Tara and Simon’s RAGBRAI Part 4 of 4: Unexpected Joys, Lessons Learned, and a Look Ahead

What better way to spend a Friday than spending a few minutes with Tara and Simon as they wrap up their RAGBRAI trip. Read on to find out the unexpected joys they encountered, lessons they learned through the week, and their pondering of the question– would we do it again?

Unexpected Joys

As coffee drinkers, our discovery of the Iowa Coffee Company tent brought us great joy. For the first few days, we suffered with watered-down coffee with a side of powdered creamer served at most of the pancake breakfasts.

The Iowa Coffee Company tent was usually set up somewhere along the route in the first 20 miles of the day and featured good strong coffee and, just as importantly, real milk.

Iowa Coffee Company
Iowa Coffee Company

We didn’t initially understand just how thrilled towns were to have RAGBRAI visit. Each town posted “Welcome RAGBRAI” signs and decorated their town, often with decorated bikes hung from street lamps or lining the streets. Almost always we would be greeted by an emcee, often the mayor of the town.

Our favorite was the town of Runnells, about 20 miles east of Des Moines. Runnells had a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with house decorations, wristbands, and a giant hay bale snowman. Tiny Packwood, Iowa (population: 223) advertised itself on volunteers’ t-shirts as “God’s Gift to Iowa.”

Christmas in Runnells
Christmas in Runnells

Simon’s impressions of classic Midwestern town architecture were first formed by Hill Valley, the town in the 80s movie, Back to the Future. His expectations were met towns like Oskaloosa and Knoxville, with green town squares bordered by storefronts and local restaurants.

The RAGBRAI rider is treated as a celebrity: little kids asked us to sign their t-shirts and posters for their bedrooms or school show-and-tell. We marked our hometowns with pushpins on world maps set out in restaurants and were invited to sign our names on barns and buildings.

The interaction between riders and locals was also overwhelmingly positive. Each morning when we left a town, a crew of town residents stood along the road waving us good-bye and genuinely wishing us a safe ride.

The feeling got even better as we descended into Ft. Madison, as people on their front porches and lining the streets greeted us with applause and cheers and motivational signs. A special “thank-you” to the person who thoughtfully put out a “Three miles to go” sign in their front yard.

Dallas Center, Iowa
Dallas Center, Iowa

The other unexpected positive was just how well our bodies held up to the challenge. RAGBRAI organizers recommend riding 1,000 base miles to fully enjoy the week. Although we hadn’t hit that magic number before we left, we had several hundred miles under our belt, and we had done a few 60-80 mile rides for practice.

We could not prepare for how our bodies would feel day after day of riding. At home, if we weren’t feeling great, or if it was really hot, we’d often use that as an excuse reason not to go riding or to cut our ride short. We didn’t have that choice at RAGBRAI.

After a few days of riding, our legs start out stiff and tired, but the tiredness would work itself out after about an hour of pedaling (and a hearty breakfast). We were surprised at how well our bodies not only survived, but performed well, particularly considering we were getting only two to four hours of sleep most nights (as discussed previously). We definitely left RAGBRAI stronger riders than when we arrived.

Lessons Learned

  • Never ride by a port-o-potty (or kybos, as Iowans call them) when there is no line.
  • Pick a fun goal for each day. Usually, this goal involved eating some type of food. One day, we set our sights on homemade pie. Another day, we stood in line for 45 minutes for the mythic Mr. Porkchop pork chop, served unceremoniously in a piece of wax paper and eaten by hand.
  • Always carry emergency food. Other than a big breakfast, we weren’t too methodical about what we ate throughout the day’s ride. We had been told that getting enough food and drink was never a problem due to the abundance of vendors along the route. As we learned the hard way, a smoothie vendor up the road is of small comfort if you start bonking two miles from it.
  • Everything costs money at RAGBRAI. I was shocked, as we stood in line for a mobile shower in Harlan, to learn that we would be charged $5 for the privilege (another dollar if you hadn’t brought your own towel). Even road-side signs advertising “free water” or “free indoor bathrooms” would usually request a donation to a charity.
Free kittens-- more false advertising.
Free kittens– more false advertising.

The Ultimate Question: Would We Do It Again?

A definitive maybe. There were definitely sleep-deprived moments during the ride when that I thought we had made a mistake in coming. Other times, I’d marvel when the pedaling, a cool breeze, and a pastoral view would all come together for us. As we’re now mostly recovered from our fatigue and sunburn, and our duffel bags are mostly unpacked, the accomplishment of completing RAGBRAI is starting to sink in.

One guy we spoke with explained that RAGBRAI is what you make it to be. You can paceline your way to Strava glory, roll leisurely and chat with people you meet, or you can turn RAGBRAI into a beer-soaked week-long adult summer camp experience.

Now that we have the experience of one RAGBRAI, I think we could better tailor our ride next time. While it served our basic needs, we probably would not use the same charter service. We would do more advance planning to ensure a home-stay, hotel room, or dorm room for most of the nights.

Aside from ensuring a better night’s sleep, the other advantage to having a hotel or place to stay would be having the opportunity for a lie-in in the morning. Starting later in the day gives you more of a mindset to take it easy and enjoy the ride, rather than trying to rush to the overnight town, only to then stand in long lines for a shower.

We didn’t relax as much as we could have, particularly in the early part of this trip. Now that we know we can finish the ride, next time we’ll focus more on enjoying the experience.

Tara, thank you so much for sharing Simon and your RAGBRAI story. I read your posts a few times this week, and I loved reading your perspective of Iowa, RAGBRAI, and how you fared throughout the week. Congratulations on this bike touring milestone, and I look forward to reading about other tours you do the future.

Have a great weekend, all!


  1. Someday (soon I hope) I want to be to able to ride RAGBRAI One time, or more if circumstances permit it. Great article and I think you caught the feeling of the journey “pretty close to the knuckle” (as our British cousins would have it). So Cheers, and good job well done, to you! 2 or 3 wheels good 4 wheels bad. 🙂


  2. Thanks again Mary for letting us “guest post” on the blog! As much as I wrote, there was still so much to say about our experience. I hope everyone has a chance to experience RAGBRAI– I feel confident there’s nothing quite like it.:)


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