During the 464-mile Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa in 1975, a dirty, distressed young woman approached the bicycle ride’s cofounder, John Karras. It was very hot, and she was sunburned, despite being slathered with suntan lotion. She hobbled toward Karras, limping, with one shoulder lower than the other.
Thinking to himself, “My God, this woman should be in the hospital,” Karras got up to offer her his seat.
“Are you John Karras?” she asked.
“Yes,” Karras answered, with some trepidation.
“I just want you to know what a great time I’m having,” she said. “I hope you do this again next year.”
And he did, again and again, for 42 years and counting. RAGBRAI – the world’s largest, longest and oldest bicycle touring event – is part roving county fair and part Mardis Gras on wheels.
The ride was launched as a lark in 1973 by two reporters from the Des Moines Register looking for a way to get their newspaper to pay for a bike ride they wanted to take from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River. The paper approved the idea as long as the intrepid cyclists agreed to invite readers to tag along.
Everyone was surprised when some 250 cyclists showed up at the starting point. They had such a good time that the reporters agreed to organize the ride again the following year. Attendance jumped to 2,700 the second year and 4,000 the third year.
In those early years, riders wondered how long the Register would continue RAGBRAI. Today, the popular ride is likely to outlive the newspaper. Although RAGBRAI is capped at 10,000 registrants, more than 30,000 riders have participated on some days.
Secrets to success
What made the ride catch on? Several factors, including good timing. In 1973, there was a boom in sales of lightweight, multispeed bicycles across the U.S. Proud owners of sleek new ten speeds were looking for ways to test their skills and stamina. At the same time, the country was in the throes of the OPEC oil embargo and a newfound environmental awareness, both of which encouraged people to bike.
These cyclists discovered that Iowa is a good state to bike across. It is surprisingly hilly, but there are no mountains or desserts to worry about. And Iowa’s historical settlement created a state with thousands of small towns that serve as excellent rest stops, and 99 large county seats that serve as excellent overnight stops. This allows the organizers to create a different route every year, which assures statewide buy-in. RAGBRAI has cycled through every county and 780 communities, most of them multiple times. Meanwhile, 200 towns are on a list of communities vying for the opportunity to host the next ride.
In addition, because Iowa is such an agricultural state (with about 98 percent of the land farmed), the state maintains an extensive system of secondary farm-to-market highways. These roads make for great cycling.
Another factor behind RAGBRAI’s success is the Register itself. In 1973, it was a top-notch statewide paper, and it went to great lengths to promote the ride. Karras tended to report the facts and figures while his cofounder and columnist Donald Kaul kept the entire state reading about RAGBRAI through his colorful writing.
Karras, the serious cyclist riding in front of the pack, and Kaul, the wit riding at the rear with those known to stop for a beer or two along the way, kept readers engaged for the more than ten years, until Kaul had had enough.
Here’s one example of Kaul’s wit, mocking his good friend and fellow RAGBRAI cohost in one of the early years: “You don’t see generals rushing into battle at the head of their troops anymore. They hang back to plan things, oversee matters and shoot stragglers.”
After RAGBRAI got off to such a strong start, many other states tried to emulate it. None has even come close. Every year RAGBRAI generates some $21 million in revenue.
RAGBRAI has had it share of calamity and controversy. “The exact number of deaths during the ride is hard to determine, but the semi-official count is 26, with only five fatalities resulting from accidents while someone was bicycling,” RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz said. “That’s a relatively small number when you consider that RAGBRAI is like a city of 12,000 people moving across the state.”
The other 21 deaths have been caused by a variety of things, mostly heart attacks and strokes. Minor accidents and ailments are all too common, Juskiewicz added. Medical crews treat sunburn, saddle sores, road rash, sore muscles and, less frequently, broken bones and dehydration.
Most RAGBRAI riders experience no problems at all. One thing that keeps them coming back, year after year, is the carnival atmosphere along the way. One day you might see square dancing tractors and another you will hear a major musical performance from the likes of Sting, AC/DC or Three Dog Night.
And the food along the way is plentiful and inexpensive, from pork chops to homemade pie to the freshest corn on the cob you may ever taste.
Another thing that attracts riders to RAGBRAI is the incredible hospitality of Iowans, who open their hearts and homes to the horde of cyclists.
