In the late 1960s, John Karras, a copy editor for the Des Moines Register, and his colleague Donald Kaul, a columnist for the paper, began to pile their ten-speed bicycles into Karras’ Volkswagen bus and drive outside of Des Moines, where they’d ride a couple times a week. They were city boys. Karras grew up in Cleveland and Kaul in Detroit, and neither had spent much time on bikes since they were kids. But they were soon enamored with cycling, especially as a way to explore rural Iowa. Eventually they ventured further and further from home and by 1971, Karras and Kaul rode 125 miles from Des Moines to Iowa City. Karras recalls the trip took them about 13 hours, and the accomplishment got them thinking, why not pedal across the entire state in one week?
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The journalists pitched the idea to the Register as a promotional event; they’d file stories about their experience in the saddle. Really, Karras admits, they wanted to see if the newspaper would cover their expenses. The managing editor approved, but with one suggestion: Open it up to the public.
“I wrote a little story, about six inches maybe,” says Karras, now 79. “Donald Kaul and I had this incredibly stupid idea to ride across the state and anybody who wanted to come with us was welcome to do that.” The actual announcement, worded slightly differently, ran on July 22, 1973, and the six-day, 410-mile ride was scheduled to start in Sioux City, near the Nebraska-Iowa border, on August 26.
“We didn’t expect anybody to show up, maybe three or four teenagers,” says Karras. To his surprise, about 250 cyclists greeted them at the official start, a motel parking lot. As the peloton, which swelled to about 500 people in the 40 miles or so between well-populated Ames and Des Moines, snaked through the cornfields, farmers offered up their hoses, towns supplied free sandwiches and school kids were let out to slap hands with 83-year-old Clarence Pickard, the oldest on the ride. At the end of the day, Karras and Kaul retired to motel rooms, where they would write stories on their portable typewriters and dictate them over the phone to the paper’s city desk. Other riders staked out places to camp, often right on the motel grounds.
Though only 114 of the riders on the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa made it to the finish in Davenport, a tradition was born. Now in its 37th year, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI (pronounced Rag-bray by Karras, and Rag-brye by most everyone else), held the last full week in July, is the longest, largest and oldest touring bike ride in the world, with some 20,000 day- and weeklong-riders from 27 countries.
As Karras would later describe in his book RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong, the gaggle included cyclists such as Carter LeBeau of Davenport. LeBeau was on a three speed in jean cut offs and red-striped rugby socks. He bought a 12-pack of the socks and convinced three friends to come and wear them too. Now 82, LeBeau has ridden in all 36 so far, sporting his trademark tube socks each time. He had just gotten off his stationary bike when I called him. “I don’t care if you’re in Germany or Sweden,” he said. “Bicyclers know two things, the Tour de France and RAGBRAI.”
By LeBeau’s definition, I became a true bicycler last year, when I entered my first RAGBRAI. The west-east route varies from year to year, and the 2008 ride would be a 471-mile stretch just north of Interstate 80, from Missouri Valley on the Missouri River to Le Claire on the Mississippi. With the mileage per day ranging from 52 to 83, all but the shortest day would be longer than my personal best of about 55 miles. But I had heard that RAGBRAI was a party on wheels and figured that if people could do it hung-over, sometimes even in costumes, I could manage it sober and with the proper gear.
My boyfriend Ryan and I registered by the April 1 deadline and paid the $140 fee, guaranteeing us designated campsites at parks, fairgrounds and school campuses along the way and the ability to throw our baggage on a semi truck each morning to be hauled to the next overnight town. The event’s organizers cap the numbers at 8,500 weeklong and 1,500 daylong riders, understanding that up to 10,000 riders jump in unregistered and have friends or family drive support vehicles along the way. We found out we made the lottery in May, and by late July, strapped our Treks to the back of Ryan’s Ford Explorer and drove to Iowa.
About a hundred miles outside of Missouri Valley, we started witnessing the circus-like quality of RAGBRAI. Reconditioned school buses painted bright colors, inscribed with wacky team names and outfitted with rooftop bike racks barreled past us on the interstate and were peppered throughout the town once we arrived. A cotton-candy pink one transporting the “Sigourney Weavers” was parked right near the playground where we pitched our tent the first night, between the swings and the monkey bars.
Then, there were the riders to gawk at come morning, as we set out in a steady stream. Like the originals, they are still a rag-tag group—whole families on tandems, people blaring “Thunderstruck” or “Sweet Home Alabama” from sound systems in wagons trailing behind them and riders on towering unicycles. Teams go to comical lengths to identify themselves; “Team Pie Hunters” doggedly pursued pie sold at churches and school fundraisers in each town and wore Styrofoam slices of their favorite kinds—cherry, apple, key lime—on top of their helmets.