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The great bicycle ride across Iowa.

Gene and Leo McMullin are pedaling a red Firestone tendem over the back roads of Iowa. The two brothers--Gene is a pig farmer and Leo works as a mechanic for John Deere Co.--are both in their 50s. Neither is what you would call an athlete. Gene's stomach sag a bit over the belt buckle on his plaid shorts. As they struggle up a hill, a pack of intent riders flies by on sleek ten-speeds. Occasionally, a cyclist coasts to take a curious look at the two men on their mud-crusted relic.

"You notice how these young people have to stop pedalin' once in a while?" Gene posits in the twang of his native Prairie City. Then he redoubles his efforts to climb the hill. A smile spreads across Leo's swarthy face. "Now don't you burn up them bearings, Gene."

Welcome to the "Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride across Iowa," better known as RAGBRAI. Now an 11-year-old institution, RAGBRAI is as Midwestern as a corn harvest, the lazy drone of a crop duster, Grant Wood and red suspenders.

As its name suggests, RAGBRAI (rhymes with horse fly) is sponsored by the Des Moines Register, self-styled as "The newspaper Iowa depends upon." The RAGBRAI route changes every year, but it always begins on the state's western border, near the Missouri River, and ends on the other side at the Mississippi. This writer, a New Yorker, was one of 7,000 enthusiasts who came from all over the United States to participate last July in the increasingly famous ride. In seven days, RAGBRAI XI spanned the 492 miles from Onawa to Dubuque.

RAGBRAI has grown from the whimsy of two Register reporters into Iowa's biggest event outside the state fair. In 1973 Donald Kaul--a scraggly-mustached liberal and author of one of the paper's best-loved columns (but who has now left the Register)--fretted about losing the common touch of his home state. He had been transferred to that city of bureaucrats and lawyers, Washington, D.C. So another staffer, John Karras, suggested that he and Kaul pedal their bikes clear across Iowa. With only six weeks' notice the Register announced the reporters' plans.

When Kaul and Karras reached the starting point, a motel in Sioux City, they were startled to find 300 eager cyclists. The next year there were 1,700. Now the ride has become so popular that the Register uses a lottery system to keep the census at 6,500. But Iowa locals, like the McMullin brothers, typically join RAGBRAI on any given day, so the actual turnout is more like 7,000, most of them from Iowa and neighboring states. Possibly, like Kaul, they come to experience the full flavor of small-town Iowa life.

Make no mistake: The allure of RAGBRAI is not the terrain or the scenery. It is certainly not the sultry Iowa summer. Try to imagine, if you will, riding your bike in a pack of 7,000, outnumbering by a factor of two or three or four the population of almost any town en route. RAGBRAI riders are local heroes, a royal caravan, an occupying army. They bring a powerful economic boost to needy backwater communities.

And the host towns, some of which have begged for years to be a RAGBRAI stop, pour on the hospitality. Churches, 4-H clubs, Jaycees and other civic groups sponsor huge feeds; fire trucks greet overheated riders with a cooling spray; children stand by the roadside to hand out glasses of ice water. Whole streets are cordoned off for evening revelry. In Clarion, one stop on RAGBRAI XI, glee clubs and banjo pickers sang on the village green and a tennis court became the site of an impromptu square dance. In the host town, the fairgrounds are invariably too small to hold the itinerant campers; tents dot front lawns across the landscape. Municipal swimming pools overflow with bodies, and high-school locker rooms and showers are jammed by sweaty cyclists. RAGBRAI, it turns out, isn't so much a bike ride as a folk festival.

The 1983 event had a few changes from RAGBRAIs past. For one thing, the Register has been forced to change. It's a small fee, only $12.50 ($15.00 in 1984). For that, each rider gets a baggage-tag official patch, and two huge vans are provided to carry luggage. The Register lalso provides ambulances and "sag wagons" for the incapacitated.

Perhaps the most talked-about change was the absence of Donald Kaul. Kaul, it seems, hated the ride and swore each time that he'd never do it again. For once he meant it. The 48-year-old columnist, ever complaining of his sore knees or posterior, tended to bring up the rear. (He writes: "All those people who used to say, 'Hey, there's Kaul; we must be at the end of the ride,' won't have anything to say now. Tough.") Kaul found those taunts all the more humiliating because Karras, five years his senior, is slim and athletic and typically leads the pack. Maybe that's why Kaul was intimidated into enlisting each summer; or maybe he realized that RAGBRAI produced good copy.