RAGBRAI stories are celebrated far and wide. Here are a few especially memorable ones, telling of experiences on and off the bikes. They capture the kaleidoscopic character of this world famous event, which some claim is almost as well known among cyclists as the Tour de France.
• On RAGBRAI III, 18-year-old Penn Whitlow’s bike broke down. While he and a friend were looking over the bike, Grace Montgomery drove up and offered them a lift to the nearest bike shop. Montgomery had a meeting to attend, so she stopped and told the boys to drive themselves to the shop in her car. “Don’t you even want to know our names?” one of the boys asked. She didn’t, she said.
Alas, the shop was closed but the boys were able to contact the owner, who called an employee and asked him to go in and repair the bike. The cost was only $8, about the cost of the part. They drove to Montgomery’s meeting place and waited for her. She then drove them several miles farther along the route, but not before asking them whether they needed any money.
• On the first day of an early RAGBRAI, a cyclist from New York City asked a fellow rider what to do if he had to pee and there were no bathrooms at hand. “Just go in the cornfield,” he was told. Shortly afterward, the man was cheered and jeered by some native Iowan cyclists as he, clearly visible, peed in a soybean field.
• One day in 1979, a storm drenched the RAGBRAI cyclists. After it stopped, a muddy, grimy group of 30 riders stopped in Hartley to wash their clothes. But they couldn’t very well strip down to the skin at the coin laundry. Enter local resident David Skattebo, who had just finished several loads of laundry. He handed out his freshly cleaned clothes so the riders could take off and wash their dirty clothes. After they left, Skattebo redid his laundry.
• At RAGBRAI XII, Dick Schuler had run out of cash and did not have a credit card with him. He walked into a bank and walked out a few minutes later with $100. No, he didn’t use a gun to secure the money. He just promisde to repay it. Schuler also had to promise not to reveal the name of the bank, which was concerned about setting a precedent.
• RAGBRAI attracts all kinds, even thieves. In 1991, the ride passed through the Dutch town of Pella, which gave 68-year-old M.L. “Moppy” Dudek the opportunity to return a sign he had stolen 51 years earlier. “I guess I’ve felt a little guilty ever since,” Dudek said. Mayor Johnny Menninga graciously accepted the two-foot-long sign shaped like a wooden shoe that said, “Pella 3 miles.”
• In 1993, George Day rode a recumbent with his dog Smooch perched on the back. Whenever Day hit a steep hill, he would snap his fingers and the 47-pound dog, attached to a long leash, would hop off and help pull the bike.
• Steve Stevens rode his 1886 high wheel at the 1994 RAGBRAI. One day, he broke the bike’s left handle pulling up a hill. A girl on the side of the road said, “My dad can fix that.” He did, welding the handle back on for no charge. And the big wheel kept on turning.
?• One of the zaniest sideshow activities at RAGBRAI was a toilet bowl race in 2001. Toilets were mounted on three-wheel dollies and contestants propelled themselves with ski poles attached to toilet plungers. When one contestant wobbled off course, the judge barked, “I hope you ride a bicycle better than that.” When a man in an Elvis costume won, the judge proclaimed, “Every King deserves his throne.”
• One day, Brian Duffy, the Register’s cartoonist, was riding behind a young man who wore nothing but a loincloth and shoes. “As we passed a retirement home, he was waving at a group of little old ladies who were smiling and waving back,” Duffy said. “But when they realized what he was wearing, their hands dropped at the same time as their jaws.”
• Shanda South had seen RAGBRAI for years but only through the window of a car. She wanted to do the ride, but at 300 pounds, she didn’t feel comfortable on a bike. Finally, at the age of 34 she decided to do the ride and started dieting and training. Within a year, she had lost 140 pounds. “I pretty much lost a whole person to do this,” she said as she biked RAGBRAI XXVIII.
• On its 40th anniversary, RAGBRAI finally got around to passing through Lohrville (population 368). The town rolled out a grand welcome and for its theme chose “Welcome to Lohrville, The Ride’s 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Greg Borzo is an award winning journalist and author of the new book RAGBRAI: America’s Favorite Bicycle Ride. The book tells the history and experience of the ride and features hundreds of stories that reveal the essence of this unique event. It also includes a lavish collection of photographs and cartoons, vintage and contemporary, most not previously published. For more information about this and Borzo’s other books, visit www.gregborzo.com.