The amorphous summertime spree known as RAGBRAI is beautiful and revolutionary precisely because it’s in perpetual motion.
Before “Star Wars.” Before anybody cared about the Iowa caucuses. Before Apple was founded, let alone Facebook and Twitter.
Before all that, a pair of journalists — slender, ink-stained wretches named John Karras and Donald Kaul — invited their readers in 1973 to join them on a rural pilgrimage along Iowa’s highways. The writers in that lark unwittingly engineered their own cultural upheaval: The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
RAGBRAI’s nature crystallized in its second year that stretched from Council Bluffs to Dubuque: This roving, sun-baked party absolutely refuses to be pinned down for more than a single night. Each year’s route is unique. This sprawling circus can be contained only by the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
By the time you read this, we’ll know the next eight overnight towns to play host to the 44th annual menagerie, July 24-30.
Thus the conundrum: Where do you build a permanent monument to Karras and Kaul when their baby has been such an elusive, restless character? When RAGBRAI has touched more points on the Iowa map than anything besides an election?
The solution, and breaking news for RAGBRAI Nation: This weekend is the kickoff of a $120,000 campaign to erect a statue to Karras, 85, and Kaul, 81, in downtown Des Moines.
RAGBRAI itself is putting up $20,000 in seed money. The effort will be based at ragbraifounders.com.
Karras and Kaul weren’t expected to catch wind of this benevolent conspiracy until Saturday night’s route announcement party in downtown Des Moines.
The bronze statue — yet to be designed by an artist not yet chosen — will be placed near the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers just down the street from the Register’s current headquarters at Capital Square and within eyeshot of Principal Park.
RAGBRAI influence spreads to trails
This scheme was born in November when RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz and Carl Voss, a former Register photographer who both shot and rode the inaugural RAGBRAI and also has served as an official pie judge on the ride, met over coffee. They had no agenda. Yet they left Java Joe’s coffeehouse with this basic concept to honor the founders.
What other event in the last half century has mounted as ambitious a campaign to draw international throngs to some of the most remote corners of Iowa? When you stop to consider, it’s no small feat that the Karras-Kaul brainstorm led to a rural tourism model in which waves of bicyclists actually pay for the privilege of, say, pedaling over gravel in the sweltering dog days of summer to visit the tiny town of Pomeroy.
The RAGBRAI pitch never has been to apologize for rural Iowa but rather to extol its simple virtues.
The Iowa bicycle scene now boasts more than 1,600 miles of rec trails, with such iconic centerpieces as the High Trestle Trail bridge.
Yet we lack a permanent nod to the influential RAGBRAI founders anywhere on our prairie landscape.
“I was actually getting teary-eyed when I was talking to T.J. about it,” Voss said.
Immediately the pair looped in Chuck “Iowa Boy” Offenburger. My Iowa columnist predecessor officially joined the ride as co-host in 1983 when Kaul bowed out.
There was at least mild speculation in the early 1990s, Offenburger said, about whether a RAGBRAI statue should be established on the State Capitol grounds. So he also considers this effort to be long overdue.
“It touches every bit of Iowa,” Offenburger said. “You could put this statue in a lot of different places, but it’s most appropriate to put it downtown in the capital city, close to the Register headquarters and on the trail system.”
The statue is planned for the Raccoon River’s northern bank at the end of Southwest Fifth St., where the Jackson Street pedestrian bridge (currently closed) connects to the Meredith Trail.
Ben Page, director of Des Moines Parks and Recreation, has been briefed on the idea and heartily approves. He admits he’s biased: Page has helped organize RAGBRAI overnight stops in no fewer than three cities: Manchester, Fort Dodge and Des Moines.
Any such project these days needs to be fully self-funded, he said, including perpetual cost of maintenance.
The statue has yet to wind its way through various committees (probably including the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation) and the city council.
But it dovetails nicely with the $2.3 million renovation of the Jackson Street bridge already underway. The grand reopening is tentatively scheduled for spring 2017.
There are multiple statues to the late Norman Borlaug, the Iowan ag scientist who pioneered the “green revolution.” Karras and Kaul may not have rescued 1 billion people from starvation, but they’ve arguably saved thousands of lives by encouraging better general health through bicycling. Offenburger, a cancer survivor, counts himself among that grateful group. A recent economic impact study estimated that bicycling saves Iowa nearly $74 million in health-care costs.
To plant this statue at the confluence of two rivers also strikes me as a perfect symbolic echo of RAGBRAI culture, with riders each year ritually dipping their tires at either end of the state.
“The signage around this sculpture can tell how (RAGBRAI) started, the boom in cycling and what it’s done for Iowa,” Voss said.
Kaul, who lives in Michigan, has preferred to keep RAGBRAI more at arm’s length since he retired from the road. Knowing the acerbic wit of his columns, I look forward to what he thinks of being immortalized on the riverbank.
Karras, meanwhile, lives in Des Moines and continues to be a perennial beloved figure on the route as “Grandpa RAGBRAI.” He hands out coveted patches for those who complete the 100-mile “Karras Loop” on the Tuesday of the ride. He was expected to be on hand Saturday night for the surprise statue announcement.
Voss remembered how on that very first RAGBRAI he loaned Karras his bike for a stretch between Ames and Des Moines. The photographer attached a camera with a fish-eye lens to his front fork so that as the bike rolled along Karras could shoot selfies from the road.
Even in minute detail this ride was way ahead of its time. Perhaps soon bicyclists will pose for their own selfies with rigid bronze versions of Karras and Kaul.
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