“It’s not a race!” If you happen to be traveling near the RAGBRAI route in Iowa in the last week of July, there’s a chance you’ll hear or see this mantra, or others, posted or demonstrated in the behavior of the thousands of bicyclists you might cross paths with.

Once a year, Iowans roll out the hospitality mat in the form of RAGBRAI, the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. This year, thanks to some sponsorship from Organic Valley’s Wellness and Sustainability departments (who recently also sponsored Cycling for Sustainability), a team of six OV employees experienced RAGBRAI, most for the first time but with one intrepid rider who has done the tour 20+ times.

Team Organic Valley prepares to depart from our gracious host family

Team Organic Valley prepares to depart from our gracious host family

To give a little more background, this was the 44th year for RAGBRAI, which has grown from just 300 riders in 1973 to nearly 10,000 registered riders this year – from all 50 states and a dozen foreign countries (plus many more who ride the public roads without registering, “pirate riders” who hop on each day and whose counts have been estimated as high as 5,000). The ride goes from the western edge of Iowa to the eastern edge, with the tradition of dipping your bike wheels in the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which bookend the otherwise mostly latitudinal borders of Iowa. This means anywhere from 400 to 500 miles, spread over 7 days of riding.

But don’t think RAGBRAI is only for hardcore bicyclists. Besides the mix of skill and experience levels on the OV team itself (which was representative of the field, ranging from professional riders to road riders who took up the sport 3 months ago), the variety of bikes, ages (6 to 90), jerseys and even costumes on the ride was a wonder to behold.

Typical scenes in the host towns along the RAGBRAI route

Typical scenes in the host towns along the RAGBRAI route

Ragbrai Columbus

Just a sample: Besides the obvious road bikes (and slightly less comfortable triathlon bikes, as commented upon by Lance Armstrong, who did 3 days of the ride this year), some of the more unusual sightings included double-height bikes, a unicycle, a modified stair climbing machine, arm driven recumbent bicycles, and even some skateboards.

But really, RAGBRAI is a social experience. RAGBRAI involves tremendous organization and support from communities as thousands of Iowa locals welcome riders into their towns, homes, yards and farms for lodging, shelter, food and refreshments. Lifelong friendships are formed – our overnight host families were phenomenal!

Ragrai Corn Lean 2_comp

A bike lean of the Iowa variety

And like any social experience, it’s hard to quantify except to say it is a lot of fun. The OV team certainly enjoyed ourselves, but we also took every opportunity to connect with fans of our products, most of whom approached us based on Organic Valley being on our jerseys. This happened frequently, and it is a testament to working for a company where people have “organic” enthusiasm about our products.

This is not to say the ride was not without its ups and downs. For one thing, the hills may not be as steep as in the Driftless area of Wisconsin where OV calls home, but whoever said Iowa was flat has never ridden a bike there! One team member had a broken spoke on the first day, which was quite discouraging at the time. But in the next town, it was fixed within an hour by one of the roving bike shops that travel the RAGBRAI route. While we waited, we passed out Organic Valley Good to Go milk to a group of fellow riders who really loved the product, and we were back on the road.

Ragbrai Muscatine

Rolling into Muscatine, the final town on the route for the 2016 edition

All in all, RAGBRAI was certainly not a race, but rather a great experience, and we all look forward to next year, hope to grow in number (in both employee and farmer riders), and look forward to seeing any readers of Rootstock on the road next year!

Read about another Organic Valley bicycling challenge: the Cycling for Sustainability Tour!