RAGBRAI forever: Statues honoring founders, rider memories, unveiled
After years of planning, the bronze renderings of the RAGBRAI founders are slated to stand in Water Works Park
Most people in their old age shrink, but John Karras grew six inches Saturday morning.
Well, at least, one John Karras did.
A former Register columnist and co-founder of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, the flesh-and-blood Karras smiled broadly as he unveiled the slightly-larger-than-life bronze Karras to applause and an already forming selfie line at the Iowa Bike Expo at the Iowa Events Center.
The moment marked the culmination of a decades-long movement to publicly honor Karras and his fellow columnist and RAGBRAI founder, the late Donald Kaul. Titled “RAGBRAI: River to River,” the piece also celebrates the vanguard cycling tradition, which invites 20,000 riders from all over the world invade to the cornfields of Iowa annually for the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event.
Fundraising for the $150,000 statue started in earnest last year with RAGBRAI kicking in just over $40,000 to get the project off the ground. On Saturday, the Des Moines Register announced a donation of $25,000, adding the final dollars needed to cover the artwork’s cost.
Outside of those two donations, the rest of the funds were collected from more than 50 teams, individuals and RAGBRAI superfans who each kicked in less than $2,000.
Constructed of bronze and aluminum, the statue, which will be installed in Water Works Park this spring, features abstract renderings of the two newspapermen alongside long, undulating strips representing the rolling hills of Iowa and dozens of circular rings standing in for bicycle rims.
The men look to be leaning on bicycle handlebars, but recreations of the two-wheelers won’t be part of the final sculpture. Instead, visitors are welcome to pull their bikes right into the scene and pose with bronze John and Don as though they are all riding together, a feature Karras, 89, said he really liked.
“I think they’re great,” he said. “I’m pleased and honored this is being done, very much so.”
Karras — and Kaul before his death — always shies away from the praise people heap on him for starting RAGBRAI, and the intense fandom that has grown around the ride makes him slightly uncomfortable. Lest you think the compliment above has made him go soft, that mildly-aloof, cool-as-a-cucumber attitude came back as I asked what his first thoughts were when he was told of his impending immortalization.
“I thought it was a little bit over-the-top and not necessary,” he said, letting out a belly laugh. “But, then again, it seemed harmless, so it was OK.”
Putting the pieces together
The statues took their place near the entrance of the Bike Expo late Friday night, with Carl Voss, the leader behind the project, watching carefully over their unboxing.
As the helmets, sunglasses and the classic ’70s mustaches both men sported started peeking out from the shipping crate, Voss, a former Register photographer, began to tear up. For so long this public display had been a figment, a hope, but now it was finally a reality.
For Voss, the journey to this unveiling started decades ago. A mainstay in the cycling community and friend of Karras and Kaul, Voss rode lots of RAGBRAIs as a photographer and even more without his camera and those pesky deadlines.
Every time he would dip his tire in the Mississippi River at the end of ride week, the same nagging thought popped into his head: Why isn’t there a memorial to this roving institution and the men who had the crazy idea to start it?
In 2015, Voss decided to act. He met with members of RAGBRAI Nation — as superfans of the river-to-river ride are called — and started building a coalition around the concept of honoring the founders with a public sculpture. As news dribbled out about the project, cyclists, artists, architects, city workers and state employees moved from casually interested to excited stakeholders.
Within six months, the committee of influencers started to search for the perfect place for the piece. After the memorial’s proposed location at the base of the Jackson Street bridge fell through, the committee settled on Water Works Park for its greenery and proximity to a bike trail.
By the time the ride was ambling across Iowa in 2017, the committee had solicited designs from artists.
Publicly, a lot of the work on the statue remained under wraps as the plan wound its way through city ordinances and public art proposals.
But after Kaul’s death in 2018, the team behind the project accelerated its timeline. The concept for the statutes was officially displayed at the RAGBRAI route announcement party last year, and a fundraising campaign began in earnest.
Founders’ statue, everyone’s memories
Cyclists and fans flocked to meet Karras after Saturday’s unveiling. Positioned next to his slightly taller replica, Karras greeted everyone with a handshake and a ready ear.
Mike Freel, 66, stood nearby as people snapped pictures, waiting for a quiet moment to approach Karras.
Freel rode with the former columnist often when he was cycling RAGBRAIs II to VII, and he wanted to reminisce about the old days of the ride: How farmers would bring a few melons to the end of their driveways and hand them out to tired riders for free; or the time that he and Karras got fed up with some talkative teens and picked up their pace to “burn them off”; or how, on his second ride across the state, he met a woman who had everything she needed for a full week adventure stuffed in a pillowcase jerry-rigged to the front of her bike. (Freel gave her a few of his baggage tickets so she could check her pillowcase to the next overnight town.)
“Thanks for the memories,” Freel said as he shook Karras’ hand one more time.
For Gail Folwell, the Colorado artist chosen to make the final piece, it was this sort of collective ownership of the event that framed her design. Karras and Kaul may have started RAGBRAI, she previously told the Register, but everyone truly owns a piece of the summer institution. And she wanted viewers to take in not just the columnists’ accomplishment, but to see themselves and their memories and whatever RAGBRAI means to them personally in the work.
Eschewing the idea of a perfect bronze replica of the pair — that’s not really her style — she built two abstract figures with a slight resemblance to Kaul and Karras. One of the men is leaning back, looking at the rings standing in for bicycles in a sense of wonderment for “the overwhelming response they got from a simple idea,” she said.
The other is taking a more “cocky stance, like, ‘Yeah, this is what we did.'”
(And, have no fear, the final sculpture is made to stand up to the frenetic weather of Iowa, require little maintenance and be able to survive a flood or two.)
Karras and Kaul had no idea what their trip across Iowa would become when they first set out from the Missouri River in 1973.
Inviting readers along was the editor’s idea, and Karras thought the notion was “stupid.” When he saw the turnout, he was even more nervous about the whole endeavor.
“I was just thinking, ‘Where do we house these people?'” Karras said.
As much as Karras shies away from highlighting his work on RAGBRAI, the door to his room is decorated with a “RAGBRAI Road” sign. And despite not having cycled in years, Karras still keeps a bike in the corner.
After taking a tour of the expo, Karras’ daughter, Edie, pushed her Dad’s wheelchair back to the statues and noted that there was an electric recumbent bike he had his eye on. Karras wasn’t ready to commit to riding this year, but he will be out on the route handing out patches to those who finish the Karras Loop, an extra portion of the ride where he hangs out to talk with the most fervent riders.
For Karras, as the memories come back, so, too, do the faces of people who aren’t here to share these statues with him: His wife, Ann, former ride directors Don Benson and Jim Green, and of course Kaul, who would have known the perfect way to sum up all this pomp and circumstance.
“Oh, he would have had a quip,” Karras said of his friend, letting out another belly laugh. “He would’ve had something very funny to say.”