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  • Posted Aug 22, 2010
BIKEIOWA posted Chickenman's announcement to run for State Senate last January. Here is more news... By Jennifer Jacobs There's a free-wheeling guy on RAGBRAI who calls himself Chickenman. He's best known for wearing a chicken-like skullcap with a little beak at the forehead, bicycling naked at times, and, most of all, for providing back-of-the-pack riders with keg after keg of free beer at daily roadside stops. There's a Republican in Ottumwa named Mark Chelgren, who is running against Sen. Keith Kreiman, a Democrat from Bloomfield. Chelgren stresses his career as an inventor and small business owner and gripes about unreasonable tax structures and excessive regulation. Chelgren is Chickenman - a fact not well known to voters in Senate District 47, he admits. Chelgren isn't the only Iowan to wear a suit for political appearances and then let loose one week a year on the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. But he is likely the only one who became a legend for tapping 70 kegs of beer at a single impromptu bash. "I don't go around and brag about being Chickenman," said Chelgren, 42, who owns Frog Legs, a manufacturer of wheelchair components. "I don't hide from it, but I don't exploit it either." Will blue-collar workers from the meatpacking town of Ottumwa embrace Chelgren's reputation for generosity with the suds? How will his history of drinking and nudity play among conservative voters in towns like Clio? "Chickenman was a wonderful persona when I'd go on vacation and meet people," Chelgren said in an interview last week. "In my life now, even though I still go on RAGBRAI and I'm still Chickenman, I am first and foremost a father and a businessman, and I take that seriously." At times, his two personas collide. At a campaign fundraiser in Ottumwa this month, he offered 30 kegs of free beer. That was enough Sam Adams, Blue Moon and Keystone to fill 3,600 cups, he calculated, but a thunderstorm cut the crowd size. Kreiman, meanwhile, is a popular incumbent in his eighth year in the Iowa Senate representing Appanoose, Davis, and Wayne counties, and the southeast part of Wapello County. Before that, he served 10 years in the Iowa House. Asked about reports from veteran RAGBRAI riders that they've seen him nude, Chickenman acknowledged he had a tradition of pedaling unclothed at least a mile a day along an isolated stretch of Iowa countryside. When not on a bicycle, he said, "if someone ripped off my little loin cloth, being drunk, I'd run around and talk to people." "On RAGBRAI, I do believe that adults do have a right to make adult decisions," he said. "Whether those decisions are deemed to be appropriate or inappropriate is up to the person - as long as it doesn't affect children." Chelgren first rode RAGBRAI in 1991 when he was a California resident. (He studied physics at the University of California-Riverside, but left school just shy of earning his bachelor's degree.) Somebody started calling him El Pollo Hombre during his days of riding with Team Quadrabong. He wore a chicken bib while chugging from a beer bong - and the nickname stuck, he said. Chelgren met his wife, Janet, on RAGBRAI in 1995, the year he biked from San Diego to Iowa for the ride. Back then, he was fit enough to tow a portable beer station that he said weighed 360 pounds with the ice, keg, tapper and cups. He'd stop at the top of the biggest hill each day and solicit volunteers to help drain it. At the next town, he'd get the keg refilled. "Some days we'd go through three kegs," he said. After three years of this muscle-burning work, he bought a refrigerated truck modified with beer taps on the sides. Six taps were for teams who bought kegs and gave them to Chickenman to carry; six taps were sponsored by microbreweries. As Chickenman pedaled ahead, he'd scout for a shady spot distant from any bars. He'd ask the property owner for permission to set up chairs, music and his beer truck. Then he'd phone his driver. By the early 2000s, Chickenman had attracted the attention of Iowa state troopers. A new driver made the mistake of parking on a public access road, and the truck was impounded. A Bike Iowa poll taken in the pre-Lance Armstrong days found Chickenman was the most recognizable person on RAGBRAI, "which was very cool," he said. Chelgren still rides, but the days of the beer truck are over, he said. "People say, 'Aren't you afraid the political parties or people are going to judge you poorly for having beer?' No. Our founding fathers sat down over beer to talk politics. I think it's more of a tribute to our founding fathers than any kind of derogatory statement. Drinking beer is not a sin; abusing it is." Chelgren campaigns on a platform of smaller government and lower taxes, bashing both Democrats and Republicans for Iowa's problems. Asked if he considers himself a tea partier, Chelgren answered, in a serious tone: "I would consider myself more of a beer partier. I'm probably outside of the scope of what they represent. Not that I wouldn't accept them, it's that they wouldn't accept me." Some political observers believe a Republican has a shot at winning Senate District 47 in a year when anti-incumbent sentiment is high and Republican voters are energized, but voters might be leery of this candidate's past. "It sounds like he has a lot of fun, which is great," said Rachel Paine Caufield, an associate politics professor at Drake University. "But in this particular race, I don't see this going over very well." Eccentricities tend to be overlooked in very local races if the voters know the candidates, she said. "They might have an easier time if they ran for, say, dogcatcher," Caufield said, laughing. Cary Covington, an associate politics professor at the University of Iowa, said one way politicians have avoided backlash against their past is to make a formal break with it, thus showing personal growth. "Or (they) reveal that their previous image was just that - an image - and claim that there is a serious person behind that image who the voters should take seriously," Covington said. Politicians such as Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger come to mind, he said. (photo via DM Register)

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