RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is a week-long bicycle ride across the state of Iowa. Riders of all ages and skill levels come together to pedal the country roads over hills, through cornfields, in the hot sun, in late July, with little-to-no shade and riding in rain, if necessary, for fun, competition and bragging rights.
Five members of the Donner Party, who live in Chattanooga, will be embarking on their next RAGBRAI adventure. RAGBRAI is mostly accomplished by cycling and tent camping along the route.
This year’s ride will be 59.9 miles with 2,825 feet of climbing, the fourth shortest ride in history, officials said. Today there are more than 15,000 people registered for RAGBRAI.
Joe Nivert, aka “Jittery Joe”, 73, is a retired engineer, who worked for Firestone and traveled the world, took up bike riding when he lived in Connecticut.
“I consider myself a RAGBRAI junkie. I’ve done this 14 times, my first in 2001,” said Mr. Nivert.
He has ridden more than 7,000 miles in Iowa and completed 16 century rides (100 miles each). He plans to do three more years of RAGBRAI, “through my 75th year, God willing. That will be RAGBRAI 50.”
Bob Haag, 77, aka “RAGBRAI Bob”, will be riding his 30th RAGBRAI this year. He began riding in 1988 when he was an accountant in his mid 40’s, for exercise. After riding for three years, he lost more than 40 pounds and was taken off blood pressure medicine, which he had been on for 30 years.
“I began riding seriously with my neighbor, Dr. Don Shields, (now 82), a veterinarian. Don was my inspiration for getting into longer and faster rides. I often tell Don that he may not have saved my life, but he certainly added many years to my life,” said Mr. Haag.
Dr. Don introduced Mr. Haag to Rich Bradley (now 78) and the three of them have been riding together since 1990. Mr. Haag rode his first RAGBRAI in 1990, (RAGBRAI #18). Mr. Haag relocated to Chattanooga in 2004, but is reunited with his friends every year at their annual cycling adventure.
Robert Powderly, 72, retired accountant, has finished five RAGBRAIs, his first being in 1993, and the other three rides the last three years.
“My favorite part of the ride is the party atmosphere and the men and women I meet along the way and ride with. We see each other every year here,” said Mr. Powderly. “I wouldn’t do it without my Donner Party group. The Air Force always has a contingency there and their sole purpose is to stop and offer aid to riders along the way, if they need a tire fixed or have a broken chain.”
Jon Bell, 54, if from Chattanooga. His first ride was in 2010, thanks to Joe Nivert. He was registered and ready to go in 2009, but he broke his right leg one month prior. In April 2018, Mr. Bell broke his left leg three months out and had to have surgery. He barely started walking just days prior to RAGBRAI. He’s hoping to attend and complete his 10th year on RAGBRAI, dipping his tire in the Mississippi River at the end, as is tradition.
Mr. Bell suffered a stroke about 13 years ago and bike riding has been his saving grace.
“I was introduced to RAGBRAI by Joe, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here. I started riding after my stroke about 12 years ago,” said Mr. Bell. “There are so many different people; some are hyper competitive, some in shorts working away on huffy bike or others riding on tandems. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
This will be Loretta Lynn Leda’s fourth RAGBRAI. “The people along the way are awesome. All the towns come out to celebrate, you feel like a cyclist on the Tour de France when riding through. It’s fun to meet people from all over the country and from other countries, as well as hear their stories. There are many teams who ride together and have fun,” says Ms. Leda. “It’s also very challenging due to the terrain. You wouldn’t think Iowa is hilly, but it is. It’s inspiring seeing kids ride and parents and people riding in honor or in memory of someone with either cancer or Alzheimer’s. This year I will be riding in memory of my mom, who passed away to cancer 13 years ago, and I remember riding with her when I was a kid.”
Mr. Nivert, Mr. Bell and Ms. Leda ride RAGBRAI on recumbent bikes, which can be more challenging going up hills. You can find all types of bikes while on RAGBRAI, from unicycles, to uprights, gravel bikes and others, officials said.
"RAGBRAI started in 1973 when the Des Moines Register feature writer/copy editor John Karris, an avid cyclist and Don Kaul, author of the Des Moines Register’s “Over the Coffee” column, suggested to Kaul that he ride his bicycle across the state of Iowa and write columns about it," officials said. "An estimated 300 people showed up for the start of the ride in Sioux City. 114 riders made the entire distance the first year. It’s the largest and oldest state bike ride in the country.
"Along came the Donner party, 17-plus years ago. Founder Steve Urie, having a house on Donner Lake, Ca., came up with the team (party) name and the design for our team apparel. The Donner Party is very popular on RAGBRAI, everyone recognizes them and wants an orange jersey. These are earned. Coveted almost.
"Donner Party members come back year after year to participate in RAGBRAI because of their special bond, the friendships continue throughout the year, the food and of course, the rolling party. There are currently close to 40 Donner Party members countrywide."
“Every cyclist should experience RAGBRAI at least once in their life…it’s like no other ride…it’s the best,” says Mr. Nivert. "Riders get up before the sun, pack up their gear, put it on a truck and pedal out to find breakfast and conquer the quest."