But Kaul's pen is as sharp as ever. On the Sunday morning that the tour began, Kaul wrote: "If the sense of loss gets to be too much for me, I suppose I'll turn off the air-conditioner, wrap myself in a wool blanket and hurl myself headfirst down the stairs."

So Kaul was gone. Columnist Chuck ("Iowa Boy") Offenburger, who isn't much more of a cycle pro than Kaul, was cohost for 1983--"I'm the one who looks like a tubby guy from Shenandoah wearing lawn-mowing shorts on his first real bike ride"--but not once did he complain of heat or physical ailment. One 71-mile day, with an hour's head start, he actually beat Karras into town. Offenburger exulted about it in the next morning's edition.

Another RAGBRAI celebrity was missing: Clarence Pickard. Pickard, a small, shy gentleman, left his hometown of Indianola for that first ride in 1973. He showed up riding a girl's Schwinn and wearing a silver pitch helmet and black tennis shoes. Despite the strategic haberdashery, no one really expected "Mr. Pickard," as he was always called, to complete the ride. That's because Mr. Pickard was 83. Not only did he make it from border to border, but articles about him captured the hearts of Iowans, who demanded there be another ride. Although Pickard never rode on RAGBRAI again (expect for one day in 1974), he continued to be a "hero" to young and old alike.

Sadly, Pickard had died the winter preceding RAGBRAI XI after being struck by a car in Indianola. He always was a bit careless: On that first ride he had strayed from the pack and pedaled onto Interstate 80. RAGBRI XI was designated the "Clarence Pickard Memorial Ride" in his honor. The handsome patch given all the riders was emblazoned with his pith helmet.

People, like this writer, who come from out of state are in for a surprise: Iowa isn't flat. No, not by a long shot.

"You see, Iowa is a state of rivers," Ann Karras, wife of John, explained to a RAGBRAI novice. "So we're always rolling in and out of river valleys." The second and shortest day, as we pedaled the 46 miles from Harlan to Guthrie Center, John Karras counted 4,017 hills, surely an exaggeration. But on the first and last two days of RAGBRAI, one can always count on what Karras calls "that roller coaster feeling."

However, on the two or three middle days of RAGBRAI, Iowa becomes as flat as a tabletop. And that's when the RAGBRAI novice makes another discovery about Iowa: The scenery is pretty boring.

Let's face it. Iowa, 95 percent of its land suitable for cultivation, is mile after mile of soybeans and corn. One needs to go farther east for dense forests or farther east for dense forests or farther west for grasslands. Iowa is an endless stretch of green fields, cattle, hogs and silos. There's little to break the monotony, short of an occasional red barn, combine or crop duster.

Then there's the weather. It gets awfully hot. The rivers Ann Karras speaks of are nowhere in sight. Shade trees are few and far between--a major worry on RAGBRAI XI, because in mid-July a terrible heat wave hit the Midwest. Fortunately, a rainstorm struck the first day of RAGBRAI XI, and the climate turned temperate. We're informed that God must look down well on bicycle riders, because bad weather, even hot weather, has been an exception.

However, in a state of flat prairies, the bike rider is always at the mercy of the elements. One evening in 1983 the wind and rain kicked up with such ferocity that tents were blown away. Reportedly, one father woke to see his son's dome tent rolling across the campground, his screaming son still in it.

To some, RAGBRAI has grown too big, too commercial. One who feels that way is Carter LeBeau of Davenport. Three years ago, LeBeau founded "The Other Great Iowa Ride," TOGIR (rhymes with ogre). TOGIR tours Iowa in a circular route of about 500 miles and is held a week or so before RAGBRAI. It attracts about 300 hardcore cyclists, many of whom also show up for the Main Event.

This writer didn't participate in TOGIR but suggests that if you're going to see Iowa on a bike, it might as well be from river to river. How else can one indulge in that charming RAGBRAI custom of dunking one's rear wheel in the Missouri on Day One and wetting the front wheel with Mississippi mud at ride's end? On the last day of RAGBRAI XI, the dreaded heat wave came back in full force. And some cyclists--this writer included--greeted the Mississippi with a headlong plunge, bike and all.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Dannen, Fredric
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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