RAGBRAI XLV Countdown – July 23-29, 2017
Friends of RAGBRAI

Blog

Remembering Clarence Pickard



By John Karras

It is most fitting that RAGBRAI finally is going to spend a night in Indianola. The town was the home for many years of Clarence Pickard, who, in the short space of a week on the first RAGBRAI (actually, it was called the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) rode his bike across the state the last week of August in 1973 and inspired the masses to follow his feat.

Clarence was 83 years old that year, and, as he told me in a brief interview, hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a boy. In fact, when I asked him how many miles he had put in on the green and white woman’s Schwinn Varsity he’d purchased only a few weeks before, he said, “I went around the block a few times.” RAGBRAI co-founder Donald Kaul and I doubted he would make it even to the city limits of Sioux City, our starting.

As it turned out, he rode every mile, including a brief stretch of I-80. The State Trooper Frank Fisher caught up with Clarence on the Interstate, stopped him and said, “Mr. Pickard, you can’t ride a bike on the Interstate,” to which Pickard replied, “Then you’d better get me out of here.”

He also completed the hundred-mile day from Day Moines to Williamsburg and the 80-plus mile day from Williamsburg to Davenport, both days after dark.

Oh, he was slow, slower even than I’ve grown. He also didn’t understand the gearing on a 20-speed bike. The shift levers on his Schwinn were on the handlebar stem. Clarence assumed that they both should be positioned either fore or aft. Thus, he was always in a wrong gear–either on the large chain ring and the largest cog or on the small chain ring and the smallest cog. I pointed this out to him as we approached Dolliver State Park north of Boone, and the steepest hill of the week coming up out of the Des Moines River Valley. I said he’d be much more comfortable on the hill with the left lever forward and the right lever back. I saw him past the hill and he remarked about how “that sure had worked.”

The most remarkable thing about him though, beyond his unending good nature and old world charm, was his appearance. That week was hot, as only Iowa can be, with both highs and the humidity in the high 90s. Mr. Pickard, however, appeared every day in long-sleeved shirt and long trousers–plus a pith helmet covered with duct tape.

He also revealed in an interview with then reporter Chuck Offenburger that he had “a secret weapon,” as he put it–woolen long underwear. Good grief, we could hardly believe it. He said the underwear wicked the sweat away and kept him cool.

The measure of his quick fame became evident when at elementary school in Iowa City let all the children out on the sidewalk to see Mr. Pickard come by.

He slowed down as he saw, promptly fell off his bike, stood up and made a sweeping bow, pith helmet in hand, for the kids. (He fell down a lot that week. But near week’s end, he told me that he’d figured out when he was about to take a spill, and made sure to land on a grassy spot.)

– – – – –

John Karras is the former copy editor at the Des Moines Register who co-founded RAGBRAI in 1973 with columnist Donald Kaul.  John plans on riding RAGBRAI this summer and is determined to ride the entire route, including the Karras Loop.  John and his wife Ann now reside in Dillon, Colorado.

18 Responses on “Remembering Clarence Pickard

BobG

May 7, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Like most sensible native Iowans, when the Over the Coffee guy and John Karras cooked up this scheme I said:

“Are you nuts? Who in there right mind would ride across the state of Iowa? on a bike? In August of all times?”

Clarence Pickard is a true Iowa legend. An icon for future generations of dreamers and doers. A person who proved “If I can do it – you can do it!” I was a witness in Iowa City that year but it took 30+ years to come to my senses. I am now embarking on my 3rd RAGBRAI adventure in a row. I will never be the same. Thank you Clarence & Donald & John. And thanks Des Moines Register for carrying on what many call the apex of riding a bike. As a junior high kid, I dreaded delivering you on Sundays. But I lived.

I may even find myself pedaling that zany portion of the route called the “Karras Century” this year. Bet I live 🙂

Craig M.

May 8, 2009 at 8:52 am

I was home for the summer after my freshman year in college when Donald Kaul and John Karras began their first trip across Iowa. As fascinated as we all were with the idea that it was humanly possible to ride a bicycle that far, it was the story of Clarence Pickard that captured the imagination of the entire state. The daily reports of Clarence’s progress, read like a serial story in a dime-store comic book. My family and I eagerly awaited the next day’s issue of the Des Moines Register in order to learn of Mr. Pickard’s fate. I have to believe that Clarence Pickard contributed significantly to the initial success of what has since become the institution we call ‘RAGBRAI’. This summer will be my 11th consecutive RAGBRAI, but it was the descriptions of that first ride in 1973 featuring Donald Kaul, John Karras, and Clarence Pickard that has captivated me every summer since.

