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RAGBRAI history



In the beginning, when a few friends got together for a casual bike ride across Iowa in 1973, no one imagined that a tradition would be born, let alone that it would become the longest, largest and oldest recreational bicycle touring event in the world.

More RAGBRAI history
The 1970s | The 1980s | The 1990s | The 2000s | The 2010s | Facts and figures
History map: See which towns have hosted RAGBRAI the most and when

John Karras

John Karras

RAGBRAI’s Beginnings & The First Year
August 26-31, 1973
The Register’s bicycling tradition began with an idea (a kind of a challenge) between Des Moines Register feature writer/copy editor John Karras, an avid bicyclist, and Don Kaul, author of The Des Moines Register’s “Over The Coffee” column. Karras suggested to Kaul that he ride his bicycle across Iowa and write columns about what he saw from that perspective. Kaul, also an accomplished rider, lived in Washington, D.C., and wrote his column from The Register’s Washington Bureau.

Kaul liked the idea but issued the challenge that he would ride across Iowa if Karras rode with him. Karras agreed and the plan was approved by the managing editor. Coordination of the ride was assigned to Don Benson, public relations director, and the RAGBRAI trio was formed. Benson served as coordinator of the ride until his retirement in 1991, when Jim Green took over the duties.

Don Kaul

Don Kaul

Kaul and Karras then invited ‘a few friends’ (the public) to ride along. The route was laid out on maps and readers were told that the ride would start in Sioux City on August 26 and end on August 31 in Davenport. Overnight stops were scheduled in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Ames, Des Moines and Williamsburg. (Year One’s overnight towns had the largest average population of any RAGBRAI through RAGBRAI XXIV.) The ride was informally referred to as ‘ The Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride’ and was scheduled to tie in with a Register and Tribune circulation sales meeting in Des Moines.

Because the readers were only given six weeks notice before the late-August ride, response was light, which may have been fortunate since the route had not been driven prior to the ride and no camping arrangements had been made. Don Benson had made motel reservations for himself, Kaul and Karras, because, after all, it was their ride. Motel operators along the way and the Naval Reserve Center in Des Moines came to the rescue of the riders by letting them pitch tents on their lawns.

An estimated 300 people showed up for the start of the ride in Sioux City. By actual count, 114 riders made the entire distance that first year. The number swelled to 500 riders on the stretch of the route between Ames and Des Moines.

Among the many interesting people the ride attracted was Clarence Pickard of Indianola. This 83-year-old gentleman, who hadn’t ridden a bicycle much in recent years, showed up for that first ride with a used ladies Schwinn and rode all the way to Davenport, including the 100 degree plus day from Des Moines to Williamsburg, a 110-mile trek. Pickard’s attire for the ride was a long-sleeved shirt, trousers, woolen long underwear and a silver pith helmet.

Kaul’s and Karras’ articles and columns about Pickard, and points of interest along the way were, perhaps, responsible for the growth of the ride. After the ride, letters and calls poured in from people excited about the ride but upset because it was held the first week of school so students and teachers couldn’t go. Others were upset because the ride started on the final weekend of the Iowa State Fair. And still others wished more notice had been given so vacation arrangements could have been made.

Basically, the theme was the same “please offer another opportunity to participate in the ride! So the seven-day, Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa “SAGBRAI” was scheduled for August 4-10, 1974.

More RAGBRAI history
The 1970s | The 1980s | The 1990s | The 2000s | The 2010s | Facts and figures

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Latest Videos

  • The full 2017 RAGBRAI route is out. Watch this video for a detailed look.

  • Take a closer look at where the 2017 RAGBRAI route will go.

  • T.J. Juskiewicz, RAGBRAI director, talks about the 2017 route after the announcement on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.

  • Watch a replay of the full RAGBRAI route announcement live show.

  • A RAGBRAI icon Paul Bernhard aka \u0022Mr. Pork Chop\u0022 passed away November, 2016 and RAGBRAI Nation shared photos with Mr. Pork Chop on the ride through the years.

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  • From the creators of the Bacoon Ride comes the new ride for women, Pigtails at the Prairie Trail on Saturday, May 20.

  • RAGBRAI director TJ Juskiewicz announces the overnight towns for RAGBRAI 2017.

  • The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa will go north in 2017, starting in Orange City, ending in Lansing, and overnighting in six more Iowa towns along the way. It's rated the third-easiest RAGBRAI ever.

  • Attendees at the RAGBRAI Route Announcement Party joined in a mass \u0022pork chop\u0022 call in honor of ride legend Mr. Pork Chop, Paul Bernhard, who died last year.

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