Algona, Iowa: Flawless Country Comfort

When an event brings more people into a small town than the normal population, the public works department has to be ready. Water, wastewater, trash, roads, parks—all are impacted far beyond their originally intended capacity. Here's how two towns reacted.

It was a quiet Tuesday July morning in Algona, but that was about to change. Public works director Chad Schaeffer was up early making some last-minute preparations and checking to make sure nothing had been overlooked. Clear skies and relatively cool weather for Iowa in July promised that the thousands of cyclists, about to arrive after their short 62-mile ride through the rolling Iowa countryside, would be happy and eager to fan out across Algona to take advantage of months of preparation.

Bringing all 10,000 riders and several thousand additional supporters to this small town was the Des Moines Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI—pronounced RAG-bry). From its beginnings in 1973 when a couple of the Register's editors decided to tour across the state, RAGBRAI has become the world's longest, largest, and oldest bicycle touring event—widely copied but never equaled. Each year, different routes are chosen and six towns are selected for overnight visits. When more than 12,000 people descended on Algona and its 6000 inhabitants on July 26, the entire town, including its public works department, was ready.

RAGBRAI and its participants have never taken themselves too seriously. Riders range from professional cyclists to farmers in overalls on old, rusty girls' Schwinns. The towns also greet riders with humor and hospitality. Adopting the theme of “surviving the jungle,” Algona's businesses had competed for months in the most creative bicycle contest, and these bikes were displayed around town. Residents decorated their yards with green “jungle” lights and tiki torches.

“Although RAGBRAI had stopped in Algona in 1977 and 1999, this was my first time,” said Schaeffer. “We had a great day and would be glad if they decided to visit again.” Planning started in February when RAGBRAI announced the route across the state. The Algona Chamber of Commerce chose its chairpeople and appointed 20 subcommittees to plan everything, including the route through town, food booths, camping, entertainment, and even how 12,000 hot, smelly cyclists could take showers.

In all, about 150 people were directly involved, and the entire town was impacted—whether they liked it or not. “The RAG-BRAI people gave us a pretty detailed planning guide,” Schaeffer said, “so things went pretty smoothly.”

Plans for the public works department began with a meeting with the police department to agree on the official routes for bikes and for support vehicles. They planned which streets would be closed for the various festivities and how they would be barricaded. Security around the beer garden was two concentric rows of snow fencing 4 feet apart to prevent anyone from handing beer to underage riders—that had to be ready when the bands started playing at 4 p.m. Most of that was completed by Monday evening and on Tuesday morning Schaeffer's crew set up the Rotary club's portable stage—the Showmobile— for the bands.

Most RAGBRAI riders camp, and although Algona had big campgrounds at the schools and near their swimming pool, makeshift campgrounds sprang up in backyards across town. Schaeffer had nine people in his backyard. “They sure enjoyed the warm shower in my basement,” he said. Others showered at the school gym, at the YMCA, or at a portable shower facility in the back of a large trailer. This created no problems, however, for the water or waste-water systems. Nearly 100 portable toilets, traditionally called Kaybos in Iowa, were set up in strategic locations across town.

Riders crossed one major highway on their way into town. Although Schaeffer was prepared to override the traffic signal at that intersection, with the help of state police increasing motorists' awareness and controlling bicycles, that wasn't necessary. Support vehicles did, however, back up at that intersection early in the day. “We hadn't anticipated so many big vehicles, like campers and buses,” said Schaeffer. “If we do this again, we'll do a better job with signage to direct them to the camping areas.”

To put Algona's best face forward during RAGBRAI, Schaeffer made sure the public works department had no ongoing construction projects. Going clear back to February, projects were delayed until after the big event. Schaeffer noted that this “made for a tough August, as we tried to catch up with all the work that should have been done earlier in the year.”

By noon the next day it was all over. Support vehicles were gone by 7 a.m. and most riders were on the road by 8 a.m. Schaeffer's 10-person crew spread out across town to pick up barriers and return picnic tables to their designated spots. The private solid waste contractor picked up the big boxes used as trash cans that had been filled the day before. By that afternoon, the only lasting sign that RAGBRAI had even torn through town was a tree that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources planted to mark the event.