The RAGBRAI Inspection Tour begins at Sergeant Bluff
Sergeant Bluff — Around 7 a.m. Sunday, Matt Phippen found himself in an unusual position.
A long-time volunteer for the Registry’s annual Big Bike Ride in Iowa, he began participating in the annual roadside inspection tour 10 years ago when he worked as a manager of the article chain of Scheels sports. But on Sunday morning, he stood in the center of a circle at Sergeant Bluff, directing runners on his first pre-race as leader of RAGBRAI, directing them to a route designed under his direction.
Crossing the state July 24-30 from the Missouri River City to Lansing on the Mississippi River, the ride is back for its second year after a pandemic cancellation in 2020 and a change in direction the year before. Phippen replaced Dieter Drake in January.
While registrations for the 2021 ride are down about 5%, Phippen said he’s ready for a return to pre-pandemic attendance levels — or beyond. More than 17,000 weekly and one-day cyclists have already signed up for the country’s biggest annual cycling tour.
“It’s record high right now,” Phippen said. “People are happy with the ride. The cities have done a good job of promoting what’s going on, so it’s creating buzz.
One-week registration closed on April 1 and registration for day passes closed on June 1. But riders can still purchase day passes from the RAGBRAI cargo trailers on the route during the ride.
Unregistered runners inevitably join the race, Phippen said. In 2013, they swelled the ranks of cyclists to a possible single-day record of 36,000 on the way from Perry to Des Moines.
“So we’ll have another bump as well,” Phippen said.
The cities agree: large crowds are coming
After the runners covered their first few miles on Sunday, battling a headwind and the deceptively steep hills of the Missouri River Valley, they reached Anthon, the designated meeting town for Day 1, en route to the city of Ida Grove night. Kevin Clausen, a member of Anthon’s organizing committee who was there to greet them, said he expected a crowd of 20,000, far exceeding that of 2006, the last time Anthon was on the course.
“I think it’s going to be potentially the biggest ever just because you have so many pent up requests to go on RAGBRAI because maybe you haven’t been able to for the last two years,” Clausen said, owner of Fireside Steakhouse & Lounge in the city of 500. “So I’m optimistic that across the Midwest everyone is on top and ready to hang out, and I think RAGBRAI will be a good test.”
The organizers of Sergeant Bluff are also expecting a strong turnout. Standing at the site where people will congregate at a bike show on July 23 in preparation for the ride’s departure the next day, Ron Hansen, co-chair of the Sergeant Bluff RAGBRAI organizing committee, and city administrator Aaron Lincoln, photographed a crowd of over 30,000.
This would be a 20% increase over 2006, an increase that may be partly due to RAGBRAI’s decision this year to abandon its lottery system for passes and accept registration on a first come, first served.
“Now it’s like going back to the old RAGBRAI where it’s just wide open,” Hansen said.
Lincoln touted the benefits of hosting RAGBRAI.
“It mobilizes your community around volunteering,” he said, adding, “In 2006, after RAGBBRAI, it really inspired a lot of volunteers to do other things.
“It makes the city shine,” Hansen said. “It brings the community together. It allows neighbors who don’t know neighbors to get to know neighbors.”
Likewise, Clausen said RAGBRAI was a chance to show Anthon, where agriculture and local schools are the biggest employers, Clausen said.
“We just try to make the most of it,” Clausen said. “We only have this opportunity once every 15 or 20 years.”
Planning for the day of the century
The expected additional turnout won’t be the only thing different from this year’s RAGBRAI. Ride co-founder John Karras died in November at 91, and the ride, dedicated to his memory, will return to the old tradition of having a day with a course of at least 100 miles.
This was the rule from the first RAGBRAI in 1973 until the 1985 edition.
Phippen acknowledged that many riders are worried about covering the distance on Day 4, when riders will cycle 105 miles from Emmetsburg to Mason City. But he said the RAGBRAI organization will be ready for those who decide it’s a bridge too far, with two support wagons and additional equipment on the road to serve those unable to complete on their own. means.
He also said that for the first time, SAG Wagons would pick up riders from meet towns every day. Day 4 is Britt, just under 60 miles. Cyclists can also request a lift by turning their bikes on their handlebars to the left side of the road, signaling the passing SAG Wagons to pick them up.
“People are going to be smart,” predicted Phippen. “People are going to go up in the city of the meeting and then go down.”
What is not predictable is the weather and the direction of the wind, he acknowledged, but “if everything goes well and the stars align, we will have a tailwind and it will be 75 degrees, so everyone will ride Century Day.”
As in previous years, when runners could win a Century Day with a ride on an optional loop, they will be able to claim commemorative patches around mile marker 75 or 85, Phippen said.
Thinking of the founders of RAGBRAI
Phippen hasn’t ruled out bringing Century Day back in years to come, especially with the 50th RAGBRAI coming up next year.
“It’s so important this year because of Karras and his celebration,” Phippen said. “It’s saving grace. Let’s pay homage to it, plus it’s a pretty big achievement. Cycling 100 miles is a really big deal.”
RAGBRAI Staff attended a memorial rally for Karras in Des Moines on Saturday before heading to Sergeant Bluff, so Karras wasn’t far from Phippen’s mind at the start of the inspection tour – especially given the looming stage in 2023, when the race will mark its 50th year.
“My job is to uphold (the legacy of Karras and co-founder Donald Kaul, who died in 2018) for years to come,” Phippen said. “The 100 mile day and all of those things make it grow and make it thrive.”
Philip Joens covers public safety, municipal government and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-443-3347 at [email protected] or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.