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How Do You Create a Documentary About 50 Years of RAGBRAI? You Focus on the People.

RAGBRAI Documentary

July 11, 2023

About two summers ago, my colleague Kelsey Kramer called with an idea: Let’s make a documentary about RAGBRAI.

“Absolutely!” was my immediate answer. But enthusiasm aside, our task was daunting: How could we ever sum up all of RAGBRAI in one movie?

Shift at The Varsity

How could we even begin to encapsulate 50 years of memories and traditions? 50 years of host towns and beloved vendors and still-discussed performances? 50 years — five whole decades — of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa?

We had to find a focus that defined RAGBRAI.

The Heart of RAGBRAI

And that cornerstone had to reflect what, to us, has always been the heart of RAGBRAI: The visitors who ride, the Iowans who host and the space — literal or metaphorical — that a week in Iowa offers to sift through life’s joys and challenges.

The film couldn’t focus on the past and be a recounting of history. The film had to be about the present; it had to be alive with people’s vulnerabilities and their stories.

“SHIFT: The RAGBRAI Documentary” follows three bicyclists and a pair of community leaders as they grapple with triumphs and tragedies while on the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle ride. As the group searches for peace, clarity and redemption, they push themselves to their limits and seek to answer the question: Can you find yourself in the middle of nowhere?

In chronicling the main subjects’ hard-fought wins and devastating setbacks, the film also touches on some of today’s most-discussed social issues, including racial disparities in outdoor recreation, LGBTQ+ rights, opioids’ effects on families and minorities in rural America.

Filmed during last year’s ride, “SHIFT” was released on May 4 to a sold-out crowd at Des Moines’ beautiful Varsity Cinema. Many in the audience were RAGBRAI fans who’d see just about anything mildly adjacent to their beloved ride — but the vast majority were still blown away by the emotional resonance they found in a film about bicycling.

“I didn’t know what to expect, maybe some historical facts of the race I hadn’t known,” wrote one attendee. “But what awaited me touched the core of my soul and community in ways I didn’t know a documented bike ride could. Thank you for telling this story in the beautiful way you did.”

“SHIFT,” like RAGBRAI itself, works to remind us that although our lives are so uniquely our own, there’s an invisible net around us all, connecting us, catching us, guiding us to the person we are supposed to be.

RAGBRAI Documentary

“You don’t leave the ride the same way as you began it,” says Dayna Chandler, one of the film’s subjects. “I know for my life over the experience, it has been a transformational experience.”

And, yes, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of “RAGBRAI” in the movie: Mr. Pork Chop’s bright pink bus, slip-n-slides, beer, beer and more beer.

The documentary will play around the state leading up to this year’s ride in the family-owned and operated Fridley Theatres and at a special event at Flix Brewhouse. And we are working to schedule showings of the film at every overnight stop on this year’s route.

We are currently looking to book the movie in theaters nationwide to spread our love of Iowa, bicycling and good storytelling. We are seeking a distribution partner who will help amplify the film’s message of personal achievement through the magic of bicycling. Those interested can contact us at ragbraidoc@gannett.com for more information.

Keep up with new showings and learn more about the film at DesMoinesRegister.com/RAGBRAIdocumentary. Copies of the movie are available for purchase on RAGBRAI’s website.

RAGBRAI Cyclists

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Courtney Crowder

Courtney Crowder is the Iowa Columnist and a senior writer at The Des Moines Register. A Headliner Award winner and two-time Livingston Award finalist, she tells human stories with an investigative eye and a narrative touch. She co-directed and produced “Shift: The RAGBRAI Documentary.”