By RICHARD DOAK
March 28, 2005
It wasn't even called RAGBRAI yet when then-21-year-old college student Mike Bergman joined about 1,700 others bicycling across the state in 1974. It was dubbed SAGBRAI (the second annual great bicycle ride across Iowa), and the Register hadn't decided whether there would be a third.
"Certainly this year's ride could hardly be termed anything but a great success," wrote the Register's Donald Kaul at the end of the '74 ride, "but one wonders how much bigger it can get before it self-destructs."
More than 30 years later, it hasn't self-destructed yet. It has grown to accommodate 8,500 week-long riders, plus a few thousand more who join the ride for part of the week.
RAGBRAI comes to mind now because Friday is the deadline to apply to ride this year. (Application forms and information are at www.ragbrai.org.) If you've thought about doing RAGBRAI someday but never actually got around to it, well, it's either now or let another year pass without having experienced one of the quintessentially Iowa events.
Bergman, a Marshalltown psychologist, recently shared his photos and old newspaper clippings from SAGBRAI. They served as a reminder that you needn't be a trained athlete or avid cyclist to undertake the tour - and it is a tour, not a race. Anyone who's reasonably fit and willing to put in a couple of months preparing for the rigors of hill-climbing and long hours in the saddle can successfully spend seven days riding across Iowa on a bike.
That was demonstrated in the first RAGBRAI, when 83-year-old Clarence Pickard donned a silver pith helmet and completed the ride on a used ladies' Schwinn. That first year was almost a spur-of-the-moment event cooked up by the Register's Kaul and John Karras. Only 114 riders made the whole trip. The second year, SAGBRAI, was better organized, and already the event's traditions were emerging - the camaraderie on the road, the hospitality in the towns, the "only in Iowa" feel of the thing.
There were some differences between then and now, as a letter from Bergman pointed out. Ten-speeds were state of the art then, not today's 21- or 27-speed gearing. The photos show cyclists in T-shirts, tennis shoes and cut-off jeans, not micro-fiber jerseys, cleated shoes and padded biking shorts. Hardly anyone wore helmets in the '70s. Maybe the puffy, 'fro-like hairdos provided some protection.
One of the pleasures of RAGBRAI is the sense of being in a different world, far from real-world travails. I've often compared the experience to the fictional Brigadoon, the enchanted village that magically appears once every 100 years. RAGBRAI is an enchanted village on wheels that appears the last full week of each July.
But the really big events from the outside world do filter in. One of Bergman's snapshots from '74 shows a rider reading a Register with the banner headline, "Nixon Resigns." (The ride was in August that year.)
That inspired Kaul, a noted Nixon critic, to opine at the end of the ride that if Nixon had been able to participate in something like SAGBRAI at some point in his life, "he wouldn't be on the beach today." The ride, he wrote, "is a consciousness-raising experience. It affords people with an opportunity to be nice to each other - and they take it." Had Nixon "been exposed to something like that, he wouldn't have taken the American people for imbeciles and idiots, which seems to me to be the attitude that triggered his problems."
OK, maybe we RAGBRAI boosters over-rhapsodize about its charms, but the ride is an institution unique to Iowa. For anyone who wants to experience it for the first time, this year's relatively flat trek across northern Iowa might be a good one to try.
Don't take that as a guarantee of an easy ride. If there are headwinds, a flat ride can be more grueling than a hilly one. If there is extreme heat - it is Iowa in July - well, there is no shade on the open road. Then there's always the possibility of another Soggy Monday, a day that survivors still talk about as the most miserable they've ever experienced.
It was in 1981 between Mapleton and Lake City. The temperature dropped into the upper 40s, with a strong headwind and pouring rain. Few made it more than halfway through the day. Local folks with cattle trucks, pickups and almost any other kind of conveyance showed up to haul stranded riders to Lake City, where they found the campgrounds under water. The good people of Lake City opened their homes, garages and school gym to offer shelter.
Nothing as miserable has happened in the 23 rides since 1981, but the legend of Soggy Monday lives on as a cautionary tale. While it's true any reasonably fit person can do RAGBRAI, that doesn't mean it's misery free. But if it were easy, anybody could do it. There is a definite pride of accomplishment riding a bike 500 or so miles across Iowa.
You might wonder why an opinion columnist is writing about a bicycle ride. Essay/Comment space is usually intended for hard-hitting, weighty commentary on public policy. Then again, celebrating some of the good things about Iowa is an expression of opinion, is it not?
We Iowans can never do enough of that.
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