For the one or two people who don’t know (out of the dozen who may read this), I rode last week on RAGBRAI — the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
It was RAGBRAI XL. The 40th ride.
That alone will make it memorable. BUT X and L are not the letters for which I will remember the week-long ride — my fifth RAGBRAI. I will remember it for its two Hs: Heat and headwind. More on that in a minute.
RAGBRAI is something you have to experience to fully understand and appreciate. It is the coolest event in Iowa. One of the few things — maybe the only thing — in my native state that gets people from around the world to visit Iowa. ON PURPOSE.
No one could have imagined what RAGBRAI would become when Donald Kaul, a smart-ass columnist at the Register, and one of his friends and co-workers, John Karras, convinced their bosses in 1973 to pay for a week-long bike ride across Iowa. The newspapermen invited anyone who was interested to join them on the ride, which Kaul and Karras chronicled in stories and columns. They were shocked when 300 people showed up in Sioux City for that first ride, which ended six days later in Davenport. (This year’s seven-day ride was 471 miles, going from Sioux Center to Clinton.)
Karras, who is in his 80s, lives in Colorado, but still comes back to ride each year on RAGBRAI. Kaul, who is 77 and lives in Michigan, does not. That’s probably not surprising. I think Karras may have always been the stronger bicyclist.
But it was Kaul’s columns from the early rides, which I read as a boy, that made me want to ride on RAGBRAI. His column back then was called Over The Coffee. I was a fan — especially when RAGBRAI rolled around because Kaul complained about everything. It was very funny stuff.
So when I moved back to Iowa in 2007, I fully planned to ride on my first RAGBRAI in 2008. I went again in 2009 because it made an overnight stop in Chariton, my hometown. And now, RAGBRAI has become something I will do the last week full week in July every year until I am no longer physically able to do it.
For the past three years, I have ridden on RAGBRAI with a bunch that calls itself the Morrison Group. They come from Muscatine, Iowa City, Davenport, Decorah, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and elsewhere. They are a delightful bunch of people. I am very lucky to know — and ride with — them.
The Morrison Group, started by the late Big John Morrison of Iowa City, has been a team on RAGBRAI for, I think, about 30 years. Because the group has been around so long, there are members who no longer ride, along with newbies like me.
A highlight of this year’s ride was that many of the veteran group members showed up throughout the week to join us for an evening as we camped or to ride a few miles for a day or so. This included Sam and Linda Black, who hosted us in Fairfax on the night RAGBRAI stopped in Cedar Rapids. The next morning, Sam led us back to the route at the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, where we stopped at C.J.s’ Sports Bar & Grill, one of Sam’s favorite watering holes. After a couple of rounds, we finally headed for Anamosa at almost 11 a.m.
It also included Tom Arney, a Morrison member from way back. He met up with us in Gowrie and hauled seven of us and our bikes into Webster City. Some true-blue cyclists will look down their nose at this, insisting it isn’t really an official RAGBRAI unless you ride every mile.
But I just asked myself: What would Donald Kaul have done? And then I accepted the free ride.
Another veteran Morrison member joined us for most of the ride. It was fun getting to know Steve Smartt. He is associate dean for academic services and assistant provost for research in the Graduate School at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He is also known as “Box Car” in the Beaker Street Blues Band, the band in which he sings and plays trumpet. It is a great band. You really should listen to the YouTube link above.
Steve entertained us a number of times throughout the week. It was a real highlight of an otherwise hot, windy and challenging ride. There was a much talk about the heat and wind during the ride. All I can say is riding when it’s 110 degrees outside isn’t so bad. Riding into a 20 mph headwind isn’t the end of the world. But it’s not much fun to do both things at the same time.
Still, it won’t be enough to keep me from counting the days until RAGBRAI XLI kicks off on July 21, 2013. I can’t wait.