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'The next best thing': Virtual RAGBRAI is hitting the road — online

  • 27 July, 2020
  • Courtney Crowder
A RAGBRAI rider gets an early start
By Courtney Crowder

RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras called me the other day with a question.

“Courtney, how do you ride your bike online?”

I quickly parsed through whether to explain the Peloton phenomena, the general concept of virtual reality or how to build a digital trail in “The Sims” before realizing that the nonagenarian bicyclist was asking about Virtual RAGBRAI 2020.

Virtual RAGBRAI is the socially distanced, stay-at-home version of the much-beloved in-person RAGBRAI, an acronym for the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Kicking off Saturday and running through July 25, Virtual RAGBRAI hopes to bring the celebratory, carefree spirit of the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bike ride to the masses — just without riders being en masse.

Through online events, digital challenges and a host of ways for eager cyclists to share stories of their weeklong pedaling, Virtual RAGBRAI will be “the next best thing,” said ride director Dieter Drake.

Planning for the online ride began soon after RAGBRAI leadership made the “difficult decision” to cancel the in-the-flesh event in April, citing an inability to ensure riders’ safety because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hearing riders’ disappointment and noting the general public’s increased interest in all things cycling, the RAGBRAI crew put their heads together and came up with a suite of online activities that support new bike riders, while also bringing die-hard RAGBRAIers a taste of their favorite July week.

“We take our role in bringing people to Iowa every year really seriously,” Drake said. “But this year that just wasn’t possible, so we wanted to capture the excitement of Iowa and of RAGBRAI and bring that to bicyclists all over the world.”

Participating riders will be asked to cycle the same number of daily miles and feet of climb they would have been pedaling through Iowa’s cornfields and city centers — only this year they’ll climb the hills of their neighborhoods or local trails. Those who complete the rides will earn bragging rights and the chance to win cycling-centric prizes, including jerseys, riding kits and a chance to tag along on the official RAGBRAI inspection trip next June.

And the week will be peppered with RAGBRAI favorites, including themed jersey days, a concert from the Pork Tornadoes and a Rhubarb Rumble pie-eating rematch between three-time victors Team Des Moines Register and one-time flukes Team National Public Radio.

But most importantly, Drake said, the Virtual Ride is about leaning on each other to keep RAGBRAI nation strong through this odd, unfortunate off-year.

Indeed, since launching the virtual ride, stories of good times had in RAGBRA-Wherever have peppered social media. One woman shared her collection of ride patches decades deep, tangible evidence of her many years riding across Iowa. Another posted a photo scouting out possible tire dip sites. None will rival the mighty Mississippi, he noted, but he’ll find a special place to celebrate a week well spent on two wheels.

And dozens of people shared their routes — in Chicago, in Denver, in South Carolina — asking those in the area to join them as they ride this not-really-RAGBRAI RAGBRAI.

“The mission of RAGBRAI is to get people riding bikes and having fun and meeting new people,” Drake said. “We think the best place to do that is Iowa, but you can capture that wherever you are.”

It’s sort of like what I told Karras when he called.

This year, 10,000 riders won’t descend on Iowa’s majestic town squares. They won’t take up our local roads and pass through our beautiful main streets. And they won’t enjoy an Iowa sunset with a piece of pie, a wash of lemonade and a headful of new memories.

This year, we will ride apart.

But if you strip RAGBRAI down to it’s barest bones — to the simple act of getting on a bike and seeing where the road takes us — that we will all be doing together.

Virtual RAGBRAI logo

Virtual RAGBRAI logo

RAGBRAI Virtually the Best Bicycle Ride 2020 presented by TIDE

In addition to exclusive access to the Rhubarb Rumble pie-eating contest, the live Pork Tornadoes concert and RAGBRAI’s daily prize challenges, registered virtual riders receive a swag bag stuffed with a commemorative patch, a pint glass, a T-shirt and more. Registration is $55 per person. To learn more about all the events listed below or to register, visit:

Make sure to share your week of riding with the Des Moines Register (@DMRegister) and RAGBRAI (@RAGBRAI) using the hashtag #virtuallythebest on Twitter.

Saturday, July 18: Blue Bunny Day

Guess the 2021 meeting towns: Calling all Iowa town historians and RAGBRAI gumshoes! The overnight towns were announced in January, but do you want to know what meeting towns will be included on the 2021 route? Follow RAGBRAI on social media or pick up a Des Moines Register for a clue to the location of one of our seven meeting towns, and watch the same spots for the answer the next day. Your only hint: The towns won’t be released in the order they’ll appear on the RAGBRAI itinerary.

Check out the River to River Founders Statue: After years of planning and fundraising, the Founders Statue honoring Register journalists and RAGBRAI inventors John Karras and Donald Kaul will finally be installed in Water Works Park. A formal dedication and celebration will take place when it is safe to gather again. (Pro-tip: Visit the installation at night when lights shine on the more than 50-foot-long bronze sculpture.)

