RAGBRAI LI Route Announced on Jan. 27!

RAGBRAI route revealed! As expected, it will be a southern Iowa ride. Where will it go?

  • 27 January, 2024
  • Jared Palmer

This article was posted to the Des Moines Register following the RAGBRAI Route Announcement

Hills, hills and more hills.

RAGBRAI 2024 will have the most elevation gain in the ride’s 51 years as it makes its way across southern Iowa.

Announced Saturday night during a party attended by 1,200 cycling fans at the Iowa Events Center, the route for the 51st Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa should come as no surprise to RAGBRAI veterans. Most surmised that after three straight years of starting in northwest Iowa and ending in Davenport or points north, it would veer south for a change.

The starting point will be Glenwood on Keg Creek, a Missouri River tributary, and the end will be in Burlington on the banks of the Mississippi. Overnight stops will be in Red Oak, Atlantic, Winterset, Knoxville, Ottumwa and Mount Pleasant.

Perhaps to compensate for its steepness, the route, at 424 miles, will be among the shortest on record, about 75 miles less than the 2023 edition. But ride lengths will be a mixed bag. Sunday, Monday and Saturday will each cover 45 or fewer miles, and Thursday will be 60 miles, a mere jaunt by RAGBRAI standards. But Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday will range from 74 to 82 miles, with at least 3,000 feet of climb each day.

In all, the July 21-27 journey will challenge riders’ endurance with 18,737 feet of climb.

“There’s going to be a lot of hills. I can’t stress that enough,” said RAGBRAI Ride Director Matt Phippen. But he added, “If you ride your bicycle and train, you’re going to be in a good spot.”

Registration for RAGBRAI opened in November. The full route of RAGBRAI LI ― that’s RAGBRAI 51 in the ride’s tradition of using Roman numerals ― will be announced in April, with the pass-through and meeting towns. It will be a change from previous years, when the secondary towns were announced in mid-March.

Theme days and the century loop and gravel days also will be announced in April. Vehicle pass registration will open March 15.

Riders push their way up a hill July 24, 2016, during the first day of RAGBRAI from Glenwood to Shenandoah.

Phippen said he didn’t set out to create the hilliest route in RAGBRAI history. But as the route changed through the fall and winter because of road construction projects and other necessary adjustments, it got increasingly hilly, he said.

Bicycles rest against a 70-year-old barn on the Mike Pein farm north of Glenwood.

The effort to get to the tops of the hills will be rewarded with “epic views” of landscapes that have inspired artists like “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood, he pledged.

“There are so many amazing spots in Iowa we need to visit,” Phippen said. “Going south, people will complain. Because of the hills it’s going to be harder. But southern Iowa is beautiful. There are communities down there that do a fantastic job that want to host RAGBRAI and showcase their community.”

The RAGBRAI 51 logo includes a big hint about an Iowa landmark they ride may pass by.

RAGBRAI will be traversing the southern part of the state for the first time since 2019. With its numerous, deeply cut river and creek valleys, it’s a rugged contrast to north central and northwest Iowa, where glaciation left long, flat expanses.

The shorter days at the beginning and end of the ride should help ease the pain, Phippen said.

“I think it’s a good blend overall to check the boxes on what all riders like,” he said.

With the pass-through and meeting towns as yet unannounced, Phippen declined to say what sights people may see along the route. But the logo for this year’s RAGBRAI offers a broad hint, featuring a house resembling the home that serves as the backdrop to the stern-faced farm couple “American Gothic.” The preserved home is in Eldon not far from Ottumwa, and Phippen did not rule out going past the site.

“There’s a lot of history in the south,” he said. ““There’s a lot of very cool communities that are on route that are all there for a reason.”

Day seven of RAGBRAI 2009 takes riders, including Dick Mellen and Terry Henderson of LaQuinta, California, and Greg Henderson of Jacksonville, Florida, from Mount Pleasant to Burlington to dip their tires in the Mississippi River.

The final day’s 45 miles will let riders relax as they drop into the Mississippi valley enroute to Burlington, Phippen said.

“The goal is by Day 7 when everybody is coming down from this high, having a 45-mile-day with 1,000 feet of climb helps get people in earlier so people don’t miss their buses going back to towns,” Phippen said. “It takes the stress off, knowing that there will be some times throughout the week where it’s going to be harder, but that last day will be easier.”

Downtown Ottumwa during the RAGBRAI preride on June 9, 2016.

For last year’s 50th anniversary ride, RAGBRAI passed through five of Iowa’s 10 largest metro areas: Sioux City, Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City and the Quad Cities.

This year the largest overnight town will be Ottumwa, population 25,350. Of the others, only Burlington is similar in size. The rest are under 10,000.

 

“You need those big towns on the map to support the ride, but it’s all those little towns that showcase what Iowa is all about,” Phippen said.

