Hills, hills and more hills.
RAGBRAI 2024 will have the most elevation gain in the ride’s 51 years as it makes its way across southern Iowa.
Announced Saturday during a party attended by 1,200 cycling fans at the Iowa Events Center, the route for the 51st Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa should come as no surprise to RAGBRAI veterans. Most surmised that after three straight years of starting in northwest Iowa and ending in Davenport or points north, it would veer south for a change.
The starting point will be Glenwood on Keg Creek, a Missouri River tributary, and the end will be in Burlington on the banks of the Mississippi. Overnight stops will be in Red Oak, Atlantic, Winterset, Knoxville, Ottumwa and Mount Pleasant.
Perhaps to compensate for its steepness, the route, at 424 miles, will be among the shortest on record, about 75 miles less than the 2023 edition. But ride lengths will be a mixed bag. Sunday, Monday and Saturday will each cover 45 or fewer miles, and Thursday will be 60 miles, a mere jaunt by RAGBRAI standards. But Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday will range from 74 to 82 miles, with at least 3,000 feet of climb each day.
In all, the July 21-27 journey will challenge riders’ endurance with 18,737 feet of climb.
“There’s going to be a lot of hills. I can’t stress that enough,” said RAGBRAI Ride Director Matt Phippen. But he added, “If you ride your bicycle and train, you’re going to be in a good spot.”
Registration for RAGBRAI opened in November. The full route of RAGBRAI LI ― that’s RAGBRAI 51 in the ride’s tradition of using Roman numerals ― will be announced in April, with the pass-through and meeting towns. It will be a change from previous years, when the secondary towns were announced in mid-March.
Theme days and the century loop and gravel days also will be announced in April. Vehicle pass registration will open March 15.
Phippen said he didn’t set out to create the hilliest route in RAGBRAI history. But as the route changed through the fall and winter because of road construction projects and other necessary adjustments, it got increasingly hilly, he said.
The effort to get to the tops of the hills will be rewarded with “epic views” of landscapes that have inspired artists like “American Gothic” painter Grant Wood, he pledged.
“There are so many amazing spots in Iowa we need to visit,” Phippen said. “Going south, people will complain. Because of the hills it’s going to be harder. But southern Iowa is beautiful. There are communities down there that do a fantastic job that want to host RAGBRAI and showcase their community.”
Because the route and roads the ride will travel are still being finalized, some of the projected distances and amount of climb each day will likely change before the turn-by-turn directions are complete.
RAGBRAI will be traversing the southern part of the state for the first time since 2019. With its numerous, deeply cut river and creek valleys, it’s a rugged contrast to north central and northwest Iowa, where glaciation left long, flat expanses.
The shorter days at the beginning and end of the ride should help ease the pain, Phippen said.
“I think it’s a good blend overall to check the boxes on what all riders like,” he said.
With the pass-through and meeting towns as yet unannounced, Phippen declined to say what sights people may see along the route. But the logo for this year’s RAGBRAI offers a broad hint, featuring a house resembling the home that serves as the backdrop to the stern-faced farm couple “American Gothic.” The preserved home is in Eldon not far from Ottumwa, and Phippen did not rule out going past the site.
“There’s a lot of history in the south,” he said. “”There’s a lot of very cool communities that are on route that are all there for a reason.”
The final day’s 45 miles will let riders relax as they drop into the Mississippi valley enroute to Burlington, Phippen said.
“The goal is by Day 7 when everybody is coming down from this high, having a 45-mile-day with 1,000 feet of climb helps get people in earlier so people don’t miss their buses going back to towns,” Phippen said. “It takes the stress off, knowing that there will be some times throughout the week where it’s going to be harder, but that last day will be easier.”
For last year’s 50th anniversary ride, RAGBRAI passed through five of Iowa’s 10 largest metro areas: Sioux City, Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City and the Quad Cities.
This year the largest overnight town will be Ottumwa, population 25,350. Of the others, only Burlington is similar in size. The rest are under 10,000.
“You need those big towns on the map to support the ride, but it’s all those little towns that showcase what Iowa is all about,” Phippen said.
A special stop will be Winterset, where in March 2022 an EF4 tornado with peak winds of 170 mph decimated a neighborhood about 3 miles to the southwest, killing six people, including four from one family.
Winterset’s leaders and RAGBRAI’s organizers have talked about ways to celebrate the town’s resilience. Three years ago Parkersburg used RAGBRAI to show how it bounced back from an even more catastrophic May 2008 storm.
“With anything that RAGBRAI does when you partner with these communities it truly shows how strong communities are,” Phippen said.