SEARSBORO, Ia. — About 20 miles into Thursday’s trek from Newton to Montezuma, RAGBRAI riders were greeted with an eclectic mix of jams (think Ariana Grande, Coldplay and Guns N’ Roses) care of three cheery Iowa State Patrol troopers.
Lt. Genie Clemens, Trooper Bob Conrad and Trooper Rod Larson directed traffic, took selfies and offered words of encouragement from their perch at an intersection just outside of the rural town of Searsboro (population about 140), as thousands of riders streamed by.
Conrad was working his 15th RAGBRAI, Larson his first full route. For Clemens, 2018’s RAGBRAI was both a first and a last.
The ride was Clemens’ first since she was reinstated to her position as head of the Iowa State Patrol’s forces on the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. And it was the last time she will ever find herself on the side of the road wearing winter wools and a bulletproof vest in July heat.
Clemens, 55, is retiring in August after a 30-year career in law enforcement, including about a decade heading up RAGBRAI before handing the reins to Scott Bright, who retired after the 2017 ride.
Waving back at the riders who shouted “Thank you!” as they passed, Clemens said she could think of no better final hurrah than RAGBRAI. “When I got the call that this was my assignment, I felt like I was coming home,” Clemens said. “I love RAGBRAI and I have always loved RAGBRAI and for this to be my last big event, it just makes sense.”
Both Larson and Conrad have known Clemens for a long time said she will be missed because of the focus she puts on the troopers. While they make sure riders have a good ride, she makes sure they stay rested and upbeat, they said.
“She does an excellent job of coordinating all of us,” said Larson, who is based in Marshalltown. “And she has really helped make sure we have smooth communications with the medical staff and the cities and counties.”
The Iowa State Patrol officers are just one of the (mostly) invisible forces making sure that this ambling ride across Iowa goes off without a hitch.
With 23 troopers working the route this year, Clemens is responsible for coordinating everybody behind the scenes to ensure cyclists have a pain-free experience.
“With 20,000 riders, we are basically moving an entire community across the state every day,” Clemens said. “So far this year we have done it without any fatalities or serious injuries.”
The 14 Public Resource Officers, including Clemens, mostly direct traffic and make sure the conditions on the route are safe for bikers and motorists.
Another nine troopers work on the “alcohol squad,” where they are tasked with politely asking lollygagging revelers to hop back on their bikes and continue east. The squad’s goal is to have every rider in the overnight town by 6 p.m., which is when RAGBRAI’s services — like the all-important sag wagon — cease.
“Sometimes that takes some prodding, but they always ask with a smile,” Clemens said, flashing a wide smile herself.
While the alcohol squad’s troopers are either chosen or selected for these RAGBRAI duties, working the route is a part of the Public Resource Officers’ job.
When not on the route, the PROs are charged with being the face of the Iowa State Patrol in their local districts. They speak at driver education courses, go to job fairs and hold workshops on identity theft, bullying and winter driving safety, to name just a few.
Larson, who worked as a traffic inspector and an educator before becoming a PRO, relishes the chance to try to change behavior before motorists get citations.
“I like to tell people the reasons why we do what we do and give them the background, so when they do interact with the Iowa State Patrol, they have a better understanding of the situation,” he said.
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Usually, the officer in Clemens’ position would be very much embedded with the RAGBRAI planning team, including scouting out new routes in the fall and driving the spring pre-ride to look for potential problems.
After getting word that she’d take over this role in January, Clemens didn’t have time to do all that, so she leaned on the PROs in each district RAGBRAI would be traveling through.
Leaning on locals has so far proven very effective.
Like this intersection, Clemens offers, she wouldn’t have guessed that the spot along Iowa Highway 146 just outside Searsboro would be a traffic congestion hotspot.
“This is basically a straightaway with good visual clearance,” she said as bikes raced past at 10 miles per hour. And it’s a T-intersection, so there’s only one way for potential traffic to interact with the route.
But this district’s PRO said this would be a touchy locale, so here she is with two of her officers, jamming out to an eclectic mix of tunes, turning surprised motorists around and even directing a semi or two back to the highway.
“It’s a great event,” Conrad said, “but it’s a lot of work for us.”
Most motorists aren’t happy to have to go back to the interstate and take a 25-mile trip instead of their normal 12-mile trip, he said.
“But doing that is safer not only for the bikes, but for the motorists as well,” he said. “It’s just hard convincing them of that.”
Liking people is an important part of working RAGBRAI, which, for Clemens and the other two troopers here, comes naturally.
So does smiling, another important task along a route where selfies are as ubiquitous as water bottle.
“You have to want to help people to do this job,” Conrad said. “Whether that is helping lost people from Texas or Switzerland get back on the route or whether that is just maintaining a happy atmosphere, you have to be a people person.”
For Clemens, RAGBRAI is all about the stories, she said. She loves listening to how the riders heard about the ride, and why they came to Iowa to bike across the state.
“It takes all kinds to make the world go around,” she said, “and you’ll meet just about all kinds on RAGBRAI. It’s awesome.”
Clemens said she wouldn’t want to end her career any other way than on RAGBRAI. It’s tough, she added, but she knows she’s leaving it in good hands.
“T.J. (Juskiewicz) and Jim Green mentored me and so I know they will be fine mentoring a new person,” she said, referring to the current and a former RAGBRAI director at the Register.
Even though she will turn in her badge and her gun, Clemens will still be in public service. Taking a job with the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau, she is having mixed emotions about leaving behind the job she’s known and loved and moving on to a new adventure.
But, speaking of new adventure, Clemens has never actually ridden RAGBRAI. And without the traffic duties on her hand, she’s not counting it out.
“We had one guy, Trooper Doug Cutts, who retired lat year and he had to ride on his bucket list, he always wanted to do it, and he’s on the ride this year,” she said.
“He’s loved it so far,” she said, “But I’d definitely have to put some more miles on my bike first.”