Read an Excerpt
RAGBRAIEveryone Pronounces It Wrong
By John Karras Ann Karras
University of Iowa PressCopyright © 1999 Iowa State University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the Beginning-the First Ride
Donald Kaul and I are going to ride from Sioux City to Davenport the week of Aug. 26 and we'd like to have as many of you as are able join us along the way.
That paragraph, appearing in the July 22, 1973, issue of The Des Moines Register, was the first I ever wrote about what was to become known as The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. The first of thousands of paragraphs spanning, as of this writing, just over 25 years.
And no, Kaul and I hadn't the faintest intention in 1973, when we invented RAGBRAI, of creating the most successful newspaper promotion since William Randolph Hearst started the Spanish-American war. Indeed, our intentions were modest to the point of embarrassment: Our only goal was to talk The Register into paying our expenses while we tootled across the state on our bikes.
We also assumed it would be a one-time event, rather than what Kaul later called "a life sentence." We hadn't anticipated the incredible enthusiasm that the ride generated. Nor had we anticipated the wonderful hospitality of people throughout Iowa. But most of all, we hadn't anticipated Clarence Pickard of Indianola who, at age 83, became an inspiration to us all. More, much more, about him later.
The 1973 article continued: "We're going to ride rain or shine, hot or cold. Each day's ride will leave at 8 a.m. except the hundred-miler to Williamsburg. See you in August."
I called that first ride the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Kaul and I expected maybe a dozen or so people to show up in Sioux City, but as the date grew closer it became apparent that a lot more than that were going to join us. I'd had many letters and phone calls, but Kaul and I and my wife Ann still were astonished when we arrived in Sioux City to find something over 250 people ready to set out with us the next day.
As Don Benson, then of The Register's promotion department remembers it, "We got to the motel and all of a sudden all these other people started showing up. Clarence Pickard was there. He'd gone up by bus and Bill Albright (of Bill's Cvclerv) took his bike up."
Among those gathered there, besides Pickard, were the late Tom Hunt, retired president of Fairfield Aluminum Castings Co., who had trained diligently for the ride; then-Senator Dick Clark, better known for his earlier pre-election walk across Iowa, who rode only as far as Kingsley; Bill Wertzberger of Dubuque, who had cycled to Sioux City, camping along the way; and Sandy and Bob Tatge of Des Moines, already veteran touring cyclists, who also cycled to Sioux City from home.
I cannot emphasize too strongly the naivety of the planning that went into that first ride. There was, in effect, no planning, and what little there was was inept. First, everyone at The Register, including Kaul, Benson and me, thought of the event as no more than an elaborate joke and treated it accordingly.
Here is how Benson, who handled special events in the promotion department at the time, remembers the beginning.
You came in and talked to [department manager] Roy Follet or [managing editor] Ed Heins did. The next thing I knew Roy talked to me and said Karras and Kaul were going to ride their bikes across Iowa so Kaul could get some local color for his column. Roy told me to take care of it. I told Roy it can't be too damned difficult to make two room reservations, and that's just about it. That's what we were talking about. We had the hot air balloon then, Craig Zevde and his assistant were to fly the balloon mornings and evenings in the overnight towns and he would carry your baggage, too. I called and made the motel reservations, and then you and Ann and Mark, our son, and Kaul drove up to Sioux City. The route had not been driven ahead of time. You laid it out on maps. So we went up to Fort Dodge and picked up the route. We got on that county road just east of Storm Lake and the road was closed. A bridge was out. You had to take five miles of gravel around that bridge. You couldn't just go a mile north and a mile east. You had to go two miles north. It was RAGBRAI's first detour.
Benson also recalled that "we stayed in the Rodeway Inn. Two or three blocks from the hotel somebody had their first flat tire. There was absolutely no traffic. Anyway, we went to the airport and Mark and I flew back to Des Moines."
It was a truly rag-tag looking group that cycled out of Sioux City that Sunday morning in 1973. Kaul, Ann and I were the only ones in bike shorts, bike shoes and jerseys. We also were the only ones wearing helmets-those old leather-strap racing affairs that offered almost no protection. There were no other bicycle helmets at that time.
Almost everyone else was wearing cutoffs, gym shorts, walking shorts or bathing suits, T-shirts or tank tops and sneakers. All the neat cycling apparel came on the market later.
To compound our errors, we had an official (and stupid) starting time of 8 a.m. every day except Thursday, the day of the 100-mile ride from Des Moines to Williamsburg, when the official starting time was 7 a.m. The stupidity lay in our expecting and wanting people to observe any official starting time (I can call it stupid because it was my idea). As we learned in later years, the best thing we could hope for was that everyone would start at different times.
