RAGBRAI news team
Tue, Jul 24, 2012 | by Kyle MunsonShare
STRATFORD, Ia. – When you’re 82 years old and created what has become an Iowa rite of summer, it’s OK to stand in one spot and let the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa come to you.
Thus John Karras, who with fellow Register writer Donald Kaul in 1973 co-founded RAGBRAI and popularized the cross-state concept, spent all of Tuesday confined to a mere city block of the route in downtown Stratford.
Karras’ cardiologist kept him at home in Colorado last year, but he returned for this 40th shindig in grand style: a reception line midway along the Karras Loop named in his honor. The extra leg between Dayton and Lehigh pushed Tuesday’s 81-mile route past 100 miles.
Some called him “Grandpa RAGBRAI” as his sweat-drenched and sunburned disciples approached the throne — a lawn chair beneath a blue RAGBRAI tent.
There were elementary school kids and septuagenarians alike. They hailed from Seattle, New York, England, Holland.
Instead of his bicycling legs, Karras’ hands and cheek muscles got a workout from the continual grip and grin. Kaul wasn’t able to return from Michigan this year to help shoulder the rock-star burden.
Riders thanked their idol or ribbed him as they picked up commemorative patches:
“Is this the man whose fault it is?”
“He’s the reason everybody’s legs hurt today.”
“I gotta meet the man — the man, the legend.”
“Thank you for starting this wonderful ride.”
“Nice to know there were other crazy people before me.”
“I just wanted to see if he’s alive.”
“A lot of people are healthier because of you.”
“Everyone takes your name in vain every year.”
“It’s a good thing you’ve done.”
“Thank you for starting this. My wife would say something different, but she’s not around.”
Way back in 1974, Karras wrote that “the difference between being able to ride five miles and 100 miles at a stretch (one day, that is, including rest stops) involves no more than doing it.”
So maybe there was a little karma delivered with the adulation.
“You’re our hero,” a bicyclist said, “even though you made this day real hard.”
Stop blaming him for the route! Karras reiterated that he no longer has anything to do with mapping it.
Part of the inspiration of Karras is that he seized upon his passion and turned it not just into a vocation, but a craze.
“A reader suggests I quit writing about bicycling,” he wrote in 1982. “I’ve tried, God knows, I’ve tried, but some dark, irresistible impulse drives me to it again and again.”
The fruits of that impulse were on full display for a solid seven hours. Karras and his wife, Ann, took their posts not long after 8:30 a.m., with one man already patiently waiting for his patch.
Ann sat beneath the tent, where she guarded the box of 4,000 patches and helped hand out about 3,500 of them to registered riders with wristbands.
“I told John he ought to shave,” she said, shaking her head at his RAGBRAI stubble.
The couple was situated at the south end of the downtown business district, where riders strolled by the food booths along Shakespeare Avenue (this is Stratford, remember). They stopped to see the bicycle bard in front of city hall and the Family Pharmacy as a pair of accordionists serenaded.
Karras’ lean, angular frame was clad in a 1998 RAGBRAI jersey randomly plucked from his duffel bag, plus black biking shorts, white socks and sandals. He kept stamping his left foot to relieve numbness.
Most of the riders were strangers, but not Scott Dickson — one of the handful of bicycling vets to have ridden all 40 RAGBRAIs.
“I thought he was an old guy then,” Dickson riffed, thinking back to 1973. Dickson’s mother used to sew biking shorts for Karras.
Rick Paulos of Cedar Rapids, another all-40-RAGBRAIs guy, also sat down for a chat.
Karras barely had time to pull out his hanky and blow his nose.
“Now it’s getting to be a mob scene,” Ann said shortly after 10 a.m.
“Folks, I have to take a short break,” Karras announced at 11. “My leg is killing me.”
But just a few minutes and swallows of water later, he was back on his feet and out in the sunshine.
Patches and handshakes soon turned into photos, and by 1 p.m. Karras was signing the backs of jerseys.
