning not just after a hiatus because of the pandemic, but also after former Director T.J. Juskiewicz and most of the staff that ran RAGBRAI quit in fall 2019 to start a rival ride, leaving the future of RAGBRAI in question.
Mousel said she initially supported Juskiewicz, but came back to RAGBRAI, determined to see it live on. She said her father once told her that his greatest desire was for his grandkids to ride RAGBRAI.
Just like RAGBRAI, Juskiewicz’s venture, Iowa’s Ride, also was canceled during the pandemic. He has since taken a job running another ride in Arizona, and his gathering this year will be a series of shorter rides on the weekend of July 16-18 in Eldora, rather than the cross-state ride originally envisioned.
The leaves RAGBRAI’s new director, Dieter Drake, to carry on the tradition. An unexpected benefit of the pandemic cancellation is that Drake has gotten extra time to plan and to become a part of Iowa’s cycling community, where he and his large family are now familiar figures. One of his sons, Liam, 19, already a veteran tour organizer himself, was driving a support vehicle Sunday.
Mousel said she never imagined RAGBRAI would be canceled, . “But it also gave this new team a year-and-a-half to prepare.”
“I think my Dad would like Dieter,” she added, “Everything he’s done.”
One part of the 2021 RAGBRAI plan that remains to be officially determined is its COVID-19 protocols. Drake, who is to officially announce them next week, has said several times that masks will be required at all stops and in overnight towns. But he made those comments months before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance in mid-May to allow fully vaccinated people to resume normal activities without wearing masks, including in crowded outdoor settings.
The CDC is still recommending that unvaccinated people wear masks. None of the riders or support staff members were wearing them Sunday.
Bike Iowa Founder Scott Sumpter said it has been shocking how quickly things have changed just in the past month or two.
“Night and day,” Sumpter said. “Monday we can’t do anything. Wednesday we can do everything.”
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 515-443-3347, at email@example.com or on twitter @Philip_Joens