Forty members of a RAGBRAI pre-ride squad weren't looking for needles in a haystack as they bike across Iowa in June.
They were looking for bumps and cracks in the road.
The group landed in Indianola just as thousands of bikers will today. They were in the midst their own mini-RAGBRAI, riding the route by day and meeting with local organizing groups in the evenings. The pre-ride team devoured pasta and pizza at Brickhouse that night, offering advice to community organizers and gathering information that is coming in handy as the caravan of bikers heads to Indianola.
Safety is their first focus, said members of the group.
“There’s only one way to know if roads are safe, and that’s to bike on them,” said Andrea Parrott, one of the four permanent paid staff on RAGBRAI. “We’ll mark every pothole and every big crack, and then we’ll report back to the counties and cities what they should focus on to repair.”
If a problem can’t be fixed, she said, it can be marked so riders know to be cautious.
And when there is a problem, the pre-ride gives medical personnel a better sense of where to station the almost 30 medical professionals who will be along on the ride, said Ben Miller-Todd, a motorcycle medic for RARGRAI who was on his fifth pre-ride.
“The crew will share notes after this,” said Miller-Todd. “Basically, say ‘hey, this stretch won’t be pretty, we need to make sure we’re in close proximity to this area.’”
They also evaluate how best to get emergency services to people who need them during the actual ride.
“You put anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 on a county road that wasn’t not intended for that, or in a city of 500, and now you want emergency vehicles to rapidly get through it?” he said. The pre-ride offers “an ability to scout out how is the town set up, how do I get around Main Street?”
Pre-riders also offer advice and insight on everything from what emergency responders should expect to what foods might go over well with riders.
“Tthey’re able to help these towns, maybe point them in the right direction or get them where they need to be,” said Miller-Todd. But most of their job is answering last minute questions rather than telling towns what to do.
“I’m always surprised at how prepared the towns actually are,” said Miler-Todd. “And how much work has gone in in the background for each of these towns.”
The pre-riders though sometimes note details no one has thought of, said Jack Stubbe, who keeps the traveling circus on the road during the week. He drives the baggage vehicle, which crosses the state at 20-miles per hour during the pre-ride. While he drives, another staffer notes everything from rumble strips to railroad tracks along the route.
They also notice things that aren’t safety issues but could affect the pace of the ride, like a garbage truck collecting along the bike routes or heavier traffic on the day the ride comes through than on other days.
“We get a feeling of how fast the ride moves, with traffic patterns, so when we come to your community we can say when the bulk of the riders will be in,” he said. Stubbe started out with RAGBRAI by selling newspapers tent-to-tent along the route as part of the Des Moines Register’s circulation department.
Now, he handles logistics, including things like getting the pre-ride across the state in a timely manner.
“Our crew is like family,” said Stubbe. “We spend a lot of time together, we have a lot of fun together.”