RAGBRAI news team
Sun, Jul 22, 2012 | by Des Moines RegisterShare
By Mike Kilen
That thousands of folks bicycle the width of Iowa every summer for 40 years is a huge upset.
It’s strenuous exercise held outdoors among real people in a nation of climate-controlled couch potatoes with screen names. It’s self-propelled transportation to small-town celebrations in a motorized culture that is increasingly urban.
“It’s amazing to me. It never diminishes,” said Maggie Paulos of Davenport, one of seven who have pedaled on every RAGBRAI, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa that starts today in Sioux Center.
Veterans of the world’s oldest and largest organized bike ride have small gripes, which happens when you toss 10,000 riders together, stir in some beer, summer heat and even mention the Loess Hills. But they do not waver on its impact.
The ride brought biking into Iowa’s mainstream, said Forrest Ridgway, the Des Moines owner of Bike World who has missed only the first one. Forty years ago, he rode on lonely roads and rejoiced at spotting one other bicyclist. Today, hundreds crowd bike paths. Customers who move here from other states ask him if bike ownership is a prerequisite to Iowa citizenship.
“It’s not that RAGBRAI did it single-handedly,” he said. “But the trails in central Iowa were spawned by the interest in cycling, which was spawned by RAGBRAI.”
Today the annual economic impact of recreational bicycling in Iowa is estimated at $364.8 million, according to a recent study by the University of Northern Iowa’s sustainable tourism and environment program.
RAGBRAI’s beginnings are part of Iowa lore: In 1973, Des Moines Register writers Donald Kaul and John Karras had the idea to ride bicycles across the state and visit towns and their residents. They invited people to come along, thinking maybe a few hardy teenagers would join. They were shocked when hundreds showed up in Sioux City.
Iowans became captivated when Register writers told the adventures of the ride, featuring a lovable 83-year-old Clarence Pickard, who pedaled the distance wearing trousers, long underwear and a long-sleeved shirt.
Paulos was a part of a bike club in the Quad Cities that joined Pickard and the others on the last day of that first ride and presented them with a key to the city.
“We rode single speeds and three speeds. Nobody wore helmets. Nobody even had T-shirts or anything that matched. Kids were in tank tops and cutoff jeans. It was just whatever you had you wore,” said Paulos, 81. “It took me many years to give in to bicycle shorts. And then it’s like you have tapped into a cult.”
Her son, Rick, joined her and has gone on every subsequent ride. One year Maggie was injured after a crash but was so determined to ride at least part of one day she had a friend drive her up to Dyersville to pedal.
“It’s crazy how we get hooked on it,” she said.
Perhaps no one is hooked like veteran Scott Dickson, 63, of Newark, Del. He lived in Iowa when he and brother Randy took off on the first RAGBRAI. He never missed another.
The retired geography professor also never missed a day of bicycling after that for 29 years. Only a broken shoulder stopped him for a month but he restarted the streak through blizzards and blinding heat.
“Since that first RAGBAI in ’73 I have accumulated 800,500 miles,” Dickson said.
On RAGBRAI, he could be riding with a person who has pedaled just a couple hundred miles in their life.
“The beauty of RAGBRAI is you can be next to a guy from the Tour de France or the guy who mowed your lawn last week,” said T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI’s director since 2004.
Juskiewicz is inspired to continue the work of Jim Green, and before him the late Don Benson, when he reads the obituaries and sees the families of deceased list RAGBRAI among his or her life highlights.
“It gives me chills that it means that much,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to keep this going.”
It isn’t always easy. There are complaints, even among the veterans.
Maggie Paulos said the crowds that increased to several thousand within a few short years got so big she can’t even beat them by hitting the road before 7 a.m. And some of the local flavor has been lost by the dwindling rural communities and health regulations that squeeze out casual community vendors.
There was also debate over taxpayer liability on the ride in past years. The state of Iowa and Crawford County each paid settlements to the family of a biker killed after spilling from a crack in the road in 2004. RAGBRAI rider waivers were changed and insurance coverage added after that year.
The ride has survived and continues to change.
The numbers of riders was capped in the late 1980s. More nonresidents (two of every three riders today) have signed up. And host towns have ramped up entertainment options and offerings to compete for the cherished economic boost.
Boil it down, though, and RAGBRAI thrived because of a thousand little stories, year after year, a sort of oral history of celebration and challenge.
“One year one of my sons pushed me up a hill to get me out of Decorah,” said Paulos. “And one picture I have is of my son and his wife and one of my daughters. We are drowned rats in the rain near Dubuque, and we were eating chocolate chip cookies as fast as they could bake them. It was wonderful.”
There was so-called “Soggy Monday” in 1981 when riders rode in low 40s temperatures with a strong headwind.
“I made it to a barn where 25 people were huddled together trying to keep each other warm,” Ridgway remembers. “I thought, ‘These guys are going to die here and I’m not going to be part of it.’ So I took off. I said to myself if I don’t see a water tower at the top of this next hill, I’m going to throw this bike in the ditch and never ride again.
“I came over the hill and saw a campground and I thought I had reached the promised land after wandering in the desert.”
RAGBRAI is a series of punishments and rewards. Pies and ice cream follow hills. Beer and chops follow headwinds.
Thousands of Iowa townspeople, hundreds of state troopers, organizers, support people, entertainers and onlookers all somehow make it happen every year.
They are inspired by bikers who are a mix of gleeful and determined. For every party animal there is a person doing it to prove they can lose weight, beat cancer or bike with artificial limbs or without sight.
They spread the ashes of loved ones gone or ride with grandchildren who will always remember.
RAGBRAI has become a sort of democratic quest for our personal vitality and sense of community.
