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ONAWA, Iowa -- Riders Assemble! And there will be thousands of them.

Organizers in Onawa are finishing up plans to have enough options to feed, house and entertain an influx of 25,000 or more visitors to the Monona County city of nearly 3,000 next weekend.

The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa participants, their friends and family coming to Onawa will see a superhero theme. Rejiggering the title from "The Avengers" television show of the superhero franchise, some of the Onawa RAGBRAI marketing beckons people, "Riders Assemble!"

As they disassemble and begin bicycling, the riders will also see the best aspects of Iowa, Onawa RAGBRAI Executive Committee member Curtis Sturgill said.

"Everybody talks about Iowa Nice. I think this is as good a way to showcase Iowa, because they go through all these little towns," Sturgill said.

RAGBRAI begins in Onawa, near the Missouri River, on Sunday, July 22 and ends one week and 428 miles later in Davenport on the Mississippi River. The hordes of bicyclists will be arriving in Onawa in a few days, with the biggest numbers on July 21, as people overnight in hotels, campgrounds and tents in yards. Sturgill alone will have at least 20 tents on the lawn of his home.

"For small communities in Northwest Iowa, any time you can get people into your town, you take that opportunity," he said.

Onawa has been the opening city for RAGBRAI six previous times, but this is the first since 2004. Only Council Bluffs and Sioux City have been the beginning spot more times.

Downtown Onawa in a four-block radius will be a big focal point for food vendors, the stage with live music acts and the exposition center with lots of bicycle gear and clothing for sale. The bands, including 35th and Taylor, of Sioux City, will play for 11 hours on July 21.

All those elements came from decisions by people on more than 20 city committees with nearly 100 volunteers -- and a few more could still be used in the final days, Sturgill said.

He said people in Onawa have done well in planning for an estimated 18,000 riders and perhaps another 10,000 other people along to take in the RAGBRAI fun. RAGBRAI officials in a January live event announced the city was on the ride route, which both pleased Sturgill and caused him some angst about the needed preparations.

He recounted, "It was like watching an election, a presidential election -- 'Oh god, we got it. Now what do we do?'"

Onawa, the county seat of Monona County, is renowned for at least two things -- the Eskimo Pie ice cream treat was created by Christian Kent Nelson, an Onawa teacher and owner of the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, nearly a century ago, and signs along Iowa Avenue in Onawa welcome visitors to "The Widest Main Street in the U.S." Iowa Avenue measures 150 feet from north-side storefront to south-side storefront.

Citing the many improvements people have pursued, Sturgill pointed to lots of homes being painted and awnings and other sprucing to downtown businesses.

"I feel like we are doing pretty good... I don't think Onawa has looked this nice in 15 years," he said.

Adam Miller, who owns Miller's Kitchen, a cafe in the 800 block of Iowa Avenue downtown, said having the bevy of bicyclists is a boon to the town.

"It is good for business," said Miller.

He may extend his hours on Friday and figures the weekend best sellers will be chicken and noodles, burgers and hot beef dinners.

After leaving Onawa, riders will travel 44 miles on the first day, passing through the small towns of Turin, Soldier, Ute and Charter Oak before stopping for the night in Denison, the Crawford County seat. They can add on an optional gravel road route of 19 more miles, by going through the Loess Hills to Moorhead. Onawa lies in the shadows of picturesque hills, a unique formation of wind-deposited loess soil, that has long been a major tourist attraction.

At Denison, riders and their support crews will overnight with a host of camping and hotel options.

Teresa Hunt, of Holstein, Iowa, enjoys bicycling in general and RAGBRAI in particular. She relishes being part of "a moving city that goes from Point A to Point B" and using "the greatest way to discover my home state."

Hunt has ridden the entire week of RAGBRAI for 17 of the last 18 years, missing only 2004, the last time it began in Onawa. She'll rectify that in a week, by leaving from the town near where her mother was raised and where Hunt has visited for family reunions.

"I have always found Onawa to be a hospitable community. They are known for their wide Main Street and they have some great downtown shops," Hunt said.

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County and education reporter

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