RAGBRAI for Beginners: Tips for Your First Ride

RAGBRAI for Beginners: Tips for Your First Ride

2021 was our first time at RAGBRAI. We did lots of research online to find out details about the event. Things like:

  • What’s the deal with registration? Do you have to even register?
  • Where do you camp?
  • What’s the general vibe of the event?

We did not find much on the internet for tips for first time RAGBRAI participants. So here you go. We’ll share what we learned from our first time at RAGBRAI.

First of all, we did RAGBRAI in the summer of COVID. That meant that things were a little different than they had been in the past. According to experienced RAGBRAI riders, 2020 was very poorly attended and the parties were not as awesome. That makes sense considering we were in the middle of this whole ‘social distancing’ thing. Other than that difference, all the other observations should be the same.

Do I need to register for RAGBRAI?

It depends on who you ask. Technically, you can follow along with the entire RAGBRAI ride and not have any registration at all. Here are a few considerations regarding registering for RAGBRAI:

  1. The event itself costs quite a bit of money and heaps of time to organize. They need to set up expos, close off roads, coordinate with local municipalities and clean up after the event. From an ethical perspective, it certainly feels good to support the RAGBRAI team in their efforts to make this event a success. 
  2. Registration in RAGBRAI gives you access to the official SAG wagon. This is a vehicle that follows along with the ride and can give you a lift if you get hurt or very fatigued. 
  3. If you are completely self-supported, then maybe you’re totally fine to tag along with the ride. By participating at the overnight towns and the stop-over towns, you are doing your part to contribute to the local economies of the towns that are gracious enough to host a gaggle of smelly bike riders. That feels good.
  4. There is no formal ‘RAGBRAI police’ that are going around ensuring that everyone is a registered participant. So it’s not really a matter of ‘getting busted’. It’s more a matter of your ethical decisions in regards to supporting a good cause.
RAGBRAI riders enjoying a beer

Where can I camp during the RAGBRAI ride?

This was an elusive topic for us when we were doing our research prior to going. We have a van that we built out to be a camper, so we are very self-contained. We just needed a good place to park and we wanted to hang out with some other riders.

  1. There are designated camping areas in every overnight town. They are generally schools or some other kind of public space. Some private charter groups will have their own camping spots that they arranged prior to the ride.
  2. We found it very easy to find a place to camp out. In addition, we were adopted the first night by a super fun group that did RAGBRAI every year. 
  3. It’s nice to be able to contribute to a camp if you can. For us, we were able to offer unlimited showers from our outdoor solar shower that we have bolted to the side of the van. It’s really easy to make friends when you can offer up a shower to some dirty bikers 😜.
  4. The campsites have water from hoses available for free and showers are available for a fee between $5-$10. The lines for these showers can get quite long, so get in early if you can. Bring cash.
  5. Like with all camping situations, you want to ensure you leave your area clean before departing the next morning.
  6. If you are a light sleeper, bring along some ear plugs because people might come home a bite late from town.
RAGBRAI camping options

Should I do RAGBRAI supported or unsupported?

You can do either. Some riders love the independence of packing their tents, clothes and other stuff with them. Other riders prefer to have a lighter bike when doing the ride. When doing a supported ride, you’ll usually get a bin of some kind that you can fill with your gear. Upon arrival at the camping site, you grab your bin out and set up your camp. The supported options will certainly give you a turn-key ‘bike gang’ to hang out with at the end of every ride day. It’s pretty easy to do a Google search for RAGBRAI groups. Facebook groups can also help find a team. That being said, it’s pretty easy to just walk up to any camp and get adopted.

RAGBRAI camp bus

What is the general vibe of RAGBRAI?

  1. One of the first things you will notice is that people will correct you when you call RAGBRAI a ‘race’. It is not a ‘race’.... it is a ‘ride’. This means that people are focused on enjoying themselves rather than trying to beat some kind of time or beating other people.
  2. Bike races will offer things like sports drinks and granola bars. At RAGBRAI, the fuel for your ride will often come from a local IPA and a tasty pork chop. It’s one of the few long distance bike rides that will result in a net weight gain. That being said, it’s a culture focused on collaboration and fun rather than competition. You’ll see far more tutu’s than speedy race bikes at RAGBRAI.
  3. Fun is the name of the game at RAGBRAI. You’ll find that random strangers will hand you a can of beer as you walk around for absolutely no reason. It’s a very special thing.