“So I have one question,” a rider asked. “Why the end of July?”
“It all has to do with when the State Fair starts,” Karras patiently explained for the umpteenth time.
First-timer Mike Hubl from Scottsdale, Ariz., asked whether the last name was pronounced “Kar-ass.”
“I’m going to correct all my buddies,” he promised.
That was funny considering Karras continued to promote his preferred pronunciation of the ride as “rag-bray.”
RAGBRAI “wasn’t supposed to turn into anything,” Karras said between handshakes. But he’s been astonished ever since its inaugural year. Who thought anybody would agree to follow “a couple of wannabe hippies” in the first place?
“It is still nutty,” he said. “Lovely nutty.”
Karras pointed out that he grew up in Cleveland, his co-founder Kaul in Detroit. I suppose it’s appropriate that it was a pair of out-of-state city boys with an outsider’s perspective who established a roving festival to cherish Iowa’s small-town culture.
Karras once wrote that bicycling is an apt metaphor for life: “It is occasionally glorious, often difficult, sometimes maddening, and most often tedious.”
After the glorious tedium of thousands of grateful handshakes and photos, Ann had a request for her lanky husband: “John, I don’t want to hear you say you don’t know anybody on this route now.”
28 minutes of footage from 1974′s Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa:
Leave a Reply
We have been busy adding new vendors to the RAGBRAI XLI Expo roster! From bike gear to mementos to cycling related non profits, there is something here for pretty much ...
Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10 to #Oklahoma relief. Spread the word. #gannettcares. Our hearts go out to Oklahomans affected by the tornado, and their friends and families.
If you have committed to riding RAGBRAI this year, it all starts with Tip #1, the RIGHT stuff. And when I say stuff, I mean bicycle.
It is with great sadness to report that the Dream Team lost one of their former members in a tragic house fire this week. Nyakouth Choul, 17, was found ...
Where are people coming from to ride RAGBRAI? What types of bikes are they riding? How many Iowans? Average age of riders? Lots of information about ...
As the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa looms in the near distance, two notions and a question scurry about in my mind. The question, of ...
Several people have asked for Coach Ertl's Training Plan in an excel file, so here it is
I had a frightening thought as I looked out the window this past weekend and saw 3 inches of snow on the ground. RAGBRAI begins in two and a ...
High Country Shipping in cooperation with RAGBRAI is pleased to offer GEAR Forward! Ship your camping gear and luggage to RAGBRAI and have it waiting for you at the start of ...
Looking for the RAGBRAI XLI Overnight Towns web sites? What bands will be playing that night? Facebook pages? Twitter links? All that information is a click ...
Check out these 10 tips for a safe RAGBRAI.
Paul "Mr. Pork Chop" Bernhard of Bancroft is a legendary RAGBRAI vendor. His son, Matt, now runs the family biz and is on a quest for perfectly cut chops.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz unveils the full 406-mile route for July's installment of the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI director, talks with The Des Moines Register's Lynn Hicks and Michael Morain shortly after the announcement of overnight towns for RAGBRAI XLI.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz reveals the overnight towns for RAGBRAI XLI at the RAGBRAI route announcement party Saturday, Jan. 26, in Des Moines.
RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz reacts to Lance Armstrong's doping confession. Armstrong has ridden RAGBRAI several times in the ride's 40 years.
RAGBRAI 2012: Amy Clark of Midlothian, TX, drew a crab as she helped Chalk the Walk in Mt. Vernon. She was enjoying her first RAGBRAI.
RAGBRAI 2012: Laura Krouse of Rural Mt. Vernon, and her dog Lucky came out to watch the RAGBRAI riders pass by.
RAGBRAI 2012: A group of kids high-five RAGRAI riders on their way into Springville on July 27.
RAGBRAI: A look back at 40 years of the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
Find us socially
Sign up for the latest RAGBRAI news and notes (if there is no news in a day, you won’t get an e-mail).