People on the Land: Iowa Bike Event ‘Pedals’ Community Development

An annual sojourn takes more than 15,000 two-wheeled tourists across the Hawkeye State, stopping long enough to fuel the riders and the local economy.

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Before the summer of 2015 recedes too far into memory, it might be a good idea to commemorate a fifth anniversary for our director at Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. This was the summer that Chris Merrett completed his fifth bicycle tour across Iowa as part of RAGBRAI. He is by no means the longest-riding participant, but, for his colleagues, he has reached a historic milestone.

RAGBRAI—the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa—is a world-class event marked by intensive exercise in the summer heat and displays of community pride and hospitality, with plenty of food and drink. For participants, this is a huge dose of, well, fun, in a carnival-like atmosphere.

So, why does someone take part in a seven-day, 450-plus-mile bike tour with a recommended 500-1,000-mile riding regimen for a year before the event? And an optional 100-or-so-mile side trip? It isn’t for competition. RAGBRAI is not a race. Started in 1973 by two Register staff members, it has long since become a varying tour of Iowa’s diverse landscapes that draws thousands of people. Merrett says participants range from teens to octogenarians and people with all levels of experience, including “old farmers on Schwinns.”

Merrett goes to the annual event because he loves to ride. Many evenings and weekends you might find him out and about biking in western Illinois in most kinds of weather, fair and foul—about 5,000 miles last year. In fact, his desire to take part in RAGBRAI goes back awhile. He unofficially tagged along as a “rogue or pirate” for a day about 25 years ago when he was a doctoral student at the University of Iowa. Time and life intervened, but now he’s hooked on the event, especially because it helps him stay in shape.

A rider on a high wheel bike makes his way out of Auburn, Iowa, during the RAGBRAI XL bike event.  Photo by Justin Hayworth/The Des Moines Register.
A rider on a high wheel bike makes his way out of Auburn, Iowa, during the RAGBRAI XL bike event. Photo by Justin Hayworth/The Des Moines Register.

Second, there is a professional reason. Merrett, as head of a statewide agency engaged in rural community development, views RAGBRAI as a showcase for Iowa’s diverse culture and landscape. It shows community voluntarism at its best and injects some cash into local economies.

Each year, RAGBRAI—held up as the oldest, longest, and largest bicycle event anywhere—runs along a different route that includes eight host communities (seven overnight) between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Towns compete to get a spot on the tour. Each has an organizing committee to deal with all of the issues related to a huge, but relatively brief influx of people, including camping, food, drink, and frivolities to entertain the tired riders. RAGBRAI’s rules require that vendors, whether for profit or nonprofit, receive permission from a town’s vendor chairperson to set up shop.

To the uninitiated, the trip seems to be a mixture of agony and ecstasy in the late July heat. As Merrett, wearing a deep tan and signs of windburn soon after his journey, noted, other events are held in cool, and even cold weather. “Hypothermia is never a problem on RAGBRAI,” he said. And, as for the risk of dehydration, it’s there, but the towns try to take care of that.

Merrett plays down the agony part. He describes the ride as a series of 80-mile days broken down into 10-mile rides from town to town with rest in the shade, food, and, liquid refreshment, at each stopping point. This is where the community development comes in. Towns plan fundraisers around the event, with plenty of food and drink, including plenty of beer.

A day typically starts at about 5:30 or 6 o’clock, with breaking down the tent and packing the sleeping bag. Merrett travels with the Bike Burlington (Iowa) club, so most of his gear is trucked to that night’s host community. He is usually on the road by about 6:30 or so with a windbreaker, spare tire, a few tools and a cell phone, fortified temporarily by a granola bar.

Along the way, there seems to be ecstasy, with “really great coffee,” bagels, breakfast burritos, smoothies, and plenty of other choices. “I should point out that I have yet to lose weight on my ride,” Merrett said. “It’s crazy how you can pedal for five, six, seven hours and gain weight.”

Bicycle sculpture
A menagerie of bicycles forms a bike sculpture in the middle of Ackley, IA, 2015.

To Merrett, witnessing community development in action is the most important part of the ride. He notes Iowa’s traditions of ethnicity that communities can and do capitalize on. Racial diversity is somewhat limited, but there is considerable ethnic diversity.

When you think about it, he says, thousands of people ride through a community. Places can provide food, drink, souvenirs, entertainment, including local bands, and bike repairs. If the community has its act together, it can showcase its local foods and traditions. The event can yield many thousands of dollars for groups, nonprofit and for-profit alike.

“Over the years, RAGBRAI has been able to offer expertise to help these communities to put their best foot forward,” Merrett said. “One of the changes that has occurred is that the ride has gotten slightly shorter in order to emphasize the community and economic development impact.” The ride has dropped from its earlier length of about 550 miles to an average in the 460s now. Instead of arriving at their daily destination at about 4 o’clock, riders now arrive at about 2, with time to rest and then take part in community activities.

RAGBRAI offers Iowa’s towns a chance to go all out to put on their best faces for the riders. Thousands of people—15,000-plus in 2015—discover that creativity and fun are alive and well in rural Iowa. Merrett describes the tour as a statewide moving festival of happy and very friendly people, some wearing pink bows or fake antlers on their cycling helmets. His photos capture the experience.

Nearer to home he finds friendly people and a closer view of nature. “Cycling in general reaffirms the beauty of rural areas,” he says. He has become an expert on pavements, an observer of wildlife, and a recurring sight for some rural residents who witness his passage through their neighborhoods.

RAGBRAI is a high point in Merrett’s year. The organizers’ website counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until next year’s event. For Merrett, July 24-30, 2016, can’t come soon enough.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.


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