By Eliza Honan & Christopher Squier
This summer, Grinnell’s population will be more than tripled when over 25,000 bikers and spectators camp in and around the town. RAGBRAI, Iowa’s biggest bicycle race, just announced to the surprise of the local community that Grinnell will be an overnight stop on the route.
RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is a seven day event that the RAGBRAI official website claims is the “oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world.” Occurring annually since 1973, with different stops each year, the 39th RAGBRAI will be a huge boost to the community’s economy. The overnight in Grinnell will be Thursday, July 28.
The bike ride goes across Iowa from west to east. “The tradition is that you dip your back tire in the Missouri and you dip your front tire in the Mississippi and you ride river to river,” said bicyclist Craig Cooper.
Craig Cooper has been involved with RAGBRAI since 1980, and his bike shop in downtown Grinnell, Bikes To You, has been one of the 10 official bike shops on the RAGBRAI route for 18 years.
“RAGBRAI is unlike just about anything. If you haven’t seen it, you just can’t fathom how large of an event it is. To try to put it into perspective, you have to think about a major sporting event, but moving that venue every day and having the same people show back up for it,” he said. “You could think of it as half the Iowa State Fair picking up and moving for eight days and having new workers every night to deliver the goods and services of RAGBRAI.”
“They say every state in the United States is represented,” said Ted Schultz, the Director of Sports Information at Grinnell College. “And then at least 12 countries, I think I’ve heard. Last year I met two guys from Germany.” Schultz maintains a blog about his RAGBRAI experiences. He began blogging when working as a journalist for a newspaper, when he wanted to do RAGBRAI but didn’t want to take time off work. As a compromise with his boss, he kept a blog as he rode across the state and so did not have to use vacation time.
“Even when I came here to [work at] Grinnell in 2007, I figured my days of doing that would be over, and I called the editor one day and we were talking and she said, ‘Even though you’re in Grinnell, would you still like to do these columns and blog for us because people just love it?’ I said, sure, so that’s how it’s been going. I’ve done six of the last seven RAGBRAIs,” he said.
Cooper added, “When you have 15 to 20 thousand cyclists on a roadway between towns, it pretty much takes over the road. They don’t close the roads, but you don’t want to drive a vehicle on the roads those days. It’s pretty much cyclists the whole way.”
Professor Elaine Marzluff, Chemistry, has ridden RAGBRAI for a number of years as well. “The local bike shop runs a group out there. They transport us there and they find a campsite for us and we camp every night at a site. … The last two years Grinnell sent a team, and the College has tried to get alums to come. I’ve met several alumni who I’ve now kept in touch with. Also, with the campsite, we get people from all over, so I’ve kept in touch with people who I’ve met who come back here year after year. That’s when we see each other, at RAGBRAI.”
Both Schultz and Marzluff have stayed in contact with fellow bikers from previous RAGBRAIs and both will be hosting riders this year who are riding through Grinnell.
“I’ve got several people who already have dibs on my spare bedrooms,” Marzluff said.
The Grinnell community feels well equipped to deal with the large responsibility and honor that comes with being an overnight stop. With a large volunteer base and state-of-the-art facilities like the new aquatic center, Grinnell should have no problem taking care of its one-night guests.
“The City of Grinnell will have a huge welcoming committee that will probably involve 120 people or more total. The committee itself will be 25 people and then there will be subcommittees of people who deal only with showers and Porta Potties, or with trash pickup. It’s a big event,” Cooper said.
Registration for this year’s RAGBRAI, which runs from July 24 to 30, can be completed online or by contacting Craig Cooper of Bikes To You, who has a number of possible programs for students to ride with Grinnell or to work for his bike shop. Online registration must be completed by April 1 and, although space is limited with only 8,500 weekly riders and 1,500 daily riders, riders are chosen through a lottery system, so any aspiring cyclist has a chance to participate in this exciting event.