Cflowers

May 11, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Perhaps we should all wear pith helmets (attached to our required, certified bike helmet, of course) as we ride into Indianola? Anyone enterprising enough to arrange passing out several thousand of them at the town before?

-cf

Patrick

May 11, 2009 at 9:34 pm

I was in Marshalltown in 1974 when RAGBRAI came through. I had a 10 speed or something like that. I rode downtown to watch the cyclists come down Main Street. It was a gorgeous summer day as I recall. Nobody downtown. No fanfare. No tents. No traffic cops. No campers, No crowd. Just some weary looking folks riding bikes looking like they had been on a day long trip to Hell. I rode home and went about my business. Glad I could be there to see one of the early rides.

The kids nowadays could take a lesson from Mr. Pickard and so could their parents!

Bill Wertzberger

May 12, 2009 at 10:29 am

The day after Mr. Pickard was busted by the Highway Patrol he told me that it was a shame because “that was the smoothest pavement” he had experienced on his ride.

CG

May 14, 2009 at 9:55 am

I love this story and I don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m very curious about one of these comments. Patrick, can you please explain what lesson kids and parents can learn from this story?

Bruce

May 15, 2009 at 10:36 am

I was a kid then but now older and can say that don’t make RAGBRI or men like Pickard like they use to. Oh for the old days!

Capp

May 15, 2009 at 8:03 pm

I will be wearing a Pith Helmet in honor of Clarence Pickard
from Greenfield to Indianola.

DR

May 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I’ve read Karras’s book a few times, usually during the winter when I want to reminisce about RAGBRAI in the 80s – the true golden era of the ride. I find the most inspirational and entertaining portions of the book to be the chapters about Mr. Pickard.

Mr. Pickard represented old school Iowan values of hard work and determination to overcome any odds. I never had the pleasure of riding with him (I was 1 year old when he took his epic journey). But I often think of him when I am struggling up a hill and considering the notion of hopping off to walk the rest of the way.

My hat is off to you, Mr. Pickard

Bill Wertzberger

May 21, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Mr Capp: For the pith helmet, It was smashed on one spot where a tree branch had fallen on him, so you have to smash your pith helmet up a bit, duct tape the hole and then spray paint the whole thing silver. I think he did that to match the duct tape.

Mike,aka Turtle

May 28, 2009 at 4:23 pm

It’s a shame that more people can’t go on the ride for the food, the people and the scenery instead of seeing how much beer they can drink in a week. I guess it takes some longer to grow up. I’ve riden several times and yes a few times even questioned my sanity, but there is nothing like Iowa hospitality, the food and the people from all over the world. Mr Pickard went on RAGBRAI for all the right reasons. We need more like him.

TERRI

June 26, 2009 at 5:26 pm

GREAT STORY!! I remember Clarence very well as a kind gentleman and my oldest son was able to meet him when the ride (not sure that it was even named RAGBRAI at that time) went thru West Branch IA. I cannot remember exactly the year, Travis was a wee toddler and took a liking to Clarence when he stopped at the Town Square for a break. Clarence took off his pith helmet and shared grapes with my son. The Daily Iowan newspaper snapped a picture of it and ran a contest to either name the picture or write a caption for it. Even though the picture is yellow from age, we still talk about it and what a kind soul Clarence was. I only wish that my daughter and youngest son could have met him.
Thanks for the great story about a great man!!!

Dock

July 10, 2009 at 3:16 pm

What they left out of the story about Clarence Pickard was that he lost his life riding his bike in Indianola. He was struck and killed while crossing the highway.

barnswallow

July 19, 2009 at 5:26 pm

I lived in Indianola many years ago and am pleased to see them finally hosting RAGBRAI. The town will be awesome hosts!

A veteran of 4,5,6,7,8,30 & 35 I always think I should be in Iowa the last full week of July. I’ll be there in 2012 for XL! Maybe when I’m 83 I can still spin with the best.

Some say Clarence only rode the original ride but I recall seeing him in 1976 or 1977. A man of few words but an inspiration for all!

I think he was a pedestrian when he was tragically struck and killed.

Donna

July 19, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Guess I fall in the old-timer category because I so well recall being on Lincoln Way in Ames(as a college student) in 1973 when the very first RAGBRAI rode through town. We were in awe. And I was soon part of the grand ride (with Team Sprint) across Iowa and had the great pleasure of riding with Clarence. He was a topic of conversation at the end of each day as to who had seen &/or ridden with him. I know I could dig out pictures. And was he the gentleman who wore personalized poetic shirts in the last years – like “89 and doing fine” ?

