My First Bike Tour: RAGBRAI XLIII July 19-25 2015

August 25, 2015

Last summer, my goal was to ride a century. On July 12, 2014, seven of my bike friends and I headed out from Washington, DC to Purcellville, Virginia, primarily on the Washington and Old Dominion Rail Trail. Heading out at 8am and returning around 8pm, I completed it!

I knew I needed a new cycling goal for the following summer of 2015. After hearing about RAGBRAI (Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) from my dad, an Iowa native, my next cycling goal was to ride RAGBRAI. In preparation, I read about it online, queried women from Women & Bicycles, joined Team RADPAN (Ride All Day, Party All Night), and met up with my teammates for the first time at Tour de Fat. 

So, here's what RAGBRAI is, and what it isn't...

RAGBRAI isn’t really about climbing almost 4,000 feet in the first day. It’s about seeing my mom, aunt, and uncle and stopping to chat in Leeds, just outside of Sioux City. It’s about petting a four-horned goat in a petting zoo in Washta, then eating the best slice of apple pie I’ve ever had.

Four horned goat.
Petting zoo in Washta, Iowa. 

RAGBRAI is about climbing the worst hill and stopping at the Medicine Man tent for painkillers, Gatorade, and cookies just before I bonk. Suddenly I’m chatting with Ryan, out of Omaha, riding his blue Space Horse. Before I know it, I’m spinning into Storm Lake, the first overnight town. Already aching, another day of about seventy miles is ahead. RAGBRAI isn’t about the miles, it’s about eating a double breakfast of biscuits and gravy and a bowl of eggs, cheese, and salsa in Newell. It’s about arriving in Fonda, population 361, and trying The Lewbricator, a doppelbock from Kalona Brewing and a Slingshot Dunkel from Backpocket Brewing. It’s about eating pizza in the shade, stopping at the craft beer tent, and eating watermelon and brats right before Manson is closed. In Clare, about half of my team meets up and we bike off-route to Patti’s house, where we eat lasagna and set up our tents in the yard.

RAGBRAI is about the towns. Tuesday’s Webster City had some particularly charming yet dark signs leading up to it, stating “Slow down through the curve. If this warning you do not heed, you will fall and probably bleed.” It’s about the antique stores and finding a treasure small enough to fit in your jersey pocket. It’s about riding toward the back of the pack, eating lunch with some of the “baggers.” It’s about joining up with Peter, Cletus, and Clifford who were part of a family reunion team. It’s about spending two hours in Alden, visiting with my dad’s good friend from high school, Robin. Her house was directly on the route! RAGBRAI is about skipping Buckeye because it’s closed and meeting Todd and Ben of Team Medium Pace, and finding out that Ben was best man in my cousin’s wedding ten years ago. It’s about eating cupcakes at a roadside stand, and biking through the dark as fast as I can, rolling into Eldora so late that I miss the showers, set up my tent in the dark, and eat gas station pizza for dinner.

Wednesday feels like a rest day, less than sixty miles, and is the halfway point. Plus, Bones used his superior routing skills and led us to an off-route, shady bike trail right along the river to Steamboat Rock! Team Cockroach passes by, blaring bluegrass from a bike-mounted speaker. RAGBRAI is about this off-route trail, winding around, and hearing the bluegrass though the trees as we go down closer and closer to the river. After sending a postcard and eating breakfast in Steamboat Rock, I blow through Cleves, there was only a grain elevator, and meet up with some of my teammates in Ackley. Beyond Ackley, Joe, Bones, Andrea and I meet at Mr. Porkchop. RAGBRAI is about splitting a pork chop or eating a whole one, and eating a Thelma’s Ice Cream Sandwich for lunch.

Bike statue in Parkersburg
Bike art in Parkersburg, Iowa. 

RAGBRAI is about being exhausted and forgetting the next few towns and rolling into Cedar Falls after stopping at a Girl Scout cookie stand. The Cedar Falls series of signs, ”It’s all Down Hill from here!” seemed like lies ... why was I still climbing?! RAGBRAI is about getting to your camping spot late, but still getting spaghetti dinner. RAGBRAI is about the generous churches and schools. This one left the shower open all night, turned off the church bells and flood lights, and were very generous to our team and the others camping there.

Thursday morning was about my RAGBRAI goal. I was determined to meet up with my good friend Alison and her parents, members of Team Roadkill. She was riding today only, and I wasn’t sure when I’d get a chance to see her next. This day of RAGBRAI was about racing through Hudson and LaPorte City, eating two slices of pizza and a hot, fresh donut on my way.

This is not really what RAGBRAI is about (“It’s a ride, not a race!”), but I blew through Mount Auburn, biking as fast as I could. Finally, arriving in Vinton after a nice, long downhill from Mount Auburn, I find Team Roadkill under a big tree next to the Courthouse, right behind the 200 foot long slip-n-slide set up in downtown Vinton. We move behind the courthouse and take part in a Team Roadkill tradition: snacking and drinking a gin and tonic.

laporte city?
Bike art in La Porte City, Iowa. 

