From the archives: RAGBRAI started out as a lark for founders John Karras, Donald Kaul

John Karras
Des Moines Register

Editor's note: RAGBRAI co-founder and Des Moines Register columnist John Karras wrote this in 1992, ahead of the 20th ride. Karras died Nov. 10, 2021, at age 91.

No one at the Des Moines Register in the spring of 1973 thought there would be more than one bicycle ride across Iowa.

Indeed, we didn't even call the first one the Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. As I recall, it was simply the Great Six-Day Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. Then, when it became apparent that Donald Kaul and I, the co-founders, would be doing more than one of these, we called the second one SAGBRAI — the Second Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.

When the thing appeared to have settled in for the duration, we went to RAGBRAI the third year (after then-editor Michael Gartner quite reasonably urged me to get the Register into the title), with a Roman numeral attached just for silliness.

And here we are, all these years later, on the threshold of the XXth.

More:RAGBRAI co-founder John Karras dies at 91, leaving national impact on bicycling

As Donald Kaul, my RAGBRAI co-founder, once commented, "All we planned was a bicycle ride, not a life sentence."

He was correct. In fact, what we had envisioned was a rather modest bicycle ride. Originally, we had planned for Kaul to ride alone as a promotional activity for both his column and the Register.

Kaul objected that riding by himself would be unsafe, and asked to have me accompany him. Actually, that's what the two of us had schemed from the start. We'd been doing a lot of cycling together, and thought riding all the way across the state would be a great lark.

Then, a couple of months before our departure, the managing editor at the time, Ed Hines, suggested that we ask readers to go along with us.

We did. I wrote a couple of stories about what we were up to, and Kaul put it in a column or two. We expected virtually no response at all, and so were astonished when letters started arriving by the sackful.

From 2018:Donald Kaul, longtime Register columnist and RAGBRAI co-founder, dies at 83

Began in Sioux City

That first ride started in Sioux City, overnighted in Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Ames, Des Moines and Williamsburg and ended in Davenport. The mileages were killers — over 100 the second to last day and 85 the last.

We arrived in Sioux City to find about 250 other cyclists there to join us. We could hardly believe it.

Among the riders was the late Clarence Pickard, then 83. He showed up with a second-hand woman's Schwinn that weighed almost half as much as he did, and announced that he had ridden, perhaps, 10 miles in training.

We figured he wouldn't even make it out of Sioux City, let alone across the state. We were wrong, of course. He rode every mile, including a few extra when he took a wrong turn out of Colfax and wound up on Interstate Highway 80, and became a folk hero before the week was out.

As you may know, a small group of us has been riding makeup RAGBRAIs every spring since 1988, the year after my heart attack. I've been asked many times if we'll ever repeat the first year's ride. The answer is no.

Unplanned route

The first year's route was truly stupid. We didn't scout it ahead of time; we made motel reservations almost as an afterthought, and we made no provision for bicycle repair, medical emergencies or route signs.

Indeed, if Bill Albright of Bill's Cyclery hadn't come along with a trailer full of parts and tools, it's doubtful that there would have been half a dozen spare tubes on the ride.

In addition, the weather was the most foul of any of the XX rides with temperatures above 100 degrees five days out of the six. Incredibly, we didn't have one case of heat exhaustion.

And even that first year, residents along the route were out with lemonade and cookies and sandwiches. Almost everything was free that year and the next, the passing of which some riders still lament (I'm not among them; I think people should pay for goods and services).

Grown more elaborate

Of course, the ride has grown and grown over the years, leveling off about the present participation in 1985 or '86. Preparations, especially for entertainment, have grown ever more elaborate with each passing year as more and more businesses and institutions have become involved.

Kaul left the Register and the ride and Chuck Offenburger joined me as co-host in 1983. This will be Chuck's 10th RAGBRAI and 20th year with The Register, and my 20th RAGBRAI.

What has all this meant for me?

For my part, I've seen a couple of generations of teenagers grow up, have met literally thousands of pretty nice people and have formed a couple of dozen lifetime friendships, all through cycling.

And, I've had an awfully good time.