Bicycling enthusiasts know the Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) and the Denver Post Ride the Rockies as two iconic cross-state bicycle tours with a combined history of 65 years.
RAGBRAI is the easy one that rolls across the flatness of Iowa. Ride the Rockies is the challenging one that summits mountain passes nearly every day.
Those myths don't exactly bear up to the facts, however.
In terms of elevation gain — which should really be the yardstick for comparing a flat ride and a mountainous ride — there's not much difference between the two.
In fact, bicycle riders on 2011 RAGBRAI face more climbing in each of their first two days this year than the Ride the Rockies cyclists will face on any day of their six-day ride over six mountain passes.
This might not be surprising to bicyclists who regularly ride RAGBRAI, but it was kind of shocking to me.
The total elevation gain for the 2011 Ride the Rockies bike route announced on Sunday is 21,604 feet. I was amazed by that total, until I went back to check the RAGBRAI route and discovered that cyclists in “flat” Iowa would climb 21,206 feet.
Rolling hills vs. mountain passes
OK, the RAGBRAI cyclists accomplish that in 7 days and the Ride the Rockies cyclists do it in 6 days.
But looking at the day-to-day elevation gain, RAGBRAI cyclists climb 4,946 feet the first day and 4,798 feet the second day. Each day is about 65 miles.
The most elevation gain in one day for Ride the Rockies cyclists this year is 4,314 feet; that's the day they ride 76 miles over Cottonwood Pass at 12,126-foot elevation.
It was news to me that RAGBRAI rivaled Ride the Rockies in difficulty, so I hunted around the Internet until I found the expert on RAGBRAI trivia. That's Rich Ketcham, a software consultant who has been crunching all the RAGBRAI numbers and has them all online at GeoBike.com.
He confirmed my discovery.
“I have to admit that I, too, was a bit surprised at the amount of climb we do on some of the RAGBRAI rides. It is real! By my count, 12 of the RAGBRAIs have exceeded 22,000 feet of climb. The record was RAGBRAI IX which had over 26,000 feet of climb.”
Rich rode in a couple of Ride the Rockies bike tours as well, so he can compare the two bike tours.
“As a point of reference, a typical RTR day experiences most of its climb doing a single pass. A rider is subjected to a long, sustained climb that can exceed 5000 feet. On the plus side, the payback is the long decent that follows.
“I remember going from Gunnison to Salida via Monarch Pass where we had ~8 miles of sustained climb followed by ~23 miles of downhill.
“Switching to RAGBRAI, most people think that Iowa is flat. Although there are plenty of areas where this is true, Iowa also has plenty of areas that are extremely hilly. This is a result of a vast number of watersheds that exist, which ultimately feed into the Missouri and Mississippi river basins. These hills are most noticeable in W, SW, and S Iowa.
“These don’t present long sustained climbs, but rather a series of climbs and descents. It’s not unusual to experience climbs of 100+ feet followed by similar decents, for 20 to 30 miles or more. …”
Ugh. Rollers. Those can be brutal. Rich went on about how cycling techniques differ on Ride the Rockies compared to RAGBRAI.
“When shooting a pass on RTR, the name of the game is to find the gear that sets a torque load that you can sustain for the duration of the climb (gut it out). A technically proficient rider on RAGBRAI will be challenged by the number of gear changes they will be subjected to and the rate at which they occur. A rider from Colorado who did the afore mentioned RAGBRAI day complained that he couldn’t find a gear to stay in. He was trying to maintain a constant cadence and lost count after shifting over 100 times.”
Further, Rich points out that the high humidity can take its toll on RAGBRAI riders, whose clothing becomes drenched with sweat. The dry Rocky Mountain air evaporates the sweat on Ride the Rockies cyclists, keeping them cool.
Of course, it can be difficult to get enough oxygen while nearing the summit of those high-altitude passes. Rich also remembers cycling over Lizard Head Pass and hitting snow and freezing rain on the way down. He flagged the SAG wagon. He concludes:
“It is safe to say that each ride has its own unique conditions and demands. Riders need to understand these, train accordingly, and come to the ride prepared.”
Ride the Rockies rolls out June 11-17 and is followed by RAGBRAI on July 24-30 this year.
I'd say that we've busted the myth that RAGBRAI is an easy bike tour. It rivals, and in some years surpasses, the difficulty of Ride the Rockies.
So if this year's RAGBRAI cyclists are exhausted after their first two days, they can be assured that it's not necessarily because they're out shape. They can rest with the knowledge that they've climbed the equivalent of a couple of Colorado mountain passes.
Here's a day-to-day comparison of the two rides:
Ride the Rockies
Day 1: 76 miles; 4,314 feet
Day 2: 76 miles; 3,416 feet
Day 3: 80 miles; 3,776 feet
Day 4: 52 miles; 2,122 feet
Day 5: 78 miles; 4,063 feet
Day 6: 50 miles; 3,913 feet
Day 1: 64 miles; 4,946 feet
Day 2: 65 miles; 4,798 feet
Day 3: 71 miles; 1,784 feet
Day 4: 56 miles; 1,246 feet
Day 5: 58 miles; 3,294 feet
Day 6: 75 miles; 2,800 feet
Day 7: 65 miles; 2,338 feet
Photo at top by BlueBike at Flickr.com from Day 2 of RAGBRAI XXXVII. Other photos from my cross-country bike tour.