“It’s kind of a neat thing taking us back to 1973,” said T.J. Juskiewicz, director of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. In that initial year, two Des Moines Register writers were stunned by how many people joined them for all or part of the six-day (not seven) journey.
With 462 miles and nearly 16,000 feet of climb, the 2015 ride falls in the middle of the road for difficulty, relative to past rides. The overnight towns stick slightly north of state center for five days before dipping just south of Interstate Highway 80.
About 10,000 riders will spend their overnights in Sioux City, Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Eldora, Cedar Falls, Hiawatha and Iowa River Landing/Coralville before the ride ends in Davenport. RAGBRAI XLIII runs from July 19 to 25.
Juskiewicz calls it “a good old-fashioned RAGBRAI” — with at least one exciting new twist: an optional gravel loop for cyclists brave enough to add 15 bumpy miles to their trek.
The special loop — in honor of Steve Hed, a wheel innovator and founder of Minnesota-based Hed Cycling who died in November — will be tacked onto the 68-mile stretch from Storm Lake to Fort Dodge on July 20.
Like those who take on the optional 100-mile Karras Loop (that’s July 21, between Fort Dodge and Eldora), gravel riders will visit a bonus town and earn a badge of honor.
With a couple of exceptions, the 2015 overnight hubs promise more urban, suburban and collegiate vibes than in some years past. Five of the cities tout populations of about 20,000 and higher (three of them 40,000-plus). Riders also visit the home of the University of Northern Iowa and ride near the University of Iowa.
But Eldora has a population of only 2,732. The town will have several times that many inhabitants by late July 21.
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Here’s a quick day-by-day breakdown for the 43rd RAGBRAI:
SIOUX CITY: This is where it all began in 1973 with Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul and Register writer and copy editor John Karras. Of this year’s overnight towns, it’s the one that has been most frequently visited by RAGBRAI over the years — July’s visit to the Missouri River city will be the second in six years.
STORM LAKE: It’s home to Buena Vista University and situated on the shores of 3,200-acre Storm Lake. Bring your swim trunks!
FORT DODGE: The city is one of six Iowa’s Great Places listed by the state’s cultural affairs department. Located on the Des Moines River, it is home to a recreated prairie military outpost, Fort Museum and Frontier Village. Fort Dodge is also known for the Karl King Municipal Band and its frequent outdoor performances.
ELDORA: This is the smallest overnight town in 2015. As the Hardin County seat, it has a fairgrounds, the local high school and an iconic town square. Pine Lake State Park is on the banks of the Iowa River.
CEDAR FALLS: This is Panther country (don’t worry, just the mascot) for more than 13,000 students at University of Northern Iowa. Good thing it will be summer break, since RAGBRAI will invade with about that same number of riders. Riders will need to get some good sleep to prepare for the two steepest days ahead.
HIAWATHA: Hiawatha is an overnight host for just the second time. The Cedar Rapids suburb is about 10 times as large as it was when it last hosted RAGBRAI, in 2004. It is the trailhead for the popular Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
IOWA RIVER LANDING/CORALVILLE: The Iowa River Landing development offers an impressive lineup of restaurants and hotels. Riders can take it easy at another lake. Coralville is an Iowa City suburb, making this University of Iowa territory.
DAVENPORT: RAGBRAI concluded here in 2011, as well. This is where the ceremonial dipping of the front tire in the Mississippi began in 1973. The city has earned its own reputation for impressive outdoor endurance events through the annual Bix 7 race, combined with the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival.
RAGBRAI XLIII is planned to cover 462.2 miles with 15,948 feet of climb for riders, not counting extra loops on the second and third days. The full route, including pass-through towns and specific roads, is expected to be released in March, and route changes could alter the statistics.
The current route makes for the 19th-shortest and 13th-flattest of the 43 RAGBRAI routes. By one measure of distance and climb, though, it will be the ninth-easiest ride.
This year, RAGBRAI will introduce an optional 15-mile gravel loop, inspired by the late Steve Hed.
Hed, founder of Minnesota-based Hed Cycling, died suddenly in November. He was 59. RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz said he and Hed had an unforgettable conversation a few months earlier.
“He pitched the idea to me last year,” Juskiewicz said of adding a gravel option to RAGBRAI. “Steve said, ‘If you add a gravel loop I’ll personally put a sticker on everybody’s bike who does it.’”
Now the loop will honor Hed and add roughly 15 miles to the 68-mile ride from Storm Lake to Fort Dodge on July 20. Those who conquer the loop will receive a special trinket and visit an extra town.
Juskiewicz said the idea piggybacks on a growing trend toward gravel riding. “Gravel biking has become real popular in the Midwest, especially in Iowa with all the gravel roads,” he said.
The specific route has not yet been named or mapped.
Want to know more about the plans for this year’s ride? Chat online at RAGBRAI.com with RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz on Tuesday at noon.