What should I wear at RAGBRAI?

  1. RAGBRAI takes place at the peak of the summer heat in Iowa. This means you can expect high temperatures and high humidity. You will likely end the day soaked in sweat.
  2. Be sure to bring along enough bike shorts/tops for at least 3-4 days. The year we did the ride, the folks from Tide were offering free laundry services for the riders so they can clean their stinky bike clothes. Besides that, don’t expect many opportunities to clean the clothes you came with.
  3. If you are the kind of person who enjoys dressing up, plan to bring any kind of Flair that you’d like. Costumes are encouraged. The weirder, the better. With costumes, be sure to consider temperature. That hot dog outfit might look cool, but if it’s a full body suit, you will be sweating yourself silly all day.
  4. Bring a pair of socks for every day and some extras. Happy feet make for happy days.
  5. If you are going to use clip in bike shoes, be sure to bring along some normal street shoes for the overnight towns along the RAGBRAI route. You’ll feel a bit more human…. at least for a few hours.
  6. Be sure to set up your tent and maybe spend a night in it. Day one of RAGBRAI is not the time to learn to set up your tent.

Do I need to train for RAGBRAI?

The most important part of training for RAGBRAI is to do lots of riding. 

  1. Get out there in a wide range of conditions. Do some rides on super hot days and super windy days. You can’t control the weather the week of RAGBRAI. It’s rain or shine.
  2. Be sure that your bike seat will be comfortable for days of riding. You really need to harden up that tush for a multi-day ride like RAGBRAI. 
  3. If you find that your body is sore or if you lose feeling in your limbs after long rides, go to a professional bike fitter. You may need to change the height of your seat or install a handlebar tube extender. 
RAGBRAI costumes

Can I bring an e-bike on RAGBRAI?

Yes, you can. For some folks, an e-bike can allow them to do the ride despite health challenges. Here are some things to consider if you do decide to bring an e-bike on the RAGBRAI ride:

  1. RAGBRAI does not promise to have a place to charge your e-bike at the overnight towns. If you don’t have a charged battery for the next day, then you’ll just be hauling along a heavy bike.
  2. If you really need that additional push for the entire day, you might want to consider bringing more than one battery with you for the day. This will allow you to swap out when you’ve used the first battery.
  3. Be respectful. Nothing is more annoying for a rider huffing up a long hill when you get passed by an e-bike going twice the speed laughing all the way. For most riders of RAGBRAI, the purpose of an e-bike is to ensure you can go the same pace as the other riders, not pass them at the speed of sound. Be nice and try not to build e-bike resentment.

What lingo will I need to know for RAGBRAI?

Remember that you are on the road with thousands of other riders. At times, you can find yourself in some tight quarters with riders who cannot read your mind. Don’t make other people guess your movements. Verbalize your movements in a loud, but polite manner. Be sure to keep right unless passing. It’s just like when you’re driving. Passing lane should be used for passing only.

  1. Passing: ‘On your left’ or ‘On your right’ is considered courteous when passing other riders.
  2. Stopping: ‘Stopping’ or ‘Braking’ gives people the heads up they need to avoid a collision.
  3. Cars: ‘Car up’ or ‘Car back’ helps other riders know to keep an eye out for cars coming from behind or in front of them.
  4. Other: Feel free to shout a heads up for any obstacles that may be ahead. This can include bumps, down riders, gravel, etc.

People leave at various times each morning. There is always a mid-day stop-over town to sync up with your crew and grab some lunch. Along the way, you will also find stops to enjoy food, drink and merchandise from vendors. Stop where you want. All stops are an opportunity for a party. At some point in the day, the State Police will move riders along to ensure everyone gets to the overnight town before dark and they can open the roads back up to normal traffic. The earlier in the day you leave the overnight town, the more time you will have to enjoy the stops along the way. The other advantage of an early departure is cooler riding conditions. It gets pretty darn hot by early afternoon, so it’s nice to be settled under a tree at your camp by then.

RAGBRAI ride stop

The most important part of RAGBRAI is to HAVE FUN. It is a fun ride and not a race. People look forward to this event all year long. You will meet many people who have done this ride for decades. Show up with an open mind and an open heart. This is not the week to start a diet. Try that pasta dinner. Have a tasty pint. Enjoy yourself. You just might find that you have a new family.