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Memories of 1973: Conversations with Karras

  • 4 April, 2011
  • Jared

“Events in the past may be roughly divided into those which probably never happened and those which do not matter.”
William Ralph Inge 

I had some interesting conversations with John Karras about this year’s RAGBRAI and the ride in 1973 that should be shared. 

After announcing Davenport as the ending town for 2011, I was talking to John and asked him about the original dip site.  In classic Karras he stated, “I’m over 80 years old, I can barely remember what I had for breakfast!”  He then said maybe Carter Lebeau or one of the cyclists from the Quad Cities Bicycle Club might know.

During one of our RAGBRAI meetings in Davenport, we started talking about that initial year and about tire dipping.  Where was that original dip site?  Several members from the Quad Cities Bicycle Club vowed to look into it and check with Carter.  Carter has been on every RAGBRAI.

Then I received this email from Karras:


Finally figured out to print out a map of the 2011 route, and a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I examined it.  

Part of this is 1973. We didn’t drive the route ahead of time that year.  In fact, the only part of it we knew was Des Moines to Iowa City, because Kaul and I and a very small coterie of stalwarts rode that in 1971.  In fact, that was the ride that sowed the seeds of RAGBRAI into our addled brains. We did it in one day, 125 miles, and damn near died in the effort, but felt like heroes nonetheless.

Anyway, from Sioux City to Des Moines, that year, was unknown terrain, and likewise from Iowa City to Davenport. We learned about half a mile of gravel going into Moscow. Has that stretch been paved? Anyway, as far as I can tell, this year’s route follows the original 1973 route into Davenport. But don’t quote me on that, because I’m often wrong, and where I live have no way (that I know of) of checking the facts. You could look it up in The Register archives.


Well John, your memory and wit is still intact as the route is pretty darn close to the one that you and Kaul lead people on back in 1973.  Of course, that road near Moscow has been paved, so sorry, no gravel! 

As the QCBC folks asked around about original dip site, this was Carter’s response:

Regarding the first RAGBRAI, we came in on the new Davenport bike path, and ended in Vander Veer Park.  I don’t have any pictures of the first RAGBRAI, but do have every year after that.   My album starts with SAGBRAI, which was #2 – 1974.

In order to verify my recollection, I called Jerry Kruse, who said he also remembers ending in Vander Veer Park.

Then, I referred to John Karras’s “History of RAGBRAI“.  His statement on page 15.  “By actual count, 114 bikers made the entire trip.  How can I be sure of the count?  Because at the last minute, in Davenport Park, where we finished, it finally occurred to me that we made no provisions for patches to commemorate the ride.”

So there was no dipping of the wheels on #1.  And, by the way, if you haven’t read the “History of RAGBRAI”, I’ll loan you my copy.  It’s a good read.


Carter (pictured with his wife Kaye) is right, the book is a good read.  I received a copy of John’s book from my Florida friends Richard and Belinda Carlson who ride RAGBRAI just after I announced I was leaving Bike Florida to head to RAGBRAI.   The book was a great history lesson on the early years of the event.

I was delighted to see another email from Karras on the subject:


As you know, I’ve been looking at the route maps for 2011, and I must admit, my heart quickened.

There was never a hint of dipping wheels the first year. It occurred to me as a gimmick the second year, and as I recall, I wrote something in advance like, “Of course, there’ll be the traditional dipping of the rear wheel in the Missouri and the front wheel a week later in the Mississippi,” or words to that effect. And immediately after writing that, I thought, “That is about the stupidest idea I’ve ever had.”  


So did a few wander down to the river, perhaps?… and maybe dip tires that first year?  Who really knows?…

“History:  gossip well told.” 
Elbert Hubbard

We will have to check with John and Carter to see if some of those memories of 1973 will come back as they ride the final leg of this year’s journey.

T.J. Juskiewicz,
RAGBRAI Director


  1. Jeff J

    In 1975 we started off a couple miles from the MO river. So they brought in this cattle watering trough full of MO river water for us to dip our rear wheel into. There was such a crown around it the first morning that few actually were able to dip. In 1976, my friends and I road the couple mile to the MO to dip, then started the ride. Good times, great memories ….. ever onward!

  2. Kelly Knutson

    1976, I was 16 I remember getting a flat and walking the first 7 miles of the ride. That was the day everyone was having flats

  3. Sandaltan

    1976 was the first and last start in Sydney. I learned all about goat heads (aka puncturevine) that Saturday and Sunday. A great trip from what I can remember Kelly!!!!

  4. Kevin

    I remember Sydney well. I was 13 and dumped off with a department store 10 speed and $50. My brother got a thorn flat and after changing the tube he aired up at the gas station. BAMM! It blew out again.

    The campground was around the old rodeo corral and vendors set up booths on the walls. There was a dunking booth and carnival games including a real live geek that drove nails up his nose and ate questionable chicken parts for a small fee.

    The 76 Summer Olympics were on and the Bicentennal Celebration was over. I crashed on the first day and had bad roadrash. See you in 2012 on XL.

  5. Hoodksi

    Jeff, I can’t beleive you didn’t hoof it over to the Missou River from Missou Valley! haha We arrived on a PACKED school bus with the QCBC early enough that we made it there and back that day after an 9-10 bus ride. However, we rode back int he dark and got totally lost trying to find our campsite. We found our tents about midnight. Not a stellar start, but at 15, this was high adventure for Iowa boys!

  6. Pars1746

    Sorry to necro bump a thread. I rode the original 1973 ride, and even rode with Donald Kaul for a bit coming out of Fort Dodge, and again going into Des Moines downtown somewhere (he and John Karras had to attend a meeting at the DMR HQ. Had a great time and it was interesting. Still have my patch. I’ve never ridden another one, but 2023…

    Chris Young

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