No offense to organized religion, but one of the most powerful creation stories in my life has been that of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
Our gospel according to RAGBRAI preaches that columnist Donald Kaul and copy editor John Karras in 1973 published a blurb about their intention to pedal across the entire state. Any readers equally crazy were welcome to join them.
The self-described “wannabe hippies” were awestruck when they reached the motel parking lot in Sioux City only to be greeted by some 250 bicyclists.
The modern RAGBRAI on its denser days now funnels more than 20,000 riders from around the globe into remote rural corners that thirst for such a tourism boost.
I’ve always taken this example as proof that true sweeping cultural change comes from a creative lark — not committee meetings and focus groups. (Or at least that’s what I tell my editors when I want to avoid a meeting.)
So when I heard that a woman named Marbro Rush-Osborn had reached out to RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz because she had unearthed vintage photos of Kaul and Karras bicycling the rural Iowa roads in 1971 — two full years before our official two-wheeled genesis — I was eager to peep at these apocryphal images.
It felt a little like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Or maybe the Shroud of Turin. Choose your own less-clunky analogy.
Rush-Osborn, who now lives in the Quad Cities village of Milan, Ill., found the seven slides in a closet while assembling a scrapbook for her son.
Her late ex-husband, Larry Eckholt, was the Register’s bureau chief in Iowa City in 1971 when Karras and Kaul decided that they would pedal from Des Moines to Iowa City — a 125-mile, 13-hour trek.
“We went out to the west side of Iowa City to see them coming down the road,” she remembered.
The journalist duo never had ridden more than 60 miles in one stretch.
“We used to bike from 44th street out to Waukee four times a week,” Karras said. But the Iowa City odyssey “put a whole different perspective on possibilities.”
Yes, disciples, this was the ride on which Karras and Kaul more or less brainstormed RAGBRAI.
These rediscovered photos show the journalists with their wannabe-hippie hair blowing in the breeze — not tucked beneath biking helmets.
The riders sport simple buttoned cotton shirts with rolled-up sleeves. They wear biking gloves but no bright Spandex.
I had to take these sacred images to the source for an official assessment.
Kaul is in Ann Arbor, Mich. But Karras, 85, and his wife, Ann, live nearby at Scottish Rite Park retirement community in the heart of Des Moines. A “RAGBRAI Road” sign hangs just above their doorway.
“God, she was pretty,” Karras said when he scrutinized the photo that shows him and his wife standing with their bikes alongside Kaul, George Anthan (who became the Register’s Washington bureau chief) and a woman whom we haven’t yet identified for certain.
Karras was riding his first 10-speed, a Raleigh Carlton bike.
He doesn’t think he has any of his own photos of that fateful trip. Considering the severe lack of smartphones in 1971, perhaps these are the only snapshots to survive.
The slides remind us that RAGBRAI’s creation seized on what was a rising cultural tide. An obsession with bicycling seemed to be in the air that summer of ’71 based on Register coverage.
The first “Bikeology Day” in Des Moines in May 1971 drew more than 1,000 bicyclists (including Kaul) who pedaled from Drake University to the Iowa Capitol and then through downtown, shouting “bike power!” and “ride on!”
One story warned of a sharp increase in bike deaths and the need for special bike paths.
Karras in his own story praised the bicycling on Iowa’s paved county roads, where “traffic is generally light and the scenery is mostly magnificent.”
A pair of Roosevelt High School seniors also bicycled from Des Moines to Iowa City in September 1971 as part of their effort to gather 5,000 signatures in favor of building bike lanes.
A group of 15 junior high students and their teacher from Seattle, Wash., biked through the state on their 4,000-mile ride to Washington, D.C.
One of Kaul’s “Over the Coffee” columns in August described in hilarious detail how he had careered down Independence Pass in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains — ending up in a local clinic after he ditched his bike on the gravel shoulder to avoid flying off the side of the mountain on a hairpin turn.
In that column Kaul mentions the Iowa City trip in passing, but so far I haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact date.
Rush-Osborn never has been a bicyclist nor truly experienced RAGBRAI.
Curiosity might lure her across the river in July to see this year’s 43rd ride swarm into Davenport.
The 462-mile, seven-day route stretches from Sioux City to Davenport in a nod to 1973’s original bookend towns.
Karras plans to take his post on the third day in Radcliffe. He’ll hand out patches to those who pedal the “Karras Loop,” thereby racking up more than 100 miles within a day.
The RAGBRAI co-founder’s days of “century rides” may be done. But through the winter he still pedals at least 30 minutes daily on a stationary bike at Scottish Rite.
But he misses the magnificent scenery of his beloved county roads.
“On that thing,” he said of the stationary bike, “every minute feels like 10. It’s awful.”
These guys never would have dreamed up RAGBRAI in a spinning class.
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