By Gary Herrity
Herald Historical Columnist
The 15,000 RAGBRAI participants merrily bike across beautiful Iowa in heat or cold.
They love the scenery and the food and the hospitality of all of the fine small towns along the way. People come from far away, even foreign countries, to experience the camaraderie of Iowans spanning the state on their bicycles.
The rigors of wretched weather were felt on “soggy Monday” and “scorching Tuesday.” Such past hardships are now famously regaled. Downsides could be anything from sleeping in tents to taking cold showers, and preparations take many days and weeks to organize. Non-participants have no idea of the detailed plans or the costly gear that gets packed into vans and trailers. Numerous teams ride out to the west end of the state and then turn around and ride back. Others must drive their vehicles and tow necessary gear in a trailer.
Riders enjoy enumerating the many friends who have shared their RAGBRAI experience. Many gladly pay the $180 registration (it has risen) to show off their wristband and tag for their bike. Over the years, many Clintonians have taken the trip, including Larry Anderson, Ron Peters, Eric Johnson, Mary Rupp, Eric Peters, Steve Schmidt and Dick Libby...some stay in tents, others in motels; towns’ mayors frequently welcome them, and local citizens often offer food or shelter.
Bike repair crews will set up along the way. Mary Moore worked for Forrest Ridgeway’s “Bike World,” in Des Moines, and now is employed at Jensen’s in Clinton.
“RAGBRAI is what you individually make of it,” she said.
Some riders “rough it.” Others take a vacation-type approach, with all possible refinements. Usually, the day’s starting time is at 7 a.m. and doesn’t end until 6 p.m., but each participant has their own pace and diversions. Some riders come in ahead of schedule; others finish their daily 68 miles after dark, having chatted too much with a friendly farmer or enjoying extensive central Iowa rural stories.
In 1982 a young Clinton doctor and his pregnant wife wanted to go on RAGBRAI. Tawny O’Shea’s obstetrician outlined the dangers and safeguards for her, and off she and John went — with no negative results. Thirty years later, their son Brendan is a doctor.
Gary and Donna Mulholland capture the spirit of RAGBRAI so well…“RAGBRAI has been in our life for 34 years, having started the year after it came to Clinton in 1978. We’ve been able to see and learn so much about Iowa from a bicycle. Iowa is definitely not flat. Many thought that — until they went on RAGBRAI. The Loess hills on the west border; rolling hills in the southern part of the state; hills in the Des Moines River area; and, of course, the bluffs on the northeastern part of the state. It can be a very challenging ride. But if you like people, you will love RAGBRAI.
“We formed our team Take a Break several years ago,” Donna said. “We have had so many people ride with us over the years, and now our children and our grandchildren. For the last 10 years, or more, we contact people in the towns we will be staying in. We ask our team members if they know anyone in the towns along the way. Then, we contact them to see if we can put a tent in their yard and use their shower. Gary contacts enforcement people, and we’ve had very good luck in staying with law enforcement people. Mary Rupp works for a funeral home, and we have stayed in yards of the funeral people. One time we stayed at a funeral home and it rained so much that they invited us to come in, since they didn’t have a body then. We have stayed in empty houses, lake homes, the yards of fire stations.
“People have cooked a feast for us and made breakfast and sent us on our merry way. They’ve left directions as to where a key was and said we should make ourself at home because they were on vacation. Our team has a very good reputation for respect to our hosts. I wish I would have kept a journal. So many stories.”
Donna also said that hemet-wearing has changed during the years.
“When we first started riding RAGBRAI, there were very few who wore helmets,” Donna said. “Today, about 99 percent do. We are true believers in helmets, having seen too many bad accidents. When you are riding with that many bikes, accidents do happen. On our own team, we’ve had some serious falls. If they hadn’t had helmets on, their injuries would’ve been so much worse. The Ride Right committee is a committee that encourages safe riding.
“The first years we carried our tent and everything we needed on our bikes, and we had no clue as to where we would end up for the day. We would come to town and go to a local bar or restaurant to find where we could put up our tent. One time, we met this fellow who said he was the Boy Scout leader, and he was pretty sure we could stay at the church. So he took Gary over to meet the Methodist minister, and he agreed that we could stay at the church. The next morning, before we took off, the minister made us coffee and homemade doughnuts. It looked like rain and a headwind — and neither are our favorites. As we left, he gave us the Irish Blessing, ‘May the Wind Be at Your Back.’ The blessing must have worked, because soon the wind died down. This is just one of so many stories of the kind and trusting people in Iowa. We have made so many friends through biking.”
Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.