2019 RAGBRAI

Winterset couple displays bicycle of late son, who may have been youngest RAGBRAI rider in 1985

WINTERSET, Ia. — The Winterset couple packed away their son’s bicycle decades ago.

But when Marcia Sparks, 73, and her husband, Jim Sparks, 73, learned that RAGBRAI was coming through Winterset, they decided to dig the old blue Schwinn out of storage to display in their bakery’s front window.

The bicycle belonged to their oldest son, Nathan Sparks, who rode a leg of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa in 1985 at the age of 9.

As hundreds of people milled around the Winterset town square Monday evening, two men stopped to peer in a window of the Bakery Unlimited where two signs next to the old bike gave an abbreviated version of Nathan Sparks’ RAGBRAI story.

“He always wanted to ride in RAGBRAI,” said Marcia Sparks, who’s owed and operated the bakery for the past 35 years with help from her now retired husband.

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When Nathan Sparks was about 7 years old, he decided he wanted a bike so he could ride what was becoming an increasingly popular route.

So he got to work collecting aluminum cans.

For about two years he scooped them out of ditches and gathered pop cans he found out in the country away from his Winterset home.

It took about two years before he finally has enough to purchase a Schwinn bike. It cost about $100, his father, Jim Sparks, said.

The father and son decided to ride the Hawarden-to-Sibley stretch of the 1985 RAGBRAI – about 90 miles in total.

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It rained part of that day, Jim Sparks said, but his son seemed to enjoy every minute of it.

When they finished, Nathan “was ready to go again,” Jim said.

“Jim wasn’t though,” Marcia Sparks said with a laugh.

It was the only RAGBRAI their son rode.

Nathan Sparks died when he was 16 of complications from strep throat, his mother said.

Decades later, the Sparks shared the story of their son’s perseverance and hard work with RAGBRAI passers-by roaming in and out of their shop, which smelled of warm cinnamon donuts.

People have told the Sparks that their son was the youngest person riding all those years ago, though they’ve never known for sure.

“He always wanted to be an astronaut and he had the capabilities of that sort of thing,” Marcia Sparks said.

They even sent him to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama, once.

“He was an adventurous kid,” she said.

The Sparkses looked forward to closing their shop for the evening once the crowds thinned so they could sit on the bench out in front of their shop and enjoy the Elton and Billy Tribute concert.

But until then, they were still selling to customers as far as Colorado, California and Italy who stopped in for a sweet bite, and to read the story of their son, whose memory lived on.

1 Comment

Jose, Oct 29, 2019 at 9:23 pm

God bless your son and fellow rider. He will live in Ragbrai forever.

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