RAGBRAI XLIV Countdown – July 24-30, 2016
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Thoughts from Grampa RAGBRAI

By John Karras, Co-Founder of RAGBRAI

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.

But back to Clarence.

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.

13 Responses on “Thoughts from Grampa RAGBRAI

Debbie (Jackson) Geiger

May 17, 2012 at 7:21 am

You can do it! Think of another old bicyclist who is now trying out the trails in heaven.
Daughter of John Jackson


May 17, 2012 at 9:05 am

There will be a piece of pie with your name on it John…but ya gotta come and get it. Counting on seeing you in July in Iowa.


Profile photo of jerryphelps


May 17, 2012 at 12:45 pm

John–It will be great to see you in the Team Skunk camp. I’ll buy the first beer.


May 17, 2012 at 6:42 pm

We’ll have to plan to meet up on the ride! Keep training!

Steve B

May 17, 2012 at 7:21 pm

I was on that first ride and was infected with the cycling bug. I hope to see you on the ride!

Osh Barb Andersen

May 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm

You can do it! It will be great to see you again. I was a teenager who rode out with a bunch of bicycle friends/fiends from Ames to meet you and Donald Kaul that first year and escorted you into town. The next morning we rode with you as far as Polk City. Thanks!


May 18, 2012 at 12:17 pm

John:Let me know if you guys need a bed to sleep in during your stay in Webster City.

susie scott

May 19, 2012 at 5:26 pm

We’re counting on you. We’ll all cheer you on every single mile and give you the best draft the US of A has ever known. Ride on!!

Jim Conzemius

May 19, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I’ve always maintained that despite the efforts of you and Mr. Kaul, which are immense, RAGBRAI would not be RAGBRAI without Clarence Pickard. He sparked something, and the light never dimmed.

Profile photo of havencoffeehouse


May 20, 2012 at 4:23 am

There will indeed be as many pieces of pie as you care to eat with your name on them. Stop by Haven in Marshalltown to claim them on July 25th. It’s the least we can do for Grampa RAGBRAI and the legacy you have given the world. Thank you.


May 21, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I still cherish your book, especially “bananas and beer,” and I still pronounce RAGBRAI correctly. This year is my second ride, at age 67, and I’m looking forward to 2028. Best of luck to you!


May 24, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Grandpa, I hope you find it within you to ride the route this year. But, if not, the journey has been worthwhile. Ride strong, ride safe and until we meet again.


July 22, 2012 at 8:24 pm

you are still on the planet, I remember your old colums,. See clean living worked.

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