Thu, May 17, 2012 | by TJ JuskiewiczShare
With RAGBRAI XL (that’s 40, to you non-Roman-numeraly hip dudes) looming ever closer, an unwanted fact keeps bonking around in the back of my mind: That fact is that I am one year younger than Clarence Pickard was in 1973, when Donald Kaul and I launched this general silliness.
Well, so what? you say. And so something, I say.
And that something is, simply, will I be able to live up to the example that wizened little fellow, delightful and accomplished as he was (four years in the Peace Corps, professor at ISU, county agent, farmer, taught Hindus they could eat eggs if they kept the rooster out of the chicken yard), set 40 years ago? Ah, yes, as Terry Thomas might have said, there’s the rub.
Clarence showed up—maybe 5’5”, maybe 100 pounds—in Sioux City that August Saturday in 1973 in a pith helmet covered with duct tape and with a green and white woman’s Schwinn 10-speed that he’d purchased two weeks before. Asked about training miles, he said, “I rode around the block a couple of times.”
We all figured he might make it to the Sioux City city limits, but not much beyond. The truth is he rode every bloody mile of that first year’s insane route, including the 100 miles from Des Moines to Williamsburg and the sixth and final day’s 80 miles from Williamsburg to Davenport.
Have we ever repeated that route? If anyone had insisted on it I would have resigned from The Register and insisted on erasing my name from anything associated with RAGBRAI.
The route was dumber than anyone today could imagine. The only part of it that any of us had looked at was the stretch from Des Moines to Williamsburg, which Kaul and I and a few friends had ridden a few years before as part of our journey to becoming touring cyclists. The rest of the route—Sioux City to Des Moines, Williamsburg to Davenport—was terra unknown. Indeed, we encountered at least half a mile of gravel on the way into Moscow, IA, a town we hadn’t known existed.
Not only did he have this clunky bike that probably weighed half as much as he did, he also hadn’t the foggiest notion of how to shift the gears.
The levers were mounted on the handlebar stem, as was common at that time. Clarence thought the proper positions for both were as far forward as they could go, or as far back, which meant, of course, that he was always in the wrong gear.
I caught up with him as we were approaching the dreaded Boone Hill out of the Des Moines River valley and mentioned that we were approaching a really difficult hill and I thought he would be much happier climbing it if the left lever were as far forward as it could go and the right lever as far back (which, of course, would put the bike in its first, easiest gear). I saw him later in the day and he said, “That sure did help.”
Yes, he was slow. He also fell off his bike frequently. He’d become such a household name by the time the ride reached Iowa City that an elementary school there let all the kids outside to watch Clarence come by. He saw them, stopped and promptly fell off the bike. Then, picking himself up he swept off his pith helmet and did a deep bow. The kids went nuts.
Okay, so what does any of this have to do with me and RAGBRAI XL? Just this: As I approach Clarence’s age, can I measure up?
As this is being written, friends, we are nine-plus weeks from the start of RAGBRAI XL, and at this point, I ain’t measuring up.
Okay, okay, Ann and I are living at 9,000-plus feet here in Summit County, Colorado, so I can make some excuses about elevation and whatnot, but the simple fact, at this point, is that I can’t cut it. We struggle up small hills for a total of five miles and then retire to the condo for naps. That ain’t RAGBRAI-quality riding, but I’m going to keep working on the legs and hoping to make it.
Stay tuned for more….. Thoughts from Grampa RAGBRAI
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 XL this summer. He and his wife Ann now reside in Dillon, Colorado.