How does the world’s biggest bike party celebrate its 50th anniversary? By attempting to break a world record of course. That’s the plan for the 2023 edition of RAGBRAI, the famed multi-day ride (not race) across Iowa. This year the ride starts on July 23 in Sioux City and includes 500 miles and 16,549 feet of total climbing before reaching the final finish line seven days later in Davenport.
Throughout the week-long event, riders will tackle four days with over 75 miles of saddle time, including three with more than 3,000 feet of climbing. But the BIG day comes on day 4 when organizers aim to set a new mark for the world's largest ever “parade of bicycles.”
“We’re anticipating a record number of riders this year," said Anne Lawrie, cycling director for RAGBRAI's parent company Ventures Endurance. "And we’re working with Guinness to set a new record.”
If all goes according to plan, that momentous occasion will come during the (not coincidentally) 50-mile trek from Ames to Des Moines. It’ll pass by the state's golden-domed capitol building on the way to finish in downtown Des Moines, the event’s birthplace and hometown.
The last time RAGBRAI was in the Des Moines metro area, in 2019, there were 40,000 riders on the road. This year organizers estimate that upwards of 100,000 could show up, which would shatter the current world record set in 2000 when 48,615 cyclists pedaled an 18.2-mile circuit around Udine, Italy.
But why would so many people turn out for a bike ride across Iowa, which admittedly isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of America’s top road cycling locales? It’s because RAGBRAI (aka the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) is much more than just a bike ride. Indeed, as the event website proudly states, “It’s an epic rolling festival of bicycles, music, food, camaraderie, and community.” And this festive, welcoming vibe has helped make it “The oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle touring event in the world.”
RAGBRAI’s roots trace back to a dare of sorts, when John Karras, an avid cyclist and writer for the Des Moines Register newspaper, challenged his colleague Don Kaul to ride his bicycle across Iowa and document the experience. After some back and forth, the pair decided to take on the challenge together—and then threw out an invite to their respective readers. Roughly 300 showed up that first year in 1973, with around 100 making the full west-to-east state crossing.
Word of the gathering spread quickly, and a year later, an estimated 2,700 people showed up ready to ride. Interest and enthusiasm have continued to bloom exponentially ever since for what has become one of the country’s top bucket list cycling experiences.
Each summer, riders set out from a point on or near the Missouri River in western Iowa and ride to the Mississippi River at Iowa’s eastern border. Currently, RAGBRAI caps registration at around 20,000. Still, huge influxes of bandit riders joining in any time the event passes through a major metropolitan area consistently balloon the peloton’s size well beyond that.
Besides enjoying time with fellow cycling enthusiasts, arguably the event’s biggest draw is how every town along the route goes all out to be as welcoming and fun as possible. “That’s really the highlight,” said Lawrie. “Iowa has a ton of small towns, and RAGBRAI showcases the magic of those small towns to people from all over the world.”
Indeed, during the ride, each town tries to outdo the others with raucous parties, bands, food vendors, and lots and lots of beer. Some riders opt to sleep at local campgrounds or parks, while others rent space in residents' homes or yards. Needless to say, if you want the comfort of a hotel room, best book early. This year’s ride is truly going to be one to remember.
“My advice to riders is make sure you train because Iowa is not flat, especially this year’s route,” added Lawrie. “And be ready to have fun and take advantage of all the things that these communities have to offer. It’s a truly special experience.”
Sunday, July 23 ― Sioux City to Storm Lake ― 77 miles, 3,504 feet of climbing Monday, July 24 ― Storm Lake to Carroll ― 62 miles, 1,818’ Tuesday, July 25 ― Carroll to Ames ― 83 miles, 1,479’ Wednesday, July 26 ― Ames to Des Moines ― 50 miles, 1,216’ Thursday, July 27 ― Des Moines to Tama-Toledo ― 82 miles, 3,652’ Friday, July 28 ― Tama-Toledo to Coralville ― 80 miles, 3,276’ Saturday, July 29 ― Coralville to Davenport ― 66 miles, 1,604’