Remembering Clarence Pickard
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.