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RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras dies at 91, leaving national impact on bicycling

  • 11 November, 2021
  • Courtney Crowder and Phil Joens

John Karras, a former Des Moines Register features writer and co-founder of RAGBRAI, the annual bicycle event that sees 15,000 people ride across Iowa, died on Wednesday surrounded by loved ones.

Karras suffered a hard fall and a minor stroke in recent months and died from complications of that trauma, a family friend confirmed. He was 91.

Way before Karras and fellow Register columnist Donald Kaul nurtured the idea for RAGBRAI, the pair were just a couple of middle-aged cycling enthusiasts with a love of rural landscapes.

“You drive around Iowa, and it doesn’t — it’s not very impressive in a car,” Karras previously told the Register. “And one of the things that Don and I found bicycling: When you bicycle through Iowa, it was stunning. Incredible.”

In 1973, the friends got a wild hair to ride across the state — from the Missouri River in the west all the way to the Mississippi River in the east  — and write about the towns they stopped in and the people they ran across. Shoehorning the adventure into “work” was a great way to have the Register pay their expenses, Karras often joked.

Inviting readers along on their inaugural journey was their editor’s idea, and Karras thought the notion was “stupid” to boot. When he saw the turnout of nearly 100 cyclists at the starting line, he was even more nervous about the whole endeavor.

But being synonymous with Iowa is just one spoke in the wheel of how Karras and Kaul’s idea has impacted the state. The explosion of bike trails throughout Iowa happened in part because of the spotlight RAGBRAI brought to cycling, said Tim Lane, another veteran rider and a close friend of the Karras family.

And as RAGBRAI riders pedaled over gravel roads in sweltering heat, they spent money and time in small, rural communities. There’s simply no telling how many churches have roofs or high school teams have uniforms because of funds raised by hungry cyclists.

Past the borders of Iowa, RAGBRAI has made a huge mark on cycling, Lane added. Back when Karras and Kaul tightened their chains, biking was hardly the heralded pillar of modern life that it has since become.

But due to the success of RAGBRAI, other states created rides spanning large distances, and biking transitioned from a hippie pastime to a legitimate mode of exercise and transportation.

“John and Don had a larger impact on cycling than Lance Armstrong,” Lane said.

When not editing, Karras penned feature profiles, concert reviews on deadline and, yes, many RAGBRAI dispatches. The itch to write never left the longtime newspaperman, who anchored a column even after he’d retired and moved to Colorado.

“A reader suggests I quit writing about bicycling,” Karras wrote in 1982. “I’ve tried, God knows, I’ve tried, but some dark, irresistible impulse drives me to it again and again.”

Even as Karras and Kaul, who died of cancer in 2018, sometimes pushed back against the celebrity that came along with being “the RAGBRAI founders,” they loved the ride deeply.

One year after the last day’s tire dip in the Mississippi, Offenburger found Karras riding his bicycle in circles in the hotel parking lot, wanting just a few more pedals before they went home.

“It came to mean so much to him that when it ended each summer he was going to miss it,” Offenburger said. “He was a genuine celebrity out there. Then the next week he’s back on the Register copy desk.”

In recent years, Karras’ room at Scottish Rite in Des Moines was peppered with RAGBRAI paraphernalia, and a road-ready bike still graced a back corner.

Long after Karras had put down his pen and hung up his helmet, he made a point to come out to the RAGBRAI route for handshakes, autographs and selfies. He’d wear a bike jersey as riders sidled up to him to tell stories and share memories with “Grandpa RAGBRAI.”

In the newsroom, Karras was a strong presence, said Chuck Offenburger, a former Register columnist and RAGBRAI co-host.

After long nights on the Register copy desk, Karras would notice fellow editors slowing down, worn out from hours of fixing typos and tenses. Sensing they all needed a break, he’d yell: “OK, everybody, animal sounds!” Offenburger said.

“It was a signal for them to get up off their chairs, run or jump around, imitating monkeys, cows, bulls, birds, elephants — whatever.”

When driving himself became impossible, a legion of caretakers helped him make the trip, often setting up under a tent near the finish of the Karras Loop, an extra portion of the ride that lets riders get in a full century, 100 miles, in one day.

Despite the exponential growth of RAGBRAI, those who’ve been a part of this two-wheeled circus for years say its spirit remains true to the newspapermen’s vision from all the way back in 1973: a week of “cordial, informal, happy insanity,” as Karras once wrote.

“What do we do if we’re out there on the road between nowhere and nowhere and it starts to rain? We’ll probably get wet,” Karras wrote. “And when the rain stops, if we haven’t found shelter on a farmhouse porch or in a barn, we’ll dry out.”

“How many miles do we ride before stopping for meals and water? As many as we wish. In riding 60 or 70 miles a day, how long will it take?”

“Just as long as it takes. Not a moment longer.”

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