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Ice cream and RAGBRAI: Traditions come together as Le Mars prepares to launch the return of the cross-state ride

  • 25 July, 2021
  • Philip Joens

Le Mars — Jim Green loved ice cream.

So it was appropriate that on Saturday, as riders on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa gathered in Le Mars for Sunday’s launch of the ride’s 48th edition, a memorial to the late, longtime director of the world’s largest annual bicycle ride was dedicated in the northwest Iowa city that claims to be the “Ice Cream Capital of the World.”

The Wells Visitor Center & Ice Cream Parlor in the heart of downtown, where the ceremony took place, represents the history of family-owned Wells Enterprises and its most famous product, Blue Bunny Ice Cream, made in a sprawling plant on the city’s south side.

It was a meeting of two traditions as Green’s family and Blue Bunny CEO Michael Wells celebrated the dedication of the monument, a display with details about Green’s leadership of RAGBRAI and a sculpture of a bicycle. Fittingly, one of the photos in the display shows Green, who died in 2019, digging into a hearty bowl of his favorite dessert.

It was also a moment to mark the renewal of the RAGBRAI tradition, which suffered an interruption in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ride’s cancellation for the first time since its launch in 1973.

Current RAGBRAI Director Dieter Drake, who will be managing his first edition of the ride, was on hand to thank members of Green’s family, including daughter and son-in-law Joanie and Tag Mousel.

Drake, who became RAGBRAI director in late 2019, reminded Green’s family that on one of his first days on the job he had dinner with them, and recalled how important to him it was when Joanie Mousel declared, “You’re up to the job.”

RAGBRAI is returning to Le Mars for the first time since 2005. After the dedication, Wells stood in a highlighter-yellow RAGBRAI volunteer tank top, eating an ice cream sandwich as he talked about how his company had stepped up as primary sponsor to bring the ride back to Le Mars, and helped organize the army of volunteers needed to help manage the visit.

The town of 9,800 was prepared to host as many as 20,000 visitors Saturday. Wells said the ice cream parlor already is one of the most popular year-round tourist attractions in Iowa, and that having RAGBRAI start its return from the lost year in Le Mars is giving the town even more exposure.

“This just notches it up a bit for us at the parlor,” he said. “It means the world to us.”

“RAGBRAI is a great social event, an opportunity to expose people around the country and around the world to the great state of Iowa” Wells said. “Over 20,000 people are going to cycle through our community and they’re going to buy food from vendors and they’re going to buy food from coffee shops and ice cream parlors, and clothing, and they’re going to spend their dollars.”

It was doing exactly that as riders shopped at Saturday’s RAGBRAI Bike Expo.

First-time RAGBRAI rider Nathan Mertz of Cincinnati was taking a good-natured razzing from his friends about being a RAGBRAI “virgin.” A member of team Hills Angels, with members spread from South Carolina to Wyoming, he had gotten to town on Friday night and said he was having a wonderful time.

It was Mertz’s first visit to Iowa since 2000, and he had never before been to Le Mars.

“It was awesome. Nice little town,” he said, though he griped, “The trains are loud at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Mertz said he was looking forward to the adventure to come as he rides across Iowa.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen the next day,” he said.

For one of his fellow team members, Randy Giehls of Oviedo, Florida, RAGBRAI and Le Mars are like old friends. This will be his 17th RAGBRAI — and his first was the one that started in Le Mars in 2005.

“This is the best thing. I’m glad we’re back,” Giehls said as he wore a horned hat covered in pins from his various RAGBRAIs. “Last year was miserable without it.”

He added that he was excited to be back with his “20,000 best friends.”

Rod and Robin Emery of Las Vegas, who also were looking around the expo, were preparing for their first RAGBRAI. Rod Emery’s brother-in-law is a Sioux City native and had been trying to convince him to ride RAGBRAI for years.

Emery was looking forward to seeing the towns along the route.

“The organization of this ride just seems to be incredible,” Emery said. “Obviously, there’s a great history behind it.”

Before coming to the expo the couple had checked out the ice cream parlor and its museum.

“It was fun. It’s a cute, little town,” Robin Emery said, adding, “Everybody is happy and excited.”

“It’s like a big family out here on bikes,” her husband said, adding, “We can tell just by the artwork on the street that it’s a very developed culture, a very developed tradition.”

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