RAGBRAI, Day 3 — I had biked alongside Dean Mathias for maybe a few hundred feet Tuesday morning when he insisted that we pull to the side of the road so he could oil my dry chain.
I hadn’t even noticed the persistent squeak. But spotting the breakdowns and frailties of his fellow riders is this guy’s self-proclaimed mission.
Mathias, 64, from Milan, Ill., is popularly known by his nickname “Bareback” because he rides without a bike seat.
You read that correctly: He stands the entire time he pedals. As he has done for 4,000 miles already this year. As he does for an average of 10 miles daily, even through a Midwest winter.
He has ridden 17 consecutive RAGBRAIs and rode a few before his current streak.
He went seatless after he switched to riding a mountain bike and realized that he couldn’t keep pace with his road-bike buddies unless he stood.
But Mathias, who rides with the massive, historic Quad Cities Bicycle Club — 51 years old and 328 strong in its charter this year — is much more than that.
This wiry retired elementary schoolteacher is the Yoda, MacGuyver and Good Samaritan of RAGBRAI all rolled into one.
His eight-year-old carbon-frame mountain bike is loaded with saddlebags and all other manner of gear — including a full-size tire pump. Mathias also straps on a backpack and a large fanny pack to carry still more tools and spare parts to freely share along the route.
He’s a complete rummage sale on wheels.
He held up a fat bag of kettle popcorn. “You want a good pillow? This works great.”
There’s more than one use for everything in Bareback’s world.
“I was wondering if you had a set of needle-nose pliers?” teammate Patrick Crawford from Davenport asked Mathias before we even pulled out of Fort Dodge. “Everybody says talk to you because you have what noone else has.”
Yes, Bareback did possess the perfect wrench to tighten Crawford’s front brake.
“You never know what’s on the road,” Mathias said. “This is a chance to pay people back.”
That’s why riding RAGBRAI with Bareback can be a slow, halting journey. He refuses to roll by anybody who’s stranded. He sees himself as a supplement to the Air Force team that also specializes in emergency repairs.
Brently and Marybeth Cooper from Taipei, Taiwan, were stuck with a leaky tire until Mathias swooped in.
It was fascinating to watch Bareback in action. He talks in quick, excited bursts, as if the words are struggling to catch up with his brain. But he has all the signature traits of a patient, benevolent teacher. He made sure to engage the Coopers (and even me) in the repair. He encouraged his pupils at every opportunity. He explained the reason for each detail of the repair. He cast himself as just another student who continues to learn new bicycle-repair tricks daily.
And he makes sure to ask each person’s first name and then use it frequently in conversation — even when he’s riding alongside somebody in the middle of RAGBRAI traffic.
“You’re a life-saver,” Brently said. “Can I give you some money for the tube?”
“No,” Mathias said. “Help somebody else.”
A little bit farther down the road we encountered a father-son duo also wrangling with a flat.
“Appreciate this moment,” Mathias told them to ease the tension and disappointment that inevitably comes from a breakdown in the middle of the rural chaos, “because I can’t do this with my dad anymore.”
The next stop was for a breakfast break, where Mathias and unicyclist Tanner Miller, 20, compared notes. Mathias already had met the single-wheeled pedaler this week on the road — where he sped ahead of Miller, dismounted and peeled a banana to hand to the unicyclist so he didn’t have to break his momentum for a snack.
As we lingered on the farmstead, soon Mathias was talking to the woman who lived there, Peg Fortune, and praising her daylillies. Suddenly he was a teacher yet again, demonstrating to Fortune how he cross-pollinates his own daylillies by hand, trying to encourage them to grow as tall as possible.
Mathias taught in Rock Island, Ill. His wife, Deb, is a water-wastewater engineer. The couple lives on three flower-filled acres in Milan.
But RAGBRAI seems just as much a home to him.
“It’ll take the rest of my life to pay back all the people that helped me,” Mathias said as we shared the road. He was recognized by one fellow rider after another — but cringes at any notion that he rates a RAGBRAI celebrity.
Mathias did admit that there’s at least one tool he lacks and plans to add to his arsenal: a magnet to help locate small bike parts that fall in the tall roadside grass.
Bareback probably sees RAGBRAI in more humanitarian detail than anybody I’ve met.
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