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First-timer delights in magic of ride across Iowa

  • 31 July, 2011
  • Kyle Munson

Davenport, Ia. — Jack St. Peters sailed past me Saturday morning as we pedaled our bicycles through the outskirts of Davenport in the final miles of RAGBRAI XXXIX.

“I can smell the river – it’s here,” he shouted over his shoulder.

St. Peters, 69, of Spencer, has about 30 years on me – but also more than 2,000 training miles this year. By Saturday I was comfortable rating a slowpoke on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Last week marked St. Peters’ 11th RAGBRAI, while it was only my first.

I had met St. Peters, his lean body topped by a tie-dye skullcap, sipping coffee before 8:30 a.m. in the city park in Durant. The retired J.C. Penney executive and two of his former work buddies had pulled out of Coralville by 5:15 a.m.

“It’s like a family with one mission – to get across the state,” he mused on the ride’s peculiar magic.

Yes, the shared pain and struggle is part of what unites the RAGBRAI horde from around the globe. If a committee of fretting tourism professionals tried to orchestrate a completely inoffensive, effortless ride in the style of a theme park, this wouldn’t be half as much fun.

RAGBRAI mirrors the human condition: Oh, how we love to grouse about the trouble we’ve pedaled ourselves into – preferably over a cold beer in the next overnight town.

Riders sign up for this epic journey for all sorts of reasons – to commemorate or prove something, reunite as friends or family, raise money for a cause or promote a new scheme.

Its cumulative history has stretched a total of 18,265 miles between the rivers since its inauspicious launch in 1973 by Register columnists and co-founders John Karras and Donald Kaul.

In reality, there have been 305,650 different RAGBRAIs – a unique experience for each bicyclist who ends the week too sore to sit, yet too tired to stand.

Then there’s the element of surprise: You never know when a 200-foot water slide will materialize along the rural Iowa roadside, or a pond swing, or the world’s largest welded bicycle.

Even the Iowa State Patrol gets the chance to blare loud rock music from its cruisers and exchange friendly greetings all day with bicyclists instead of pulling sheepish drivers to the side of the road.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over in my head trying to sort out all of the factors that are involved,” Karras said of the ride’s staying power when I caught him last week at his home in Dillon, Colo.

“After about eight years, we were accustomed to getting amazed every year,” he said.

Karras, 81, would have been among last week’s 10,000 riders, he added, but his cardiologist just couldn’t give him the green light.

On the verge of its 40th anniversary, RAGBRAI on one hand seems far removed from the innocent days when it was led, as Karras put it, by a pair of “would-be hippies in their 30s.”

Or is it? I rolled up on a free lemonade stand Saturday morning at Ken and Susine Schiffke’s farm just west of Davenport, where the couple dispensed drinks with their daughter and three granddaughters.

“Please sign your name and hometown – it will be a geography lesson for the kids – thanks,” a humble cardboard sign requested, sitting on a table alongside a notebook and pen.

Perhaps the original grass-roots ethic of RAGBRAI survives.

I also went the entire week without seeing a bike lock; RAGBRAI still defers to small-town convention.

RAGBRAI literally felt like an invaluable master class for this first-timer: I fell prey to my own faulty pedaling technique last Sunday and ached from blown knees by the time I reached Atlantic. But after a little mentoring, I learned to keep a fast cadence on the hills, and my knees remained strong the rest of the week.

Did I somehow forget to mention the food? I devoured what tasted like the best homemade brat of my life, served from a refurbished Standard Oil station in Lanesboro where “contains lead” still was emblazoned on the archaic gas pumps.

Only on RAGBRAI.

Or the goofy costumes? Whiffle balls as helmet ornaments or guys in neon tutus are just par for the course with this lax dress code.

The official assessment last week from RAGBRAI’s unflappable director, T.J. Juskiewicz, was that this year’s trek was “incredibly hot.”

Hell, yes.

“The ones that have trained are enjoying it a lot more,” he said.

Perhaps. As I said: We love the struggle, too.

Juskiewicz wasn’t thinking about next year’s ride just yet. But as I look ahead to RAGBRAI XL, it seems like small-town Iowa needs this pedaling pilgrimage more than ever. In case you didn’t notice the latest U.S. Census figures, the rural-to-urban migration isn’t exactly slackening.

And it was painfully ironic timing last week when the U.S. Postal Service released its updated list of 178 potential post office closures in Iowa, which includes pass-through towns such as Silver City and Lanesboro.

But then there was this year’s example of Templeton Rye from day two: The boutique whiskey’s success is due in large part to the power of its rich, colorful story that sprang straight out of the cornfields. No doubt there are other stories that with a similar shot of creativity could result in jobs and tourism in our small towns.

When I polled riders Saturday (or throughout the week, for that matter) about RAGBRAI’s No. 1 feature, the overwhelming answer was “the people.” I’ll wager that also has remained unchanged since 1973.

For me it started with my small but mighty “Team Sauerkraut”: my 64-year-old mother-in-law, Maryanne Sobiech, who was riding her distinctive Townie bicycle, and my father, Lloyd Munson, who drove the Chrysler minivan with the “SAURKRT” license plates.

We were blessed with incredibly gracious hosts in the overnight towns. And then my family and I were able to play host in Slater to Team Solid – a great group of guys riding to raise money for the Children’s Place (a charity that combats HIV and other diseases in Chicago, the Caribbean and southern Africa).

So I couldn’t help but feel a bit wistful Saturday when the final miles in Davenport were full of encouraging applause and cheers.

By the time I reached the Mississippi River dip site at the end of Marquette Street, the big black virginal “V” that had been inked on my right calf in Glenwood had completely worn off.

Karras said he plans to return for next year’s 40th ride if at all possible. Me, too.

Karras and longtime co-host Chuck “Iowa Boy” Offenburger in 1993 devised this mission statement for the ride: “RAGBRAI is so fun that we’re going to keep doing it until everybody in Iowa has done it at least once.”

I love it. Let’s keep that for the 40th.

See you at the RAGBRAI XL route announcement party Jan. 28 in downtown Des Moines.


  1. Jenn

    I would amend that statement to read, “RAGBRAI is so fun that we’re going to keep doing it until everyone FROM Iowa has done it at least once.” :)

  2. Veronique

    I would ammend it to say “RAGBRAI is so fun that we’re going to keep doing it until EVERYONE has done it at least once.” Why just Iowans??? Love, a Florida Girl

  3. Thom

    The last time was on RAGBRAI was 1992 (for the whole ride). I plan on making the XLth ride next year! See you there (coming from Polokwane, Republic of South Africa.

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