A special stop will be Winterset, where in March 2022 an EF4 tornado with peak winds of 170 mph decimated a neighborhood about 3 miles to the southwest, killing six people, including four from one family.

Winterset’s leaders and RAGBRAI’s organizers have talked about ways to celebrate the town’s resilience. Three years ago Parkersburg used RAGBRAI to show how it bounced back from an even more catastrophic May 2008 storm.

RAGBRAI cyclists pose for photos by a tornado sculpture made of bicycles in 2021.

“With anything that RAGBRAI does when you partner with these communities it truly shows how strong communities are,” Phippen said.

How many people are expected?

Cyclists mingle in the town square in Winterset during RAGBRAI on July 22, 2019

Another contrast with 2023 should be a smaller overall contingent of riders than on the 50th edition of RAGBRAI, when the Day 4 journey from Ames to Des Moines drew a record-shattering crowd estimated at more than 60,000.

Before the 50th year, interest in RAGBRAI was growing. In 2022 more than 18,000 people registered for single-day and weeklong-passes, a record number to that point. On the first day from Sergeant Bluff to Ida Grove, an estimated 30,000 people, including unregistered riders, participated. At the time that was the third-largest one-day ridership in the event’s history.

This year, organizers think the number of riders could be about equal to or slightly larger than in 2022.

Some days always draw more riders than others. Glenwood, the 2024 starting point on July 21, is on the southeast edge of the 1 million-population Omaha, Nebraska, metro, and is sure to draw a large crowd of one-day riders. So will the ride on the fourth day , which starts in Winterset, on the southwest edge of the Des Moines metro. The biggest single ridership day before 2023 was a 2019 segment from Winterset to Indianola, which drew 40,000.

Phippen said RAGBRAI is growing, but at levels the organizers and towns can handle.

“As our ride grows and as this team finds new ways to add more value and support the towns better, it will continue to grow,” he said.

Overnight towns will book musical acts

Lynyrd Skynyrd performed for RAGBRAI 50 audiences at Water Works Park in Des Moines.

For the first time last year, RAGBRAI booked and paid for the musical acts in each overnight town as a way to ease the cost for overnight towns. RAGBRAI planned to make the change permanent, Phippen said, but the towns gave it mixed reviews. So RAGBRAI will let overnight towns book musical acts again, allowing them to showcase more local artists if they choose, and give them more money instead, he said.

“We found that towns liked it, but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all,” Phippen said. “What I found as the director is we don’t need an epic band to have an epic concert.”

Last year, RAGBRAI Gives Back, the event’s charity arm, donated about $400,000 to the towns on the route. In 2024 RAGBRAI will give overnight towns $50,000 each, up from $15,000, to spend as they wish, Phippen said. Meeting towns on the route will continue to get $10,000 each and pass-through towns, $5,000.

“It’s their money to invest in the community,” Phippen said. “So it’s an investment in their success.”

Here are the starting and ending towns, distances and feet of climb for each day.

Day 1, Sunday, July 21: Glenwood to Red Oak

RAGBRAI riders dip their tires into the Missouri River on July 23, 2016, near Glenwood in southwest Iowa.

 

Length: 44 miles.

Feet of climb: 2,955.

Day 2, Monday, July 22: Red Oak to Atlantic

Montgomery County's Freedom Rock in Fountain Square Park in Red Oak.

Length: 40 miles.

Feet of climb: 1,695.

Day 3, Tuesday, July 23: Atlantic to Winterset

Two RAGBRAI couples renew their vows by one of the legendary covered bridge of Madison County as the ride passes through Madison.

Length: 79 miles.

Feet of climb: 4,384.

Day 4, Wednesday, July 24: Winterset to Knoxville

Bicyclists cross Lake Red Rock on Highway 14 on their way into Knoxville.

Length: 74 miles.

Feet of climb: 3,039.

Day 5, Thursday, July 25: Knoxville to Ottumwa

Rolling hills and beautiful scenery line the road along the RAGBRAI route outside Ottumwa in 2016.

Length: 60 miles.

Feet of climb: 2,441.

Day 6, Friday, July 26: Ottumwa to Mount Pleasant

A steam-powered tractor chugs past the grandstands at the Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant.

Length: 82 miles.

Feet of climb: 3,124.

Day 7, Saturday, July 27: Mount Pleasant to Burlington

Riders power their way up a 21% grade while completing the Rally to the Alley challenge during RAGBRAI on Day 6 in 2019 along Burlington's Snake Alley.

Length: 45 miles.

Feet of climb: 1,099.

 

Philip Joens has ridden RAGBRAI 18 times and completed the river-to-river trek seven times. He covers retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, at pjoens@registermedia.com or on Twitter @Philip_Joens

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