“I talk to bike dealers all over the country and they tell me they can’t understand why they can’t have the impact we’ve had with RAGBRAI,” Ridgway said. “I tell them you have mountains, but you don’t have 3 million Iowans. People don’t come here to say, ‘Look at that beautiful cornfield.’ They come here and see people who put a sign on their door — ‘Come on in.’ ”
37 of 39 RAGBRAIs down
Doug Greiner suits up for RAGBRAI No. 38 today. His first: 1975, as a 13-year-old, a year after his parents told him he was too young — but, fine, he could go the next year if this bike ride across Iowa happened again.
“The next year came, there was a ride, and I reminded them of their promise,” said Greiner, now 50 and living in Springfield, Mo. He would bike the final three days, as the route passed near the family farm in Keota, Ia., and his parents would meet him at night.
“I recall wearing tennis shoes, jeans, a T-shirt, and at the insistence of my mother, a rather long fiberglass pole with an orange flag was attached to the back axle of my bike,” he said. “No shorts, no gloves, no helmet, no cellphone, none of the things riders take for granted today.”
It was an exhausting first day, and somewhere near Lynnville a thirsty Greiner stopped at a rural house and asked for a drink. Instead, the woman in the yard brought him an ice cream sandwich. “I think it may have been the most delicious ice cream sandwich I have ever eaten,” he said. “Before she knew it, she was giving ice cream sandwiches to everyone who was in her yard.”
His parents picked him up, took him to dinner, and brought him home for the night. “Exceedingly early” the next morning, his mother woke him up with a “you wanted to ride, so you have to get up.” “I think she thought it was punishment for pestering them to let me go in the first place,” Greiner said.
The rest of the ride was a wonderful experience. “What she had unwittingly done was to set me on the roads of Iowa for years to come. I was hooked and I haven’t missed a RAGBRAI since.”
— Tim Paluch
The official pie judge
Mark Hilton is proud to be the first “official pie judge of RAGBRAI,” a title he says was bestowed upon him from 1991 to 1997.
After his initial ride in 1990, Hilton, then 32, contacted the Register’s Chuck Offenburger and told him someone needed to judge all those pies as a way to give accolades to the fine bakers of Iowa. Hilton then wrote up stories of the top pies for seven years — “I even got my name in Sports Illustrated one year,” he said.
Hilton heard about RAGBRAI, he said, “from anyone that I knew was into cycling.” He rode on a 900-mile trip in Colorado at 16, and an 800-miler from Virginia to Indiana when he was 18. His family moved to Iowa in 1983 and he and three pals rode RAGBRAI for the first time in 1990. The next year, they formed “Team Pie,” and he would send Offenburger his top-10 pie list at the end of each ride.
“Many winners were ‘church ladies’ and I heard from a number of them after the ride,” he said. “They would tell me of their newfound fame as a pie-baking champion.”
This year he’s back to ride in the 40th RAGBRAI, and will be joined by his oldest son, Matt.
— Tim Paluch
Hospitality, Iowa style
Rich Jones doesn’t remember the exact year he learned just how hospitable Iowans could be when RAGBRAI rolls through their towns.
It was the early 1990s and he was part of a small group of six family members who arranged to stay in a retired couple’s backyard in northwest Iowa. They didn’t know each other, more of a “friend of a friend of a friend” situation, he said.
“That day was my turn to drive our support van and when I pulled into their driveway there was a note on a side door to the garage. The note read ‘We’re not home right now, but the house is open. Go on in and make yourself at home. And there are some fresh brownies for you just inside the kitchen.’
“What wonderful hosts this retired couple was.”
Jones’ teenage son and daughter were along that year, and the experience “left them with a great memory of what RAGBAI is all about as well,” Jones, of Ames, said.
— Tim Paluch
A tough first ride
Janet Stanley, then 24, read about RAGBRAI in The Des Moines Register and thought it would be a good experience for getting out and seeing the state and meeting Iowans.
So she rode the second year on her bright orange bike, in 1974, starting off alone — “did not know a soul nor what I was getting into,” Stanley, now 63 and living in Indianola, said. That first night, she pitched her bright orange tent and asked a camping neighbor to wake her up in the morning (she is hearing impaired).
“He kindly said yes and boy was it dark when he did,” she said. “The rest of the week was history.”
Until the final day, that is. She landed in a Dubuque park and felt weak. She walked around and asked for help at a welcome booth, then woke up in a hospital after suffering from a kidney stone. Her family found her bike and gear where she left it (of course — Iowa courtesy, after all) and was eventually transferred to a hospital in Des Moines, where she recovered quickly.
Despite the medical problems, Stanley went on to ride RAGBRAI four more times.
— Tim Paluch
Happily ever after
“How’s the sandwich?”
Those were the first words Beth Cornelison’s future husband said to her — in Marcus, Ia., in 2002 on RAGBRAI XXX — while the two strangers ate a meal after a long ride.
“Does it matter?” she responded.
And this is how a RAGBRAI love story happens. She was 21, a senior at the University of Iowa and a first-time rider going it alone. He was 33, from Chicago, on his eighth RAGBRAI and with a group in the beer garden. They hung out that day, then again the next night — and the rest of the ride after that.
“The following summer I moved to Chicago and we started dating,” she said. They married in June 2007, and the newlyweds’ honeymoon was spent on, of course, RAGBRAI. They added signs to their bikes that read “Just married … met RAGBRAI 2002” and during a dinner at a senior center in Independence, Ia., someone found them a cake to commemorate the occasion.
The couple, who now live in Illinois, have ridden each RAGBRAI since — except for two abbreviated rides the years their two children were born. (Their kids now wear “Future RAGBRAIer” T-shirts.)
— Tim Paluch
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