Wheels of fortune…and logistics

In July, something like 20,000 people will traverse the state of Iowa, from west to east, stopping in towns along the way, seeing communities they maybe never heard of. Eating at mom-and-pop diners, camping in parks, and probably consuming more than a few adult beverages. 

Then they’ll get up the next morning and head to the next stop. They’ll do this for a week. On bicycles. 

And they’re all heading here. To Burlington. 

The event is the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, now in its 51st year of existence. Burlington is the final stop on this year’s ride, which takes a different route every year. And while this year’s ride is eight spots away from the shortest in RAGBRAI history, it is the hilliest ever. 

There are going to be some worn out riders rolling into town. And we’re going to roll out the welcome mat. Right down to the river.

“Dip it. Dip it good” is the theme for this year’s dip site. If you don’t get the reference, you’re clearly not a child of the 80’s. I fully expect volunteers to dress accordingly on dip day.

With Iowa being sandwiched between two rivers, RAGBRAI routes always start at one and end at the other, with riders dipping tires at both ends. You can’t go any farther than that and still be in the state, so it’s fitting. And it makes for something to celebrate at the end of a long week of riding. 

Dip it good, indeed.

Personally, I won’t be riding in the event. I’m no long-distance cyclist and I have too much going on to take a week off to ride a bicycle across the state. Frankly, even if I didn’t have anything going on, I’m not sure I would feel compelled to do such a thing. But there are plenty who are. RAGBRAI sees riders from all 50 states and many countries around the world. At 20,000-ish riders, it is the largest ride of its kind on the planet. 

Right here in Iowa. Who knew? 

But I’ll still be involved in the event, at least here locally. Mostly because I can’t say no when community champions I respect ask me (repeatedly) to serve on an executive planning committee for an event that will add 50 percent to our county’s population for a day in the summer. 

But, as per usual, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew I wanted to help show 20,000 people that our not-so-little community on this no-so-little river deserves not-so-little attention. Because I’ve gone to events in many places and the host communities that seem to have their “stuff” together always make me want to go back for another visit. Heck, I’d have considered relocating to a few of them were I not so hopelessly enamored with (and involved in) my own hometown and county. 

And show them we will. Those riders are going to roll out of here thinking, “dang, I gotta come back to this place.” 

But good lord, is it going to be some work. 

I wasn’t really involved in any planning committees when RAGBRAI rolled through town back in 2019. I helped direct traffic at Dankwardt Park which served as a camping location since we were an overnight town on that route. Thus, I had a very narrow picture of what all has to take place to make such an event successful. 

But now I do. And wow, it’s a lot. 

The sheer magnitude of the logistics involved in moving 20,000 bicyclists across the state safely, providing places to sleep, shower, socialize (though not at the same time), use restrooms, and all the other things involved in managing a nomadic group that size is mind boggling. 

And the money. Oh my, the money. The economic impact of this event is enormous. In fact, the organizers plan it that way. In the spirit of reciprocity the likes I have never seen, RAGBRAI gives money to towns along the route, raises money through a community fund to give even more out after the event, and encourages (I originally wrote “mandates” there, but that’s not quite accurate) riders to spend money wherever they stop. And spend they do, happily. 

Now, I should caveat here that as the end town, we won’t see nearly as much impact as the overnight towns. Justifiably, most riders are going to be keen to get home and sleep in their own bed after riding southern Iowa’s hills for a week. But anytime you roll 20,000 people into a community, there’s going to be an economic impact. 

There are also going to be some inconveniences for us locals. River rats, Burlington’s north boat ramp will be closed July 27th. Certain roads will be choked with riders. I don’t know which ones yet. They’ll announce the official route next month. Parking downtown will be a pain that day. 

We’ll survive. 

Yes, some people will take to social media and gripe and moan about how inconvenienced they are that for one day we get to show the world (literally) what a great community this is. Meanwhile, the hundreds of us (again, literally) that worked behind the scenes from now until then will stand there with open arms (and cash registers) welcoming riders from near and far to our great community.

I hope you’ll join me in that effort. 

This piece is from my regular newspaper column that runs monthly in three local papers.