Expo online: The popular RAGBRAI Expo is going digital. For the week of the virtual ride, RAGBRAI’s favorite vendors and bike shops will host sales and release exclusive merchandise at And the annual Outlet Tent will be part of the fun, too. Get 2012-2019 RAGBRAI jerseys, bibs, posters and more for at least 40% off. Visit

Sunday, July 19

61.5 miles; 2,488-foot elevation

Remember the lost: In 2018, the United States lost almost 900 fellow bikers to road accidents. Honor the cyclists who passed this year by riding in silence from your 14th to your 15th mile. Take a photo at the start and end of your Mile of Silence and share your reflections online.

Rock ‘n’ roll: Get dirty on a 22-mile gravel path in honor of the rocky loop you would have been riding on RAGBRAI. Make sure to take pictures along the way. Those who complete the loop will get a certificate for a patch on the 2021 ride.  

Monday, July 20: PeopleForBikes Day

73 miles; 1,210-foot elevation

Rep your college: Wear your favorite college’s jersey and take a selfie to show off your school pride. Find another fan of your college on the trail and win bragging rights for-ev-er.

Stay connected with PeopleforBikes: Upgrade your Ride Spot account to member status or create a Virtual RAGBRAI-inspired ride story on the app for a chance to win a PeopleForBike jersey or bib. 

Tuesday, July 21: Tide True Tandem Tuesday

54.2 miles; 1,001-foot elevation

Show off #TidePride: Snap a selfie incorporating your favorite TIDE gear. Don some of the TIDE paraphernalia you got along last year’s ride or share an old photo of yourself using their laundromat-on-wheels or grabbing a beer with the TIDE crew.

Wednesday, July 22

67.9 miles; 1,649-foot elevation

Celebrate suffrage: Take a virtual tour of the “Remember the Ladies: The Path to Suffrage” exhibit at the Grout Museum, located in Waterloo, one of our 2021 overnight towns. Use a special code, which RAGBRAI will promote on social media next week, to visit during the virtual ride and receive a VOTE FOR WOMEN patch.

Be a part of the exhibit: Take a picture with your favorite female cyclist, or photoshop together a picture if you are socially distancing, and share it with RAGBRAI for a chance to be part of a temporary exhibit when we roll through Waterloo next year.   

Thursday, July 23

82.3 miles; 2,793-foot elevation

The Karras Loop: Come on, you can go 17.7 more miles! Complete a full 100-mile century ride, taking pictures along the way, and earn a certificate for a Karras loop patch on the 2021 ride.

Let’s get ready to Rhubarb Rumble!: Tune in as the annual Rhubarb Rumble pits Team Des Moines Register against Team NPR (No Pie Refused) in a no-holds-barred pie-eating contest. Watch us stuff our faces and bet on which team will be fastest as we battle to win the coveted rolling pin trophy.

This year, we will be eating to support the Lytton, Iowa, firehouse. Lytton, the self-proclaimed pie capital of Iowa, will make its RAGBRAI debut on the 2021 ride. A special pie-themed T-shirt designed by RAYGUN will be available for purchase before and after the rumble with proceeds benefiting the firehouse’s construction. 

Friday, July 24: Big Grove Brewery Day

46 miles; 1,779-foot elevation

Honor 100 years of Iowa State Parks: Grab an Iowa State Park Passport and hit the trails to see nature’s wonder. The 2021 RAGBRAI route will pass close to two of Iowa’s State Parks, the Maquoketa Caves State Park and Anamosa’s Wapsipinicon State Park.

Wear your RAGBRAI pride: Put on your RAGBRAI jersey and click a pic showing your RAGBRAI love.

Rock out! RAGBRAI favorite the Pork Tornadoes will play a drive-in concert at Water Works Park at 7 p.m. CT. Registered riders will get access to first-come, first-serve complimentary parking where Tornado lovers can watch in their car or have a socially distanced picnic.

Make sure to BYOB: Show your concert ticket and get a 10% discount on hot food or meal packs from the Downtown or Fleur Avenue Hy-Vee stores. Don’t forget some cans of Tailwind, RAGBRAI’s official beer!!

To reserve your spot, visit for more details. If you can’t make it in person, watch the livestream at

Saturday, July 25: Primal Day

39 miles; 1,560-foot elevation

Get Primal: Slip on some primal gear and share a photo for a chance to win prizes and bragging rights.  

DIP YOUR TIRE!: Take a moment to reflect on a week of riding, but don’t forget to show us your big tire dip. You don’t need the Mississippi — a local lake, a ditch, even a swimming pool works!

Riders dip their tires

Riders dip their tires in the Mississippi River at the end of RAGBRAI.

Courtney Crowder, the Register’s Iowa Columnist, traverses the state’s 99 counties telling Iowans’ stories. She’s a five-time RAGBRAIer. Reach her at or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.

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