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The Return Of RAGBRAI: Organizing A Statewide Bicycle Ride During A Pandemic

John Pemble
IPR file
Cyclists make their way across Iowa during the 2013 RAGBRAI. Thousands of cyclists have flocked every year to The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa since it started in 1973. It was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. RAGBRAI organizers have put in place many coronavirus safety precautions for this year's return. Currently, hundreds of new COVID-19 cases are confirmed in Iowa every week and vaccination demand has weakened in the state.

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Ali Campbell is excited for businesses in her small town of Iowa Falls to benefit from the thousands of cyclists from across the country who will stay overnight during RAGBRAI in 2021. Iowa Falls, which has a population of around 5,000 people, was selected as an overnight town in January 2020. That was just before the coronavirus pandemic really took hold across the country.

The 2021 route is mostly a holdover from last year and that means towns like Iowa Falls have been anticipating the event for well over a year.

“Yes, it’s hectic, yes it’s stressful,” said Campbell with a smile. “Our government agencies are spinning but it’s going to happen!”

Organizers are asking people to wear masks in crowded spaces, even with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that said vaccinated people don’t need to wear a face covering. Campbell, who is volunteer co-chair for the Iowa Falls RAGBRAI stop, said they're excited to give back to the community. The local committee has hired local food vendors, electricians and bands.

Campbell said she’s hopeful because more people are getting vaccinated and she trusts RAGBRAI’s COVID policy.

Clay Masters
Ali Campbell is volunteer co-chair of the RAGBRAI Iowa Falls stop. The town of about 5,000 people is one of the overnight towns on the 2021 RAGBRAI route. "We want to see people from other communities coming and seeing what our community has to offer," Campbell says about hosting thousands of cyclists this year for RAGBRAI.

RAGBRAI organizers say there will be many health precautions in place.

“If you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other people we’re definitely saying ‘please wear a mask’,” said RAGBRAI Director Dieter Drake. “Fortunately 99 percent of RAGBRAI is outside.”

This is Drake's first year as director of RAGBRAI. Drake, who has organized many bicycle races and rides over the last 15 years, was hired in late 2019.

"I've never seen anything like the cycling culture inside of Iowa," Drake, who lives in Colorado and has never participated in RAGBRAI, said. "[It]'s the king of all social bike rides."

Drake says there will also be online pre-event health screenings for participants and more hand sanitizing stations in the towns and along the route.

More than 14,500 cyclists have registered for RAGBRAI this year. Drake said that’s higher than past years.

These COVID-19 protocols are not enough to convince Paul Gilbert of Iowa City to do RAGBRAI this year. Gilbert did a full RAGBRAI a few years ago and has done smaller stretches of the route.

Gilbert loves the ride but he says COVID-19 is still infecting Iowans.

“It’s still being transmitted and even for folks who are vaccinated,” Gilbert said. “It’s not 100 percent protection.”

RAGBRAI is a very social event. Many people form teams and travel the route in a group year after year. Emily Swartz from Des Moines has ridden a lot of RAGBRAIs as part of Team Beaver. Some of her teammates are doing it this year but she’s opting for a bicycle ride with just her boyfriend in Wisconsin.

“I think I’d rather just wait until more people are vaccinated and things can go back to a more normal RAGBRAI,” Swartz said.

RAGBRAI organizers are not requiring participants to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Vaccination rates in Iowa are far below what’s needed to reach herd immunity and hundreds of new coronavirus infections are reported weekly.

Dr. Megan Srinivas is an infectious disease physician from Fort Dodge, which is another one of the overnight towns. Dr. Srinivas says the percentage of people vaccinated in her community remains in the mid-thirties.

“That’s really not going to confer enough protection in the community to ward off any potential spikes and transmission that can occur when people come in carrying the virus and potentially spreading it to our vendors, to our shops, to our stores,” Dr. Srinivas said.

Dr. Srinivas recommends unvaccinated cyclists participating in the ride stay away from crowded spaces completely.

RAGBRAI director Dieter Drake said he’s optimistic public health conditions will improve and it would take something out of the ordinary to pop up to call things off completely.

Clay Masters
This is Dieter Drake's second year planning RAGBRAI as its director. The 2020 event was cancelled because of the pandemic. This year, they're requiring a number of coronavirus preventative measures. "If you're shoulder-to-shoulder in any one of these towns, we're definitely saying 'please wear a mask'"

“Everybody’s got to make their own decisions based on the protocol that we set up around COVID,” Drake said. “They have to be comfortable with that before they come to RAGBRAI and that’s really a personal decision.”

Public health experts agree that getting more people vaccinated is key to a safer RAGBRAI.

“COVID is still here, it’s still real and we want to make sure that people continue to get vaccinated,” said Black Hawk County Public Health Director Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye. “In Black Hawk County we have about 54.8 percent of our community that is vaccinated. So it’s good in the sense of that it’s half of the population but we need to do better.”

RAGBRAI organizers say final COVID-19 protocols will be announced closer to the event, which kicks off on July 23. Registration closes on June 1.