After lazing for a while, I left Vinton and lost track of Alison and her mom on some brutal hills. Riding through Shellsburg and Palo, RAGBRAI is about meeting up again with Alison and some of her team at the craft beer tent. RAGBRAI is about riding off-route to our overnight spots in Hiawatha, getting lost and stopping in a McDonald’s to charge my phone and get detailed directions to my campground from Bones. It’s about biking toward my campsite and running into Alison and some of Team Roadkill yet again, and hitting up the local Tex-Mex/Italian/American restaurant Papa Juan’s for dinner and margaritas. RAGBRAI is about the aforementioned restaurant running out of salsa.

RAGBRAI is about sagging to Mount Vernon due to exhaustion, waiting in a crowded wood fire pizza place, taking our pizzas to go and eating them in an Iowan’s garage. RAGBRAI is about the rain ending, the sun coming out, and dancing in the street until the state troopers came through and close down the town. RAGBRAI is about stopping for Sutliff Cider’s hard cider and GREAT live music—at one point a young couple was swing dancing!

"You Are One in A Minion," just before the Coralville Dam.

The rest of the day was tough, and RAGBRAI is about bonking while climbing several more awful hills, including one that I walked up. RAGBRAI is about the weird sounds my bike makes, getting lost in the overnight town, and being lucky enough to find the Trail’s End bike shop. RAGBRAI is about listening to Cheap Trick while eating a “Hawaiian” pulled pork sandwich before wandering through Coralville to our overnight host’s home. RAGBRAI is about the generosity of the hosts, eating dinner number two followed by a nice shower, and sleeping indoors on the couch.

RAGBRAI is about Saturday arriving too soon. My body had settled into its new state of tired and slightly achey. Leaving Coralville for University Heights and the University of Iowa, I fell out of my clips while going up a hill. Ouch! RAGBRAI is about second breakfast, and taking my last chance to try a Farm Boys Hearty breakfast bowl, which are eggs covered with just enough salsa, cheese, jalapenos and a touch of sour cream. RAGBRAI is about running into my teammate Mike, almost constantly on Saturday in West Liberty which had a great music group going. And it's about Atalissa where I had a pop, two monster cookies, and a frozen fruit cup. It’s about meeting my teammates again at the craft beer tent relaxing, listening to someone strum a banjo, and chatting with other teams, including the Killer Bees. RAGBRAI is about a pop-up petting zoo in Wilton,where I got to hold a three-week old piglet! It’s about stopping at the local bar in Durant or grabbing food from a grocery store across the street.

Last day in blue sky Iowa!
Me on the way to Walcott.

Soon after, we rolled onto Walcott, where we ended our journey. The highway getting into Davenport is a mess with all that was going on, so we ended a few miles early. I showered quickly and my parents picked me up, putting my bike in the back of my mom’s SUV. Unable to nap, I told the stories of RAGBRAI: running into my cousin’s best man, finding my friend Alison among more than 10,000 riders, not without coordination—thank goodness for Verizon’s rural service, riding up most hills but walking up two, falling twice, someday I’ll figure out clipless pedals, eating various pies all throughout the route, trying local craft beers, bonking a little bit, but riding along until the next roadside stand with pickles or ice cream, becoming friends with almost complete strangers, most 20+ years older than me, being sad when it ends, but happy to go home and sleep in my own bed.

Post by Emma Wimmer | Photo 1, 2, 3 and 4: Emma Wimmer | Photo 5: Andréa Bassing Matney

ON THE ROAD is written by the tours team— Paul, Mandy, Emma, Mike, and Arlen — tours specialists and intrepid bicyclists, helping you bring your cycling dreams to fruition. Check out our 2018 Guided Tours today!


Rick Stout April 26, 2016, 5:29 PM

Congrats Emma. You should make RAGBRAI a tradition and get friends to go along. I have done all of RAGBRAI for 20 straight years and it's laughter and tears every year. Only remember the good times, not the heat hills or wind.

Leisure McCorkle and Maximus August 31, 2015, 5:51 PM

I participated in my first RAGBRAI this year. I am sure we passed on the road. It was awesome. Thanks for sharing. I had so much fun I am heading out from NC to the West Coast this fall. Keep riding.

Tom Swanson August 26, 2015, 4:10 PM

Nice re-cap. I rode the Northern Tire Route through NW Iowa in mid-June and hav eht efollowing observations:

1) Iowa is not flat

2) Not many bicycle tourists ride the Northern Tier route

3) Mid-western folk are nice, but I have no idea why they would want to live there!

Katie Harris August 25, 2015, 2:51 PM


You're sorely missed in DC but your adventures continue. Thanks for the great RAGBRAI recap!


Mary G August 25, 2015, 2:05 PM

Congratulations on a successful RAGBRAI, Emma! (This year's century loop passed through the town where I grew up.) I hope you enjoy your new home in Missoula. All the best from #BikeDC.


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