PELLA, Ia. – Marty Doane specializes in the crucial grimy side of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
Coverage of this fabled trek tends to be dominated by either the awestruck newbies, or the diehards with sculpted calf muscles and scads of state-crossings under their belts.
But Doane offers a biographical departure: He’s a veteran of the inaugural ride in 1973 who hasn’t really ridden it since.
He’s been too busy keeping everybody else on the road.
Doane still remembers waiting for 83-year-old Clarence Pickard (the pith helmet-clad bicyclist and RAGBRAI folk hero) and co-founder Don Kaul to arrive in Davenport so that everybody could pedal to the Mississippi River en masse.
Doane embarked that year with a pair of friends and fellow high school sophomores from Newton.
“The other two guys have not been on one inch of RAGBRAI since then,” Doane said.
Doane’s “nasty wool shorts with a drawstring” from ’73, now emblazoned with bicycle patches, are proudly displayed in the front window of his Iowa Bike & Fitness shop on the east side of the Pella square. He launched his first store in 1977 in Newton and opened this location (now his sole spot) in 1986.
“There’s nobody who loves bikes more than he does,” insists his wife, Cheri, who works for Central College.
Doane “wrenched RAGBRAI for the first time” in 1974.
This week Doane has been toiling in the Bikes to You repair tent, the operation organized by his former employee, Craig Cooper, who now runs his own shop in Grinnell. On Thursday, Doane was set up just off the southeast corner of the downtown square.
At 56, Doane sports a salt-and-pepper beard and a pair of bifocals fashioned from bicycle parts (such as “spoke nipples”).
Trying to interview a bike mechanic amid Thursday’s fray of a RAGBRAI meet-up town was difficult, to say the least. Two-wheel time in Pella probably drew a larger single crowd than cold, snowy Tulip Time in May.
Doane barely could grab a spray can of lubricant and return to the bike clamped to the repair rack that he was working on without getting diverted for another question. The Spandex throng with its hobbled steeds pressed close.
Doane wasn’t afraid to ask a rider lingering nearby to help hold a front tire while he adjusted somebody else’s bike.
To a waiting customer: “Chill — and be assertive, though, or you’ll get left behind.”
The cellphone tucked in one of his apron pockets occasionally rang, and Doane was adept at cradling the phone against his ear while working a tire pump.
He’s the triage bike doctor who wields a torque wrench. “Tell me what’s going on,” Doane said as he approached the next patient.
“As I ride I can hear this thing flapping,” a recumbent cyclist said and pointed to his chain.
“Is this wheel safe to ride?” another rider asked.
This being Doane’s home, and with his career presence on RAGBRAI, a shout of “Hi, Marty!” seemed to arise every few minutes.
“Well, I hope we never see you again,” Doane remarked to a customer before she rolled away. His tenure on the ride would suggest otherwise.
Tires and tubes are the most common replacement parts, but this year’s RAGBRAI roads must be smoother, Doane observed. Far fewer spokes have been replaced, often thanks to wheels banging across rumble strips or railroad tracks.
As wheels have gotten lighter in the RAGBRAI era, Doane added, riders have gotten heavier.
Pro tip: Doane goes through a lot of secondhand dental picks to help clean out biking cleats and extract frayed gear wires. The mechanic’s former dentist stopped by the tent Thursday, and Doane requested a new batch of them.
One of the more serious repairs of the week came from Randall Smith. The 59-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, was on the way into Runnells when his carbon fiber seat post suddenly snapped. Smith fell back onto his rear tire (which gouged a hole in his bike shorts) with his feet clipped to the pedals and still clutching his handlebars. He landed on his helmet.
Smith “jacked up” his shoulder, hip and knee, but was back on his bike Thursday. (As a hospital nurse, he can self-diagnose to a point.)
Smith sat in Doane’s tent with his scabbed face and a left thumb (whose fingernail had been peeled back) wrapped in a thick ball of green gauze.
“Do I look like I’m sagging?” Smith said. “Dude! C’mon!”
“It hurts. But living is pain. Pain is softness leaving your body.”
Thankfully, Doane had packed his specialty bike hacksaw that he requires only a couple of times per year. He was able to extract the post fragment and provide Smith an aluminum replacement.
Suddenly, a giant “Pop!” echoed in the street — accompanied by a scream. Terri Whitson of Jacksonville, Fla., with Team Navy had been pumping (apparently too much) air into her tire. Amused applause rippled through the crowd. It was Whitson’s third flat of the day.
“You’re supposed to inflate it, not blow it up!” Doane chided her.
“I just met him, and I feel like I’ve known him forever,” Whitson said of Doane.
Doane said that his own riding season doesn’t begin in earnest until next week.
But in the last several years he has taken time occasionally to ride into the next overnight town after his shift in the RAGBRAI repair tent — pedaling alongside the slacker crowd.
And he’s “kind of like the plumber with the leaky faucet” when it comes to his own bike: a 10-year-old Tom Ritchey Break-Away with a duct-taped front fender. It’s a steel frame, because “steel is real,” Doane said.
So the stalwart RAGBRAI wrencher took off Thursday afternoon from Pella with his wife so that they could enjoy the rare shared ride.
Another thing about a bike mechanic riding RAGBRAI: Doane tends to feel obligated to stop and help fellow riders who have broken down. So even if he was riding every year, he might not have much time to glide along on his real steel and enjoy the scenery.
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