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Sightseeing by bicycle

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RAGBRAI riders in Iowa.

© Beth Gauper

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.

© League Michigan Cyclists

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.''

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.

A map of riders on RAGBRAI.

© Beth Gauper

RAGBRAI riders mark their hometowns on a map.

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 of the great deals of vacation travel.

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.

A dad and his daughters on an Illinois bike tour.

© Larry Varney

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.''

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 in 2020

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

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

June 7-12, Grand Illinois Bike Tour. This year's loop is in west-central Illinois in Madison County, near St. Louis. It starts from Litchfield, with overnights in Lebanon, Edwardsville, Godfrey and Alton.

Cyclists can ride 200 to 375 miles. Ridership is limited to 225; reserve a place as early as possible.

June 20-26, PALM, Pedal Across Lower Michigan tour. This family-oriented tour starts on Lake Michigan and heads east.

In 2020, it's a central route, from Whitehall to Harbor Beach on Lake Huron, on Michigan's "thumb."

July 13-18, Michigander. The Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance sponsors this ride with two- or six-day options through northern Michigan peninsulas and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

It starts and ends in Traverse City, with overnights in Frankfort, Glen Arbor and Thompsonville.

July 11-18, MUP, Michigan's Upper Peninsula Tour. The League of Michigan Bicyclists sponsors this 261- to 361-mile loop tour of the eastern U.P. From Marquette, cyclists head to Big Bay on a day trip, then Munising, Grand Marais on a day trip, Manistique and Eben Junction, with a rest day in Munising for sightseeing.

Riders are limited to 170; reserve a place early.

July 12-18, Habitat 500 in Minnesota. This 500-mile tour benefits Habitat for Humanity and is limited to 135 riders, who must raise at least $1,000. There are one- , three- and six-day options, with a minimum of $500 raised.

In 2020, the route is in northwest Minnesota, around Bemidji.

Costumed riders on RAGBRAI.

© Beth Gauper

Many teams on RAGBRAI wear costumes.

July 12-18, Iowa's Ride. This inaugural 416-mile ride, started by the former organizers of RAGBRAI, starts at the Mississippi River and ends near the Missouri at Rock Rapids.

The starting point is Dubuque, with overnights in Monticello, Vinton, Eldora, Clarion, Emmetsburg and Sheldon.

July 19-25, RAGBRAI, The Register's Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This popular ride crosses Iowa, starting at the Missouri River and ending at the Mississippi, is in its 48th year. 

This year, the 420-mile route will start in Le Mars and end in Clinton, with overnight stops in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Iowa Falls, Waterloo, Anamosa and Maquoketa.

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.

Want to know what it's like? Here's a New York Times video of the tour.

July 26-31, Bike MS: Ride Across Minnesota. This well-organized, family-friendly tour, formerly known as TRAM, benefits the Minnesota chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society. It was started in 1990.

This year's ride starts and ends in Rochester, with overnights in Preston, Austin and Pine Island. There's also a three-day option.

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.

Michigander bike tour.

© Kirt Livernois

The Michigander bike tour uses trails along lakes Michigan and Huron.

Aug. 1-8, Shoreline West Bicycle Tour in west Michigan. This ride, sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, celebrates its 34rd year with 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.

Aug. 13-16, BAM, Bicycling Around Minnesota. Riders pedal 65 to 75 miles per day. All meals are provided. 

It's limited to 275 riders, and spaces go fast. 

Bike tours offered by for-profit companies

These tours still can be inexpensive if you camp and reserve early.

The Bicycle Tour Network lists many tours around the nation.

Last updated on January 26, 2020