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Munson: Biking in '60s didn't have the 'cool' factor

  • 22 July, 2012

By Kyle Munson / The Des Moines Register

AMES, IA. — A couple of guys clambered onto modest three-speed bicycles and set off along the Iowa byways, where they received curious glances but also warm hospitality from rural folk.

Let me clarify that I’m speaking of the 1960s — several years before the inaugural Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride in 1973 and the two-wheeled gospel according to John Karras and Donald Kaul that would forever alter our state of bicycling as the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

Memories from 40 RAGBRAIs will be shared this week as copiously as slices of homemade pie. But the prehistory of RAGBRAI also rears its head.

Meet Jim Rundle of Ithaca, N.Y., who joins his first RAGBRAI this year. Yet the 63-year-old got rolling in the spirit of the thing ahead of time as a schoolkid in Ames.

Rundle and classmate Karl Isely were teenagers when on a whim they embarked on bicycle camping trips, pedaling as many as 60 miles in a day to reach state parks such as Pine Lake near Eldora. (Memories differ; according to Rundle his trips began as early as 1962, before Beatlemania, let alone RAGBRAI, while Isely says 1966.)

They stuffed a cast-iron skillet, canned food and sleeping bags into newspaper baskets on their bikes. A loaf of bread dangled from Isely’s handlebars.

“Every single car that went by,” remembered Rundle, “every single person in the car would wave to us.”

They rated as novelties on rural highways that lacked bike lanes or a sane 55-mph speed limit, even without attaching a plastic pink flamingo or some other crazy ornament to the top of their bike helmets.

Not that they were wearing helmets.

Helpful park rangers struggled over where to affix the sticker usually slapped on car windshields.

They enjoyed RAGBRAI heat: The temperature topped out at 104 degrees as the skinny, sweaty kids pedaled back to Ames from Pine Lake without so much as a water bottle.

“We just bought soda at filling stations,” Rundle said.

Rundle and Isely graduated from Ames High in 1967. Now a representative for a health care workers’ union, Rundle didn’t resume biking until 2008 and will roll this week with Tall Dogs Bike Club from Ames. (Isely, now a book preservationist for the University of Minnesota, isn’t an active biker.)

“It’s the idea of reliving it a little bit,” Rundle said, thinking back to the ’60s, “but with a lot of people.”

Comb through clippings of bicycling history and you tend to find two surges in popularity: the late 19th century and the early 1970s.

David Wendell of Marion can provide much more detail.

As RAGBRAI snakes through northwest Iowa today, amateur bike historian Wendell — who sells antiquarian books for a living — will debut a new bike history and RAGBRAI lecture at Granger House Museum.

Among his cast of characters: In the 1890s, bicycle racer and Marion famous son Jay A. Starbuck (sort of a Lance Armstrong of his day) set world speed records and earned thousands of dollars.

But Wendell, 43, points to World War II as a watershed in American bicycling life as pedal power became essential transportation “for the average man or woman who needed to get to the factory to build those airplanes or build those bombs.”

Adult bicycles were even rationed in 1942 in favor of “persons engaged in work which contributes to the war effort or to the public welfare,” the Register reported. Iowa’s quota for July 1942 was 606 bicycles, 49 of them for Polk County. (By September that year the ration had been bumped up to 1,212. Children’s bicycles, meanwhile, were discontinued.)

It was after the war that bicycles, Wendell said, became “more a plaything of the common man.”

The YMCA Men’s Cycling Club was founded in 1967 in Des Moines for weekend rides on county highways, including a 100-mile ride each fall, “taking along only water, a candy bar or two and protection against the weather. There are no picnic lunches and rest periods last only five minutes.”

An April 1971 trend story in the Register noted a boom in bicycle sales, because “pedaling a bike isn’t the sissy stuff it once was thought to be.”

The first “Bikeology Day” in Des Moines in May 1971 drew more than 1,000 bicyclists who pedaled from Drake University to the Iowa Capitol and then through the downtown loop with cries of “bike power!” and “ride on!” Its purpose was to “demonstrate the rebirth of interest in cycling, and to stress the need for better places for cyclists to ride.” Donald Kaul was among the riders.

A pair of Roosevelt High School seniors, Pete Vernasco and Brian Davidson, bicycled from Des Moines to Iowa City in September 1971 to circulate petitions that gathered 5,000 signatures from 73 counties and 120 cities in favor of bike paths in Iowa.

“The towns could make up for some of the money lost when the trains stopped running,” Vernasco said. “A person could make a lot of money just selling water to thirsty cyclists.”

Boy, was Vernasco right — although today’s revenue comes from microbrews and $100 spandex shorts as well as water.

Another milepost on the road to RAGBRAI: “Mr. State Fair” Bill Riley led a 50-mile “Bike Marathon” at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in June 1972 to fund metro bike trails.

Then came RAGBRAI, what Wendell terms “an American original.”

My friend Stephen Gaul of Slater, freshly out of high school, was among the 114 hardy souls who completed the entire proto-RAGBRAI route (including a grueling 110-mile stretch from Des Moines to Williamsburg).

Gaul said he was surprised to see even that many people interested in a full week of bicycling in 1973.

RAGBRAI’s essential innovation, Wendell said, is that “everyone, no matter what their financial background, no matter what their cultural background, no matter what their age, can come together in one place with one common goal with one common passion — riding.”

Whether a passion, mild insanity (considering the heat) or hallowed history, it’s time to stop contemplating and begin pedaling.

Nostalgia for the ’60s is great, but no doubt this week will reaffirm that 24 gears and padded shorts are even better.

Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-314-0416 or kmunson@dmreg.com. See more of his columns, blog posts and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/munson. Connect with him on Facebook (Kyle Munson’s Iowa) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).

2 Comments

  1. Betsy

    Thanks for sharing the pre-RAGBRAI history. I love visualizing the 1960s bike trek across Iowa and proud to be making my own journey for the first time this year.

  2. Janet

    Thanks for all of the interesting history. I had just graduated from high school in 1973 and bought a brand new Raleigh Record with the lofty intentions of joining in with the first Six Day Bike Ride. I ended up not going, mostly because it was held around the same time as the start of my U of I freshman year. Maybe that was a bad decision not to participate, as I look back on it now. That would have been much cooler than my required first year classes :-)

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