Tracy Hardy Johnson

August 2, 2009 at 10:17 pm

My grandfather, James B. Tracy of Muscatine (1899-1980) and I rode the second and third rides, 1974 and 1975. He had always worn a pith helmet for his outdoor work as a surveyor, and wore it for the ride as well. He was 75 when we made the first ride.

He resembled Mr. Pickard a bit, especially wearing his helmet, and so folks who thought they may have seen Mr. Pickard on a later ride may have actually seen my grandfather on those rides.

Hope that clarifies some history.

I have a photo of us from 1974 up on the Facebook RAGBBRAI group site (not the RAGBRAI page).

Steve Brink

November 4, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I was on that first RAGBRAI too and I frequently think about Clarence Pickard. It is also my goal to still be riding at his age. I rode 3 RAGBRAI’s in all back in the 70s. I lived in Grinnell and we lived and breathed bicycles back then.

matt

July 19, 2012 at 2:47 pm

bill wertzberger how was your experience on that first ragbrai

Leave a Reply

Latest Blog Posts

  • JustGoBike Podcast Episode 4: Bike Laws, Bike Events and Bike Towns, Oh My!

    In this episode we talk with reporter Mackenzie Elmer of The Des Moines Register about cycling laws in Iowa and some of the bike accident and fatality cases she has ...

  • RAGBRAI Guess the Route Contest Winners Announced!

    Follow the link to find out the three winners of our 2017 Guess the Route Contest!

  • Iowa C.O.P.S. Team Awarded RAGBRAI Rider Cup

    The Iowa Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.) bike team was awarded the prestigious RAGBRAI Rider Cup this weekend at the RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party.

  • Photos from the 2017 Route Announcement Party

    A crowd took in treats and tunes before hearing which eight towns will be hosts this summer.

  • RAGBRAI XLV: Take it easy, go north

    The overnight towns for the 45th RAGBRAI have finally been revealed!

  • Introducing the JustGoBike Podcast!

    A weekly podcast on the culture of biking, cycling just for the fun of it, and tales from the #RAGBRAI Nation!

  • RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party Tickets Still Available!

    Where will RAGBRAI go in 2017? North? South? Central? Join us for the Route Announcement Party on Jan. 21 and find out!

  • Gear up for RAGBRAI with Live Healthy Iowa’s 10 Week Wellness Challenge

    A New Year is just around the corner! Plan for a healthy start in 2017 by taking part in the annual 10 Week Wellness Challenge! It’s a great ...

  • Only 50 Days 'til the RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party!

    Join us as we reveal Iowa's biggest secret on January 21, 2017 at the Iowa Events Center in downtown Des Moines.

  • Guess the Route Contest is Now Open for RAGBRAI XLV!

    Do you think you can pick the eight overnight towns for RAGBRAI XLV? Enter the contest and see how close you come.

Latest Videos

  • Take a closer look at where the 2017 RAGBRAI route will go.

  • T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI director, talks about the 2017 route after the announcement on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

  • Watch a replay of the full RAGBRAI route announcement live show.

  • A RAGBRAI icon Paul Bernhard aka \u0022Mr. Pork Chop\u0022 passed away November, 2016 and RAGBRAI Nation shared photos with Mr. Pork Chop on the ride through the years.

  • The Bacoon Ride returns for its fourth year on the Raccoon River Trail on Saturday, June 17.

  • From the creators of the Bacoon Ride comes the new ride for women, Pigtails at the Prairie Trail on Saturday, May 20.

  • RAGBRAI director TJ Juskiewicz announces the overnight towns for RAGBRAI 2017.

  • The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa will go north in 2017, starting in Orange City, ending in Lansing, and overnighting in six more Iowa towns along the way. It's rated the third-easiest RAGBRAI ever.

  • Attendees at the RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party joined in a mass \u0022pork chop\u0022 call in honor of ride legend Mr. Pork Chop, Paul Bernhard, who died last year.

  • Just Go Bike is a weekly podcast that uses bikes to talk about the cool people who ride them. Tell your friends!

Find us socially

Email Signup

Sign up for the latest RAGBRAI news and notes (if there is no news in a day, you won’t get an e-mail).

© 2017 RAGBRAI | Terms of Service | Privacy Policy