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RAGBRAI 2012: Riding is a rare escape for most, but not for him



CHEROKEE, Ia. — The first day of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa for most bicyclists is an oddball on their annual calendar — a summer detour into a 400-mile-plus odyssey.

It’s a release from the humdrum into an exotic rural playground of feather-boa-clad bikers, grannies holding aloft “God bless” signs in their front yards and lemonade dispensed alongside gas pumps at the small-town corner station. A water slide beckons at every other farmstead.

Not to mention that only this week do most RAGBRAI riders climb on their bikes on a daily basis. Thankfully, even for the untrained, this year’s first day from Sioux Center to Cherokee was rather kind (excepting the heat), with 54 predominantly flat miles and a fortifying gauntlet of Dutch pastries.

But then there’s Vincent Paragano’s perspective. This is his first RAGBRAI, so the Iowa roadside circus and parade route vibe is new to him. But the physical regimen is not: This guy has ridden a bike every single day since Oct. 16, 1989.

I realize that that stat conjures up a host of questions; I’ll try to get to most of them.

I spent most of Sunday’s route riding with Paragano, 56, who’s a retired attorney and high school fencing coach, and I do believe him. Had he been back home in Bernardsville, N.J., he might have spent an hour rolling 18 miles through more familiar narrow, winding and hilly roads.

Instead, he marveled at our Midwest “stick cuisine” and incredibly flat and open straightaways.

I helped him identify soybeans and talked drought and corn prices while he filled me in on his hard-core biking resume.

Yes, when the snow flies, Paragano hops on his indoor stationary bike. (He’s worn out three of those but has pedaled the same steel-framed Schwinn since 1989.)

“I just like the Cal Ripken streak,” he explained in downtown Orange City as a mayhem of bicyclists swirled around the Tulip Time floats. (Ripken, baseball’s “Iron Man,” played in 2,632 consecutive major league games.) Paragano is past 8,300 straight days.

Paragano is serious enough that he bicycled at home in New Jersey at 2:30 a.m. Saturday before catching his crack-of-dawn flight to Iowa.

He bicycled on the morning before as well as the day after two different knee surgeries (to remove the floating, leftover cartilage from his days as a baseball catcher).

After his family opens Christmas presents, Paragano makes a beeline for his bike. He bikes even if he’s swooning with a 104-degree fever or wincing from two broken ribs.

The rib injury he earned last month while competing as a fencer at the Can-Am Veterans Cup in Toronto. (He continued fencing for five hours with the broken ribs and persevered to win gold.)

“Don’t talk to Dad until he’s gotten on his bike,” has been a common refrain for the Paragano family — three grown children plus wife Kathryn.

Biking is his vice, the endorphins his addiction. Paragano doesn’t drink coffee or use caffeine, or even alcohol beyond the rare glass of wine.

He’s also the one Italian in history, he said, who doesn’t eat pasta or pizza, because of bread and dairy allergies.

Paragano’s RAGBRAI buddy from New Jersey, Dominick Mancuso, handles the heavy eating — including a doughnut, Blue Bunny ice cream and a slice of chocolate chip pie Sunday. (He also claimed probably the first flat tire of this year’s RAGBRAI on the first mile out of Sioux Center.) Mancuso read about RAGBRAI last year in a travel story in his local Star-Ledger newspaper, purchased a bike and embarked on the 2011 ride. He evangelized to Paragano and coaxed him here this year.

OK, so why bike daily?

After Paragano hurt his back in the 1980s, his 5-foot-8-inch frame ballooned to 200 pounds. (He now weighs 149, same as he did in college.)

“You got a book in one hand and a sub sandwich in the other, and you’re working through the night,” he said.

His wife took him to a specialist, who recommended that he climb on a bicycle. So indirectly, this is all her fault.

After more than 20 years of biking, RAGBRAI is only the second formal ride he’s participated in. The first was the Revolutionary Ramble last month in New Jersey — a 25-mile route that turned into 35 when Paragano got lost.

No threat of getting lost on RAGBRAI with the sound of blaring bike stereos to guide us: “Ziggy Stardust” sparring with “Love and Marriage.”

When Paragano and I arrived in a pool of sweat in downtown Cherokee, I met Kathryn and put the obvious questions to her.

What does she think of her husband’s habit?

“I just call it anal-retentive, personally,” she said.

Hasn’t she ever asked him just to skip a day?

Yes, probably once a month. “He is who he is,” she said.

“You don’t ask Cal to break the streak,” Paragano told me earlier in the day.

But if he ever took up golf, that would probably be the last straw.

Paragano did have a goal Sunday that didn’t involve a bike.

“Tonight I want to get a pork chop on a stick,” he said.

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