RAGBRAI XLV Countdown – July 23-29, 2017
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Karras Reflects: No One Dreamed What RAGBRAI Would Become

by John Karras, RAGBRAI Co-Founder

So here we are, about to embark on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa XL. Who might have guessed that there would be more than one of these when Donald Kaul and I invented the thing back in 1973? No one, that’s who.

Indeed, it wasn’t until 1975, the third incarnation,that it was called RAGBRAI — followed by the silly Roman numeral affectation, of course.

I’ve missed four — the first in 1987 with a heart attack and the second in 2003. That last was my first opportunity to join in as just a rider, rather than as the ride’s host, and I stayed home because I feared I’d find myself running on like the typically intolerable oldtimer who tells everyone, “That ain’t the way we used to do it,” or words to that effect. I then missed 2010 and 2011 with legs that were betraying me.

I’ll be there this year, though, even if only to stand at the ending intersection and hand out “Karras Loop” patches to the loony riders who complete it. (Riders who complete the Karras Loop and that day’s ride will travel a staggering — literally — 104.5 miles.) I’ve been working diligently on the legs and hope to join those fellow loonies for at least a few miles of this year’s route.

A couple of years ago, T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI organizer and director since 2004, asked me what I’d like to see happen on RAGBRAI-L. “Good grief, Teej,” I said, “I’ll be dead.”

“I didn’t want to bring that up,” he said.

Well, with 10 years to go and still being vertical, here are my hopes for the 40th: Temperatures in the low 80s, no rain, no accidents along the way, and nothing but singing and general jollity. Happy faces and healthy knees and elbows. No sunburn, no headaches, no nausea and no road rash.

Yeah. And there really is a Santa Claus.

But no matter how this year turns out, I’ll always have those many years of memories, both good and bad, but mostly thrilling or just plain amusing:

  • The surprise of seeing hundreds show up in the parking lot in Sioux City at the start of the first ride in 1973, when Kaul and I expected no more than a few teenagers, if anyone.
  • The stress in the second year when some 3,000 showed up in Council Bluffs and we had no idea where they would find accommodations for the week, besides fearing that someone among us would surely be hit by a car and die.
  • Carter LeBeau in his multi-colored silly socks riding at least part of all 39 RAGBRAIs, and expected again this year.
  • Huck Thompson’s record of having ridden every mile for at least 35 RAGBRAIs until a bout of flu stopped him. He broke down and wept upon having to quit.
  • The stunning beauty of so much of Iowa in the early morning hours with valleys full of mist lending a feeling of mystery to the cool landscape.
  • The days of absolute misery with road temperatures well above 100 degrees by 2 in the afternoon, the days of beating all day against headwinds up to 30 miles an hour, or the very few days of constant light rain with temperatures in the 50s.
  • The surprise and dismay of cyclists from elsewhere who had joined RAGBRAI believing that Iowa is flat.

But there’s one that looms high above all the rest: The sight of women in their 50s weeping with joy on the banks of the Mississippi River after a week-long major physical achievement with absolutely no help from or involvement with a man.

That one made me realize that we were really onto something big with RAGBRAI.


JOHN KARRAS, a retired Des Moines Register editor and writer, together with Register columnist Donald Kaul founded the cross-state bicycle ride that became RAGBRAI. The ride has grown into the longest, largest and oldest bicycle touring event in the world, attracting thousands of riders each year from throughout the United States and a surprising number of foreign countries. Karras now lives in Dillon, Colorado.

Contact: jskarras007@yahoo.com


37 Responses on “Karras Reflects: No One Dreamed What RAGBRAI Would Become

Cindy Altmaier Riley

July 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I am a 2 generation Ragbrai family. My first Ragbrai was number IV and my daughter Alice’s first Ragbrai, at age 12 was in 2000 (yes, she rode the entire way!). One day on that ride I was riding a little in front of her when I heard her talking to someone. Well that someone turned out to be John Karras! They visited a while then John rode off. I asked my daughter what he had said to her and she said, “he told me to tell Mom to buy me a better bike”!! Well, this year will be Alice’s 11th time on Ragbrai, and yes, she has a better bike!