The towns that year were chosen without consulting any townspeople. We made no provision for bike repair, medical help, traffic control, or for any conceivable emergency that might arise. Indeed, it's an even chance that the bikes might not have gotten very far out of Sioux City if it hadn't been for Bill Albright, then owner of Bill's Cyclery in Des Moines. He wanted to do the ride, so brought along a 12-foot trailer, $5,000 worth of spare parts (including 50 tires), the required tools, and sat outside his motel room every night repairing the bikes that had broken down during the day. As it was, the absence of planning kept showing up in minor crises throughout the week.
One thing we did right without even knowing it was schedule the ride the last week of August. That kept the number of riders down because all the schools in Iowa except those in Des Moines were in session (and boy, did I hear about that. I got dozens and dozens of letters from teachers and teenagers telling us to schedule the event the next year before school started so they could attend).
I don't know what we would have done if a couple of thousand riders had greeted us in Sioux City. Turned pale at best, snuck away under cover of darkness at worst.
From Sioux City the ride overnighted in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Ames, Des Moines and Williamsburg before ending in Davenport.
Sandra Tatge remembers that about 30 riders camped each night the first year. The second year, she said, there were at least 1,000 camping along the way. She also remembers that when she and Bob arrived in Sioux City they sought me out and asked about camping facilities. She says I arranged for them to stay at city and county parks, but I have no idea how I did that, if I did.
Benson arranged camping at the Naval Reserve Center lawn at Fort Des Moines. The building was kept open all night for showers and bathrooms.
Ann's and my lasting impressions of that first year's ride include extreme heat, endless hills, brutal headwinds, anticipation, Ann getting lost in a small town, exhilaration and chaos. Looking through clippings from the time, however, I see that only the first three days were beastly hot and the headwinds let up after the third day.
As for the last item in that fist, chaos, it surrounded us every day. Item: one evening as I sat in the motel room banging out the next day's story on my old Smith-Corona portable there came a knock on the door. "I can't find my little brother," said a small voice. Kaul chased out into the night to help him, and I sent Ann to interview Clarence Pickard without pencil, paper or suggestions. Another time whoever was at the door couldn't find his sleeping bag.
Then there was the appalling task of dictating the story in a loud voice over the phone to whoever answered on The Register's city desk. If you've never had to read your priceless words aloud in the presence of skeptical and wiseass colleagues you haven't lived. Invariably, I'd read an obviously clumsy sentence and someone in the corner of the room would call out, "Great line" to the laughter of everyone else. Several times I recruited Ann to dictate the story so I could avoid the comments.
But life does and did go on.
The official high temperature the first day, Sioux City to Storm Lake, was 99 degrees, but there's no doubt in the minds of those who were there that the temperatures were well over 100 degrees in some spots out on the road. But the hospitality along the way more than made up for our discomfort.
In my Register story for that day I wrote: "Perhaps the most pleasant aspect of the day was the enthusiasm for the project shown by those along the way."
Dwight and Joyce Rawson of rural Kingsley had free cold lemonade for the riders. They said their daughter had recently done a long bike tour and had told them how welcome a cold glass of lemonade was to a hot and thirsty cyclist.
And the Rawsons were not the only ones. There were also welcoming committees and escorts. Plymouth County Sheriff Ed Guntren and State Trooper William Wruck greeted bikes at the Plymouth-Woodbury County line, then, realizing how strung out the procession was, patrolled the route until all the bikes had passed.
The town of Kingsley went all out at the urging of Mayor Jim Watkins. As the riders straggled into Kingsley townsfolk and business people greeted them with smiles and handshakes. Pop, coffee, sandwiches and donuts were provided in the air-conditioned Brookside Golf Clubhouse compliments of Kingsley.
In his Over-the-Coffee column, Kaul wrote: "Most places one goes nowadays, they throw rocks at strangers, not a warm welcome like this."
There were others. Guy and Kay Brown of Pierson used the farm home of Mrs. Brown's father, R. J. Irwin, to set up a lemonade and cookie stand. There also were refreshments at Brown's Trading Post between Kingsley and Washta. And Bonnie Biller of rural Cherokee filled water bottles and invited the riders to take a dip in her backyard pool, which many of them did, clothes and all.
Many of the riders were able to ride only the first day because they had to get back home Monday for work or school. Doug and Kris Meinhard, for example, drove all the way to Sioux City from their home in Newton to ride the first day. And they took turns carrying their sons, Troy, 3, and Matt, 18 months, on their bikes.
The Dean Linn family of Fort Dodge, on the other hand, took a week's vacation to do the ride. Dean, 48, Nina, 46, Cindy, 16, and Larry, 14, took turns riding and driving their camper.
What Ann remembers of the end of that day is Kaul flopping on a bed in the brand new motel without screens, me whipping a blanket around like a toreador trying to chase out flies, and Ann watching in dazed exhaustion as the two heroes behaved like idiots.
