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Remembering Clarence Pickard

  • 4 May, 2009
  • TJ Juskiewicz
Clarence Pickard, with signature pith helmet, chats with Donald Kaul.

Clarence Pickard, with signature pith helmet, chats with Donald Kaul.

By John Karras

It is most fitting that RAGBRAI finally is going to spend a night in Indianola. The town was the home for many years of Clarence Pickard, who, in the short space of a week on the first RAGBRAI (actually, it was called the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) rode his bike across the state the last week of August in 1973 and inspired the masses to follow his feat.

Clarence was 83 years old that year, and, as he told me in a brief interview, hadn’t ridden a bike since he was a boy. In fact, when I asked him how many miles he had put in on the green and white woman’s Schwinn Varsity he’d purchased only a few weeks before, he said, “I went around the block a few times.” RAGBRAI co-founder Donald Kaul and I doubted he would make it even to the city limits of Sioux City, our starting.

As it turned out, he rode every mile, including a brief stretch of I-80. The State Trooper Frank Fisher caught up with Clarence on the Interstate, stopped him and said, “Mr. Pickard, you can’t ride a bike on the Interstate,” to which Pickard replied, “Then you’d better get me out of here.”

He also completed the hundred-mile day from Day Moines to Williamsburg and the 80-plus mile day from Williamsburg to Davenport, both days after dark.

Oh, he was slow, slower even than I’ve grown. He also didn’t understand the gearing on a 20-speed bike. The shift levers on his Schwinn were on the handlebar stem. Clarence assumed that they both should be positioned either fore or aft. Thus, he was always in a wrong gear–either on the large chain ring and the largest cog or on the small chain ring and the smallest cog. I pointed this out to him as we approached Dolliver State Park north of Boone, and the steepest hill of the week coming up out of the Des Moines River Valley. I said he’d be much more comfortable on the hill with the left lever forward and the right lever back. I saw him past the hill and he remarked about how “that sure had worked.”

The most remarkable thing about him though, beyond his unending good nature and old world charm, was his appearance. That week was hot, as only Iowa can be, with both highs and the humidity in the high 90s. Mr. Pickard, however, appeared every day in long-sleeved shirt and long trousers–plus a pith helmet covered with duct tape.

He also revealed in an interview with then reporter Chuck Offenburger that he had “a secret weapon,” as he put it–woolen long underwear. Good grief, we could hardly believe it. He said the underwear wicked the sweat away and kept him cool.

The measure of his quick fame became evident when at elementary school in Iowa City let all the children out on the sidewalk to see Mr. Pickard come by.

He slowed down as he saw, promptly fell off his bike, stood up and made a sweeping bow, pith helmet in hand, for the kids. (He fell down a lot that week. But near week’s end, he told me that he’d figured out when he was about to take a spill, and made sure to land on a grassy spot.)

– – – – –

John Karras is the former copy editor at the Des Moines Register who co-founded RAGBRAI in 1973 with columnist Donald Kaul.  John plans on riding RAGBRAI this summer and is determined to ride the entire route, including the Karras Loop.  John and his wife Ann now reside in Dillon, Colorado.


  1. BobG

    Like most sensible native Iowans, when the Over the Coffee guy and John Karras cooked up this scheme I said:

    “Are you nuts? Who in there right mind would ride across the state of Iowa? on a bike? In August of all times?”

    Clarence Pickard is a true Iowa legend. An icon for future generations of dreamers and doers. A person who proved “If I can do it – you can do it!” I was a witness in Iowa City that year but it took 30+ years to come to my senses. I am now embarking on my 3rd RAGBRAI adventure in a row. I will never be the same. Thank you Clarence & Donald & John. And thanks Des Moines Register for carrying on what many call the apex of riding a bike. As a junior high kid, I dreaded delivering you on Sundays. But I lived.

    I may even find myself pedaling that zany portion of the route called the “Karras Century” this year. Bet I live :)

  2. Craig M.

    I was home for the summer after my freshman year in college when Donald Kaul and John Karras began their first trip across Iowa. As fascinated as we all were with the idea that it was humanly possible to ride a bicycle that far, it was the story of Clarence Pickard that captured the imagination of the entire state. The daily reports of Clarence’s progress, read like a serial story in a dime-store comic book. My family and I eagerly awaited the next day’s issue of the Des Moines Register in order to learn of Mr. Pickard’s fate. I have to believe that Clarence Pickard contributed significantly to the initial success of what has since become the institution we call ‘RAGBRAI’. This summer will be my 11th consecutive RAGBRAI, but it was the descriptions of that first ride in 1973 featuring Donald Kaul, John Karras, and Clarence Pickard that has captivated me every summer since.

  3. Cflowers

    Perhaps we should all wear pith helmets (attached to our required, certified bike helmet, of course) as we ride into Indianola? Anyone enterprising enough to arrange passing out several thousand of them at the town before?


