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Munson: What’s in store for next 40 years of RAGBRAI?



While reporting a column in tiny Searsboro I happened to spot Bob Saar’s signature on the side of a building downtown.

This would have seemed odd — he’s a musician, writer, journalist and Renaissance man who hails from Burlington in the southeast corner of the state — except that Saar had scrawled his name among dozens of other riders on a “2001 RAGBRAI” mural left behind by the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Saar, 64, first pedaled RAGBRAI in 1988, and this year is the driver for the 60 or so members of Team Sprint, reputed to be the second-oldest club on the ride.

The sight of that mural ever since has made me wonder: What would some archeologist eons from now who unearths this RAGBRAI relic or one of its counterparts make of our quaint summer bike tour?

Or, after its first 40 years, what might RAGBRAI look like after just another 40 runs? By the 2050s, will global warming force rescheduling it to balmy February?

RAGBRAI in its 41st year is the cherished, robust institution created on a whim. But, sadly, Searsboro, a town of fewer than 150 residents that in recent years didn’t even have enough money to scrap its city government and turn over its streets and sewer to Poweshiek County, has faded with its mural.

Might RAGBRAI outlive the rural Iowa culture it celebrates?

Like me, RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz hopes not. There’s a crucial symbiosis at work.

“Without those towns we can’t survive,” Juskiewicz said. “If we lose that flavor, I think the state as a whole would lose something.”

And by flavor, we don’t mean just the heavenly taste of homemade rhubarb pie. It’s the outsized festive atmosphere that even discontinued towns such as Cosgrove — a junction in the road west of Iowa City — have been able to muster when RAGBRAI rolls through.

The technology of the ride has evolved from dense cotton to water-wicking Spandex and from coin-operated phone booths to app-filled smartphones (albeit coping with weak cell signals).

So 40 years from now will we be riding anti-gravitational hover cycles, some pedal-power version of those “Return of the Jedi” speeder bikes?

Juskiewicz tempered my imagination: Bicycles since inception all have been “basically two wheels and a chain powered by human ability,” he said.

But he also pointed out that man-made forests of wind turbines didn’t dot the Iowa landscape back in 1973 when co-founders John Karras and Donald Kaul first set out.

So maybe we can hold out hope within the next 40 years for green-energy, air-conditioned and tornado-proof inflatable RAGBRAI tents that fit easily in a fanny pack.

Some riders, however, are less concerned with how technological innovation might transform RAGBRAI than with the tone set by the rules of the road.

John Baum, one of 40 members of Team Haze, would like to see RAGBRAI adopt “more of a party atmosphere again.”

You might have guessed that Team Haze members prefer to clamber out of their tents closer to lunchtime and ride into the evening.

“It’s a different world back there,” Baum, 52, an attorney for an insurance company who lives in downtown Des Moines, said of his late-shift RAGBRAI.

Juskiewicz does field continuous brainstorms from would-be RAGBRAI innovators. Last year somebody suggested that “we should plant trees all along the route to keep it cool.”

That would mean choosing the route about 30 years in advance, millions of dollars in foliage and fewer panoramic views. I’m OK with the concept since I’d love to bike in continuous shade when riding RAGBRAI in my 70s.

Saar, the musician and journalist, boils down RAGBRAI’s future to two factors: fossil fuels and, well, fossils.

As oil prices escalate, will fewer riders be able to afford driving their hallowed goofy and gas-guzzling school buses and RVs across Iowa?

And as the baby boomer generation passes the baton to GenX and Millennials and so on, will RAGBRAI, the Beatles of bike rides, remain the preferred long and winding road for successive generations?

And will the road itself evolve?

“Will the ride continue to be on roadways or will it go on a trail system at times?” wondered Leo Landis, the curator at the State Historical Museum, which assembled a new RAGBRAI exhibit. “I could be wrong, but it seems natural that some year the route will use a trail part of a day rather than a road.”

Trails so far offer a narrow path compared to highways, but what if bicycles end up taking over more roads?

You laugh, but the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies in Denmark made a compelling case recently for the bike as the leading transportation of the future. Today, two and a half times as many bicycles are manufactured compared to cars. And the megatrends of population growth and urbanization make the compact-yet-individual bicycle the ideal means of navigating many big cities.

Maybe that will be a milestone of the 2050s: Bikes will be so ubiquitous by then that for the first time portions of Interstate Highway 80 will be shut down to accommodate a day or two of RAGBRAI.

See you there on my spiffy hoverbike. Save me a spot to sign the mural at the rest stop.

1 Response on “Munson: What’s in store for next 40 years of RAGBRAI?

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July 27, 2014 at 5:39 am

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