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  • Wed May 17 2006
  • Posted May 17, 2006
Unveiled in '73, annual event lures cyclists from coast to coast By STEVE SIEVERT For the Chronicle [ as told by the Houston Chronicle ] What started 33 years ago as a challenge from one cyclist to another has grown into the largest bicycle tour in the world. The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa — affectionately known as RAGBRAI — began when cyclist John Karras, an editor at the Des Moines Register, prodded columnist Don Kaul to ride his bike across Iowa and write stories about his encounters along the way. Karras decided to join Kaul on the adventure, as did 300 other cyclists in August 1973, to usher in the tradition of a weeklong 470-mile ride across the Hawkeye State. Today, 10,000 cyclists a year participate in the tour, which has evolved into a "must ride" for cyclists across the country. However, RAGBRAI is not your typical bike tour. It has developed a cult following among cyclists who are often more interested in what the event offers when they aren't pedaling their bikes. "It's a ride where during the course of the cycling day, you spend as much time off of your bike as you spend on it," said Houstonian Jef Kerrigan, who will be riding in his 12th consecutive RAGBRAI in July. "It's the only weeklong ride I know where there's every possibility that you could end up gaining weight after riding about 500 miles." Plenty of food and drink, live music and tales of past tours turn unofficial rest stops into party central in towns along the route. Local residents, many of them farmers in this distinctly rural state, turn out in force to ensure riders are greeted with a hearty Midwest welcome when they roll into town. "The first year I rode, I came into the first town, and there was music blasting, and people were in the middle of the street dancing. There was food everywhere, and this was 8:30 in the morning. I still had 65 miles to go," said Kerrigan, 48. "It's that way all day long." In his 11 years of riding, Kerrigan has seen it all — from a guy who pulls a canoe with his bicycle to another inventive cyclist who rides in tandem with a skeleton. "I like it so much that I go up a week early and do another ride from the end of the route to the beginning with a group of friends," Kerrigan said. "Iowa is such a great cycling state. It's made for cycling." Rolling hills, beautiful scenery and welcoming residents produce a backdrop that has helped RAGBRAI attract nearly a quarter of a million cyclists to Iowa over the life of the event. To keep the event fresh, the route changes annually — in 33 years, RAGBRAI has visited each of Iowa's 99 counties — but always runs west to east. Cyclists traditionally dip one tire in the Missouri River before starting and celebrate the finish by dipping the other tire in the Mississippi River. To cater to a wide range of cyclists, RAGBRAI offers the flagship weeklong tour and also allows one-day riders to join the festivities for a daily route. In 1988, nearly 23,000 cyclists rode the stretch from Boone to Des Moines. For safety reasons, organizers have since limited the field to 8,500 weeklong riders and 1,500 daily cyclists. The ride is a sellout every year, so if you're interested in experiencing a one-of-a-kind slice of American cycling, plan early. Registration for the 2007 edition of RAGBRAI opens in November.

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