  4. Patrick

    I was in Marshalltown in 1974 when RAGBRAI came through. I had a 10 speed or something like that. I rode downtown to watch the cyclists come down Main Street. It was a gorgeous summer day as I recall. Nobody downtown. No fanfare. No tents. No traffic cops. No campers, No crowd. Just some weary looking folks riding bikes looking like they had been on a day long trip to Hell. I rode home and went about my business. Glad I could be there to see one of the early rides.

    The kids nowadays could take a lesson from Mr. Pickard and so could their parents!

  5. Bill Wertzberger

    The day after Mr. Pickard was busted by the Highway Patrol he told me that it was a shame because “that was the smoothest pavement” he had experienced on his ride.

  6. CG

    I love this story and I don’t mean to sound negative, but I’m very curious about one of these comments. Patrick, can you please explain what lesson kids and parents can learn from this story?

  7. Bruce

    I was a kid then but now older and can say that don’t make RAGBRI or men like Pickard like they use to. Oh for the old days!

  8. Capp

    I will be wearing a Pith Helmet in honor of Clarence Pickard
    from Greenfield to Indianola.

  9. DR

    I’ve read Karras’s book a few times, usually during the winter when I want to reminisce about RAGBRAI in the 80s – the true golden era of the ride. I find the most inspirational and entertaining portions of the book to be the chapters about Mr. Pickard.

    Mr. Pickard represented old school Iowan values of hard work and determination to overcome any odds. I never had the pleasure of riding with him (I was 1 year old when he took his epic journey). But I often think of him when I am struggling up a hill and considering the notion of hopping off to walk the rest of the way.

    My hat is off to you, Mr. Pickard

  10. Bill Wertzberger

    Mr Capp: For the pith helmet, It was smashed on one spot where a tree branch had fallen on him, so you have to smash your pith helmet up a bit, duct tape the hole and then spray paint the whole thing silver. I think he did that to match the duct tape.

  11. Mike,aka Turtle

    It’s a shame that more people can’t go on the ride for the food, the people and the scenery instead of seeing how much beer they can drink in a week. I guess it takes some longer to grow up. I’ve riden several times and yes a few times even questioned my sanity, but there is nothing like Iowa hospitality, the food and the people from all over the world. Mr Pickard went on RAGBRAI for all the right reasons. We need more like him.

  12. TERRI

    GREAT STORY!! I remember Clarence very well as a kind gentleman and my oldest son was able to meet him when the ride (not sure that it was even named RAGBRAI at that time) went thru West Branch IA. I cannot remember exactly the year, Travis was a wee toddler and took a liking to Clarence when he stopped at the Town Square for a break. Clarence took off his pith helmet and shared grapes with my son. The Daily Iowan newspaper snapped a picture of it and ran a contest to either name the picture or write a caption for it. Even though the picture is yellow from age, we still talk about it and what a kind soul Clarence was. I only wish that my daughter and youngest son could have met him.
    Thanks for the great story about a great man!!!

  13. Dock

    What they left out of the story about Clarence Pickard was that he lost his life riding his bike in Indianola. He was struck and killed while crossing the highway.

  14. barnswallow

    I lived in Indianola many years ago and am pleased to see them finally hosting RAGBRAI. The town will be awesome hosts!

    A veteran of 4,5,6,7,8,30 & 35 I always think I should be in Iowa the last full week of July. I’ll be there in 2012 for XL! Maybe when I’m 83 I can still spin with the best.

    Some say Clarence only rode the original ride but I recall seeing him in 1976 or 1977. A man of few words but an inspiration for all!

    I think he was a pedestrian when he was tragically struck and killed.

  15. Donna

    Guess I fall in the old-timer category because I so well recall being on Lincoln Way in Ames(as a college student) in 1973 when the very first RAGBRAI rode through town. We were in awe. And I was soon part of the grand ride (with Team Sprint) across Iowa and had the great pleasure of riding with Clarence. He was a topic of conversation at the end of each day as to who had seen &/or ridden with him. I know I could dig out pictures. And was he the gentleman who wore personalized poetic shirts in the last years – like “89 and doing fine” ?

  16. Tracy Hardy Johnson

    My grandfather, James B. Tracy of Muscatine (1899-1980) and I rode the second and third rides, 1974 and 1975. He had always worn a pith helmet for his outdoor work as a surveyor, and wore it for the ride as well. He was 75 when we made the first ride.

    He resembled Mr. Pickard a bit, especially wearing his helmet, and so folks who thought they may have seen Mr. Pickard on a later ride may have actually seen my grandfather on those rides.

    Hope that clarifies some history.

    I have a photo of us from 1974 up on the Facebook RAGBBRAI group site (not the RAGBRAI page).

  17. Steve Brink

    I was on that first RAGBRAI too and I frequently think about Clarence Pickard. It is also my goal to still be riding at his age. I rode 3 RAGBRAI’s in all back in the 70s. I lived in Grinnell and we lived and breathed bicycles back then.

  18. matt

    bill wertzberger how was your experience on that first ragbrai

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