The second day's ride from Storm Lake to Fort Dodge was just as hot as the first. Kaul wrote in his column:
Another day, another 65 miles, another 95 degrees. Who ordered the weather for this bike trip anyway? Lawrence of Arabia? All over Iowa, schools are dismissing classes because of the heat. Football teams are cutting short practice sessions be- cause of the heat Simultaneously, more than 200 mad bikers are struggling their way across Iowa in that same blazing heat because it's their idea of a good time. And it has been a good time ... largely because of the people on the trip and along the route.
He wrote specifically about Gene Angove, 61, a former carpenter who then was farming near Knoxville. Why was he doing this madcap stunt?
"One, I think I'm getting a little childish," he told Kaul.
"Two, I have a heart condition and I wanted to see if I couldn't strengthen my heart up a little.
"Three, I was the worst driver in the world. I used to come up behind people on bicycles and honk my horn and wonder why they wouldn't get out of the way. I wanted to come on this trip and see who was right and who was wrong. It turns out I was wrong."
There were just 12 women on the first ride and when asked why they came some of the comments were:
Pat Bjorklund of Renwick: "Just for the fun of it. I wanted to do it but everyone said I couldn't."
Liz Garst of Coon Rapids said, "I've been working on my father's farm this summer, riding a horse and cutting out cows for breeding. I'm a cowboy. I'm here because I'm a great fan of Donald Kaul."
Leann Olson, 20, Milford, said that when a motorist shouted at her, "Having fun?" she responded, "I have to. It's my vacation."
Elise Jensen of Newell, 48, read about the tour and thought, "Oh, would I like to try that." She rode one day, from Storm Lake to Fort Dodge. Her mother had given up bicycling three years earlier, at age 80.
Ann got the week off at the last minute and did it for the same reason as so many other women. "My husband said I couldn't make it, so I had to prove I could," she says.
And there were other reasons.
Jim Kollmann, 18, of Iowa Falls, said, "I think it's because I'm stupid."
Chuck Thiede, 15, Storm Lake, said "I'm not very good at athletics and I wanted to prove I could do something besides classroom work." He was excused from school for the week to go on the ride.
Three Newton High School students also were excused from school to do the ride. The principal, Robert Bennett, said they'd probably get more out of the experience than they would from the first week of school. The three were Marty Doane, Clark Johnson and Robert Dixon, all 16. Doane now operates bike shops in Newton and Pella.
The hospitality continued unabated.
Art Schraeder gave away soda pop at his DX station in Varina; school was let out at Varina to let students ride a little of the way; and free pop and cookies were handed out at Clare Mayor Carl Donahoe's grocery store.
About that time, someone at The Register got in touch with the most famous odds maker in America, Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder and asked what the odds were that Kaul and I would make it to Davenport without mishap or without quitting. He pondered that for a while, and called it at four to one.
No provisions for camping had been made in Fort Dodge, so the campers sought and received permission to put up their tents on the grassy areas around the Best Western Starlight Motel, where the rest of the riders were staying. And when Mrs. Tatge climbed out of her tent to tell the management that the campers (who were charged nothing, by the way) were having trouble getting to sleep because of the outdoor security lights, the management without a peep of protest turned them off.
The third day's ride from Fort Dodge to Ames was also blistering hot, but with a pleasant cooling break in the sandstone canyon of Dolliver Memorial Park south of Fort Dodge. We rode through water at the park's one ford and enjoyed the shade.
The hospitality, of course, went on and on.
Ching Williams, operator of the Clover Farm Store in Lehigh, passed out pop and chocolate milk, and the Golden Memories Club, a senior citizens group, gave away home-baked cookies.
Several members of the Stratford High School girls' basketball team were out on the road to greet Kaul, who was famous throughout the state for his snide comments about three-on-three girls' basketball. The young women, chanting school cheers, escorted him into town and had him autograph a basketball.
In Boone, members of the Boone Bicycle Club escorted riders to City Hall, where they were treated to home-grown tomatoes and lemonade. In my Register story the next day I wrote that "never did a tomato taste so good."
The best trick of the day, however, was pulled by Mr. and Mrs. Donald Rossiter of Moneta, on their way to Ames to pick up their son, Dennis, who had ridden from Sioux City.
Kaul and I, both very hot and very tired, were riding together south, just the two of us on the road (a rarity even the first year), on County Road R 27 when a car shot passed us and came to a stop at a gravel road several hundred yards away. A man jumped out, threw open the trunk and busied himself with something or other. When we pulled up to see what was going on, he handed each of us half of a juicy, home-grown cantaloupe.
Excerpted from RAGBRAI by John Karras Ann Karras Copyright © 1999 by Iowa State University Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.