July 17, 2012 at 9:47 pm

So it’s YOU that helped me kick 40 and 50 in the butt!!! And now I’m doing RAGBRAI each year as my birthday present to me (during RAGBRAI, of course). You simply can’t imagine how far your reach has gone: this African-American woman who lives in Texas (where kids are taught to drive trucks before (if ever) riding bikes, who statistically should have multiple health issues can’t wait to be on an Iowa stretch in the baking sun, pedalling past soy and corn fields, smelling pigs, climbing merciless numbers of hills…just me moving on a bike for hours each day!!! No office, no whiney customers, no silly reports, no crappy traffic. It’s the best week of my year!!! And nobody back home ever believes my hilarious stories of Iowan hospitality. Thank you from the bottom of my 52 yr old (next week) healthy heart!!!


July 17, 2012 at 10:16 pm

RAGBRAI is such a great experience! Thanks to Kaul and Karras for launching this thing. Thanks to the Register for driving the bus through thick and thin. Thanks to the people of Iowa for being such wonderful hosts. Thanks to the riders, the Iowa State Patrol amd DOT. Thanks to all of the Iowa Countys, host cities and pass through towns. I don’t think there is another place in the world that could pull this off.

Connie Lang

July 17, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I still have a snapshot of me in my bikini top, bike shorts and helmet, standing next to you, from the mid 1980’s. Can’t thank you enough for starting this crazy idea that blossomed into an annual event for thousands!


July 18, 2012 at 1:16 am

Ragbrai– “It truely, does not get any better than this” 🙂


July 18, 2012 at 8:11 am

Thanks, John Karras and DM Registef. I am excited to head out on my 25th RAGBRAI this year.


July 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Yeah, after doing this thing 14 times, I’m still trying to figure out why. Must be the people. Or the pie. Or the ride. Or….who knows? We’re all crazy.

My first was XXIII with my father – twice my age at the time. He no longer rides (at 89) but still speaks of that ride as highlight to his life.

See what you started, John?

Peter Magnusson, MD

July 23, 2012 at 9:49 am

By my count, you’ve done 20 RAGBRAI’s after having had a heart attack! John, that’s as much an inspiration to the rest of us as the overweight 50 year-olds. Congratulations on giving us the inspiration to stay fit with bike riding so that we continue to return to the beautiful state of Iowa and ride RAGBRAI.

Chris Young

July 23, 2012 at 11:55 am

Thanks to you and Donald Kaul for starting this thing! I was one of the “teenagers” who showed up in Sioux City in 1973 and rode the entire thing. I don’t recall riding with you, but did ride with Donald for awhile out of Fort Dodge, and some thru Des Moines. I may actually ride this again in the next few years, possibly on much of the same Raleigh that I rode the original on 🙂

Jean Beelee

July 24, 2012 at 11:30 pm

Am thrilled to read this by John Karras as I have followed it each year. Loved the year it came through Centerville when we lived there. Our granddaughter rode this year for the first time. You created a beauty! Ride with God.

Steve ralston

July 30, 2012 at 5:11 am

This year was my very first year riding in Ragbrai, it was a major accomplishment for me to add to my bucket list. April of 2011 I weighed close to 250 lbs. After going for my annual physical my doctor said she was going to put me on a low dose bp medicine. I kindly said no thank you and told her I would fix this problem. Well here it is two days after completing my first Ragbrai and I am now down to 178 lbs and sitting at just under 3,000 miles on my bike for this season. Ragbrai showed me the accomplishment I could do if I set my mind to it and I did. Some of the hot triple digit days were not easy but I loved it and plan on making this an annual pilgrimage. GREAT RIDE AND EVENT,,,,

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