Sightseeing by bicycle

Join a rolling tour, and you'll see the best of the Upper Midwest.

RAGBRAI riders in Iowa.
In Iowa, RAGBRAI draws so many riders that its route is closed to cars.

There's nothing like traveling the countryside on a bicycle.

From a bike seat, you hear the murmur of wind through field and forest, and you actually notice the sky and its clouds, as mesmerizing as a lava lamp.

You can ride on your own, but it's more fun to join one of the many cross-state rides organized by bicycle clubs and charities.

For six years, I rode on the MS Society's Ride Across Minnesota, a rolling oasis of harmony and good will.

On the same week in July, the Des Moines Register holds its Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. Started by two columnists in 1973, it's now the granddaddy of cross-state rides and attracts up to 20,000 people from every state and many countries.

I grew up bicycling in Iowa and rode my first century when I was 16, so people always were amazed I'd never ridden Iowa's big tour. I wasn't wild about the idea — I suspected tranquil TRAM had spoiled me for rowdy RAGBRAI — but finally I did it.

Both rides give city dwellers a rare window into rural and small-town life. But they're different, all right.

RAGBRAI is so big — 8,500 weeklong riders and 1,500 daily riders, plus unknown numbers of unofficial hangers-on — that it's bigger than most of the towns it goes through. People spill out of the motels and campgrounds and into private homes and front lawns.

Highways are closed to cars, but they're still so clogged that riders have to carefully watch the wheels around them. The year I rode, an Iowa man was killed when he clipped the tire of a bicycle ahead of him and was thrown off his bike.

There's transport for gear, and the last town usually offers a shuttle back to the starting point.

But there's such a crush of people that most people form teams and organize their own gear transport and shuttle. Converted school buses follow the riders, many emblazoned with rude names: Team Angry Bitch, Boozehounds, Baboon Butts.

Bike campground at the Soo Locks.
Riders on MUP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula Tour, camp in Sault Ste. Marie, near the International Bridge.

Yes, drinking is a big part of RAGBRAI. My friends and I stayed one night at a relative's house, one night on the lawn of a nursing home and one night next to a church, so we were insulated from late-night parties.

But one morning at a pop-up espresso shop along the route, I ran into Twin Cities friend Fran Howley, who had camped at a private home and was beyond grumpy.

"I went to bed at 9, but I didn't get to sleep until 2:30, when all the drunk and profane people stopped drifting by," she said. "This will be a one-time experience for me."

But at the same coffee stop, I met Rob Svendsen, a triathlon coach from Chicago. Like so many people, he was enchanted by the hugely enthusiastic welcome riders get from small towns along the route.

"Iowa is just special," he said. "It's kind of like the movie 'Waiting for Guffman,' where all these people are planning months in advance for just one half day."

These Iowa cornfields pull in people from all over the world. One small town asked riders to mark their hometowns on a map of the world, and by 9:30 a.m. it showed riders from Ireland, France, Finland, Thailand, Germany, Italy, Australia and Hong Kong.

For me, three nights on RAGBRAI was enough. But of my group of eight from the Twin Cities, I was the only drop-out.

My friend John Lauber of Minneapolis, who also grew up in Iowa, likes to ride a partial RAGBRAI.

"I do think seven days of RAGBRAI is too much; it's a horde, and you feel like you've joined the Crusades," he said. "But I just love the small towns, because they rise to the occasion. And I like the countryside."

A map of riders on RAGBRAI.
RAGBRAI riders mark their hometowns on a map.

All the rides have one thing in common: For a week or so, people get to occupy a parallel universe.

Its couture is smart-alecky T-shirts and helmets topped by traffic cones, loons, Viking horns and raccoon tails. Its cuisine is barbecued pork, sweet corn and root-beer floats.

Its citizens are unfailingly friendly and their language a cheerful Bizarro dialect in which "headwinds" become "air-conditioning." Its terrain is storybook farmsteads and peaceful hamlets.

For many folks, that's a real vacation.

Choosing a ride

For anyone who's reasonably fit, bike tours are the best possible way to see the countryside, and they're also one of the great deals of vacation travel.

A dad and his daughters on an Illinois bike tour.
On GITAP, the Grand Illinois Trail and Parks ride, this family wore T-shirts that read, "1 Dad, 2 Daughters, 3 Bikes, 7 Days . . . Priceless."

On rides that benefit good causes, you're almost guaranteed that fellow riders will be people worth knowing.

At most, the sponsors do everything for participants except pedal and set up tents.

To get the lowest rates, sign up early; most tours increase fees as the tour approaches. Some tours limit riders and sell out.

Fees include a camping space, hot showers, snacks, gear shuttle and on-road support. Some rides offer a meal plan. Usually, children's fees are discounted.

Registration fees increase as the ride gets closer; sign up early to save.

Here are some of the best non-profit bicycle tours.

For one-day and weekend trips, see Tours on two wheels.

For more, see Bicycling in Minnesota, Bicycling in Wisconsin and other Bicycling stories.

Mid-June, PALM, Pedal Across Lower Michigan tour. This family-oriented tour starts on Lake Michigan and heads east. Its route varies every year.

Mid-June, Tour of Minnesota. This tour travels on paved bike trails as well as country roads, with a different route every year.

On most days, there are shorter options. There are also one- or two-day sampler options.

Mid-July, MUP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula Tour. The League of Michigan Bicyclists sponsors this 345-mile loop tour of the eastern U.P. From Manistique, cyclists head to Munising, Marquette and Chatham, then back.

Riders are limited to 250; reserve a place early.

Costumed riders on RAGBRAI.
Many teams on RAGBRAI wear costumes.

Late July, Bike MS: Ride Across Minnesota. This well-organized, family-friendly five-day ride, formerly known as TRAM, benefits the Minnesota chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was started in 1990.

It takes a different route every year.

Riders must raise at least $300. Riders are treated to bountiful food at official rest stops, about every 10 miles, and can buy food from various civic groups at the evening stop, usually a city park or fairground. There's also evening entertainment.

Late July, RAGBRAI, The Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Started in 1973, this popular ride crosses Iowa, beginning at the Missouri River and ending at the Mississippi.

Each year, it takes a different route of about 500 miles.

Passes for the 8,500 weeklong riders are chosen by lottery; deadline is Feb. 15 for paper entries and April 1 for on-line entries. Results are posted May 1.

There aren't any official rest stops, but towns along the route offer entertainment, games and food, and vendors offer food all along the route. Many citizens and businesses offer free camping or lodgings to riders.

Early August, Shoreline West Bicycle Tour in west Michigan. This ride, sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, is a  coastline ride from Montague to Mackinaw City, with overnights in Ludington, Frankfort, Traverse City, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs.

Riders can take the 386-mile, seven-day route to Mackinaw City, which includes a 41-mile day riding in Old Mission Peninsula, or the 159-mile, three-day route from Traverse City to Mackinac City. Riders are limited to 500.

Last updated on February 3, 2022

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