RAGBRAI: For first-timer Alta, jitters give way to a job well done

Friday, July 30, 2021

RAGBRAI is like a wedding, says Kim Walsh, of the Alta planning committee for the massive event. “You’re nervous as heck planning it, but in the end, it’s going to be what it’s going to be, and you just have fun with it.”

For a town of 2,000 to host 15,000+ bike riders streaming through is a herculean task - especially when a town has never been on the route before - but committee members feel the event was a positive one.

“It ended up great. It was a very, very busy day. I wish we had had a clicker so we could count the people coming into town, because it was amazing to see Alta that busy,” Walsh said, the day after the RAGBRAI day-one visit on Sunday.

Some of the riders departed from LeMars in the wee hours of the morning, hoping to beat the blazing sun, and had arrived in Alta by 8:30 a.m., not even pausing on their 84-mile hard ride through to the night’s stay in Sac City. Others were far more leisurely in their approach - stopping often during the day’s journey to sample the fare and rest in the shade. By 11 a.m., the crowd in Alta had packed Main Street, as riders got off and walked their bikes through the downtown, a steady stream arriving into the afternoon. Stragglers were still riding in at 6:30 p.m., and some were around well into the night, gathering at the local bars. Others made the ride into Storm Lake for a place to stay the night removed from the congestion of the ride’s official overnight - a status COVID-worn Storm Lake had passed up.

There were as many stories as there were riders. People in superhero costumes, teams in matching gear that often were raising pledges for charities. One rider, 76-year-old Susan Marie Guenther from Des Moines, had been in over 30 of the statewide rides, with the faded participant tags from all of those past rides still attached to her handlebars. Elsewhere, two sisters - one an Iowa State grad and the other a University of Iowa alum - made the ride, paying homage to their parents who had taken part in the first RAGBRAI.

“It was so fun talking to people from all over the country - Arizona, California, Texas, finding out where they are from and how many times they had done it. The riders are just awesome. They are so at home, so comfortable with you. They were ready to eat, sit and rest,” Walsh said.

“A lot of them said its just fun to come through all the towns and see what they are doing. A number of them remarked that people say Iowa doesn’t have much, that it’s flat, but if you come and ride it once, you find the beauty in the farms and fields. Those of us who live here maybe take for granted how really pretty it is out in the country.”

The morning after the ride, she heard from one family outside of town that sat out on the porch, with all the relatives, watching the flow of riders passing by. “One rider stopped and asked if he could sit on their fence in the shade for a few minutes. They said, ‘Come on in,’ and pretty soon a whole bunch of riders were sitting there remarking about what a beautiful farm place they had.”

Not that being a RAGBRAI town is easy. “There was a lot of stress and worry - would we have enough of this or that? Quite a few of the local vendors sold out of everything. Our new pizza place operator decided to try it, and I heard he had sold out of 500 slices. The churches did great, they were packed almost all day with people getting water or ice pops. The free watermelon at Summit was a huge hit. The best sellers were probably smoothies and burritos. And the riders really enjoyed all the sprinklers that were set up for them to ride through,” Walsh said.

Next to city hall, a mural was set up with a Buffalo Ridge scene, that riders could stick their heads through for a comic photo. Many paused to sign or leave a message on the back side. Down the street, riders paused to marvel at a rumbling antique steam tractor.

Walsh came across one rider taking photos of the Porta Potties, which happened to be unexpectedly bright pink. “I just cracked up,” Walsh said.

While the committee wondered if it had enough volunteers, the workload ended up working out well. “We kept everybody busy doing things, and we heard good comments from the riders about their experience. A lot of them thanked us. It turned out to be a great day - I think everyone thought that.”

The one disappointment - no pie. Somehow, none of the vendors had signed on to sell the signature dish of RAGBRAI, which Alta will rectify if it ever lands on the route again. “I’d read that Early down the road was having pie, so hopefully the riders were able to add that to their day over there,” Walsh said.

Was it worth all the work? Walsh pauses before answering. “Yeah - yeah it was, but if you asked everyone at the end of it if they wanted to do it again, I’m not sure how many hands would have gone up. It was a long day, but everyone survived. If we ever need to do it again, now we have an inkling of what it takes.”

By Monday morning, downtown Alta was back to its tranquil self, with scarcely a sign of the vast rolling carnival of the day before. There was little to clean up, as riders were respectful of the towns they visited, the committee found.

“Oh my gosh,” Walsh said, “It looks so quiet now.”