For cyclers across the country and even the world, there’s one event that stands apart: RAGBRAI, or the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
For over 40 years, the multi-day bike ride across the state has drawn cyclers serious and recreational from all over the country. Today it’s the longest, largest and oldest recreational bike touring event in the world. 70% of participants come in from out of state, and it’s a hugely profitable week for local bike retailers, bike manufacturers and all of Iowa. But it’s not an event that relies solely on tradition; it’s constantly growing and evolving to appeal to riders new and old and to remain perpetually relevant and interesting in modern cycling culture.
“One of the big things is to constantly keep the event fresh and stay with current trends, while not losing the focus and tradition of the iconic event,” says RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz. Juskiewicz was picked to take RAGBRAI into the future because of his extensive experience in heading biking events; he began during grad school, directing the Sunshine State Games, then helped launch Bike Florida in the late ‘90s (an event that was actually modeled after RAGBRAI). His work with Bike Florida helped make it one of the best known bike tours in the country.
Juskiewicz has been at the forefront of dozens of rides as both director and participant, but for him—and most cyclists—RAGBRAI is special. “I have been to many bike events throughout the country and none come close to the absolute crush of bikes, mostly road bikes, that we see every day on RAGBRAI.”
Even decades in, RAGBRAI continues to grow every year. “The event has grown for sure with at least 20,000 riders on the event each day and has seen peaks of close to 40,000 actual riders on premiere days near major metros of Iowa,” he says. “RAGBRAI is the largest participation bicycle event in the country.”
Juskiewicz’s main task, as he mentioned before, is keeping RAGBRAI exciting and relevant in order to bring back riders every year and to draw in new ones, too. “We change the route each and every year so we always have new towns to visit.,” he says. It’s the singularity of each year’s event that makes it worth attending again and again, in both the route and the auxiliary events. “The entertainment has been drastically bumped up to make it a music festival feel each day and evening. From local bands to national bands, RAGBRAI has seen such bands as Counting Crows, STYX, Huey Lewis & the News, Rick Springfield and Cheap Trick headline free evening shows for riders, that no other bike tours in the country are doing.”
It’s an event that’s accessible, not only because it welcomes riders of all levels, but because it’s simple and affordable. Entry fees are low (only about $20 a day, including camping), and meals are served by churches and VFWs as fundraisers (meaning what you spend goes directly back into the community). “Even our event jerseys are just $55, making the RAGBRAI jersey the number one event jersey in the world!” says Juskiewicz. It’s appealing for cyclers of all levels.
RAGBRAI also intentionally builds anticipation throughout the year to keep cyclists engaged. With a big winter expo, a route announcement party and even a route guessing competition, RAGBRAI keeps us interested throughout the year.
As RAGBRAI approaches, retailers local and even national begin to feel the positive impacts of the ride. “We see the direct impact of RAGBRAI on local businesses and shops,” says Juskiewicz. “Approximately 95% of the participants have made bicycle-related purchases as they prepare for the event. Every Iowa bike shop and many Midwest shops will feel the RAGBRAI-bump as summer nears with the excitement RAGBRAI brings.”
Because 70% of riders come from out of state, retailers across America feel the benefits of the ride. But of course it’s the local shops who feel the love the most. “We have 10 Iowa local bike shops that work the event preparing and maintaining bikes along the way as well as selling cycling gifts and accessories along the route,” he explains. “They have the chore of maintaining 20,000-40,000 bikes that week. One shop claimed that RAGBRAI and a few other smaller events produced 30% of his revenues for his shop and 40% of his profits.”
Talk about increasing market share! RAGBRAI proves on the largest scale possible that getting more folks outside benefits everyone, regardless of competition. Even manufacturers feel the boost. “We also involved several bike manufacturers with our traveling bike expo as this gives participants an opportunity to demo bikes at RAGBRAI,” says Juskiewicz. “Companies such as TREK, Specialized, Giant, Jamis and Bianchi have been onsite to demo bikes in recent years.”
RAGBRAI’s economic impact reaches beyond our specialized industry and into the very structure of the state. It’s the largest tourism event in Iowa, making Iowa the only state whose top tourism event is tied to cycling. “RAGBRAI also has a massive economic impact of the communities that host the event as well as the entire state,” he explains. “A study by the University of North Iowa tourism department conducted in 2008 showed that RAGBRAI drops approximately $25 million in direct spending for the week. It has an effect on hotels, department and convenience stores, restaurants, pubs and a host of other businesses.”
The longterm effects of RAGBRAI aren’t just financial. The event has inspired the growth and success of Iowa’s trail system, which is tremendous for such a small, rural state. That means that year-round, RAGBRAI has a hand in getting new folks outside and on the trail, which in turn grows the local outdoor industry and culture. “RAGBRAI is a huge part of the cultural of biking in the Midwest.”
“The main reason that RAGBRAI continues as the largest bicycle event in the country is the simple reason that we made it fun to ride your bike,” Juskiewicz notes. “Yes, it can be challenging during the ride, but there is as much fun off the bike as there is on. For 45 years this formula has worked.”
That’s what creating market share is all about. If you remind your customers how much fun it is to be outside, your business and our industry grows. Whether that means a massive ride or an afternoon jaunt, reconnecting with your community isn’t just fun, it’s profitable.