RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is the world’s oldest, largest, and longest multi-day bicycle touring event. Started in 1973 by Register editor John Karras and columnist Don Kaul, about 300 cyclists took part in the first ride. Participation grew steadily and now exceeds 10,000 riders each year. The ride usually takes place during the last full week in July and always begins on the “west coast” of Iowa at the Missouri River and ends on the “east coast” at the Mississippi River. The towns along the route change every year. The types and amounts of food available along the route, particularly the pork chops and homemade pies, often served in small churches and firehouses, have been legendary. However, until about 15 years ago, the same could not be said of the beer to be found in these mostly rural Iowa towns.
Steve Slach is an avid cyclist and craft beer aficionado from Bettendorf, Iowa. It was in 2005 during RAGBRAI that Slach’s disappointment in the beer selection available in the towns along the route became acute. Slach figured that he and other riders, who peddle an average of about 60 miles per day for the week-long ride, deserved better than the unsatisfying watery mass-produced beers that were pretty much the only option in those days. How to solve the problem? Create a bicycle team of good beer lovers including home and professional brewers, find craft beer sponsors who would provide their beers to bring along for the ride, and promote the bars along the route who would offer such beers to RAGBRAI participants. Team Good Beer (TGB) was born.
TGB’s mission was to have “A Good Beer in Every Town.” Some of the logistics involved in developing TGB for its inaugural ride in 2006 included creating a website, designing a team kit, researching and producing a good beer bar guide, finding camping spots, and acquiring a vehicle to transport the team, and their bikes, gear and beer to the start town and back. The latter task was accomplished when Slach purchased the old school bus that he rode in as a kid. After taking a poll of team members, the bus was christened the “Firkin Bus,” after a type of beer cask, and a handy term whenever, which was often, a stranded team member wondered: “Where’s the firkin’ bus?!”
There were approximately 35 original members of TGB from ten states: New Hampshire, California, Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri and Iowa. Charter members (many of whom still regularly ride with TGB) included Joe Traynor, Scot (One T) Schaar, Doug Raplinger, Peter (The Godfather) Caddoo, Greg Eisenmenger, and Harvey Flewelling. Ron Traynor was the first Firkin Bus driver. Sponsors that first year were Millstream Brewing of Amana, IA, John’s Grocery and Old Capitol Brew Works of Iowa City, IA, Healthy Habits Nutrition & Bicycles of Bettendorf, IA, and Blue Cat Brew Pub of Rock Island, IL.
TGB’s first jersey was a lederhosen design that quickly became recognizable among RAGBRAI participants and is popular to this day. TGB members handed out bar guides (meticulously researched by Joe Traynor) to other riders, and at lunch stop towns shared samples of beers kept on the Firkin Bus. With the help of TGB, the demand for and supply of craft beer on RAGBRAI grew exponentially over the course of the next decade. As more small craft breweries opened for business in Iowa, TGB encouraged riders to “Drink Local.” Ultimately, many craft brewers large and small joined TGB’s mission as sponsors, including NOLA Brewing, Left Hand Brewing, Odell Brewing, Deschutes Brewery, Backpocket Brewing, Crawford Brew Works, Potosi Brewing, Barn Town Brewing, and Firetrucker Brewery.
As RAGBRAI ridership fluctuates on TGB, a “rookie” or two often is welcomed on the team each year as circumstances permit. Such rookies are expected to fetch beer for the tenured veterans and help to load gear on the bus, although all team members pitch in for these tasks and other camp duties. Before the ride each year, rookies and veterans alike look forward to receiving the “Shit to Know” list containing lists of things to bring and not bring, and key tips along with sarcastic if not hilarious commentary, for riding RAGBRAI with TGB. Of grave importance is that the rookies must never look directly at the “Founder,” Steve Slach.
With large pockets of TGB members located in Colorado, Texas, and Iowa, training rides (biking and beers) are regularly organized in those and other locations. In recent years, team members have reunited in New Braunfels, Texas for the Tour de Greune, a one day cycling event held in November. There is also a regular winter “Brrr” ride, as well as a weekend for cleaning and refurbishing the bus, in Iowa.
After many years, the Firkin Bus was retired to its new home in Texas, but not before TGB acquired a new and improved used school bus, the “Bierstube.” Like the Firkin, during RAGBRAI, Bierstube is capable of and often carries 500 or more gallons of sponsor’s craft beer in kegs, cans and bottles. At the end of the day if you happen to stumble upon the new bus “Firkin Bae” when it is parked in a RAGBRAI town, a TGB member will be happy to provide you with a beer!